[Mr Jim Hood in the Chair]

My other point is relevant to those of us who live near the England-Wales border. If we are to have development in rural areas, roads and efficient transport links are important. Between England and Wales there are at least three or four places where the advent of devolution has meant that projects have not gone forward. On the England-Wales border between Shrewsbury and Welshpool in my constituency a bad stretch of road is hugely inhibiting development, but because it is cross-border and committing money to its improvement is not a priority for the west midlands highways authority, the work cannot go ahead. We have to focus on Welsh and English Governments working together to overcome problems that inhibit development.

Rural Wales is a beautiful place, and that beauty is a great economic driver. To take full advantage of it, however, we must recognise its value and consider a wide definition of tourism rather than just the traditional ones. Where I live, in the village of Bettws there is a hatchery—a game shooting development—which employs 100 people. It is amazing. The income that shooting brings into Montgomeryshire and rural Wales is absolutely enormous—many tens of millions of pounds.

Last week I visited a new fish pass in Felindre near Llanidloes, which people might say is a small development; it cost £152,000, and was built by the Environment Agency, but it has hugely increased the size of the salmon spawning area in Wales. The Welsh salmon fishing industry contributes £150 million to the economy. The fish pass is a small development. It fits in. It is beautiful to look at and has a massive economic benefit. It is not just public authorities that are doing such things. On the same day, I called in on an osprey observation point close by. Nora and Monty, two ospreys that arrived many years ago, came back last week. I was the 350th person to visit that day, and 700 people had visited during the previous weekend. When the ospreys nest and have chicks, visitor numbers will increase. The development is a huge economic driver because of all the people coming in. [Interruption.] I see the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) nodding in agreement. On the same day, I travelled a little further into his constituency, stopping at Bwlch Nant yr Arian to watch the red kites feeding, as do hundreds of other people. Forty years ago I spent half a day in his constituency, at Pontrhydfendigaid and Cwmystwyth—this could be testing the Hansard people; I might have to check the report later. I sat there for half a day to watch one red kite half a mile away—

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order.

11.54 am

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing the debate. I have fond memories of his constituency. Back in 1999, I stood in the first Assembly elections and managed to come fifth. The good people of his constituency

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were not ready for me then, but I enjoyed the experience and the fantastic countryside there.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire has made the topic of this conversation deliberately wide, and Members have taken advantage of that. I want to mention one or two issues that perhaps have not been covered. First, I congratulate the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on its determined efforts to eradicate bovine TB in this country, which I know are appreciated by the farming people here. They do not bear comparison, however, with what is happening in Wales, where the farmers are almost despairing about what can be done to alleviate their problems.

I want to talk a little about financial services in rural areas. I have recently had the honour of introducing two debates in this Chamber on the closure of banks in rural areas, which is an important issue because rural communities want to attract not only tourists but businesses, and without banking facilities that can be difficult. I think that not just in rural areas or in Wales but more widely, the relationship between small businesses and banks has never been at a lower ebb.

Mr Mark Williams: Will my hon. Friend also reflect on the banks’ usual retort when asked about the diminishing number of branches, which is that online banking is a growing occurrence? In some parts of our constituencies that is not a reality because we have no broadband at all, let alone the superfast type.

Roger Williams: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and it is not only the absence of broadband. Sometimes, older people do not have the facility or the aptitude to take advantage of online banking, so we still need the face-to-face presence and advice that bank customers greatly value.

The issue also goes a little further. Today, I was sad to see that the number of complaints about banks made by small businesses to the Financial Ombudsman Service has gone up by 10% in the past year. It is only very small businesses that can use the ombudsman facility, so we have a number of such businesses being badly treated by their banks. For instance, not only are overdraft or loan requests turned down but the terms and conditions of such facilities are changed midway through. The Government once again need to sit down with the banks and say, “If we are all in this together and we are going for growth, you have to play your part.”

I think that the Government sometimes do not really understand the structure of business in this country. Whenever they trumpet support for business they talk about reducing corporation tax. That is much valued, but out of the nearly 4 million businesses in England only one third are incorporated, so the other two thirds will not benefit from the reduction in the tax, and the £100,000 reduction in capital allowances will particularly weigh on businesses that pay their tax through self-assessment—sole traders and partners.

On the role of independent filling stations, one operator in Sennybridge in my constituency has brought me evidence that the wholesale operation of the petrol supply chain is concentrated in a small number of hands, which could lead to difficulties with competition and access. He has sent information to the Office of Fair Trading, and I will send a copy to the Minister.

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This is a dangerous situation. Many of our independent filling stations have already closed, and if the process continues, a lot more could do so.

I am looking at the time, Mr Hood. The clock says that I have spoken for 11 minutes already, so I am not sure how much longer I have.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): You have one minute left.

Roger Williams: I commend the legislation introduced in England by the Government on small businesses’ right to buy. I point to two examples in my constituency. The Shoemakers’ Arms, a pub in Pentre Bach that was closed, has been taken over by the local community and is now flourishing. The community in Llanbadarn Fynydd have done the same with their village shop and filling station. Those are examples not of short-termism but of sustained success. They show what communities can do if given the opportunity.

I promised to mention the traditional makers of cider in my speech, so I will do so in the last 10 seconds. For goodness’ sake, do not let us push them out of business in trying to deal with alcohol abuse in our society.

12 noon

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under you, Mr Hood. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this debate on rural poverty and the rural countryside.

We must talk up the countryside, because we are sometimes victims of our own success. One reason why house prices are so high in the countryside is that people who come on holiday to Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and other places—they even venture into Wales occasionally—retire there. Of course, we welcome retired people, but they do drive up the price of houses. Then people who work in the countryside, where wages are usually about 12% to 15% lower, have great difficulty buying properties. That is why affordable homes and planning are important. We must enable local villages, hamlets and communities to have affordable homes. I would like not only affordable homes but shared ownership, which gives people a chance to buy a share in a property and later, perhaps, to buy the whole property. It allows more people into home ownership.

Andrew Bridgen: Is my hon. Friend aware that the average age in rural communities is seven years older than in urban communities? Is it not an option for exception sites—I will be pushing for my parishes in North West Leicestershire—to provide retirement bungalows for people, with qualifications? Often, a widow or widower who has lived in the village all their life may own a large family house. They no longer require all that space, but they do not want to lose their friends and relations in the village. If they moved to a retirement bungalow, they could free up a house so that a new family could move into the village.

Neil Parish: I agree with my hon. Friend. Managing housing stock effectively is absolutely right. We need a supply of retirement bungalows so that people can

17 Apr 2012 : Column 44WH

move out of three or four-bedroom houses and live in their own area. I am a great believer in encouraging people to move, not browbeating them. It is essential to have such housing in an area.

I congratulate the Minister on what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been doing about red tape in farming and agriculture. We want to extend that beyond farming to all small businesses. We are a nation of shopkeepers and small businesses, and nowhere are they more essential than in the countryside. We need much less regulation so that businesses can thrive.

Food prices are rising. Although many people might not welcome that, it is a stimulus to the countryside in many respects. It stimulates not only agriculture but food processing. I would welcome the Government announcement that we hope for in the Queen’s Speech of a grocery trade adjudicator to ensure that the right proportion of the prices that we pay in shops returns to those who produce and process the food. That is absolutely essential.

I know that I will not make myself entirely popular with those who represent constituencies involved with the oil industry when I say that what has driven up the price of petrol at the pumps is the fact that crude oil prices have risen. If crude oil prices have risen globally, the companies are making vast profits, because their investment has not increased. We should tap into that a little more in order to reduce fuel prices in the countryside. Fuel is not a luxury; it is a necessity. I do not care how much money the Government invest in rural bus services; in many places in my constituency, if one waited for a bus, it would never come, and if it came, it would probably be going in the wrong direction. That might be facetious, but it is absolutely true. We must face up to the reality that in many small rural areas, bus companies will never run efficiently. Where we can make that happen, we must, but we need to consider it.

Tourism is hugely valued and is linked with agriculture and the countryside, and we must help it. I welcome the Government money for that in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): I return to the start of my hon. Friend’s speech, which is positive about our rural communities. I agree that they are absolutely thriving. Over the Easter period, I visited an engineering business in my constituency that is expanding so fast—it has 70 workers now—that it cannot find premises. We have 11 micro-breweries in my Yorkshire constituency, and a new dye house—so there is lots of vibrancy in our rural communities.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. The intervention is too long.

Neil Parish: I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. I want to ensure that we do not leave this debate thinking that everything in the countryside is doom and gloom. There is much going on. That leads me to broadband and superfast broadband. The Government have invested £30 million in Devon and Somerset. We want to ensure that that delivers broadband to isolated areas as well, so that the easiest areas to get at are not picked off and the rest left. That is essential.

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My final point involves school funding. Devon is 247th in the league; it is among the least funded in the country. We talk about fairness. I am not griping or grouching. We need fair delivery of funding throughout the country. Rural schools are small and cost more to run, so we need a fairer system.

I welcome this debate. The presence of Members from all parties shows how strongly we feel that the rural community deserves great support.

12.6 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Hood. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart)—whose constituency might, sadly, disappear, like many others—on securing this debate. It is a fine opportunity to ask the Minister for an update on the Government’s progress or otherwise towards sustainable rural communities.

I congratulate all the Members who have made speeches and interventions; I am afraid that to mention them all would take my whole contribution, but they include the hon. Members for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, for Arfon (Hywel Williams), for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). They spoke splendidly on behalf of their constituents and about constituency matters. I particularly want to mention the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who introduced a new concept to the parliamentary lexicon: an island off an island off an island. That is an extreme example of rurality.

The Minister and others here today will undoubtedly have received a sound schooling in the classics and will be familiar with the words of the esteemed Roman poet Virgil, who wrote 2,000 years ago—I apologise in advance for my limited Latin—“Quo moriture ruis?”, or

“Whither art thou rushing to destruction?”

At times in recent months, this Government, intent on the destruction of rural relationships built up over many years and of the countryside itself, have seemed to epitomise Virgil’s question. They have been seen to support rural communities only in the same way that Herod supported juvenile population control.

