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3.8 pm

Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) on securing this debate and speaking expertly and clearly about the four issues that he wanted to raise, particularly the importance of reducing the number of animal experiments —he pointed out the 1.9% increase in their number—and the issue of inspections. I will address both those issues in my contribution.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who reaffirmed and reinforced the point that animal testing should be carried out only when essential. She explained duplication in animal testing and raised the issue of public opinion on cosmetic animal testing, as well as asking numerous detailed questions that I hope the Minister will address. I thank the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) for giving us an international perspective. He spoke about the high-quality contributions that had been made to the debate, and his was one. He talked about the global challenges we face and about the need for a global strategy.

I should say that I am standing in for the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson). If people want to raise issues, I will make sure they get the answers they require.

Many Members talked about the EU directive, which the Labour party was proud to support. It ensures that welfare standards do not drop below a certain level. Where the standards in it were lower than those in the UK, the Labour party called on the Government to maintain the UK’s high standards, and I am pleased to say there was broad agreement on that. Where the directive raised standards, we of course welcomed the extra protection.

As Members have said, the key to how the regulations work will be in the detail of the codes of practice. Although we have not seen all the regulations, I can assure hon. Members that the Labour party will examine them in great detail when they are published to ensure the UK remains a leader on animal welfare standards.

Although the directive will come into force under this Government, it is the result of 10 years’ work, much of which was done by the previous Labour Government and our MEPs, who were instrumental in strengthening the animal welfare provisions in the European Parliament so that all EU countries have the same basic standards of animal welfare for the first time. That will not only protect animals from unnecessary suffering, but prevent UK bioscience jobs from going to other EU countries, thus ensuring that one of our most important sectors remains competitive with its rivals around the world.

It is essential that the Government’s policy on animal experimentation continues to strike the right balance. As Members have said, it is vital that we keep a watchful eye on the number of experiments being conducted. The Labour party supports the coalition agreement to reduce the number of experiments conducted on animals, and we want to ensure that the Government stick to their pledge. As Members will be aware, the number of experiments involving animals has been steadily rising for a number of years, reaching a 25-year high in 2011.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise to the Minister to hear that the shadow Front-Bench team are as concerned about the issue as we were when my hon. Friend the

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Member for Kingston upon Hull North raised it towards the end of last year. Clearly, the Government need to examine the issue and to get to grips with the numbers as quickly as possible. As with any other issue, Governments are judged on what they say and what they deliver, and this issue should be no different. The Government need to work with the bioscience industry to ensure that progress is made.

The shadow Front-Bench team’s other concern, which the hon. Member for Crawley also raised, is the fall in the number of laboratory inspections and the closure of regional inspection offices. The Labour party’s stance on the issue remains the same. The UK has some of the world’s highest animal welfare standards, but the number of inspections has fallen, while regional inspection offices have been closing. We have understandable concerns about how the Government expect to implement those closures without compromising the quality of inspections and animal welfare standards. The public, campaign groups, animal rights groups and the Labour party expect the Government to ensure policy is strictly enforced.

We have heard a lot about the three R’s, and I reaffirm the importance of the need to reduce the number of animals used, to refine experiments to avoid suffering and to replace animals where possible.

Animal experimentation is an issue that both sides of the House can feel passionate about, and I have no doubt that it will remain high on the agenda of animal welfare groups and our bioscience industry. It is essential that the Government continue to do their utmost to guarantee that their policy on animal experimentation is well protected.

To conclude, I have two questions for the Minister. First, I ask him to address the rise in the number of animal experiments and the steps the Government are taking. Secondly, has an assessment been made of the impact of the fall in the number of laboratory inspections on the quality of inspections and animal welfare standards?

3.14 pm

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) on securing the debate, which has been a good one. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) in the Chamber, standing in for the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson).

I am pleased that colleagues have given me time to elaborate at length on all the points raised by my hon. Friend and other Members, including, in particular, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). First, however, I will set out a bit of context. I can do that because we have time left, so people will not think this is an excuse for not getting to my hon. Friend’s detailed questions.

The position of both coalition parties—I think it is shared on both sides of the House—is that we should license the use of animals only when it is essential and when there is no alternative. That is, indeed, Government policy, and it was the policy of the previous Government.

As several Members, including my hon. Friend, said, our current legislation—the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986—has recently been revised to transpose European directive 2010/63/EU on the protection of animals used

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for scientific purposes. There were two key objectives in the new directive. One was to strengthen the protection of animals used in scientific procedures, and the other was to promote the three R’s—strategies that replace, reduce and refine the use of animals in scientific procedures. The hon. Member for Bristol East asked about an academic post in that regard, and I will come to that in a little while.

The Government have fully embraced those aims in transposing the directive. The amended Act provides a high level of protection for animals. As several Members have made clear, work cannot be licensed if it could be carried out without using animals. The procedures must also cause the minimum possible suffering to the smallest number of animals of the lowest sensitivity.

We have taken the opportunity to place in the legislation absolute bans on the use of great apes and stray animals of domestic species. We have retained stricter United Kingdom standards, which provide for: special protection for cats, dogs and horses, in addition to non-human primates; protection for immature forms of birds and reptiles; larger enclosure and cage sizes for dogs and a number of other species; and more humane methods of killing animals. Those measures are necessary and justified on animal welfare grounds and to maintain public confidence that animals used in experiments and testing will continue to be properly protected.

At the same time, animal experiments continue, at the moment, to be necessary if improvements in health care are to be developed with the minimum of delay. It is a fact that our national health service would be unable to function effectively were it not for the availability of medicines and treatments that have been developed and tested through research using animals. Almost every form of conventional medical treatment has relied in part on the study of animals. That includes asthma treatments and medicines for ulcers, schizophrenia and depression, polio vaccine, and kidney dialysis and transplants—those are just a few examples.

While we accept that animal experiments are effective and necessary, they should be used only when the benefits have been carefully weighed against the costs to the animals; when there is no other way of achieving the desired result; when the procedures applied to the animals will cause the least suffering possible; when the minimum number of animals will be used to achieve the outcome; and when high standards of animal welfare are applied. That approach closely reflects what the public want. They understand the necessity and importance of using animal experiments in some areas, but they want the number of such experiments to be the minimum necessary.

Roger Williams: While animal welfare considerations must always be paramount, the use of animals in scientific procedures is extraordinarily expensive, so there is pressure in that sense to ensure that other forms of experimentation are used where appropriate.

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is sometimes a caricature of those involved in research. If they had alternatives to using animals, they would implement them; they use animals because there are not currently alternatives in all cases. My hon. Friend puts his finger on the issue: the use of animals for experiments, particularly in a country such as the UK, which has high standards, is expensive. Companies

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use animals only because there are not more effective remedies. Also, they are conscious that they could develop effective alternatives that would also be more cost-effective. However costly—in several senses—animal experiments are, if there are no alternatives, those cannot be used; but many pressures are pushing researchers towards the use of alternatives when they are available, and that is welcome to all of us, including my hon. Friend.

We also accept that regulation must not be overly bureaucratic, so we have made some small but important changes, allowing us to simplify the detail required in personal licences and the way we process applications for them. Another important change in the revised Act is the requirement placed on member states to collect and publish statistical information, on not just the number of animals used, but the severity of the procedures applied to them. Publication of information about the experience of the animals will be an advance in transparency. Combined with the mandatory requirement to publish non-technical summaries of authorised projects, that will help to inform the parliamentary and public debate .

Kerry McCarthy: To what extent is security an issue affecting the making public of the kinds of testing that are going on? I do not agree with some of the more extreme, violent protests used to highlight animal testing. Would that prevent some experiments from being made public?

