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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 6 March 2013

[Mr Andrew Turner in the Chair]

Home Care Workers

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)

9.30 am

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I am pleased to have the chance to discuss home care and home care workers, because it is an incredibly and increasingly important area of service and policy touching nearly every family in the land. As the number of elderly and frail people increases, many of them with some degree of dementia, and as more people stay in their own homes, it is vital that we as a Parliament and the Government take action to ensure that standards of care are what they should be and meet the needs of older people with the dignity and quality of service that they have a right to expect, and that I am sure we all want for ourselves when the time comes.

I appreciate that there are big funding questions. I certainly want social care to be a priority for resources. Under the present austerity regime, social services departments and care providers are struggling to meet the pressures that we discussing. I also favour the full implementation of the Dilnot proposals. However, it is my intention to focus not on finance but on care and care workers and what we can do to address the present shortcomings, which must be evident to Members from all parties.

Let me make it clear at the outset that we should praise the good job that so many care workers and care providers do, often—I shall say more about this—in difficult circumstances. However, there are far too many shortcomings, as described in the recent Care Quality Commission report and the Unison report “Time to care”. We need an across-the-board drive to raise the standards, training, working conditions, terms of employment and professional standing of this most vital group of workers. It is especially important because they are on the front line. They are the first point of care and contact for hundreds of thousands of elderly people and are responsible for helping with their intimate personal needs and medication as well as day-to-day living.

On standards, the Care Quality Commission found a quarter of services to be substandard. Both the Unison report and the survey last autumn by the consumers association Which? found too many instances of rushed and poor care, as well as evidence of good and excellent care. I have been surveying constituents on the issue and have seen the same mixed picture. One daughter in the Which?survey found her mother having her face washed with a flannel with faeces on it and being dressed in the previous day’s soiled clothes. Others spoke of relatives going all day without food or drink, untrained staff using lifting equipment, muddled medication and forgotten alarm pendants. It is clear that standards must be raised to a consistent and higher level.

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Training must be an important part of that. We need to listen to people like the worker in the Unison report who said:

“Three half-days’ irrelevant training was given. Then I was on my own. I had never bathed, dressed or cared for anyone before. I had to empty urine bags, colostomy bags etc. with no training. I felt very scared and was left to struggle as best I could.”

The consequences of mistakes involving such vulnerable people do not bear thinking about. We can well understand how workers in that position are being let down by those in charge of home care provision across the country.

I argue, as Unison does, for standardised levels of training and detailed minimum standards on employers to provide practical training to that level, without making the requirements excessively academic, so that we do not exclude people who are good at caring but bad at passing exams. Requirements should include communication, though, especially given the number of people whose first language is not English working as carers. Someone in Oxford told me that her mother was in a care home where just three out of 60 staff had English as their first language.

I also argue for a professional register of accredited carers, just as we have for nurses. People would qualify to get on it and gain the status that it involves, but they could also be struck off if incompetence or negligence warranted it.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting case. How long did it take him this morning, from the moment he got out of bed, to wash, clothe himself, have breakfast and get out the door? Although I appreciate that standards for care workers must be concentrated on, does he not agree that many of them are asked not just to undertake their work on the minimum wage but to complete their tasks in an unfeasibly short time?

Mr Smith: Absolutely, and I am coming to that point. I could not get myself completely ready in the limited time that some care workers have; some are allocated 15-minute slots for visits.

When things go wrong, it is vital that staff speak out, yet too often care workers feel vulnerable and not in a position to do so. I note that last month, the Secretary of State for Health said that he was “very sympathetic” to extending to home care workers the duty to whistleblow that the Government are thinking of applying to nurses. I urge the Minister to do so.

It is crucial that inspection is extensive, robust and effective. It is all the more so given the importance of care and the fact that it takes place in people’s homes, away from immediate supervision. There are concerns about that in Oxfordshire right now. Our local paper, the Oxford Mail—I am sure you will remember it well, Mr Turner, from your time in Oxford—has highlighted concerns raised by our local patient voice and county councillors about the adequacy of local CQC inspection arrangements. In November, there were just two inspectors for Oxfordshire, and even now there are only five, who between them are responsible for inspecting 447 health and social care institutions and thousands of home care visits.