I refer of course to the national planning policy framework and its rushed, appallingly crass and ill-thought-out proposals for development. It seemed that the countryside, our green belt, our precious natural environment and our communities were set for destruction in a free for all, profit-driven rampage of executive homes, whereas the crying need in rural areas is for a range of homes, especially affordable homes for local people. The situation is worsening under this Government.

Concerns have been publicly and forcibly expressed by local authorities throughout the land, including Conservative-controlled authorities in the constituencies of the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), the Minister for Housing and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) and, for good measure, the Chancellor himself. The sorts of organisation that one would be

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happy to take home to meet one’s mother, such as the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, suddenly found themselves in complete opposition to the Government and vilified by them. It is not often that the National Trust is painted as a pinko, lefty, subversive group, but ConservativeHome, that megaphone for Tory tendencies on the web—if that is not mixing my technologies—described it as

“some demented Marxist agitprop outfit”,

while Government Ministers described its work as “risible”. Indeed, the eminently quotable and often-quoted Minister for the Cabinet Office weighed in by saying that

“our position is right. I think this idea that creating a presumption in favour of sustainable development is somehow a massive erosion of the ability to conserve, is—”.

The Minister then used an expletive that was deleted from reports. It was a vernacular term that I believe to be mid-18th century slang derived from the German for “balls.”

Those same Ministers have been forced by their own MPs and the voice of middle England into a series of humiliating U-turns. What was a seeming rush to destruction—not just of the countryside, but of the self-styled party of the countryside—has been barely rescued from disaster at the last moment. That is just one U-turn fiasco, which followed hot on the heels of the forestry sell-off fiasco. My advice to the Government and to Ministers is to think things through. If there are too many U-turns, the Government, not to mention the public, will not know which way they are facing on any issue.

I thank the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire again for giving the Under-Secretary the opportunity to make clear where the Government stand on key areas of support for rural communities. Local enterprise partnerships have been noted for their variable quality and for their scant attention in many areas to rural economic development and farming. Does the Under-Secretary agree with those concerns and, if so, what is he doing about it?

The Government profess localism in every breath, so will the Under-Secretary guarantee that in the provision of housing on farms, local planning authorities will be given the flexibility to allow generational succession, in recognition of the worrying age profile of active farmers and the need to do everything possible to encourage new entrants? In response to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who made a good speech, it is a question of attitudinal changes on the ground and of positivism towards the development of agricultural holdings. The Welsh Government have delivered such localism. Will the Westminster coalition Government do the same?

In every other breath, Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs profess the critical need to enhance food security for the UK, so will the Under-Secretary explain why food production does not feature in the core principles of the national planning policy framework?

Rural living and working have many advantages, particularly if remote working and advances in remote communications can be harnessed. What assessment has the Under-Secretary made of the brake placed on rural economic development by the emerging digital divide, whereby the expansion potential of rural businesses is frequently inhibited, the productivity of home workers

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is affected, and farmers have difficulty completing online forms because of broadband not-spots and slow broadband speeds? In that respect, I commend the

Farmers Weekly

“Battling for broadband” campaign. Is the Under-Secretary worried about the potential for a growing digital divide between superfast urban areas and super-slow remote rural economies? The latter could benefit so much more from good broadband access.

When I was a DEFRA Minister, I had the privilege of visiting tremendous communities and people who had come together to save their village shop, pub or library, or who had filled a transport gap by creating diverse community transport schemes. Increasingly, local people are being asked to do more and more to sustain the vitality of their communities, but since this Government came to power, support from regional development authorities has been lost because they were unceremoniously scrapped, the community-owned pubs support programme has been cut and local authority budgets are under pressure. As has been said, cuts to local authority funding hit rural communities hardest, because of the added cost of provision of services in rural areas. What are the Government doing against that stark backdrop to help a greater proportion of communities to save their pubs, shops, banks, post offices, libraries and other services?

More than 4 million UK households—the majority of them in rural areas—are off the main gas grid and rely on heating oil, liquefied petroleum gas, solid fuels, mains electricity and microgeneration. The average cost of heating a typical three-bedroom home in the UK can be 50% higher when using heating oil, and as much as 100% higher when using LPG rather than mains gas. What are the Government doing to support home owners in our rural communities, who are more exposed to household poverty because of rising off-grid costs?

May I ask the Under-Secretary when or whether we will see firm proposals on petrol pricing in rural areas? He and his colleagues spoke eloquently and regularly about the issue in opposition, yet the very selective trials in the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the islands in the Clyde, the Northern Isles and the Isles of Scilly, which offered a discount that was described at the time by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury as

“terrific news for communities which have long suffered the effects of high fuel costs”,

are already jeopardised by the overall rising cost of fuel, which threatens to wipe out the discount. That view is not mine, but that of the Chief Secretary’s Lib Dem comrade, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). It is indeed “terrific news”, but I do not anticipate it appearing on Lib Dem fliers.

What has happened to wider plans on rural petrol pricing? Are they just another victim of the Chancellor’s relentless, one-eyed focus on deficit reduction above growth? What assessment has the Under-Secretary made of the impact on rural petrol retailers and of the warnings of Brian Madderson, chairman of Retail Motor Industry Petrol, the forecourt association, that with rural petrol already up to 8p a litre more expensive than at urban stations because of delivery costs, up to 250 of the current 1,900 rural forecourts could close in less than a decade, leaving “petrol deserts”? Does the Under-Secretary take that threat seriously and, if so, what specific discussions has he had with Ministers at the Department of Energy

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and Climate Change, who have direct responsibility for ensuring adequate coverage of petrol stations for strategic purposes across the UK?

A fifth of all bus services in England face the axe this year, thanks to the Government’s cuts to funding for local bus services. The issue is affecting the elderly and the young, increasing social isolation and impacting negatively on employment and training opportunities. Indeed, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) is emphatically earning a deserved reputation as the Beeching of the buses.

This Government are out of touch with the reality of rural lives, rural jobs and businesses, and rural services. [ Interruption. ]

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. I ask hon. Members to calm down.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Thank you, Mr Hood. Has DEFRA or the Under-Secretary made any assessment of the wider national impact of the withdrawal of Government support for UK-wide programmes, and of the deep, fast cuts agenda on rural communities? Will he confirm that all the cuts have a disproportionate effect on rural areas? Closures of court houses in small rural towns affect not only the individual, but local law firms. Will the NHS Commissioning Board take into account rurality when allocating resources? How does the much-vaunted—at least by the Lib Dems—pupil premium take into account the extra challenges of rural school provision? Costs for access to jobs and benefits advice and training are usually between 10% and 20% higher for those in rural areas. Any diminution in services or increased travel to work as a result of fewer job opportunities will worsen the effect, as will closures of Sure Start centres and poor access to child care and so on.

The Under-Secretary is a member of a Government who are out of touch. Their policies are incoherent, as Baroness Warsi said on “Newsnight” last night. Nothing epitomises this out-of-touch Government more than what has become known infamously as the pasty tax. I pay tribute to the campaigning stance of local papers such as the Western Morning News, which has highlighted the potential impact on jobs and the economy in places such as Cornwall and the south-west. I ask the Under-Secretary directly, for the record: what representations did he or other DEFRA Ministers make to the Treasury on behalf of the food production sector and workers in Cornwall and elsewhere? Will he intervene to set the record straight? Were any representations made—a meeting, a letter or an e-mail?

I began my speech with a reference to Virgil, cautioning the impetuous against the dangers of undue haste and rushing headlong to destruction. I can only guess that this Conservative-led, Lib Dem-partnered Government are pinning their future on another of the Latin poet and philosopher’s maxims:

“Hope on, and save yourself for prosperous times.”

12.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): I think that we all enjoyed the comedy act put on by the

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hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). Listening to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman talking about rural matters is the absolute epitome of incoherence, which was a word that he used. It reminded me of the Judean People’s Front sitting around asking, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for giving me this great opportunity to talk about some of the things that the coalition is doing for rural areas. I pay tribute to him for securing the debate and for the powerful speech that he made.

I will put on the record the ambition that DEFRA Ministers and the Government have for rural communities. If someone who is elderly, sick, mentally ill, out of work or on a low income lives in a rural community, the problems imposed by rurality are increased by isolation. Those are obvious points that we all understand. Therefore, the Government’s policy must recognise that and ensure that we are delivering services fairly and equally, so that the rurality in which that those people live does not adversely discriminate against their circumstances.

There has been talk of the sense of victimhood being felt by those who live in the countryside. That is legitimate to an extent because one might see a village that in every other sense looks idyllic, but there may be three or four homes—or 30 or 40 in a larger village—that contain people who are suffering deprivation, which is less visible than in a gritty city environment. We have to be nuanced, clever and careful, and focus our policies like a laser beam on helping those people.

That is one side of the issue, but the other side is equally important if we want to raise the aspirations of those who are suffering deprivation. We need to have a positive view of how the countryside can provide a driver for the economy of the country, and we need an uplifting view of the contribution that rural communities and the rural economy can play. That is the view we in this Government have. An idyllic, rural landscape is not just about the trees, the fields and the beauty that we see; it is about the noises of activity, business and life. It is also about children playing in a village school yard, a shop that is operating and, if we can roll out broadband, a creative industry operating out of a set of redundant farm buildings. That is what a true rural landscape is about.

For too long, Governments have imposed policy on rural areas using what the Americans call an “inside the beltway”—or within the M25—mentality. The view has been that if something is right for inside the M25 or within an urban setting, it must be right for the countryside. That is why the previous Government lost the faith of those living in the countryside and why it is ridiculous to hear the hon. Member for Ogmore, who is better than the speech he just made, try to pretend that somehow rural communities were better before.

In the short time I have left, I will try to address as many points made in the excellent contributions to the debate as I can. DEFRA is the rural champion within the Government. Our role is to help Departments understand the rural context and the issues that face rural businesses and communities. We have set up the rural communities policy unit right at the heart of DEFRA to encourage Departments to ensure that their policies and programmes meet rural needs and interests.

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That unit has been in operation for a year and is engaging effectively at an early stage in the development of policy across the Government.

The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) rightly referred to rural proofing. That is a subject for a debate in itself and is something we are taking seriously in our cross-Government role of ensuring that policies are not just considered within the beltway and that the impact on rural areas is understood.