Mr Harper: The hon. Lady raises an important issue. This may be a good time to pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley about section 24 of the 1986 Act, which, as he said, currently prohibits the disclosure by Home Office Ministers and officials, other than in their discharge of functions under the Act, of confidential information about the use of animals in scientific procedures. There are two reasons for the provision. One relates to the hon. Lady’s point, and covers information that might put individuals at risk from those people who sadly are not content with democratic decision making and debate, but choose to use violence—something that we in the House would all abhor. In addition, the provision protects intellectual property. I think that I can say a little more on that than my hon. Friend did.

The Government agree that section 24 is not framed satisfactorily. There is little room for manoeuvre, and it acts somewhat as a blanket ban on disclosing information. It can, for example, make it difficult for Home Office inspectors to share good practice between establishments. The hon. Lady raised that, and so did my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley. The problem is that clear consensus about what we should do did not emerge in the recent public consultation on the transposition of the European directive—whether we should repeal the section or change it in some way. There was a range of views, and we wanted, as my hon. Friend said, to give it further thought. As to a timetable—I think that is what he was after—I can be a bit more specific. We are doing that work now, over the next six months, and aim to report our conclusions to Parliament before the House rises for the summer. I hope that that gives some reassuring firmness to the timetable.

The problem was that many of the people who responded to the consultation did not like the status quo, but there was no really clear sense of what to replace it with. We

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must be mindful of the two issues I raised: intellectual property, which it is legitimate for researchers to protect; and the extent to which we need to protect those involved in important work. Changes to the regime for animal welfare should be made by Parliament, after legitimate public debate. They should not happen because people take it on themselves to try to drive out of business through intimidation and violence those who conduct lawful work. Those are the things that we shall be thinking through: being as open as possible, but with those two constraints. I hope that that is helpful, and that that approach is widely shared in the House.

It is probably worth picking up the point about statistics, which my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley and several other hon. Members raised. He is correct to say that the latest statistics, for 2011, showed that the number of animals used in experiments and testing was higher than it had been for some years. It was not the highest ever number. The high point was reached in statistics produced under the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876, which preceded the current legislation: in the 1970s about 5 million animals were used. Thus there has been a drop, but my hon. Friend is right to say that the number is going up.

An interesting point arises in that context, which brings me back to a point made by the hon. Member for Ashfield, about the United Kingdom’s reputation as a place to do life sciences and bioscience. I understand that that industry is growing in the UK, more quickly than the increase in the number of animals used; so the usage of animals for each £1 of research, or however one might characterise it, is falling, but more such work is being done in the UK. It seems to me that that is a good thing, because we want that work to be done here; we want those generally well-paid jobs to be in the United Kingdom. Also, because we have high standards of welfare in our animal testing regime, it is better for animals, if research is to take place anywhere in the world, for it to happen in the UK. However, if the size of the business in the UK grows, that may mean that even if the number of animals used for every given type of research falls, the overall number goes up.

Of course, the quickest way to reduce the number of animals would be to drive the work overseas, which would not be good for the United Kingdom, for jobs or for animal welfare. We must be thoughtful about the numbers. We should consider the size of the industry and the work that is being carried out, and whether we are driving down the proportion of animals being used in that work. We need to think about the global position. It is a coalition Government objective to get more of the life sciences business—the bioscience industry—in the United Kingdom. As the hon. Member for Ashfield said, the Opposition support that, and if we attract such business here more quickly than we manage to deliver on the three R’s, the number of animals that are used will rise. However, we may be driving down the rate at which they are used, while the industry grows. That is a bit of a conundrum, and I do not have the answer, but it shows that care should be exercised in using statistics.

Roger Williams: The Minister makes a good point. I put a question to the Home Office about the number of animals used for experimentation in Wales, and was

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surprised that the figure had gone up; but after I visited Cardiff university, I understood that its success in attracting research funds, and its high status in life sciences and bioscience, was the reason for the rise.

Mr Harper: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I was really only cautioning about the need to examine data and be careful about how we apply it. It is also worth commenting on the way statistics are set out, which was put into primary legislation. The most significant number relates to the breeding of genetically modified animals—largely mice. When the relevant table was designed, that was a small number at the end. Most of the animals that are bred—1.4 million mice—are used in other areas of research: they might well be used in medicine studies, or in fundamental biological research, but they are not categorised in that way. We need to be careful about categories and how we define uses. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley said that only 13% of procedures relate to applied studies for human medicine or dentistry; but, of course, the remaining 87% includes fundamental research, which can involve any of the categories; and applied veterinary studies and the protection of man, animals and the environment also underpin much medical research. Again, therefore, it is worth being cautious about numbers and what we read into them.

Several hon. Members mentioned enforcement. It is no good having good legislation if we do not enforce it properly. The Home Office inspectorate picks up much of that work. The Home Office inspectors are skilled individuals. They are all registered medical or veterinary practitioners and usually have first-hand experience of biomedical research and possess higher scientific or clinical postgraduate qualifications. Their work underpins the 1986 Act. They provide advice to the Secretary of State on licence applications, and technical and operational advice on issues related to regulating animal experiments. They also visit the facilities where work is carried out, to check compliance with licences and certificates and to provide advice on applications and good practice.

The majority of visits are unannounced. The relationship between inspectors, licence holders and animal care staff is critical to our implementation of the regulatory framework. We want to be careful not to jeopardise that. The Government are committed to maintaining a strong, properly resourced inspectorate with a full programme of inspections.

There is no magic number of inspections. Under the revised Act, there is a risk assessment for determining the frequency of inspection. We look at the number and type of procedures that take place at an establishment; the severity of those procedures; the number and species of animals housed and used; any special conditions placed on the licences; the history of compliance of that institution; and any information that might come to light and indicate non-compliance with the terms of the licence. That means that inspectors focus their effort where they can be most effective.

The Government made two specific and important commitments on animal research and testing, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley and Opposition Members. One was to work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research, and the other was to end the testing of household products on animals.

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The commitment to work to reduce the use of animals is ambitious. There is no quick fix, as people have acknowledged. We want genuine reductions that improve animal welfare. We must be careful not to drive work abroad to countries where, it is generally accepted, standards are lower and there may be less stringent guidelines. The strategy should be science-led and that is why we have asked the National Centre for Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research to take a leading role in its delivery.

That might be a good point to pick up something the hon. Member for Bristol East said. She referred to the Dr Hadwen Trust chair in replacements. We welcome that. Home Office officials meet that trust regularly and we look forward to seeing the impact of its professorial post. That is a welcome step towards the science of replacement methods and will contribute to our commitment. The hon. Lady raised the specific question about the extent to which it could be rolled out elsewhere. We will take that away and think about how we might practically do that.

The Home Office takes this issue very seriously. Lord Taylor of Holbeach this morning visited a research laboratory to observe the work. He also has a close relationship with the Minister for Universities and Science, and they work closely together on examining trends in the industry, attracting life sciences to the UK and the implications for regulating this area. There is a fair bit of joined-up activity between the Home Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

The hon. Lady also raised information sharing. I mentioned in connection with section 24 that that sometimes gets in the way of inspectors sharing best practice. We will think about that as we consider how we change that section. She also mentioned databases and alternatives to animal testing. Several databases already exist. A new role has been created of the named information officer, who, we hope, will be able to assist scientists in searching for alternatives. I have said this before, but I repeat that nobody really wishes to use animals when there are alternatives. We need to make it easier for those involved to seek those alternatives and use them where we can.

Several other issues were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley and supported by others. The number of procedures conducted for testing household products and their ingredients has fallen since 1997. There were no procedures under that heading in 2011. We have already announced our commitment to end testing household products on animals, to be implemented using licensing powers under the 1986 Act. We will put a condition on the relevant product licences. We have consulted on that to get a working definition of “household product”, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Bristol East. We are close to finalising a definition that we think will be workable—there is no point having one that is not. We will make an announcement on that in due course.