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There is all-party concern. Conservative councillor Jim Couchman, who chairs the county’s adult services scrutiny committee as well as being a member of the health overview and scrutiny committee, said after meeting the CQC:

“We did get pretty worried by what we saw as an extremely ill-equipped organisation to deal with the responsibility accrued to it…The CQC is not a proper inspection team in any way, shape or form.”

Councillor Couchman has also told me since that apart from the enormity of the task required of such a small staff, the most surprising fact was that recruits did not need any experience or knowledge of the NHS, health care or social services. The CQC seemed more concerned about whether new staff had a background in regulation.

I was also concerned that when asked to talk to the Oxford Mail, the Care Quality Commission declined. When such worries are being voiced, it is all the more important for a body such as the CQC to come forward and answer questions as a basic responsibility of public accountability, as well as to take the chance to build public confidence rather than undermining it, as the CQC ended up doing. Will the Minister look into the position on care quality inspection in Oxfordshire? More generally, will he ensure that the commission has sufficient inspectors across the country with the right experience to do the job?

Feedback from users and their families is another important yardstick by which to lever up care standards. Our county council uses individual visits and client satisfaction surveys to inform contract monitoring. However, a wider public satisfaction rating is needed for the plethora of care agencies. One of the paradoxes of modern life is that, if advice is wanted on the standards of service providers such as restaurants, hotels and garages, or of products such as cars and electrical goods, there is no end of reviews out there to guide people, but for something as important as helping someone to find a good care provider, there seems to be nowhere to look for advice. In theory there is competition for provision, but in reality all the customers are groping around in the dark. That is a good reason not to emulate in mainstream NHS provision the privatisation that has already happened in care services.

Underpinning all that, action is desperately needed on the terms and conditions of care workers. They are doing a demanding job, often on the lowest wages and with minimal security. According to the Unison “Time to care” survey, more than half of home care workers overall and more than 80% in the private sector are not paid for travel time or costs; it has been estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 home care workers are in effect paid less than the national minimum wage as a result. To make matters worse, more than half of private sector home care workers have a zero-hours contract with no guaranteed pay, and more than half of all home care workers reported that in the past year things have got worse for them on pay, working time and the duties expected of them.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for setting out clearly some of the home care issues. Does he agree that zero-hours contracts

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in particular make it difficult to ensure continuity of care for clients and difficult for a provider to invest in its staff, because they are constantly having to look for alternative work to make up the hours to obtain a decent income to support themselves and their families?

Mr Smith: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and must be reading my mind, because my next sentence was that zero-hours contracts present real problems for continuity of care, which was the point she made. It is important that vulnerable clients in particular have carers whom they know, trust and have built up a relationship with.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for initiating the debate and to Unison, with which I have met, for its initiative. I strongly reinforce the collection of points that he has just made. I have had not only users but care workers troubled by their ability to do their job come to see me. In my experience, such workers are troubled by a combination of not having enough time to look after the person they are caring for and no adequate account being taken of travel time, which means that they are in effect paid below the minimum wage to do a job that they cannot carry out sufficiently and that often there is no continuity of care from a particular individual for a vulnerable, normally elderly person. Those are big issues and I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to all parties saying such things to the Government. All parties together can change what is a fundamentally flawed system.

Mr Smith: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. All those comments are vital, and he is right that throughout Parliament and society at large we can insist on raising standards for workers who are doing a demanding, important and professional job on poverty wages, often in pretty exploitative conditions. That has to be changed.

An example to do with continuity was mentioned in the Care Quality Commission report: a client had 13 different home care workers for 35 calls. In such circumstances, clients have to explain time and time again to different care workers what needs to be done, how they like things and so on. Given that the people receiving home care increasingly have substantial health needs, the whole business of zero-hours contracts is a poor and inappropriate employment model. I do not like it anywhere, but it is especially damaging in this sector.