The RCPU is working hard to engage proactively and communicate with rural communities and their representative organisations and to stimulate debate about rural needs and propose solutions. That work is critical to ensuring that evidence and intelligence from our rural stakeholders informs Government policy and its delivery. After the debate, I will attend the first annual meeting of the new rural and farming network, which involves chairs of all the rural and farming networks that we have set up around the country coming to meet Ministers. That is a welcome change and something that Lord Taylor, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and I thought up in opposition. We have now implemented the initiative right across England, so that there is a real direct connection to Ministers and a two-way street of communication. We can therefore ask those involved how policies are working in their area, and they can tell us about their problems as well. Those new networks are a welcome and important addition to communication and to trying to ensure that rural communities do not feel isolated and not listened to, as they have undoubtedly been in the past.

We also work closely with Action with Communities in Rural England, so that the Government benefit from regular access to up-to-date local intelligence about rural areas and from talking to experts who can offer practical advice on the design and delivery of programmes and policies. The RCPU also regularly meets the Rural Coalition, which is under Lord Teverson’s chairmanship, to facilitate strategic input into key policy areas across the Government.

On ensuring that policy is connected, let us consider one example of why the previous Government got it wrong. The Rural Payments Agency encouraged farmers to fill in their forms online. A lot of farmers live in areas where there is lamentable or no broadband signal, so they ended up having to take their forms down to the pub on a memory stick to download their data to the RPA. That is one of many past examples of how not to do policy, and it also shows why broadband is so important.

Let us consider broadband in the wider context. Broadband is much more than just a deliverer of jobs; it is about social inclusion. In this debate, we have talked about health, education and skills and about wanting to get more young people living and working in our rural communities. Broadband is about providing opportunities for those young people. However, it is also about an elderly person being able to shop online and someone being able to have access to information that can improve their needs if they are, for example, out of work.

It should be—and it will be and it is—our absolute ambition to ensure that someone who lives in a remote part of, for example, the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) can set up and run a creative industry requiring a fast

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broadband speed as easily someone in one of our cities. That is our ambition. DEFRA has rolled out a rural broadband fund to try to get to those hardest-to-reach groups. Wonderful work has been done, not least in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which I visited recently. I saw the enthusiasm among local people to work with Broadband Delivery UK and other agencies to make sure that the roll-out of broadband is working. I entirely understand that when we make a bold announcement, people might feel frustrated and start to ask, “When is it going to happen? When will you start to deliver it?” Our commitment to have the best broadband across the country by 2015 is on track and it is important that we continue to maintain DEFRA’s role in reaching the hardest-to-reach groups of people. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) when he talked about broadband being the fourth utility.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire who initiated the debate asked whether we could make sure that the Government are doing things not to the countryside but for the countryside. That is how we see ourselves in DEFRA. We are a team of Ministers with a real commitment, and we are driving the issue forward with key groups of people, such as the RCPU, so that we can make a difference to how people live.

In the minute that I have left, I want to cover health care. Under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, there is a commitment—a duty—on NHS commissioning boards to prevent health inequalities in local areas, which is a concern for a lot of people. For example, it is much easier to deliver stroke care therapies in a large city than in rural areas, where doing so is more expensive. That is just one example of Government policy. We want to ensure, working across the Government, that we propose effective policies in rural areas.

Many hon. Members made other points, but I am afraid that I am running out of time. I want to give this commitment. What we are talking about in supporting rural communities is both a positive, optimistic view and the need to recognise that there are very serious problems. We will need to have frequent conversations in the House about how successful—

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order.

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Death In Service Inheritance Tax

12.30 pm

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood.

The debate relates to death in service inheritance tax and the case of Nigel Lawrence Thomas. The debate goes to the heart of how we treat our servicemen and women who risk their lives on our behalf and who, like Nigel Thomas, pay the ultimate price.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. May I ask the people at the back of the Chamber to leave without chattering?

Mr Hanson: Thank you, Mr Hood.

I have secured the debate to highlight an unfairness in the existing legislation that prevents some members of the armed forces who die in service from being exempt from inheritance tax, despite receiving conditions while on active service from which they later die.

Before I go into the facts of the case, I want to pay tribute to the family of Nigel Lawrence Thomas. His parents are my constituents, and they are still grieving over the loss of their son. They have asked me to ask the Minister to look again at the law on death in service inheritance tax. I am happy to do so, and I hope the Minister will also be happy to do so. I have been particularly humbled by the way in which Mr and Mrs Davies, who are the parents of Mr Thomas, have gone about raising this issue. They accept that it may be too late to see their situation revised, but they want to ensure that such circumstances do not occur in the future for other grieving families.

The facts are simply these. Nigel Lawrence Thomas served in the Royal Air Force from 1980 to 2004. At the time of the first Gulf war, between 1989 and 1992, he was stationed in Cyprus. For this service, he received the Gulf medal. I remind the Chamber that the Gulf medal was awarded to recognise

“service in the Gulf with special regard to the hardships and dangers which have accompanied duty there.”

While on active service in Cyprus, Nigel was exposed to radiation, following an accident. In March 1992, he was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia. Following the accident, he suffered from that illness for 18 years. Mr Thomas died on 28 March 2010.

A letter given to me by his family from the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, dated 12 November 2010 and signed by Mrs E. Milligan, states clearly that, according to his death certificate, he died from

“intracranial bleed, which was secondary to thrombocytopenia; which in turn was secondary to the chronic myeloid leukaemia.”

The letter goes on to state that the chronic myeloid leukaemia is

“accepted as attributable to service”.

According to the letter that the family received from the SPVA, therefore, his death was

“due to or hastened by service”.

As a result, the SPVA agreed to meet the funeral expenses following Nigel’s death in March 2010.

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Mr Thomas’s family have also provided me with a letter dated 16 July 2010 from Richard Clark, professor of haematology and consultant haematologist at the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen university hospitals. These letters have previously been supplied to the Minister and the Ministry of Defence. Professor Clark confirms:

“there is clear and incontrovertible evidence that radiation can cause chronic myeloid leukaemia.”

He also goes on to confirm that the chronic myeloid leukaemia was

“undoubtedly what caused his untimely death”.

Those are the facts. Mr Thomas was a long-serving RAF pilot. He was stationed in Cyprus during the first Gulf war. He was supporting our war effort when he was exposed to radiation as the result of an accident. That exposure to radiation led to his untimely death two years ago, after suffering from cancer for 18 years.

Nigel Thomas’s funeral expenses were granted by the Ministry of Defence and the SPVA. On the basis that his death, as described in the letter, was due to service, the family applied for exemption from inheritance tax under section 154 of the Inheritance Tax Act 1984. The section disapplies the relevant inheritance tax provisions for death on active service of those who have

“died from a wound inflicted, accident occurring or disease contracted at a time when the conditions specified…were satisfied.”

Those conditions, specified in subsection 2, are that the disease was contracted

“(a) on active service against an enemy, or b) on other service of a warlike nature or which in the opinion of the Treasury involved the same risks as service of a warlike nature.”

My constituents looked at those provisions and felt that they should apply for the exemption, given that the death of Mr Thomas was, according the letter from the Ministry itself, due to service.

In a letter dated 13 August 2010 from the SPVA, which had granted funeral expenses, the claim for inheritance tax exemption was turned down. It said:

“we do not consider he was operating in a hostile or warlike environment and irrespective of whether your son’s illness can be linked to his military service, his service does not meet one of the key qualifying criteria for an exemption under section 154 of the Inheritance Tax Act as it is apparent that his condition was not sustained by service of a warlike nature.”

As a result of that decision, the family were liable for an inheritance tax bill of £33,011 on Mr Thomas’s estate. Incidentally, that figure includes £9.22 interest payable for late payment—the state certainly knows how to treat those who died in its service. The sticking point appears to be that the SPVA has determined that

“his condition was not sustained by service of a warlike nature.”

In a letter dated 7 February 2011, the Minister—who was elected on the same day as I was 20 years ago last week—reiterated the position set out by the SPVA:

“his service must be of a warlike nature and regrettably this key qualifying criteria for exemption has not been met.”

I wish to challenge that position today.

First, on the claim that the leukaemia from which my constituents’ son died was not sustained by service of a warlike nature, I remind the Chamber of the facts. My constituent served in the RAF for 24 years. At the time of his exposure to radiation, he was supporting operations in the first Gulf war. I argue that that was active service as set out in the 1984 Act. The Gulf war campaign in

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which my constituents’ son served was issued a campaign medal by the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals to recognise

“service in the Gulf with special regard to the hardships and dangers which have accompanied duty there.”

My constituent qualified for the Gulf medal for his service, yet he did not qualify for an inheritance tax exemption. He was exposed to radiation in an accident that occurred at that time. There were considerable dangers. In serving his country, Mr Thomas contracted the leukaemia that, as has been agreed, killed him. Medical evidence from those who treated Mr Thomas also says that it killed him. He was exposed to radiation only because he was stationed in Cyprus, serving his country during a war, which leads me to a second point.

If we accept that the circumstances in which Mr Thomas was exposed to radiation could not be constituted as being of a “warlike nature”, or indeed “active service”, surely the legislation needs to be looked at again and amended. It is now 28 years old, and it is right that we review it, so that it is fair to those who die as a result of their service. If the legislation is so tightly defined as to exclude Mr Thomas from the inheritance tax provisions, I truly believe it is not fair to the families of those brave service people who give their lives in the service of their country. I am discussing the matter with the Royal British Legion, which will take an active interest in the debate today and will look carefully at the Minister’s response to what I have said in support of my constituents.

There were considerable dangers for Mr Thomas while supporting operations in Cyprus during the Gulf war, which were recognised through the Gulf medal. It cannot be fair that, although he performed an integral supporting role in the operations, he is not entitled to the exemption, as those who fall on the other side of section 154 of the 1984 Act are. It is beyond doubt that Mr Thomas died of a condition contracted while serving his country during the Gulf war.

I ask the Minister to look again at the legislation, so that other families do not fall foul of its provisions. We should do all that we can to support families who have lost a loved one as a result of active service protecting our shores. I have several questions for him that I hope he will reflect on to look at the matters in detail again, if not in today’s debate, then afterwards. It is important that I ask him again to review the claim made by Nigel’s family, following his death in March 2010. I appreciate that he has reviewed it, as he said to me in a letter at the time, but I ask him to do it once more. He has a duty to look at it once again, because Nigel Thomas died of leukaemia contracted through radiation in service.