Several responses to the consultation favoured inclusion of ingredients in the ban, a point made by the hon. Lady. That is a bit more complicated than it might at first appear. Some substances used as ingredients in household products can have other uses. There are also ingredients, such as chemicals and biocides, that under other legislation have mandatory safety testing requirements that involve using animals. Therefore, it is quite a difficult

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area. We are in the process of thinking the matter through to come up with something that is workable and sensible, but does not have a chain of unforeseen consequences. It is complicated, and an obvious answer did not present itself during the consultation. I assure the hon. Lady that we are thinking and working on that, but rushing to do it and getting it wrong would not be helpful. I hope that she can take it on trust for the moment that the thought processes are under way. I have listened carefully to what she and my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley said and will feed that into our thinking.

My hon. Friend also talked about the mid-term review. He was slightly concerned by the use of the past tense. That was simply because it was a mid-term review, looking back over the first period of government. However, we are very much in the present tense in terms of continuing work. The national centre I talked about is actively pursuing a wide range of initiatives, including increased funding for three R’s work in universities. It supports innovation in the three R’s through its CRACK IT programme. It looks at new disciplines such as engineering and mathematics to reduce animal use. I think the hon. Member for Bristol East touched on that when she talked about the professorial post.

Other initiatives include working with regulators to reduce animal use, investment in education and training and support for stem cell and tissue engineering technologies. There is quite a lot of work going on led by experts in their field. That is what we want: a science-led approach to driving some of the change. That was touched on by my hon. Friend, and by the hon. Lady when she spoke about those involved in the business having alternative methods of delivering testing and safety assessments.

My hon. Friend also talked about the animals in science committee—the advisory committee that is in the process of being set up. There will be a working protocol agreed with the committee chair that sets up the size and qualifications of the committee. That working protocol will be published and will set out the issues that will be automatically submitted to the committee for advice. It will also cover important issues such as the promotion of the three R’s.

My hon. Friend talked about the use of non-human primates and their importation. Many people have a particular concern about the use of non-human primates in scientific research. It is a small part of animal research compared with overall usage, but it is an important part. In the UK, we use small numbers of non-human primates for developing and testing vaccines against some of the world’s largest killers, such as malaria, HIV/AIDS and TB, and for the potential future treatment of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The majority—about three quarters—of the primates used in 2011 were used for the safety testing of medicines.

Most such primates are sourced outside the UK, where animals of the right quality are readily available—I am afraid that that comes down to our not-brilliant climate. For those particular animals, rearing them in the UK is not viable, as they would have to be reared inside. It is much easier to rear them outside in overseas locations, which makes the process more productive. Banning their importation would harm essential work. However, what is important, as my hon. Friend said, is for those

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who import the animals to ensure that the suppliers they deal with have proper controls and processes in place so that, in the breeding part of the operation, the animals are well treated.

My hon. Friend also talked about the personal licence system, which identifies the individual, the place where the work will be carried out, the species authorised for use and the types of techniques. Granting a licence depends, as it did previously, on a demonstration that the person has done the appropriate training, both for the species they are using and the techniques they are carrying out. The application requires a declaration by the local named training and competence officer to confirm that that level of training has been carried out by the applicant, and that the list of species that may be authorised is similar to the previous descriptions provided by applicants. It is also similar to a list used for the statistical returns. It is personal to the individual, which is important—when we debated the transposition of the directive, the personal link was felt to be welcome and valuable—and so it is not transferable to someone else. Furthermore, not only training, but the practical work experience under supervision, is important. That is something that the Home Office inspectors can monitor on their visits—not only someone’s initial training, but the practical experience under supervision to ensure compliance with the terms of the personal licence.

The hon. Member for Bristol East asked a couple of questions to do with cosmetics. She rightly noted that the UK banned the testing of finished cosmetics and ingredients in 1997 and 1998, because the Government considered the justification for using animals to be inadequate given the benefits of the products and the alternative tests available. She also referred to the European cosmetics directive; the EU banned animal testing for finished cosmetics in 2004 and for ingredients in 2009. To meet the requirements of the directive, a partial marketing ban was also implemented in 2009. It banned the supply of cosmetics for which animal tests had been carried out anywhere in the world, but did not extend to the test for the three most complex human effects of testing. A full marketing ban, which includes such tests and to which the hon. Lady referred, is expected to come into effect on 11 March, regardless of the fact that validated replacement tests are not available.

The ban is not a complete sales ban on all animal-tested cosmetics. Some parts of the world, as discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders), insist on animal testing as a regulatory requirement, so products subject to such a regime are not banned from the EU. Nevertheless, animal testing to meet the requirements of EU cosmetics legislation will be prohibited once the marketing ban enters into force. That is a bit

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complicated, and I have probably made things less clear, rather than clearer. The impetus, however, will come from consumer pressure, which the hon. Lady talked about, and transparency. Moreover, as other countries develop, as their consumers become more sophisticated—as happened in this country—and as their legislative processes improve, they will come under pressure on such issues. It is helpful, working through the Foreign Office and elsewhere, for us to explain what we have done in the UK and the EU to set our standards, to show that we can deliver on testing when necessary, or simply to lead by example when it is not necessary. We can all participate in that.

The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned enforcement of the marketing ban, which does indeed fall to local authority trading standards, on which the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills leads. I will talk to my colleagues in BIS to see where that issue has got to and how it is being rolled out to trading standards departments. It may be rather dreadful to hand the action over to my colleagues, but I will ask them to look into the subject and to write to the hon. Lady. I will put a copy of the reply in the Library. I suspect that she will then use that information to go and duff up her local trading standards organisation, to ensure that it is fully engaged in that important work.

I hope that I have set out the Government’s approach. My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley made a wide-ranging speech. I think I have addressed all his questions, as well as those asked by the hon. Member for Ashfield, who spoke for the Opposition. I am grateful for the shared work with the Opposition on the subject; when the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North and I debated the transposition of the directive, she was machine-gunning her questions at me, so it did not feel entirely as if we were on the same side, but I machine-gunned all the answers back. A lot of the work in this area, however, which we supported, was done when the Labour party was in government, and now we are taking things forward with support from the Opposition.

The United Kingdom has a good reputation for delivering expertise in science and research, which is recognised throughout the world, and for doing so while delivering high standards of animal welfare and minimising the use of animals in research. That sends out all the right messages. Working together, we can continue to move in the right direction, minimising the use of animals, using them only when absolutely necessary and, if we do use them, having the highest possible standards. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley for the debate, which has been an excellent opportunity.

3.45 pm

Sitting suspended.

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4 pm

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): Good afternoon, Mr Sheridan. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me this important debate for the county of Essex.

I thank the Minister for his attention today. He is fully aware of the strategic importance and significance of the A120, in particular, as an economic and strategic link, not only throughout the county of Essex, but to Europe. It is part of the trans-European transport network route known as the UK-Ireland-Benelux road axis, and it connects with Stansted airport in the west—in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst)—which is Britain’s second largest air freight port transporting cargo worth £8 billion a year, as well as with Harwich International port in the east, which has trade links with northern Europe and serves about 1 million passengers a year.

However, the A120 is not only about connecting locations. It is important and strategic, because it gives people and businesses opportunities to access national, European and global markets. The importance of the road to the economic well-being of the region and the county of Essex cannot be understated. The road is particularly important to my constituents and to businesses there. Essex is a dynamic county of entrepreneurs with a vibrant mix of traditional industries, such as manufacturing, rural farming and innovative light businesses. Of course, entrepreneurs are the wealth creators not only for the county of Essex, but for the country, and are creating private sector jobs and prosperity in our economy.