Teresa Pearce (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that in my borough of Bexley, a particular model now in use involves a care company that is acting as an umbrella agency? The care workers whom the company sends to vulnerable people are actually self-employed, which means that it is pushing an employment liability on to a vulnerable person and abdicating responsibility. What happens in Bexley is meant to give people greater choice, but it is bogus self-employment. Is the Minister aware of that model? Will he consider looking at it in detail, to see whether it is true self-employment or merely tax planning?

Mr Smith: Or, indeed, merely a way of circumventing the national minimum wage. My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will come on to some requests to the Minister for action in that very area.

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We touched earlier on the 15-minute slots for care workers, and there are serious concerns about the care that workers are able and allowed to provide when they arrive at someone’s home. The financial pressures on social services providers and on paying clients are leading to increasing use of 15-minute slots. Those may give time for a brief check, but not for caring in any meaningful sense of the word.

We need a thoroughgoing overhaul of the terms and conditions of home care workers. The non-payment of travel time breaks the minimum wage laws, which I understand has been confirmed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to Unison. Will the Minister meet HMRC so that a priority drive can be put in place to ensure that every home care worker in the country is contacted and helped to secure their entitlements? That would help not only the workers’ basic rights but recruitment and retention in a job that is far too often seen as low-status because it is low paid and has such poor conditions, and that people get out of because they simply cannot afford to carry on working.

Last year, I was approached by a constituent who was working as a home care provider for a company under contract to Oxfordshire county council. The provider was paying him little more than the minimum wage for the exact, restricted time that he spent in each person’s home, with no allowance for travel. After paying travel and other employment costs, he was simply not earning enough to get by, and he found out that he would be better off back on jobseeker’s allowance, which was where he went. I took up the case with social services and the then Secretary of State for Health; both said that it was a matter for the provider. For the providers, however, it is a matter of profit, competition and, for far too many of them, what they can get away with. That is the nub of the problem: in a contracted-out, decentralised system operating to market competition, the buck does not stop with anyone.

I am sure that the public want better safeguards and decent treatment for the vulnerable people being cared for and for the workers who do that vital caring work. That means putting in place a framework of standards and entitlements for clients and their carers, along the lines of the ethical charter for which Unison has argued. That is what I am asking the Government to do. Will the Minister reply to my points on the issues of training to consistent and accredited standards, a professional register, properly enforced standards, the adequacy of inspection, comprehensive enforcement of the minimum wage and promotion of the living wage?

It is thanks to the dedication of many care workers and the good service providers that there are out there that home care is not worse than it is. Far too much of it, however, is not nearly good enough, and some of it is very bad. The people needing care and their families are worried about such matters, and a test of this Government, or of any Government, must be what they do to raise the standards of home care and the working conditions of those who provide it.

9.48 am

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) not only on securing the debate but on covering such fundamentally important ground on matters that clearly

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need to be addressed. From the litany of issues that need to be dealt with seriously by not only the two parties in government but all parties, it is clear that if we were to construct the circumstances for a catastrophe to happen on our watch, all the ingredients are being prepared in the services being provided to people in their homes.

The right hon. Gentleman described many symptoms, and at present the health system is under extreme pressure. The last Labour Government established the £20 billion efficiency gain, now colloquially known as the Nicholson challenge. All parties know that the pressure for efficiency gain inevitably resulted in an attempt throughout the system to push costs down to the least expensive care models, which means out of hospital, into the home and care by the lowest paid people. In addition, a whole heap of management babble obscures the way in which the trend is being catapulted. The health system depends on a group of workers in people’s private homes, but we should not ignore the fact that many people work in similar conditions in residential homes for people who cannot be catered for in their own home. There is a parallel situation in nursing homes.