Mr Thomas’s death was a tragedy for the family that raises wider issues, so, more importantly for the public and the wider armed forces, will the Minister commit today to reviewing the operation of section 154 of the 1984 Act? I want him to focus particularly on the use of the word “active”, as it remains my view that service can cause death, and if it is proved to have caused death, that should be sufficient for the exemption to apply. At the moment, the focus is on “active service”, and we could debate all day whether service in Cyprus in support of operations in the Gulf was active service. It could be interpreted as active service. If the wording was simply “service” rather than “active service”, I believe that Mr Thomas’s family would have been exempt from

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inheritance tax and that could have saved them a bill of £33,000 at a time when they were coming to terms with the death of their son.

I humbly suggest that the review focus on the current appropriateness of section 154. There have been a number of conflicts since 1984, and they have become ever more complex, with a range of issues to examine. The legislation is 28 years old and is worthy of review by the Minister. Will he assess the anticipated demand from revising the section? He can look at how many claims like that of Nigel Thomas’s family have been made and how many the SPVA has turned down. I am not aware of that many. I do not believe that there will be a massive flow of cases giving the Government a liability of millions of pounds, but I would welcome a review to examine whether such cases have been brought and how many. I would also welcome the Minister consulting the Royal British Legion and other parties on the provisions of the 1984 Act. Will he report to the House, either by letter or written statement, on the outcome of the review, so that he can at least tell me and those who are interested in the case, but more importantly Nigel Thomas’s family, that he has gone the extra mile to look at whether they were treated fairly in the period following Nigel’s death?

The loss to Nigel’s family is immense and a grievous blow, but they hope, and have asked me to ensure, that raising Nigel’s death in this way, having raised it with the Minister in correspondence, will lead to a change, so that families in future do not have to face the same injustice that Nigel’s family have had to endure. Nigel Thomas gave his life in service to his country. Had he died by bullet, his estate would not have paid inheritance tax; but because he died from cancer caused by radiation, his estate has not been exempted. It is a grave injustice that I hope the Minister will redress today.

12.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship for, I think, the first time, Mr Hood. The topic is important and sensitive, and I am grateful for the opportunity to respond.

We in the Ministry of Defence strive very hard to provide appropriate support to bereaved families when one of our serving or former service personnel loses their life. I am always saddened to hear of cases in which families feel that they have not received the support that they should at the time of their loss. The background to the case of Mr Thomas is a tragedy and I extend my sympathy to his family, who are still most upset about his death and the issues raised. The passing of time does not always ease the pain of bereavement, particularly when it is worsened by the feeling that the support provided at the time was not sufficient. I assure the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) that the support provided to next of kin and other grieving relatives continues to improve.

When a service person dies in service, an appropriate representative will be appointed from the casualty’s own service as the prime point of contact for the next of kin, and in some instances the emergency contact, if considered appropriate. That person will be a dedicated

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officer known as the visiting officer, and they will guide and assist the next of kin in repatriation and funeral procedures—I regret to say that that is all too often with Operation Herrick—and will help with any questions the family may have. The visiting officer provides a crucial liaison between families and the services, which continues for as long as it is needed. A veterans’ welfare officer will also be appointed from within the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency to assist the dependants of the deceased. They can provide advice and guidance on the comprehensive package of benefits that may be available under the armed forces pension and armed forces compensation schemes, brought in by the previous Government, of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member, and on other more wide-ranging issues, such as housing and benefit entitlements from the Department for Work and Pensions.

Although some defence charities, such as SSAFA Forces Help or the Royal British Legion, cannot make direct or unsolicited contact with service families, they can provide long-term support to bereaved service families who approach them, including a support group consisting of bereaved relatives meeting on a regular basis to offer support to each other.

The whole Government recognise that service personnel such as Mr Thomas warrant special consideration in acknowledgment of the particular debt of gratitude owed to them for service given in the cause of national defence and international peace. We are aware of the sacrifices made by those who have risked their lives and suffered hardship in facing the challenges of military service. On 16 May 2011, the Secretary of State for Defence published the armed forces covenant—a new tri-service document and the first of its kind. It sets out what service personnel and their families can expect from the Government and the nation in recognition of what we ask them to do to keep us safe. The Government are determined to remove disadvantages encountered as a result of service and, by publishing the covenant, we have established the right direction of travel.

The case of Nigel Lawrence Thomas is a very sad one and, again, I extend my condolences to his parents and other family members. Mr Thomas proudly served his country as a member of the Royal Air Force until he was discharged in 2004. His life was then tragically cut short by chronic myeloid leukaemia and secondary conditions in March 2010. From previous endeavours on behalf of Nigel’s mother, Mrs Davies, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that, subsequent to the sad loss of her son, she first made enquiries about an exemption from inheritance tax at the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency in June 2010.

In recognition of the particular debt of gratitude that we owe to our former service personnel, it is only right and proper that in certain circumstances special consideration be given as to whether a deceased person’s estate should be exempt from inheritance tax. The right hon. Gentleman described some such conditions. A deceased service person’s estate may be exempt from inheritance tax if, under delegated authority from the Secretary of State for Defence, my officials certify that section 154 of the Inheritance Tax Act 1984 applies. Under the Act, such certification can be given when the deceased has died from a wound inflicted, accident occurring or disease contracted at a time when they were on active service against an enemy, or on service of

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a warlike nature. Certification may also be given in instances in which a service person dies from a disease contracted at some previous time if the death were due to or hastened by the aggravation of a disease during a period of such service. If such certification is given, my officials will recommend to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs that an estate should be exempt from paying inheritance tax. There is, however, no automatic exemption from inheritance tax for veterans. Deaths in retirement resulting from natural causes, road traffic accidents, or injuries or illnesses that were not contracted during or aggravated by war or warlike service do not qualify for an exemption. Equally, if individuals have a wound or illness arising from their service that might have eventually killed them but they die from a wholly unrelated cause, if the wound or illness played no part in their demise, their estate cannot be certified as exempt from inheritance tax.

Mr Thomas served in Cyprus from 1989 until 1992, and it is recognised that for at least part of that period he was operating in a role in support of operations in the Gulf during the first Gulf war. From his service record, however, it is evident that during that time he did not undertake deployed service in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Iraq, or come into direct contact with Iraqi forces. As such, my officials were unable to recommend that his estate be considered for exemption from inheritance tax, as the criteria defined under section 154 of the Act had not been met. A request by the family for the payment by my Department of funeral expenses in respect of Mr Thomas was approved because, in the view of an MOD medical adviser, it could not be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that some aspect of his service did not cause the condition that led to his death. That is, however, a quite separate issue from the matter of whether an estate should or should not be

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eligible for an exemption from inheritance tax. The criteria involved are quite different, and it would be wrong to assume that the decision to pay funeral expenses undermines the decision by my officials not to recommend an exemption. Similarly, the award of the Gulf medal for the first Gulf war was made on the basis that people were supporting, full-time, the operation, and not on whether they were engaged in warlike service.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to look again in particular at the legislation. I assure him that I will, on his behalf, because he has raised an important case. First, as requested, I will review the case and look in particular at the accident referred to in his speech. Secondly, I will review the operation of section 154 of the Inheritance Tax Act 1984, in conjunction with my colleagues in the Treasury. He particularly asked me whether I was happy to go the extra mile for the family of Nigel Thomas, whose case the right hon. Gentleman has articulated so well today. I certainly will and hope that he may be reassured by that.

Mr Hanson: If I may respond to the Minister’s comments, I thank him personally, on behalf of the family, for agreeing to review the case of Mr Thomas. I also thank him for his promised review of section 154 of the Act. In my speech, I asked whether the Minister could report back to the House. I should be grateful if he would confirm that he will either write to me or issue a written statement following that review so that we can have some clarity on the outcomes, and if he would let me know the time scale of the review.

Mr Robathan: I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I shall reply to him. Time scales, as he knows from his past as a Minister, can sometimes be what I might call slightly fluid, but I shall endeavour to be as timely as possible.

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Railway Stations

12.55 pm

Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood.

My constituency includes the rail stations of Stevenage and Knebworth, both operated by First Capital Connect. We have sought the debate today to illustrate some of our difficulties in achieving station improvements in small towns and cities throughout the country. I will focus predominantly on my constituency of Stevenage, but I know that other Members present wish to intervene.

Stevenage station opened on its new site back in 1973, which was a few years before I was born. That illustrates the age of the station. It is an important hub for Hertfordshire, with Stansted airport on one side and Luton airport on the other; many services to the north of the country run by East Coast trains leave Stevenage, and the station sees more than 4 million passenger movements a year, with Knebworth station seeing almost half a million a year. Stevenage is quite a large and important regional train service hub. Bearing that in mind, First Capital Connect will be operating a 100-day peak service before, during and just after the Olympics, as hundreds of thousands of people use stations in my constituency to travel to King’s Cross to get across London to the Olympics. I am also proud that we will welcome the Olympic torch to Stevenage on 8 July; I look forward to a large boost to our local economy as a result.

I take the opportunity to commend the present and the previous Government for the fantastic transformations to King’s Cross and St Pancras railway stations. Both are iconic. I commute into King’s Cross every single day, from Stevenage, which is less than 30 miles away. My personal experience is that the station has improved a great deal. A lot of scaffolding was up for many years, but it has now been cleared away and, once again, the sunlight can be seen. There are similarities with Gatwick airport, with its departure and arrival lounges, and the station is looking much better.

King’s Cross is a category A station, the gateway to London for my constituents and millions of others, and yet, of my stations, Stevenage is category C and Knebworth category E. The Minister might be anticipating a long moan about the lack of investment in local train stations by all Governments and expecting me to lament the challenges that my constituents face trying to travel less than 30 miles to London, negotiating their way through all the obstacles, but the journey experience for passengers from my area has improved over the past few years, mainly due to the thousands of extra seats available at peak times. Nevertheless, I would like to reiterate on behalf of passengers, including myself, how annoying the annual increase in rail fares is and that we resent it predominantly because we do not feel that we are getting value for money, especially with the local council earning millions of pounds out of exorbitant car parking charges. I am lucky enough to be able to walk to the train station from my home in Stevenage, but many of my constituents are not as fortunate and have to pay large car parking charges on top of the large rail fares. For a 30-mile journey from Stevenage to King’s Cross, an annual travelcard costs well in excess of £4,000.