In my constituency, small and medium-sized businesses are highly significant. The proportion is more than 80%, and they are growing, despite the economic downturn that we have had. I have to say—the Minister has heard me say this before, as have many other Essex colleagues—that we are a great county to do business in. Our strategic geographical location, our proximity to London, and our access not only to ports, but to Stansted and Southend airports has a lot to do with it. Our 20th century transport infrastructure, however, is holding us and, particularly, businesses back. Nowhere is that more evident than with the A120 and particularly the 12-mile single carriageway stretch that runs north to my constituency, between Braintree and the A12 at the Marks Tey end of the A120. That also touches the southern edges of the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Braintree (Mr Newmark) and for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin).

The road is one of the most heavily used in Essex by the business sector. Some 56% of businesses responding to an Essex chambers of commerce survey indicated that they use the road regularly. However, the single carriageway section, as I have alluded to, is not fit for purpose. It is extremely congested, causes severe delays, is highly dangerous, and is a barrier to economic growth. Those delays harm businesses and damage small and medium-sized firms, not only in my constituency, but in neighbouring constituencies. For them, an extra half-hour delay in traffic can mean the loss of a lucrative contract.

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It can damage their reputation, prevent them from expanding and adding more capacity, and it adds hundreds of thousand of pounds to their running costs each year.

The Minister has been generous with his time, meeting me and other representatives from my constituency to look into the pressures on the road, but I would like to highlight that figures as far back as 2005 show that an estimated 25,000 vehicles use that stretch of road every single day, when single carriageway roads are typically expected to carry approximately 23,000 vehicles. Annual daily traffic flow data from the Department for Transport in 2010 indicated that on parts of the A120, some 14% of traffic is accounted for by HGVs, compared with an average of only 6% across Essex. That demand inevitably puts strains on the road and its junctions, leading to delays and a backlog on to smaller roads, affecting nearby villages.

In 2008, a report by Atkins, commissioned by the East of England Development Agency, examined those problems and stated:

“The single carriageway section of the route, between Braintree and the A12, is congested and suffers traffic delays.”

It noted:

“The A120 is currently constrained by the capacity of the single carriageway section of A120”,

and there is clear evidence that most traffic on that particular section

“has no real choice of route”.

There are no alternative routes where traffic can go. The report also highlighted that unless plans were put in place to accommodate increased traffic flows in future, stress levels as measured by the congestion reference flow indicator could reach 150% on the western section of the single carriageway.

To address those problems, it was recommended that the A120 was classified as a route of strategic national importance to attract funding from other sources and a wider pool, and crucially that the single carriageway section be dualled in a scheme which, at that time, would have cost approximately £500 million. The advantages of dualling were clearly laid out. First, it would enable the road to increase capacity and accommodate an average 25% increase in traffic in both directions. Secondly, with less congestion, journey times would decrease by between six and 11 minutes, which is significant for this 12-mile stretch of road. Thirdly, an upgraded and dualled road would lead to economic benefits, estimated at the time to be around £725 million for users, and with wider economic benefits of £106 million. At today’s prices, it is estimated that the benefits would exceed £1.1 billion. The proposed scheme would have delivered good value for money and, naturally, it would have unlocked wider economic potential, helping to create thousands of new jobs in the process and improving access to the Haven Gateway.

However, as my hon. Friend the Minister and other colleagues know, the A120 was not considered to be a priority by the previous Labour Government, who went on to scrap the scheme. We are now living with that local legacy, and there is huge disappointment locally. The Minister will be aware that we are coming together collectively with the Essex chambers of commerce, Essex county council, Braintree district council, the Highways Agency, Colchester borough council, Tendring district council and the Haven Gateway partnership, in particular,

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to start lobbying and fighting to make it a strategic route, and to get it listed as a strategic route on the priority scheme.

I take this moment to pay tribute to all my colleagues, and my local authorities and neighbouring local authorities. Despite the disappointment of what happened in the past, we are now adamant about building an even stronger economic and business case for dualling the A120. The Essex chambers of commerce has recently set up the Essex business transport and infrastructure forum to support businesses and the business effort in co-ordinating the development of economic arguments. I invite the Minister to come to one of our future meetings to discuss this important issue, and to support new and much needed road infrastructure for our county.

I want to touch on the A120 and the road safety implications. As the Minister has heard before, there are significant road safety issues relating to the A120 and to the single carriageway being dualled. Local parish councils along that route—Marks Tey, Bradwell and Coggleshall—along with local residents, to whom I would like to pay tribute, have set up a significant campaign called “Save Lives Not Time”, and they have campaigned to see the road become much safer. We have had lots of problems on the road, as I have mentioned, but they have done tremendous work to see that lives are saved and that accidents are prevented.

The Road Safety Foundation has classified the A120 as one of the 10 most dangerous roads in the country and figures from the CrashMap website, set up by the Government, also show the number and seriousness of road traffic accidents. There has been not just a high number but more than 50 further serious accidents in the period from 2005 to 2011, and further fatalities have occurred on this stretch of road. Naturally, we want to see that stopped. The Highways Agency has been very helpful and recognised that. It has in place a maintenance programme to address some hot spots—in particular, around the Earls Colne road junction. However, unless this road is upgraded and the capacity issue addressed, there will be further serious and life-changing accidents, all of which I believe can be prevented.

I would like now to come on to how we can fund the A120. I have touched on the fact that the cost of a previous scheme was estimated at £500 million. I appreciate that in the current economic climate and given the appalling state of the public finances inherited from the previous Labour Government, the current Government are prevented from doing what we would all like to see—investing and committing hundreds of millions of pounds to the A120. However, I have already said—the Minister has heard me say this consistently—that this should be treated as a priority scheme. I believe that there is an opportunity for the Government to consider innovative funding models.

The Minister will be aware that in recent years the Marks Tey consortium, known as Gateway 120 Ltd, has developed proposals that could unlock a considerable amount of money, through section 106 agreements and the community infrastructure levy, to help to provide private sector funding to support upgrades. Braintree district council has already said that it has allocated £5 million of new homes bonuses to contribute towards joint investment in this major infrastructure project. In addition, there have been discussions on and the

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development of a revised proposal, which differs from the previous scheme considered by the Highways Agency and could be much more cost-effective.

I believe—I would like the Minister to look into this—that funding may also be available through the European Union. The A120 is part of the trans-European transport network and may qualify for TEN-T programme funding or funding from the structural and cohesion funds. I urge the Government to look into that. The Minister will not be surprised to hear that I believe that Europe has had far too much of our money. I think that this is an opportunity for us to bring back some of that money and invest it in infrastructure, not just within the region but in our country. I urge that more work be done to investigate that aspect of funding.

I believe that spending public funds on upgrading this road will yield significant economic benefits, along with greater tax revenue for the Government. At a time of economic austerity, we need barriers to trade and private sector growth and investment to be removed; with alternative private funding models, such as that to which I have alluded, we can help to unlock that process. If the Government can commit to upgrading the road, that will naturally help to unlock the economic potential not just of Essex but of the eastern region and also the south-east of this country and unleash the power of the country’s wealth creators. But at the same time, we must look at alternative funding sources as well. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

4.13 pm

Sir Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) (Con): I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for being allowed to make a small contribution to the debate. If I may, I shall add a little historical perspective. The Saffron Walden constituency, from the point at which I became the Member in 1977 until 2010, included the northern part of the Braintree district, and across that section of the county there ran the A604, which was a principal road between Colchester and Cambridge. It was later downgraded to become the A1124 and the A1109. I had, as the Member, many representations at that time for village bypasses to overcome some of the problems—very similar to those that my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) has mentioned on the stretch of road from Braintree to Marks Tey—and to avoid the heavy traffic that was thundering through, with accidents and great risk to pedestrians.

However, I was told then, by Essex county council and by the Department for Transport, that I did not understand what the strategy was. It was explained to me that the strategy to bring heavy traffic and, indeed, all traffic from the east coast ports to the midlands and the north was twofold. It was to build the Orwell bridge, so that traffic could have the choice of going up the A12 and then on to the A14, or come along the A120, which was to be upgraded to the M11 at Stansted. It is extraordinary that after 35 years, we had half of that done, from Stansted to Braintree, and the other half conspicuously, dramatically undone—one and a half routes between the east coast and the midlands and the north. That is truly ludicrous.

Of course, that strategic decision, explained to me in 1977-78, was before a decision had been taken to allow the development of Stansted airport, which of course

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has generated much more traffic, so it is even more extraordinary, with the institution by many of the freight companies of headquarters at Stansted and the traffic that that generates, that there still appears to be no recognition in the Department for Transport, over many, many years now, of the importance of completing the link that was originally intended when I first became involved on behalf of my constituents. Thirty-five years we have had to wait—how much longer? Surely the time for the gap to be plugged has come.

4.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): I am pleased to see you in the Chair, Mr Sheridan, and I am delighted to be here. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing the debate. She knows that, were it not for the debate in the main Chamber, many more people would be here this afternoon. I have been particularly struck by what she and my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) said in lobbying to reverse the local legacy and to ensure that Essex is a great county in which to do business in the future, to quote her.

My hon. Friend has been a tireless campaigner on the need for future investment in this road, as has my right hon. Friend. I recognise her continuing determination to speak about the importance of this subject for her constituents, local businesses and the local economy. I am of course aware that she has asked a number of parliamentary questions about the improvements that she quite rightly believes are required to the A120 and to the A12. She secured an Adjournment debate last year on transport in Essex. As she will remember, I met her recently to discuss the proposals to improve the A120 and therefore I am pleased to be responding to this debate this afternoon.

The strategic road network is the Government’s largest single asset, currently valued at about £100 billion and comprising some 4,350 miles of motorway and trunk road. The Government recognise the importance of the transport infrastructure to supporting the economy, and local economies throughout the country, and therefore we have announced increased levels of Government funding to deliver improvements targeted at supporting economic growth.

My hon. Friends will remember the announcement in the 2010 spending review that we were investing an extra £1.4 billion in starting 14 major road schemes over the spending review period. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as part of the 2011 autumn statement, identified several other schemes that would be brought forward for delivery. In the 2012 statement, the Chancellor announced additional capital investment in this Parliament that would enable four major schemes to be brought forward.

I therefore hope that my hon. Friends will recognise that the Government are keen to support the infrastructure of our country. Indeed, in the 2012 statement, there was the provision of a further £100 million of capital expenditure in this spending round to undertake further pinchpoint schemes. My hon. Friend the Member for Witham will be aware that that included a £0.28 million—£280,000—pinchpoint scheme to widen Galley’s Corner roundabout south-east of Braintree. It is obviously true, but I am

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sure that it disappointed her, that no other schemes that applied for pinchpoint funding on the A120—several did apply—could be delivered within the scope and the criteria of that fund. She and I have spoken about that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden spoke a little about the history of the A120, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Witham. Obviously, sections of it are single-carriageway road, as she rightly said. The A120 east of the M11 is a trunk road and therefore part of the strategic road network. As she points out, it also forms part of the comprehensive trans-European road network.

My hon. Friends were right to point out that if one looks at the history of the road and the Department’s consultations, surveys and studies on proposed improvements to the A120, one sees that in 2001-02 a comprehensive study was undertaken to look at the problems facing the A12 corridor between London and Ipswich, which included the A120. The study recommended road improvements between Marks Tey and Braintree, and that dualling the A120 from the A12 to Harwich should be considered in the longer term.

As my hon. Friends said, the previous Administration’s review of regional priorities in the east of England provided advice that changed those priorities, and the regional assembly removed the proposals from their prioritised programme. In the previous Government’s response to the advice, they accepted the recommendations for prioritisation, and the Department for Transport instructed that the scheme should not proceed further. That is the history. It is worth setting out the context.

My hon. Friends will know that, given the previous decisions on the prioritisation of improvements, there was not a sufficiently developed business case for the proposal at the time of the Government’s 2010 comprehensive spending review. I have spoken about the schemes that the Chancellor prioritised. A developed business case was a key requirement in both 2010 and 2011. The Department therefore had no plans to develop future scheme improvements in this location. There have been subsequent developments, to which my hon. Friends referred.

In our January meeting, I explained that, in assessing schemes for the future, the Highways Agency is looking at a process that would involve local parties in considering future priorities on a more local level, rather than on a simply regional basis. For the record, it may be worth setting out exactly how we expect such route-based strategies to work.

In response to the recommendations in Alan Cook’s review of the Highways Agency, we agreed to develop and roll out a programme of route-based strategies to identify future transport investments for the strategic road network. The Highways Agency is developing three route-based strategies at initial locations, one of which is the A12 from its junction with the M25 to its junction with the A14 and the A120 between Colchester and Harwich.

The three initial strategies will be complete in March this year. We will take the lessons learned from the production to inform a wider programme of strategies to assess network prioritisation, starting in the next financial year, which as I explained is likely to include the remaining section of the A120 west of the A12. Route-based strategies will ensure that there is clear

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evidence to make informed decisions on what is necessary for the strategic network to support economic growth locally and keep the country moving.

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Witham when we met in January, a key element of the route-based strategy is the engagement and involvement of local groups, including, as we discussed, local enterprise partnerships. I very much welcome the work of the Haven Gateway group in bringing together the range of local interests. I also welcome its analysis of the potential transport benefits and, more importantly, the potential benefits for economic growth in the region, which will be useful in informing the route-based strategy for the rest of the A120. I have made it clear, and I hope she accepts my reassurances, that the Highways Agency will work closely with local groups, via the LEP and local authorities, when it undertakes the route-based strategy work for the rest of the A120.

As I have said in this and other debates, the Government recognise the importance of transport infrastructure to facilitating economic development and the role that it can play in bringing forward proposed new housing developments. In our January meeting, my hon. Friend highlighted the development proposals from Gateway 120 Ltd. My Department and the Highways Agency are more than happy to discuss with prospective developers the needs and costs of transport infrastructure improvements to the strategic road network in the area. As she will recognise, any development proposals will clearly need to fit in with the aspirations of the local plans, and, at the meeting, I took some reassurance from her that that was so. She also knows that I promised to facilitate a meeting between officials and Gateway 120 to that end. That meeting took place yesterday. I am happy to ensure that she gets a full debrief.

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My hon. Friend is right that, potentially, there are new and innovative funding areas for the A120 for us to explore together, with my Department’s officials, and I will ensure that we do so. She will also be aware that the Department clearly needs to know more about the absolute details of the transport proposals that underline the Gateway 120 scheme before we can take a view on the future funding that could be committed. She and Gateway 120 have undertaken to ensure that such details are available.

My hon. Friend rightly mentioned safety. I understand the deep concern and recognise the continued campaign for improvements. I have been speaking to the Highways Agency. We recognise the concerns over safety. I have asked Highways Agency officials to investigate options to make the junction at Pellens Corner safer. It is shortly due to complete a road safety audit for that location, which will provide detailed evidence of incidents and accidents and allow a detailed analysis of the situation. That will allow us to bring forward options to address the problem. I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friends to discuss their concerns about safety and the options that we are likely to bring forward.