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I would like to remain as positive as possible, however, because I am proud of my local area, so I will set out some of the improvements we have seen over the past five years, to Stevenage station in particular. A gate-line installation massively improved security and revenue protection along the whole line. The overbridge at Stevenage has a new kiosk, the toilets have been refurbished, the ticket office now has induction loops, the station has been repainted and there are food and drink vending machines. The ticket office is compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, cycle parking has been improved twice—three or four years ago, and last year it was increased by another 55%, with a £36,000 investment—and the waiting rooms have been refurbished. We now have four CCTV cameras installed and one thin film transistor or TFT-enhanced LCD display screen, so that we can all see what time the train is coming and how long it will be delayed for. We have DDA-compliant handrails to stairways. The Cambridge capacity study has reviewed and launched installation of dispatch equipment to allow for 12-car trains, so if we can obtain the rolling stock, thousands more seats will be available for even more of us to have a seat on our commute to London.

Network Rail’s national station improvement programme has led to platform seating being renewed, and station signage has been replaced. A new customer information service screen has been installed in the waiting room on platform 1, so people can sit down and not get wet when looking to see what time their train will come. Meeting point signage systems have also been installed. There has been a host of further welcome improvements to security in conjunction with British Transport Police, and both my local stations—Stevenage and Knebworth— are now fully accredited as safer stations. That is all good news, and positive.

There are many more improvements to look forward to over the next few years, including plans to resurface platforms later this year. Network Rail plans to make minor extensions to the platforms so that we can have 12-car trains. Most important, access-for-all funding is allowing conversion of the goods lift to a fully automated passenger lift. That is costing £578,000, and disabled passengers will be able to use the lift, instead of waiting for a member of staff to unlock the goods lift, which is totally inappropriate. I welcome the additional funding, and that work is due to be completed in March 2014.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman’s description of the improvements at Stevenage station. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Knebworth station in his constituency. Does he share my concern that investment in stations to make them more accessible and modern will be completely wasted if the Government press ahead with plans to close ticket offices? Knebworth is mentioned in the McNulty report as a station that may have its ticket office closed. Many people rely on staff at stations to help them.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Lady’s intervention is too long.

Stephen McPartland: I understand what the hon. Lady is suggesting, and I assure her that we are running a campaign to keep Knebworth station’s ticket office open. I am pleased that First Capital Connect has

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assured us that it has no plans to close the ticket office. I will refer later to the Government’s Command Paper, “Reforming our Railways”, and to giving more power to train operating companies to keep some stations open.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman said clearly that it was important to have a good rail service and modernised stations. Does he believe that potential for tourism could be realised from that work, and that that should happen along with modernisation of stations?

Stephen McPartland: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is potential for tourism. Stevenage is home to Knebworth park, which is the largest outdoor venue for concerts. Robbie Williams performed there in front of 250,000 people. Large events take place in my constituency every summer, and the railway station is the gateway for hundreds of thousands of people.

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, and the passion with which he is advocating the case for Stevenage. Does he accept that in the modernisation programme for the railways, it makes sense for some stations to be relocated so that they are in a modern context and a true gateway to the city? One such case is Oxford, which I am pressing, and I am grateful for the opportunity to put that on the record.

Stephen McPartland: I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention. When the new Stevenage station opened in 1973, it was relocated half a mile down the line nearer the town centre. There is sometimes a case for relocating stations.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that work on the lift for disabled people at Stevenage in his constituency—the same is happening at Gloucester—has come later than we would have liked, because it was not done during the 13 years of the previous Government? However, it suggests that priorities such as helping disabled people on stations are finally in the right place.

Stephen McPartland: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am a Conservative MP, and I do not want to be party political, but I agree with him.

My final point is that we have high hopes of receiving money to improve the concourse under the national station improvement plan. I am not sure that Stevenage station will look as good as King’s Cross station, but we can hope.

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I know that my hon. Friend strongly supports commuters in Stevenage. Does he agree that modernisation of train stations is a wonderful opportunity to improve passenger safety, particularly at night? At too many stations, such as Stone Crossing in my constituency, passengers feel intimidated when they return home late in the evening, particularly in winter when it is dark, and that puts them off using the railways.

Stephen McPartland: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I am the founder of the Knebworth and Stevenage rail user group, which I set up some years ago when I commuted to London for my previous job. Installation of the gate line at Stevenage made a massive difference

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to station security. First Capital Connect employs people to work with British Transport police, such as police community support officers, and contributes to some of the cost so that we have designated officers on our line. The number of incidents has shown that crime on the line has been reduced as that revenue has been secured. Often, it is people who have travelled without tickets who engage in minor crime. I agree with my hon. Friend.

We have given the Minister an easy ride so far. I have spoken about the great things being done at stations that are collectively improving passengers’ experience at stations in my constituency. However, the changes are incremental, and highlight the fact that the current system does not work. Network Rail effectively owns and manages station improvements, so in reality the money goes towards the big iconic category A projects, such as King’s Cross, when local stations also need investment. There is much more to do at my local stations, but major works are constrained by the relationship between Network Rail and the train operating companies.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): In my constituency in Wales, the platforms at Tenby and Whitland stations are the responsibility of one organisation, the track is the responsibility of another, the trains are the responsibility of yet another, and the car park is often the responsibility of the local authority. How can we achieve the desired solution when so many different people can duck their responsibility?

Stephen McPartland: My hon. Friend pre-empts two questions that I intend to ask the Minister at the end of my speech. They are excellent questions, which I hope the Minister will take on board. It is incumbent on all of us here to ensure that we move forward with the proposals coming down the line. The problem is that Network Rail is responsible for 2,500 stations throughout the country, and invests a huge amount of money in stations with low customer satisfaction and high footfall. Money will go to King’s Cross, where there are 25 million passenger movements a year, Leeds, where there are 21 million passenger movements a year, and other northern regional stations.

I welcome the Government’s Command Paper, “Reforming our Railways”, which was released last month, and is a huge step forward. The Minister of State for Transport welcomed the success of the national station improvement programme that was launched by the previous Government. The chairman of the Association of Train Operating Companies has said that it is a great example of what the industry can achieve by working together, and has exceeded the original objective. I understand that that was to improve 150 stations, but that 250 have been improved because the train operating companies used more money efficiently and locally.

We must go further and faster, and not waste the opportunity of the new, longer franchises that we are about to give to train operating companies. We must change the landlord and tenant relationship for stations by moving towards fully repairing leases, and making the train companies responsible for the whole station and its upkeep, not just certain parts of it as under

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current leases. That is what passengers and the train operating companies want. They want the train operating companies to have the ability to get on with the job.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, will he consider introducing fully self-repairing leases in franchises for category C stations and below, thus allowing Network Rail to retain responsibility for bigger projects, and train operating companies to retain responsibility for smaller stations that are, as in my constituency, important regional hubs? That would provide train operating companies with a visual demonstration of their brand.

Secondly, the Command Paper welcomes devolving decisions to local level, but that is to large bodies such as councils and local enterprise partnerships, which many passengers believe are out of touch and irrelevant to their journey needs. I want to give train companies the funding, power and responsibility to improve our stations, and I want them to be directly accountable to local people. In a written question, I asked

“what arrangements are in place for the removal of rail franchises where rail passengers are dissatisfied with the service provided by their local rail operators”.—[Official Report, 13 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 517W.]

and the basic premise of the response was that no such obligation exists for passenger satisfaction. I urge the Minister to consider creating that obligation as part of any new franchise arrangements.

1.10 pm

John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): I am delighted to take part in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) on securing it. It is an important subject that is relevant to many smaller cities and towns and their railway stations.

When we talk about communication, we often talk about the internet, broadband, super broadband, how fast it is and how much information we can download and how quickly. It is the modern way of communication and, quite rightly, its success is important to cities such as Carlisle and towns such as Stevenage, as well as to the country. If we go back 160 years, however, the railways were starting to achieve exactly the same thing. They were connecting the country, reducing the communication time between places, and bringing people and businesses together. At that time, rail was a transport, communication and economic revolution, and it still matters today.

Carlisle Citadel station in my constituency was built in 1847 and extended in 1875. At that time it connected Carlisle to all parts of the country, including the major centres of London and Glasgow and across to the east and Newcastle. The station is a great example of Victorian architecture and construction, and in many respects it is still a fantastic building and extremely relevant. It is an important communication centre for local people who wish to get to London or to Newcastle, and rail travel is important for both passengers and freight.

However good the internet is, people and goods will still need to move around the country and we will still need the railway network. On the west coast line in particular, rail travel has improved enormously and passenger numbers have increased dramatically. Credit

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must be given to the previous Government for the amount of money that was invested in much of the west coast line, and particularly the rail lines that received about £10 billion of investment. Substantial investment has also gone into trains, and new carriages will soon be in use on the west coast line. Service on trains has improved enormously—I can pay testament to that as I have gone up and down the west coast line looking at what Virgin has done, and I think it is a great improvement.

There is, however, a missing link regarding investment in stations, especially those outside the major cities. My hon. Friend alluded to the fact that although some larger stations have received substantial investment and improved enormously, many of the smaller stations have missed out. A 2009 report stated that overall train passenger satisfaction stood at 81%, although satisfaction with stations was just 65%.

A 2009 report from the Department for Transport stated:

“Stations cannot be seen in isolation—they are part of the total journey experience. This was dramatically demonstrated to us in Spain where the new high speed lines offer a consistent world-class travel experience from modern stations to modern trains and re-generated cities. Stations are deeply entwined with their local community and effectively act as the gateway to both town and railway. They leave passengers with their lasting impressions of both—a dilapidated station is bad business for both town and railway.”

I completely agree.