Again, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Witham and my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden for their contributions. I congratulate them on their tenacity in campaigning for the transport infrastructure needed in their local area to make Essex a great county in which to do business. The Government recognise the importance of the A120 as a strategic road and the benefits that the Highways Agency and Gateway 120 working together could bring to their constituencies.

4.28 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Universal Credit (Wales)

4.30 pm

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. It is delightful to see that so many colleagues from across Wales have joined me here, and some of them will undoubtedly wish to intervene during my speech.

We have been repeatedly told by Ministers that universal credit would ensure that work pays, improve incentives to work, simplify the benefits system and be easy to introduce. I am afraid to say that the widespread consensus is now that it might be fine in theory, but that it will seriously backfire in practice, with serious consequences for some of my most vulnerable constituents and those of my hon. Friends throughout Wales. I applied for this debate to draw attention to my sincere worries about the potential impacts on people across Wales of what one colleague has described as a car crash waiting to happen.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Is not part of the problem the whole climate of uncertainty and insecurity in which benefit claimants are living? In particular, the bedroom tax means that carers cannot have a bedroom available for night sitters, people on home dialysis cannot have a room for that purpose and, more worryingly, parents without custody of their children during the week cannot keep a room so that they can have custody of them at weekends. Should the Government not have sorted that out before introducing yet more changes?

Jim Sheridan (in the Chair): Order. In anticipation of the number of interventions that may be coming, it would be acceptable if they were brief.

Stephen Doughty: I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon). I will come to the issue of uncertainty, but that point has certainly been reflected to me by many constituents and organisations that work with those affected by the changes. I have spent much time speaking to constituents. One of the benefits of standing in a by-election is spending an awful lot of time speaking to people, and the issue regularly came up on the doorstep. I have spoken to housing associations and other registered social landlords, to local authorities—specifically Cardiff council—and to other experts. Although there are a variety of views about whether the simplification of welfare payments is desirable, there are clearly consistent fears and forecasts of dire consequences that Ministers and the Department for Work and Pensions have not adequately answered or addressed. Perhaps the Minister will do so today.

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): To be brief, it seems to me that the Government have simply not considered the inflexibility in the housing market, or if they have considered that, they do not seem to care. Is that the hon. Gentleman’s view, too?

Stephen Doughty: Indeed. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

Coming on top of two of what my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (David Miliband) has called “rancid” measures—the bedroom tax, and the

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tax on people in work in the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill that we saw a few weeks ago—I am deeply fearful about the impact of the changes on many of our most vulnerable constituents, not to mention the organisations that support them.

Let us look at some of the headline figures. On Monday 10 December 2012, the Government published their new impact assessment for universal credit, which showed several very worrying facts. First, 800,000 more people across the UK face lower entitlements. The original assessment, which was published in 2011, said that 2 million people would face lower entitlements under universal credit, but that number has now risen to 2.8 million, with an average loss of entitlement of £137 a month. I will come to the specific statistics for Wales in a moment. Of those losers, 400,000 will be concentrated in the two lowest income groups.

We expect 600,000 more parents to lose out under universal credit. Households will also lose more: the original impact assessment said that only 200,000 families would lose more than £75 a month, but the latest one states that 1.3 million households will lose more than £100 a month and that an incredible 300,000 families will lose more than £300 a month, which amounts to £3,600 a year. The impact assessment points out that higher administrative costs will result from the changes. The Department has also dropped its claim that universal credit will tackle poverty, which has been removed from the 2012 impact assessment.

There have been delays, and we might hear the reasons for some of them when the Minister speaks later. The roll-out of universal credit is already a significant number of months late, and the DWP has been unable to confirm the timetable. Indeed, there is a great lack of clarity on the part of my local authority and others about how universal credit will be rolled out and when.

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government have still not given any real answers about how those without bank accounts or internet access will be helped to adapt to the new monthly payments? Such answers are long overdue.

Stephen Doughty: Absolutely, and I will come on to that point in due course.

It is not only those whom I have spoken to who have sincere worries about universal credit. As we have several times seen in the press, one Cabinet Minister has reportedly said in private:

“The information technology for the new system is nowhere near ready. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

Who knows whether such rumours are to be believed, but I understand that a number of Cabinet Ministers share that view, which is perhaps one reason for the delays.

What is the specific impact on Wales? Based on an analysis of the December impact assessment and some rough calculations, we estimate that a staggering 140,000 people across Wales might lose £1,600 a year. That is based on an estimate of the Welsh population that will be affected. I would be grateful if the Minister shared the Government’s figures and estimates about how many will be affected in Wales and how much they

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will lose. Will he provide a breakdown by local authority to help local authorities prepare for the impact of the changes?

Aside from the raw figures, which are shocking in themselves, I want to share the key fears that people have raised with me about the implementation of universal credit in Wales. First, there is the challenge of budgeting for many families; secondly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) mentioned, there is the digital divide; thirdly, there are power relationships within the home; and, finally, there are the risks posed to local authorities, housing associations and other registered social landlords.

First, on budgeting, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions frequently appears to suggest that those of us who raise the issue are patronising our constituents. Rather than taking so entirely complacent an approach, I commend the work that organisations such as the citizens advice bureaux, the Cardiff and Vale credit union, housing associations—for example, Cadwyn in my constituency—are doing to support tenants by helping them to set up bank accounts, jam jar accounts and similar facilities in credit unions. I also commend the Welsh Government’s work to support those efforts.

Levels of financial literacy––let alone access to a bank account––are not, unlike this measure, universal, and we need to be realistic about the impact of the changes on many people. Rather than making huge assumptions, perhaps the Minister would tell us what risks he sees in relation to the problems in the area and what his Department is doing to assist. I can certainly tell him that many of the organisations that I have mentioned, let alone individual constituents, have experienced varying or little support from his Department, and that relates only to those who are aware of such support.

I want to touch on direct payments and the data from the direct payment pilots that the Department has conducted. A couple of days ago, “Inside Housing” published an article entitled, “Direct payment pilots report increased arrears”, by the journalist Carl Brown, which states:

“Landlords testing direct payment of benefit failed to collect 8 per cent of rent on average in the first four months of the six pilot projects.”

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend also ask the Minister what assessment has been made of the effect on local councils of all those arrears, because they will have major cash-flow problems?

Stephen Doughty: Indeed, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend’s point, which I will move on to later.

Mr Brown also stated:

“Data released today by the Department for Work and Pensions showed 6,220 tenants across the UK were paid directly in the first four months of the projects. Of these, 92 per cent of rent was collected on average overall, meaning arrears were around double the normal figure. A total of 316 tenants have been switched back to payment of benefit to the landlord.”

To give a figure that is specific to Wales, in relation to Bron Afon Community Housing and Charter Housing in Torfaen, 535 tenants were involved in the first payments

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and there have been 59 switchbacks so far, which is about 11%. Those figures are obviously of deep concern and they raise wider issues: there are deep worries about how universal credit will work in practice and about the support provided to people, and there are also major implications for organisations, whether they are local authorities or housing associations, that are supporting those tenants.

Secondly, on the digital divide, my colleague the Welsh Minister for Finance, Jane Hutt, has repeatedly warned that people with few or no IT skills might have difficulty applying for universal credit. In 2010, figures suggested that about a third of adults in Wales did not use the internet regularly, and recent figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that about 20% have never used it.

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Speaking as the former deputy Minister for digital inclusion, may I say that my hon. Friend makes a strong point? In my borough of Caerphilly, some 37% of the population are excluded digitally. The borough is making provisions to ensure that those people have access to computers, but many local authorities have had, for example, cuts in library services and excluded people will have no access to computers whatsoever.