It is vital for our rail network that stations are modernised and that the passenger experience is greatly improved. If I may be parochial, Carlisle station has huge opportunities, but over the past 40 years it has seen little investment. The station now contains just two coffee shops and one newsagent, and not a lot else. It could be given an improved layout, and much of it could be refurbished which would enhance it enormously. New facilities such as shops and coffee bars could be encouraged, and there is the potential to create a transport hub by redesigning the entrances and the whole station. The transport network must work closely with local authorities to try and ensure that the passenger experience is greatly improved.

Such improvements are needed not only in Carlisle but in many of our stations and smaller cities and towns up and down the country. I would like to see the Government accept the need for such modernisation, and encourage stations, railway companies, local authorities and developers to work together to achieve improvements for our smaller stations. Where possible, seed money could be used to help kick-start such developments and improvements, but most importantly of all—this is critical—all future franchise agreements should include contractual obligations on rail companies to invest, upgrade and improve our stations, especially those outwith the major centres.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): With your indulgence, Mr Hood, I have three quick points. First, King’s Cross cost the same as the entire northern hub project, which would benefit the entire north; secondly, we must consider the importance of parking at our local stations—it is a nightmare at Marsden, Honley and Brockholes in my patch; thirdly, does my hon. Friend acknowledge the important role played by rail user groups and friends of stations in looking after their local stations?

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John Stevenson: I completely agree with my hon. Friend; he is absolutely right. Just as broadband is vital to the future economy, so is the success of the railway network and its stations. I hope that the Government will ensure that the modernisation of stations is made a priority.

1.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Hood. I remember that in one of my first outings in this place, you were chairing a deeply worthy Committee on some European legislation, of which I was a member back in 1997. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) on securing this debate on an important issue for many passengers across the network. Nine Members have already contributed to this half-hour debate, which shows the enthusiasm and interest in this subject felt by Members across the House.

The Government understand that the quality of stations is important for passengers, and we are committed to facilitating investment in station improvements through reforms to how the railways are run. We are granting longer rail franchises in order to give train operators the incentive to invest in the improvements that passengers want, including better stations.

To pick up one of my hon. Friend’s questions and the repairing leases to which he referred, we are committed to giving train operators full responsibility for the management and operation of many stations, and we are starting that process now in stations covered by the shorter Greater Anglia franchise, and the West Coast Railways franchise—my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) will be particularly interested in that.

The comprehensive spending review secured funding for a range of major station improvements to be completed over the next few years, including at Reading, Birmingham New Street, Blackfriars and London Bridge. We are also continuing to fund other improvements through the national stations improvement programme, the Access for All programme, and the station commercial project facility. Further funding for station improvements for 2014-19 will be considered as part of the high-level output specification process, with an announcement about further investment expected in the summer.

Over the past two years we have seen record levels of investment in the rail industry; this is the biggest programme of investment since Victorian times, and it is set against the backdrop of a difficult economic situation, both for public finances and in the country more generally. As a rail enthusiast from the Lib-Dem Benches, I believe that this is the most pro-rail Government that this country has seen for decades.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage mentioned rail fares, and I hope he has noticed that the coalition Government have decided to retain the previous Government’s arrangement of RPI plus 1% this year, in recognition of the challenges that we face. A major programme of investment is taking place on the railways and it must be paid for. Part of the Government’s challenge is to drive down the cost of the railways to ensure that the public and the taxpayer get best value for money from investments across the network.

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Lilian Greenwood: Will the Minister give way?

Norman Baker: I would like to make some progress and address the points raised by my hon. Friend, but if there is time at the end of the debate, I will give way to the hon. Lady. As my hon. Friend mentioned, Stevenage has already benefited from the national stations improvement programme, and almost £100,000 has been spent on new waiting shelters, seating and station signage. A further £150,000 is due to be spent on a full refurbishment of the concourse area, with work expected to commence later this year. Although Stevenage is already deemed to be accessible, as my hon. Friend rightly mentioned, we are ploughing in money from the Access for All programme to convert two of the goods lifts to passenger lifts, at a cost of £578,000. In addition, Access for All money has already been used to fund the installation of ticket office induction loops, a low-level, split-level ticket office counter, handrails to existing staircases and compliant “Meeting Point” signage.

Therefore, to pick up my hon. Friend’s point, I would not necessarily agree that the current system does not work. What I have outlined demonstrates that it does work. However, I would agree that transferring more responsibility to train companies is likely to improve matters even further. Network Rail, of course, has responsibility for some of the major stations in our country. It has done a fantastic job at King’s Cross and at St Pancras with Eurostar. We are now seeing the belief in railways restated. For a long time, stations were regarded as something to be embarrassed about by the railway industry. That was the case back in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Now, there is a new confidence about the railways. The way King’s Cross has been re-engineered demonstrates that. However, it is right that we should have that benefit translated across the network and not simply at the big stations. My hon. Friend is right to make that point.

It is planned to spend £100,000 of money from the national stations improvement programme to improve the waiting shelters at Knebworth station. My hon. Friend will know that some Access for All money was used to fund smaller-scale improvements to the staircase and signage there as well.

The national stations improvement programme is a good example of the members of the industry working together to deliver benefits for passengers. It is the case that £150 million has been made available over five years to improve passenger facilities at busy stations in England and Wales that the public have identified as not up to scratch. The choice of schemes has been managed at local level, with Network Rail and train companies working together to agree the most efficient way to deliver the upgrades. About £101 million of that money has been spent so far on improving stations, and about 100 projects have been completed so far, benefiting more than 240 stations. In addition, many schemes have attracted third-party contributions, whether from local authorities or other funding bodies. The £26 million of additional money has allowed us to provide even more improvements.

NSIP is also helping to fund an information zoning initiative at stations in England. The aim is to make it easier for passengers to find appropriate information in different parts of stations, including information about

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local transport facilities for onward travel. We regard the end-to-end journey concept as very important if we are to make rail travel work as well as it can.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle will know, I hope, that £450,000 of NSIP money has been spent on improving Carlisle station, including renovating the waiting room on the London-bound platform, refurbishing the existing waiting room and constructing a new seated waiting area and gateway to the historic Settle-Carlisle line. As I also hope he knows, we plan to spend a further £1.8 million of Access for All money on providing a new accessible route, with two new lifts, at Carlisle station. Works are currently scheduled to start on site in October 2013.

I should say that the Access for All programme is delivered with DFT money. Therefore, that is not in the gift of Network Rail. The coalition Government have made it a priority to try to improve disabled access at stations. That is why we have continued with that programme.

John Stevenson: On that point, does the Minister agree that it is important that we encourage the franchisees to invest their money in the stations, in addition to the taxpayers’ money?

Norman Baker: Yes, indeed. We agree with that point, and in relation to all the transport funding that we have identified, whether for railways or elsewhere, we have tried as far as possible to drive down costs and get better value for money, but also to unlock match funding, whether from local authorities, transport operators or wherever. We have been successful at doing that. If people look at the development pool scheme and local authority schemes, for example, they will see that we have managed to proceed with a huge number of those that would not otherwise have gone ahead, because of those approaches, which have driven down costs and got extra funding from elsewhere. We entirely endorse that approach.

Lilian Greenwood: How can the Minister claim that this is a rail-friendly Government when fares are due to rise by RPI plus 3% for the rest of this Parliament and 675 category E stations face losing all their staff?

Norman Baker: I am sorry that I let the hon. Lady intervene to disrupt what was a unified approach to improving the railways. Nevertheless, let me say for the record that the RPI plus 1% arrangement, which is the one in place this year, was introduced by the previous Labour Government for about 10 years. Indeed, they reversed RPI minus 1% and made it RPI plus 1%, so Labour Members are probably not in a good position to argue about rail fares. In addition, I will say that no decisions have been taken on closing ticket offices. There is a recommendation in the McNulty report about ticket offices. No decisions have been taken on that yet. It does not help the railway to talk down the railway and make up scare stories about ticket offices in front of constituents.

With regard to the Access for All programme, we are taking steps, as I mentioned, to allow better access for disabled people. The £370 million programme is designed

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to provide an obstacle-free route at 153 priority stations by 2015, and more than 70 of those projects have already been completed. To get the best value for money, that funding has been targeted at the busiest stations, although about one third of the stations were selected to ensure a fair geographical spread across the country.

To ensure that local or less busy stations are not forgotten—category 3, 4 or 5 stations are very important—we also offer train operators an annual fund to deliver smaller-scale access improvements. Since 2006, the Department for Transport has offered more than £25 million towards a total investment of more than £70 million for smaller-scale, locally focused access improvements at stations. More than 1,000 stations have benefited so far from a variety of new facilities, including accessible toilets, customer information systems, new ticket hall features and better signage and lighting. In the past year alone under this Government, 74 projects delivered improvements at 136 different stations.

Mr Andrew Smith: Will the Minister, with his officials, look at the proposals for relocating Oxford station that have been put forward by the Oxford Civic Society?

Norman Baker: I am certainly happy to look at those. We are increasingly devolving responsibility for transport matters down to local council level, and it is right to do that. People in Oxford are in a better position to know what is best for them than people in Westminster are, if I may say so. I would be interested in those proposals. There are, I think—I am speaking from memory—proposals to improve the situation at Oxford anyway by getting more trains running through it, and of course the electrification programme that the Government announced will hugely benefit Oxford and points west. We therefore have to ensure that we do not now spend money that will be rendered useless by further changes subsequently. However, I will be interested in proposals for Oxford. It is a station that I know quite well, not least because my mother-in-law lives there—not at the station, but nearby. [Laughter.] She is not the station mistress.

There is also the station commercial project facility, to which I referred. Up to £100 million of Network Rail funding has been set aside for commercially focused projects at stations through the station commercial project facility. That programme has been successful and a third and final tranche of bids are currently being considered for the fund. So far, the scheme has awarded about £82 million of funding to 38 individual schemes across the country, including improved car parking, better station retail and commercial facilities and new gate lines.

I should also mention perhaps the local sustainable transport fund, for which I am responsible. It is a brand-new fund that this Government created; £560 million is being distributed to improve local transport. That is an increase even above all the amalgamated pots of money that the previous Government had. It is an increase for local sustainable transport. Funding has been used across the country in certain locations where local councils have bid for it appropriately in order to improve rail facilities at local stations and, in at least one case, to reopen a station—at Stratford-on-Avon. That is another fund that is available for station improvements and it has been used for that purpose.

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We are keen to improve cycle-rail integration—to improve cycle facilities at stations. That is important for the end-to-end journey. On 7 February, I announced £15 million of new funding for sustainable travel projects that will be hugely beneficial to communities and cyclists up and down England, helping to create jobs and reduce our carbon footprints while making cycling safer and more convenient.

As well as the £8 million for projects to enhance walking and cycling routes across England given to Sustrans, £7 million is being allocated through the cycle rail working group to improve integration between cycle and rail at stations. The position is that 30 cycle-rail schemes covering improvements at 141 stations will provide 7,500 new cycle spaces. Of that money, £145,000 is going to Letchworth, St Albans and Royston for almost 250 additional cycle spaces, and £500,000 is going towards a cycle hub at Cambridge with space for 3,000 bikes.

Network Rail has agreed to invest a further £7 million of the money that it has available in improving cycle facilities at stations, including safe routes and access. Part of that funding is being used to deliver innovative cycle hub schemes at Liverpool, Sheffield and York. The Department contributed £500,000 towards the first cycle hub, at Leeds, which incorporates secure cycle storage with cycle hire, retail and repair facilities. It is the first of its kind in the UK. In London, a hub at Waterloo will be completed before the Olympics, and Transport for London is working on plans for a similar scheme at London Victoria.

Train operating company accountability to passengers, which was the subject of the second question that my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage raised, is being considered by Ministers—notably, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, but also others—as part of the refranchising process. The discussions are ongoing, but the point that my hon. Friend made about ensuring that passengers are happy is well taken; it has been taken on board. It is something that we have also pursued in relation to community lines through the identification of community lines up and down the country.

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Looped Blind Cords

1.30 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood.

Probably the worst bereavement anyone can suffer is the unexpected death of a child; it leaves a wound among their loved ones that will never heal—a wound made up of grief, regret and longing for a life that has been lost.

In January, my constituent, Tracey Ford, had just such a nightmare experience when she checked on her infant son, Joshua, whom she had put to bed only an hour before. She went to check on him because he always kicked all the blankets off, and she did not want him to be cold. She said:

“I remember walking into his room and it looked as if he was sitting up looking out of the window…I scooped him up in my arms and he was freezing cold and as limp as a ragdoll. Then I saw the cord from the window blind was wrapped around his neck. It was the worst moment of my life. My beautiful baby was so full of life and energy and I just knew he was gone.”

Such experiences are not common, but they are not rare either. At the time, Tracey Ford wrote to me, in February, four other children in the United Kingdom had died by becoming entangled in a window blind cord. The most vulnerable children are those who are the same age as Joshua, who was 23 months old. They are at that wonderful time of life when they are speaking well, doing more and running round. They are curious and playful, and if they see a looped cord hanging down, it is natural for them to play with it.

The number of such deaths in the United States in a 14-year period was 252. The most worrying thing about the 22 deaths that have occurred in the United Kingdom since 1999 is that the majority have occurred in the past two years. There has been great concern about the issue. To an extent, the industry has done conscientious work, and it has made efforts to make the cords safer. Work has also been done in the European Parliament, but the process of changing standards is slow. We have made progress in various areas to make sure that our children are at less risk. Sadly, however, this debate is necessary because there has been an increase in the number of deaths. Tracey Ford asked me with some feeling, “Why did nobody warn me? Why was I not told about this?” That cry could come from other parents in the same position.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. It is a good debate to have, and our sympathy lies with the parents who have lost their children in these tragedies. Does he agree that the slow process that he describes is unacceptable? We were able to resolve the issue of electric sockets, which children put their fingers into, by capping them. Some time ago, three children died in an unused freezer, but it was possible to resolve that safety issue immediately by putting safety catches on freezers. Surely, in this day and age, progress on this issue should be faster.

Paul Flynn: I think that it should. We all recall the campaign about the tops of ballpoint pens, which some children swallowed and choked on, although, again, the cases were rare. There was a simple technical remedy.

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Similarly, there are many technical remedies to the problem of looped cords. There are alternatives that can be used, and the industry has acted, but it has acted slowly. Those involved are defensive about their profits and their competitive position, and we all understand that. However, there is no question but that the lives of innocent children are of supreme importance, and that is what should be considered.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) for his work on this issue, which he raised in 2008, and I am glad that I signed the early-day motion that he introduced at the time. He has run his own campaign on the issue, and he will speak about that in a moment.

We must, however, all ask ourselves whether we have done enough. If we had, the number of deaths would be diminishing, but it is not—it is going up. We must all look at the issue anew and decide which is the best way forward. Alternatives are available, but they are not seen as essential. It is still possible to go into a shop and be sold the most dangerous types of cord—the ones that have caused the most deaths. Alternatives are available, but is the industry pushing them in the way that it should?

I am extremely grateful, as I think all Members are, to the “Daybreak” television programme, which has taken up this case. I pay tribute to those involved and to my constituent, who has bravely come forward and said, “I want the legacy of my Joshua to be the hope that no other child will die in this way.” She is working for a situation in which every parent and grandparent will see the danger in their children’s bedrooms and nurseries and take action to remove it. The “Daybreak” programme is working with safety organisations to ensure that that message goes out.

The purpose of the debate is to make sure that people know about the danger posed by the cords in their homes, and it is the existing ones that pose the greatest danger. There are reckoned to be 250 million cords in British homes, and most of us would be astonished to find that there are perhaps a dozen cords in our own homes—they are almost universal, and they are all potential hazards for our children.

The lesson that we must learn is that we need publicity. We need more action from the Government. They have not been idle in these matters—indeed, they have been active—but they have a predilection for not introducing new regulations. I am not suggesting that we need legislation to tackle all our safety problems, and legislation may not be necessary now. However, the evidence staring us in the face is that what we have done in the past has not been adequate. We need a new impetus from the Government, who should publish information about the danger posed by these cords and, if necessary, put pressure on the industry to make sure these dangerous cords are no longer available and no longer on sale.

1.37 pm

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab) rose—

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. Has the hon. Gentleman the agreement of the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and the Minister to speak?

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Gordon Banks: Yes. Thank you for allowing me to make a contribution, Mr Hood. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) for securing the debate and adding his voice to those calling on the Government to do something of substance on this matter, and “substance” is the key word.

When the Minister makes his contribution, we will no doubt hear about the product safety awareness campaigns that have gone on in recent years. However, if they had worked, as my hon. Friend said, Joshua and other children would not have died in such a horrific way. I thank all those who have made an effort to tackle the issue, but it has been far too little, far too late.

In December last year, I prepared a brief for the former Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs at his request. That brief started by saying that 16 toddlers and babies had died in the UK since 1999, as a result of strangulation by dangerous looped blind cords. However, that brief is out of date, because the figure is now 22, and perhaps even more. There have been 11 deaths since 2010. Those 22 children were all loved by their mums and dads, brothers and sisters, and grannies and granddads, but they are dead because of window blinds. What are we doing to prevent such deaths? In my eyes, we are simply not doing enough.

I got involved in this matter in 2008 after Muireann McLaughlin, who lived in Menstrie in my constituency, died in a looped blind cord incident in her bedroom. I have since worked with her parents on the issue, but, four years later, these things are still happening.

Through my actions, the issue was brought to Parliament in a 2008 petition in which 3,500 people called for tighter controls on the manufacture of blinds. As my hon. Friend said, there were early-day motions in 2008, and three early-day motions in 2010 also highlighted the danger. I raised the issue with the Leader of the House in 2010, and on 12 March 2008—more or less four years ago, in this very place—I led a debate on the issue. Sadly, I could repeat that speech of four years ago today, because too little has changed. I have to ask why. I do not understand the reasons, although I shall try to contribute to their consideration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West has done much in his speech to raise the general plight; but I want to focus on three things in the time that I have left that give some light for progress. First, I urge anyone who has not done so to read a communication from the European Commission, Health Canada and the Consumer Product Safety Commission in America, dated 15 June 2010. I assume that the Minister is conversant with it. It states that the CPSC is aware of 120 fatalities and 133 non-fatal incidents in the USA since 1999, that Health Canada has received reports of 28 strangulation deaths and 23 near strangulations since 1986 and that in seven European states 90 children visited emergency departments because of looped blind cord injuries in 2002. It goes on to refer to two UK deaths in 2010 and one in 2008—that of my constituent—one in the Netherlands in 2009, and two in Ireland, one in 2009 and one 2010. There were deaths in Germany as well; but there were more deaths in the UK. As I have said, the number stands at 22, and the poignant thing is that 11 of those have occurred since 2010, even after all the work that has been done.

The three organisations’ statement called for

“a swift and comprehensive process that concurrently eliminates the risk factors causing deaths and injuries from all types of corded window covering products”.

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As far as I am concerned, that needs a complete product re-design, which is what I am calling for. That leads me on to the industry itself.

I fully grasp that, as my hon. Friend said, 250 million blinds with looped cords are in properties today. I acknowledge the dangers that they pose, but that is not a reason to do nothing about new products. I have spoken to the industry about designing out the need for cord operation. Bearing in mind that in 1969 we put a man on the moon, it is bizarre that 40 years later the brightest design minds in the western world cannot come up with a gearing mechanism to make cords unnecessary and allow operation via wands to be extended. I guarantee the Minister that, unless he kicks the industry up the backside, he and his successors will be back here in future years, answering questions about why they have not protected our children and grandchildren.

I recognise that there is an international aspect to this matter, with manufacturers located all round the world, but I thought that as the world got smaller and institutions worked together the safety of citizens was paramount. The industry will not change its blanket production methods unless it has to. I refer the Minister back to the letter from CPSC, Health Canada and the European Commission and urge him to use it as a basis for a complete product overhaul—not tinkering around the edges—so that all new products no longer have such a silent killing facility.

The Minister will no doubt talk about snap connectors and tie back cleats as safety products, and I shall consider each one in turn. A snap connector can work as long as it is in place, but when it keeps snapping with excess pressure, as it is designed to do, many people tie the two cords together. They omit the snap connector and, hey ho, they have an unsnappable looped cord. Manufacturers and installers have even said to me that they get repeated phone calls from customers saying that their blind is broken. When they go to the house, they find that the snap connector is broken. They fix or reassemble it, and they get the call again. Eventually, for many reasons, the snap connectors are done away with and the cords are tied together, resulting in a looped blind cord and a deadly, silent killing facility.