Stephen Doughty: My hon. Friend also makes a strong point. What assessment has the Minister made of the problem? I quote to him evidence submitted by Community Housing Cymru to the Work and Pensions Committee last year, which said:

“The presumption of a predominantly online self-service process is concerning since it is our experience is that a large percentage of people lack not only the knowledge and accessibility to make on-line claims but also the confidence…We know that a large percentage of social housing tenants do not have access to the internet at home, for example, in 2010 Tai Calon, a housing association based in Blaenau Gwent found that 42% of their tenants have access to the internet.”

That is shockingly low. The evidence continues:

“Blaenau Gwent remains the most digitally excluded area in Wales”

which I know from conversations with my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith). Finally, the evidence states that there is

“a lack of clarity in Wales as to where independent advice can be sought on Universal Credit. Citizens Advice Bureaux are already inundated and welfare benefit enquiries have now overtaken debt enquiries in number.”

The concerns are serious.

Thirdly, in the spirit of openness, I announced on Twitter that I would be holding this debate and asked constituents to come forward with concerns. One such concern, which was shared by many others, is that there will be particular risks for women as relationships in the home may be affected by changes to payments and to who will have control of the money, especially given that child benefit was always paid to the mother in the past and provided some security. Will the Minister reassure my constituents and others who have raised such concerns?

Finally, I turn to the real concerns of organisations working with vulnerable clients, particularly those in the housing sector in Wales. Last week, I met representatives of Cadwyn, a housing association with significant numbers

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of homes and tenants in the Grangetown and Butetown areas of my constituency, and they are deeply worried about what they see as a perfect storm with the coming together of the bedroom tax, the benefit cap—by which only London is affected more than Cardiff—and universal credit. They showed me some extremely worrying figures about rent payment, the risk of arrears, high-risk customers and the challenges that the proposal will create for them and other registered social landlords across Wales. What forecasts has the Department for Work and Pensions made of the financial challenges that registered social landlords may face as a result of increasing rent arrears?

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): The hon. Gentleman has made some strong and valid points. I know that what I am about to refer to took place before his time in this place, but does he agree that it was a serious political miscalculation of the Labour party to abstain on Second Reading of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 that led to the changes being implemented?

Stephen Doughty: As the hon. Gentleman says, it was before my time in this place, so I will refrain from commenting and make some progress.

I am happy to report that Cadwyn is taking proactive measures to help its tenants adapt to the swathe of changes, including help with jam jar accounts, visits in person to vulnerable tenants and organising property swapping mechanisms on Facebook. Those are the types of methods to which it is resorting. There is, however, a limit to what it can do to mitigate the impact of all the changes coming together, particularly with the hard core of tenants who will prove difficult to access, reach and support and who will find it difficult fundamentally to adapt to universal credit and other changes. On the bedroom tax, there are simply not the properties to move into.

If that is not enough, let us take the perspective of Cardiff, the largest local authority in Wales. I know that its concerns are shared by many neighbouring local authorities, including Vale of Glamorgan, which is also in my constituency. Last week, I spoke to officials at Cardiff council last week who said:

“With regard to Universal Credit, this is expected to start in Cardiff from February 2014 but there is still considerable uncertainty about when this will be fully implemented. This will affect 140 jobs in Cardiff.”

They face concerns such as a

“lack of clarity about how face to face services will be delivered. Cardiff currently sees 1000 customers a week about housing benefit face to face. The insistence on digital by default fails to recognise how many low income households cannot afford broadband and how much help is needed by vulnerable tenants to claim benefits. Payment direct to tenants in social housing…is likely to result in arrears, evictions and homelessness. Indications from the pilots are that tenants are falling into arrears.”

I have already mentioned that evidence. The concerns continue:

“There is still no clarity about the circumstances in which payments will be made to the landlord.”

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): Like me, my hon. Friend is a supporter of the Co-op’s campaign against legal loan sharks. Does he agree that, in the case of his

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and my constituencies, legal loan sharks are positively rubbing their hands and waiting for residents to come to them?

Stephen Doughty: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I have seen an explosion in legal loan-shark activity on our streets, whether that be people knocking on doors or opening up offices on the high street. I commend the work of organisations such as the Cardiff and Vale credit union that are trying to provide alternative options.

Cardiff council was also concerned about the following:

“Budgeting issues are also a concern as Universal Credit will be paid monthly in arrears. This is one of the major concerns expressed by customers visiting our roadshows.”

It has been taking proactive steps. It was also concerned that:

“Low income families who depend on this money will have no resource at all if there are any problems with receipt of the payment.”

I do not want to guess the future, but a serious concern is that the record of all Governments in implementing large-scale IT projects leaves much to be desired.

Lynda Thorne, the cabinet member for housing at Cardiff council, wrote to me just yesterday and said:

“I am concerned that the end result of many of these changes will be an increase in homelessness and the transfer of extra financial burdens falling on local council tax payers in terms of picking up the cost of a reduction in the collection rate of council tax, the extra cost of providing help and support to those who need support completing claims and a rise in homelessness created from direct payments.”

She makes the point that Cardiff has

“more private Landlords providing accommodation to those on benefits than all the RSLs, housing Associations, put together. Private Landlords have indicated that they are likely to revert back to only letting to those in work resulting in even more families and individuals becoming homeless thus costing council tax payers more. We currently have more than 500 families and individuals in temporary accommodation at any one time.”

What are the Minister’s reflections on those legitimate concerns raised by a major housing association in my constituency and the largest local authority in Wales?

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): My hon. Friend is being generous. Would it not be ironic were the Government to bring about a situation in which, as he describes, private landlords cannot rent out their accommodation to those most in need, because it cannot be guaranteed that they will receive their rent? Is that not the sign of a policy that is ideological and not based on evidence and common sense?

Stephen Doughty rose

Jim Sheridan (in the Chair): Order. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is new to the Chamber, but we would like to leave some time for the Minister to respond.

Stephen Doughty: Thank you, Mr Sheridan. I will give the Minister some time to respond very shortly.

If the examples I gave before the intervention are not good enough, the Minister can look at the example of National Energy Action in Wales, which works extensively on fuel poverty. It recently stated:

“Sweeping changes to welfare reform including Universal Credit…will be hitting Welsh households hard in the coming months and will have major implications for the Welsh Government's plans to tackle poverty, including fuel poverty, in Wales.”

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My friend, Huw Lewis, the Housing Minister in Wales, has said:

“We can't make any distinction here. I think it would be foolish if people were under the impression that it's just going to be something that affects people in social housing.”

There are huge concerns, which are shared by not only me or the people who have raised them with me on the street or in correspondence to my constituency office, but also the largest local authority in Wales, a number of housing associations, the bodies representing such people and a wide range of other experts. Wales will be hit disproportionately by the measures and by what could be an extremely chaotic set of reforms. I am seeing, frankly, poor evidence of support and engagement from DWP Ministers and others, and I fear that many unintended consequences will affect some of the most vulnerable people across Wales.

4.48 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mr Mark Hoban): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing the debate. He raised some important issues, but I counsel some caution. It is easy to create uncertainty among constituents by mentioning such stories in a way that is not balanced and does not reflect the support that will be in place. He actually identified the answer to his problems in one of the quotes he gave from a housing association about the additional work that it will do to help to support its tenants, such as jam jar bank accounts and additional support for budgeting, both of which we intend to deliver. The support around the introduction of universal credit will not only make the transition easier but improve families’ quality of life and financial stability. He should not overlook the beneficial impact that the proposal will have in improving financial capability.

Hywel Williams: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hoban: I have 12 minutes and many questions to answer in that time, and I want to correct some of the misapprehensions and misunderstandings that have been raised in the debate.