What about tie back cleats? Yes, they are fine if they are used and cords are wrapped around them; but we should get real. That does not happen all the time. What about when the cleats are removed for decoration and never put back in place again, for various reasons: “I forgot,” “I don’t have any kids,” “I don’t use it anyway.”? Again, there are dangerously hanging looped blind cords: that silent killer again.

Finally, I want to ask the Minister bluntly why his colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who has responsibility for consumer affairs, and a former Business, Innovation and Skills Minister have refused to meet me about this matter. The former BIS Minister, who is now the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, gave that response in August 2010, and the Under-Secretary has repeated the position as recently as February this year. I am more than a little disappointed. In 2010, I asked the Leader of the House for a debate on the issue in Government time and his reply was rather embarrassing for him. He later had to backtrack from it. Sadly, the Government have got form on the issue and I cannot

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for the life of me understand why. If the Under-Secretary had met me in private, perhaps his colleague would not be here today in the public glare, having to explain the Government’s refusal to meet me.

I welcome the product safety information provided at the point of sale. I welcome the work done by the British Blind and Shutter Association and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents to highlight the dangers of cords; but as I have said, that is simply not enough. Looped cords must be designed out of production, and it is interesting that the British Retail Consortium supports that call in a brief prepared for the debate today. Only when that danger is done away with can we begin to draw the matter to a close.

If the Minister does not move on the issue, he and his successors will find themselves back in such forums, explaining why children are still being killed by looped blind cords and why the Government are not protecting the most valuable asset that we have in this country—our children.

1.46 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Mark Prisk): I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on securing the debate and raising the profile of this issue. I think it is fair to say that many of our constituents are not aware of the scale of the problem. That is a valuable part of the debate. I thank him also for his heartfelt plea, on behalf of his constituent, echoed, rightly, by the work done over the years by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), to raise the profile of the issue in industry as well as among constituents. On a personal note, I want to express my sincere condolences to the family of Joshua Wakeham. When we listen to the description given by the hon. Member for Newport West of the horror of finding a young family member in that appalling circumstance, it is difficult to know what to say. As the hon. Gentleman said, his constituent’s words, “Why did nobody warn me?” need to echo in our ears. I am not the Minister directly responsible, but I take that point seriously.

I will relay the request for a meeting, from the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire, to my ministerial colleague. He is new to the office, and I do not know what circumstances may have meant he did not feel able to meet him; but he is a reasonable man, and I shall make sure that he is aware of the repeated requests that the hon. Gentleman makes on that point.

To turn to the core issues about new blinds, designs and consumer information, I shall try to set out information that will be helpful. It will move things along and perhaps update hon. Members about where we have got to; but it will also include key information that may help fellow hon. Members when they talk to their constituents about some of the issues behind the dreadful set of incidents in question.

Window blinds have been with us in their various guises for many years, but we have not been that familiar with the nature of the hazard, for younger children particularly, until more recently, perhaps with the 2004 incident, which I was certainly aware of. The hazard has obviously been persistent. We heard of the dreadful incident in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire, involving Muireann

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McLaughlin, who I believe was just two years old. Then in February 2010 there were two deaths within five days: those of Lillian Bagnall-Lambe and Harrison Joyce, who was just three. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has highlighted the statistic on which most of us would perhaps rather not dwell, but on which we should reflect: 22 children have died in the way in question since 1999—two incidents involved curtain cords, but it is the same problem. Eleven of those died since 2010, which is an appalling rate. A comprehensive approach is needed, both to the tens of millions—potentially hundreds of millions—of cords, and, indeed, chains, that are in homes now, and to how to stop deaths in future, and design out the problem.

Let me say where the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is coming from on this issue. Our role is to ensure that we set the legislative framework for consumer protection and for the broader issue of safety. As hon. Members will know, blinds are not regulated by specific safety legislation. They come under the General Product Safety Regulations 2005, which implement the broader directive within the EU. The question is how do we ensure that homes with those fitments can change them and have the information about changing them and using them. Furthermore, how do we ensure that future blinds and cords are designed in a way that reduces, if not removes altogether, the risk that has been described in this debate?

When the Department looked at the standards in the general product safety directive, it found them to be inadequate and in need of substantial amendment. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire was right to say that the matter needed not tinkering around the edges, but a fundamental change to the design standard, in a way that changes production design and development worldwide. One frustration is that trying to achieve that worldwide change in design, which is crucial if we are to root out the problem, has taken a lot longer than we would all like.

Gordon Banks: What would the Minister say to the British Blind and Shutter Association? In a meeting with us, it turned around and said, “If we knew how to do that, we would all be very rich men. We have been trying to do that for ages, and we have not come up with anything.” I do not think that there is a desire within the industry to do what my hon. Friend and I want and what, I think, the Minister wants. The industry needs a kick up the backside from the Minister.

Mr Prisk: Sometimes that works. Sometimes a persistent unwillingness not to take no for an answer is the same, but we may be talking about the same approach. I will perhaps use less vernacular language on this occasion. We now expect the European standard to be in place next year. In fact, I am reasonably confident—enough to put it on the record—that we will get it next year. We had pushed for it to happen this year. Importantly, it will ensure that internal blinds with exposed cords will either not be able to form a loop or they will have an integrated safety device to protect against the risk of strangulation.

In addition, the standard will set out that clear and obvious safety information has to be provided at the point of sale on the packaging of the product, on the

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product itself and in the accompanying instructions for use. There will also be new requirements for the safety devices intended to be retrofitted to existing blinds. I will touch on the issue of snap connectors in a moment.

We are working with business, but we must ensure that we do not just wait for that standard to be in place. Over the next couple of months, with the help of the BBSA, we will write to 6,500 businesses—manufacturers, designers, retailers and installers—to ensure that we do not wait for that deadline to come in and then discuss what we need to do about it; we need to start pushing people in that direction now. I accept that they will not all be willing to adopt one method until they see the final detail, but that is no excuse for doing nothing in the meantime. What we can do is to push and accelerate that progress to ensure that UK industry is ready ahead of time. The redesign of products to remove the reliance on looped cords and chains is essential. We must try to ensure that we get that accepted—well, it is accepted—and developed.

The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire mentioned the retailers who are a crucial part of the supply chain. We have worked with RoSPA, the Child Accident Prevention Trust and the Trading Standards Institute because we need to inform retailers and their staff that they should be able to source safer blinds, which would be a simple thing for the retailers to undertake, and I welcome the remarks made by the British Retail Consortium. We also need to ensure that parents, particularly those who may be expectant or with little ones, have information at the point at which they are purchasing the product. We have worked with the industry to get the retailers in and to get those matters under way, and we are planning to have a further summit later this year.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the matter of the joint letter of 15 June 2010 involving the Europeans, the Canadians and the Americans. The key is getting the various standards organisations to adopt a consistent and clear approach that the whole industry can adopt. The decision to adopt the European standard from next year will help to accelerate that, and we are working hard on that issue. To get that fundamental shift in the whole industry, we need to demonstrate—I think that we are nearly there—that we have a clear global change in standards. In that way, we will remove the problem wherever the products are made.

Paul Flynn rose—

Mr Prisk: I will give way. I did want to turn to those blinds that are currently in use, which is obviously a big issue.

Paul Flynn: I am grateful to the Minister for his reasonable response on this issue. We all know from past experience that industry is reluctant to change. Usually that is for good reason. If a company has to retool, that means expense and problems that it would normally seek to avoid. Perhaps we could give the industry some incentive. For example, companies could become more profitable if they were selling cords that were guaranteed to be safer than the ones from the past. Perhaps the Government could give them some

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encouragement in that regard so that we can have blinds marketed that avoid the use of a loop and that are inherently much safer.

Mr Prisk: I understand that point. My inclination is that the industry, whichever industry it is, should be willing to do this without us having to dangle in front of it tax relief or something of that nature. I am not dismissing the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I suspect that the clarity of the regulatory framework will tip over the action. There is no reason why, in the interim, we should not be persistent in challenging the problem.

Gordon Banks rose—

Mr Prisk: I will give way very briefly. I do want to get on to the broader points, because there are some important safety issues that I want to raise.

Gordon Banks: Let me go back to the point about retailers. A few minutes ago, the Minister mentioned trading standards. May I say that I sat in a fatal accident inquiry and heard trading standards officers say that they did not know how many blind manufacturers, installers or retailers there were in their patch and that they did not go and inspect them and that they did not know anything about such workplaces? Trading standards officers have a big role to play in any changes, and they need to be empowered and financed in a way that enables them to enforce what the Minister wants to see happen.

Mr Prisk: That is a good point, and I will ensure that I bring it to the attention of the Consumer Affairs Minister because he may want to raise it directly with the individuals concerned, including those involved in trading standards.

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Let me turn to the crucial issue, which affects many households, of the blinds already in use. We respect the fact that parents cannot watch their children every minute of every day. As part of action in this regard, it is important to make available simple guidance that people can follow to help prevent some of the accidents that we have talked about. I am talking about moving cots away from windows where blinds are fitted; assessing each blind to ensure that the cord or chain is not within reach; and fitting the safety devices—there are strengths and weaknesses with cleats and so on that we need to be aware of, but routine use of such devices can reduce the number of accidents. These simple actions matter as does ensuring that the issue is promoted. Let me flag up the fact that both the BBSA and RoSPA have distributed more than 750,000 safety brochures and packs, and we have been willing over the last year to support them in their promotion, particularly the safe at home programme. Alongside the work of the retailers and the change of the design of future products, it is important that we send out a consistent message. I strongly applaud not only the safety organisations but hon. Members who have contributed to this debate and the media in helping to get the message across that there are some basic, simple preventive steps that will make a difference.

I am aware of time, and I am grateful to both hon. Members for raising the issue. As a Government, we feel that we must tackle the design of the new blinds and promote the safe use of existing blinds as a combined effort. More needs to be done and the pace needs to be accelerated. I will certainly take back all the concerns that have been raised today to my colleague, the consumer affairs Minister.

Question put and agreed to.

1.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.