Universal credit is a cornerstone of the Government’s welfare reform programme, and it will simplify the benefit system and tackle welfare dependency by making work pay. Our aim is to offer seamless support for people making the transition into work. No longer will people find themselves in the absurd position where their benefit is disrupted the moment that they start work. Our reforms will ensure that people are better off in work than they are on benefits.

In Wales, we estimate that once universal credit is fully up and running some 200,000 households will be eligible for higher payments under it, typically seeing an increase of almost £160 per month, and we also estimate that the proportion of people in Wales who would stand to lose more than 70% of their increased earnings by moving into work for 10 hours a week will reduce under universal credit from 32%—as it is under the system we have inherited from the previous Government

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—to 3%. That is why delivering this reform is important for the people of Wales. It will make people better off in work, it will make work pay and it will reduce the risks involved in taking up work or doing more work.

Let me deal with some of the specific concerns that have been expressed. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth raised the issue about benefits being paid in arrears on a monthly basis. It is important that the new system is designed around the patterns of modern working life. Given that three quarters of the employed population are already paid on a monthly basis, receiving payments monthly will be something that people are familiar with when we move to universal credit.

Of course we recognise that some people may struggle to budget, and we are making provision to ensure that they do not fall through the cracks. We are working with banks and credit unions, such as the ones the hon. Gentleman quoted, to explore suitable financial products that may help people to budget and to put money by each month to fulfil their responsibilities to pay their rent and other household bills. Around 4.2 million Department for Work and Pensions claimants already have a bank account. We know that historically some people on a low income have experienced difficulties in accessing and using banking products. We want to ensure that claimants have access to a basic bank account with safe and secure standing order and direct debit facilities.

Let me move on to the point that was made about online services. As the hon. Gentleman indicated, the service will be online. We want people to be able to make a claim and to report changes, as they would with online banking. If people are going to participate effectively in today’s modern labour market, they will have to be conversant with digital tools. In the words of Lord Freud, digitisation is a “social imperative”. Of course we can and must do more to ensure that people can access services online. We do not want the digital divide in his constituency and others to persist. We must tackle it and this process is a very good way of tackling it. I am surprised that Opposition Members are so resistant to the actions that we can take to help tackle that digital divide and improve social inclusion.

We are already looking at some of the local authority pilots that have been carried out. Two of them are in Wales, with one in Caerphilly and one in Newport. The pilots are helping us to understand what support we need to give to help people to move into universal credit. We will use the pilots to learn the lessons, and we will apply them as we develop future stages of delivering universal credit, because we have ambitious targets for digital take-up of our services.

Stephen Doughty: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hoban: No, I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman had more than his fair share of time, so let me try to deal with more of the questions that he put.

The hon. Gentleman talked about this project being behind schedule. I have no idea where he got that idea from. The programme is not behind schedule; it is actually on time. I counsel him, and he will learn this more as he is in this House, never to believe what he reads in the paper. The programme is on time and on schedule. The first stage will start at the end of April in

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the pathfinder area in Greater Manchester and the north-west, and the programme will continue to roll out nationally.

The hon. Gentleman rightly made a point about the failure of previous Governments to deliver big IT projects on time. We saw that under the previous Government. I think that all of us in this House who have had to work with the complexity of tax credits on behalf of our constituents will recognise the failure of that system and the problems that it created for our constituents.

The way that we are working through the implementation of this programme is through our pathfinder approach, which enables us to proceed with implementation in phases. It is an approach that we have used in other large programmes. For example, in the new child maintenance scheme we have used the pathfinder process. In implementing the personal independence payment, which replaces the disability living allowance, we will begin with a few thousand new claims in April, before rolling it out. So the staged and methodical approach that we take to rolling out programmes—“prove before you move”—means that we will fully implement a change once we are satisfied from experience in a live environment that it is safe to do so.

That is why we are rolling out the pathfinder in April in Greater Manchester and Cheshire, to allow us time to test during this period and with a view to successful implementation nationally later this year. This thoughtful and considered approach to rolling out is important. It will ensure that we test the operation to run universal credit; the people capabilities required to support the service; communications; implementation; the behaviour of claimants; and how to ensure that we respond effectively to unintended consequences.

Let me touch on direct payments. I understand the concerns about the payment of housing costs directly to claimants, but we remain of the view that paying housing costs directly is an important way of helping people to manage their own finances and to become more independent. The emerging evidence from the demonstration projects, including the one in Torfaen, does not suggest that large numbers of claimants will suddenly fall into arrears. On the contrary, because the take-on of claims is going to be gradual—over a period of years—there will be no big bang effect, and there is no real evidence of any likely sudden impact on landlords’ incomes.

There will be lessons to learn from those projects, and we will continue to monitor the position very carefully. They will enable us to test trigger points at different levels of arrears, so that if a tenant does fall behind with their rent, action can be taken, including—if necessary—switching back payment to the landlord for a period and offering additional support to the tenant.

We should treat people receiving universal credit as adults. We should encourage them to stand on their own two feet and to manage their money as others manage their money, particularly as they will have to do so as they move into a situation where they increase their earnings. Nevertheless, the support mechanisms that are in place are very important. They give landlords a real incentive to work with their tenants around employment issues to help them into work, and encourage landlords to work more closely with their tenants to understand their financial capabilities and what support

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might be needed. We should not infantilise universal credit recipients in the way that Opposition Members seem to be suggesting.

There has also been discussion about local support services. We are working in partnership with local authority associations, including the Welsh Local Government Association, on a local support services framework. That will ensure that effective local partnerships are put in place to help claimants with getting online and to learn how to manage their household budgets. As I said earlier, we will learn a great deal from the pathfinder phase of universal credit.

To ensure that we have taken into account the concerns of authorities in Wales, Wales is also represented in the development of the universal credit across a number of forums, pilots and projects, including a senior stakeholder group, a local authority transitional working group, a local authority finance and commercial group, a local support services taskforce, a direct payment demonstration project and local authority-led pilots.

Let me say just a little more about the pilots. We are currently running 12 local authority-led pilots and we aim to conclude those by the end of September. The aim of the pilots is to test and inform the development of a face-to-face delivery model. The pilots will provide important practical lessons on delivering services in an innovative way at the local level, including triage, which is working with claimants to identify their needs, how those needs can be met and where support can be accessed locally; improving online access, so that we can get more claimants using online resources and, where they cannot use them, providing assisted support to get online locally at libraries, community centres and other community buildings where personal computers may be accessible; budgeting support, so that people can manage their finances independently; and, of course, all underpinned with a work focus, to help claimants to find work and stay in work through a range of training and support networks. We have been working very closely with local authorities on a framework for delivering local support to those who need it, and we will announce further details of this very shortly.

We recognise the valid point that the hon. Gentleman made about ensuring that support is available at a local level. It is in none of our interests for claimants of universal credit to be left high and dry. That is why we are working to ensure that the support is in place, whether it is about getting online, debt advice, managing money, or setting up the right bank account or jam jar account to enable people to manage their money. We want to provide the infrastructure around universal credit to help claimants.

By doing it that way, and focusing on how we tackle those problems rather than simply throwing our hands up in horror and saying that it is all doomed to fail, we will provide the right outcomes for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and for mine. That is because it is absolutely right that we do all we can to ensure that people know that work pays, that people in Wales will be better off as a consequence of the introduction of universal credit and that people do not see the disruption that happens at the moment when they move from out-of-work benefits to in-work benefits. The system is here to ensure that people understand that it is better to work than not to work, and better to earn more than to earn less. There will not be the situation that many people are in now, of having to turn down bonuses from their employers

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because it does not work with the benefit system. We need to tackle some of the problems of the past, to give our people hope for the future.

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5 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).