With pressure on the system, there will be increasing attempts to ensure that patients are discharged from hospital much earlier than in the past. Part of the management mantra is that the worst place for an elderly person is an acute hospital and that unnecessary admissions should be avoided. That is self-evidently unarguable, but is often asserted. However, at the margin an assessment must be made before making that decision. There is a feeling that older people are being denied admission to hospital because of age discrimination in the system, and that because they are older they should be kept at home when, if they were 20, 30 or 40 years younger with the same condition, they would be admitted to hospital. Many of us know that that pattern exists.

MPs have many examples in their casework, and I am sure I am not unique in this: inadequate care is provided in the home for older people who must endure unacceptably poor standards of care and circumstances. The response is often pontification from the political classes, but the care workers are voiceless. Whenever the “Today” programme runs a story about poor care, which it often does when a shocking story of poor care is revealed or a report by the Care Quality Commission is published, some of our own classes are wheeled on to morning media slots and often denigrate the character of the people who provide care, as though a failing in the carers caused the problem. They say that we must address problems with carers’ characters rather than the unfeasible circumstances in which so many of them must operate.

I intervened on the right hon. Member for Oxford East to ask how long it takes him to get out of bed in the morning and to get ready to go out of the door. All of us in the Chamber are able-bodied and do not need a hoist to get out of bed or to use the toilet. We do not need to be assisted in every way, and we are not on a cocktail of medicines—perhaps some of us are. An hour is probably a reasonable time for most able-bodied people, yet we often hear that care workers must undertake those functions for other people in less than half an hour. That is simply not feasible. People may say that carers cut corners, take risks and do not complete the job, but they are asked to undertake an impossible task.

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Many carers are on the minimum wage, and in areas such as mine in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly the travel time between visits is often significant. If the agency employing care workers is not prepared to cover properly travel times or costs, it may take the worker below the minimum wage, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) said.

We must address the issues that the right hon. Member for Oxford East has properly listed. All the ingredients are there. As we go forward, the pressure will continue. Bed reviews will be undertaken as the new clinical commissioning groups swing into action in the next month. They will look at how many community beds there are in their area, assess whether they are affordable, and look for new ways of working and new pathways. They will use the usual language to argue that there are better ways of providing the care that is currently provided in community hospitals, that local communities should not be obsessed with bricks and mortar, that they can provide better care in the home, and that people should relax and understand that the number of beds can be reduced even when the population is ageing and the number of people needing care is increasing. Reducing the number of beds will increase the pressure on remaining beds. People will be discharged much earlier to their homes with assurances that adequate care packages are in place when we all know that those care packages are marginal and that the people providing the care will be asked to undertake work that is often unfeasible.

I often resist calls for diminution in the number of community hospital beds in my constituency, and I am sure that other hon. Members do the same. We used to know the number of beds in our local hospitals, but the service that used to be provided is becoming increasingly invisible. The problem is that the service can then be cut, denuded and reduced over time in ways that are very difficult for us all to properly assess, because people will not able to see or understand how it operates. Parts of the service will be shaved off in the same way that local authorities have redefined access to support from moderate to critical, and so on—as I know that many local authorities have done.

I have visited a number of agencies in my constituency. I am really pleased that we have some excellent agencies working in west Cornwall. Many of them are impressive agencies, but of course they are all competing, and there is a risk of a race to the bottom. Local authorities are commissioning on the basis of price, and the fear is that they are not necessarily looking at quality as much as they should be when they make assessments.

Mr Andrew Smith: I made the point about competition in my remarks. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a very important dimension is that a lot of clients are paying for care themselves, and they have very inadequate information on which to judge one agency or provider against another?

Andrew George: Absolutely. Minimum standards and agreements across agencies—or if the Government will not establish minimum standards, baseline standards—would give people reassurance. What we understand is happening, as part of achieving the efficiency gain that

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all parties want, is that not only is there an attempt at constructing a clinical and patient interest argument that patients are better off being discharged to their home, which is better for them, because it is where they want to be—the mantra that is often used; but there is cost-shunting as well. Obviously, if a patient is in hospital, the state is paying for them. There is an increasingly harsh attempt at identifying what continuing care is and is not—in other words, the state continues to pay for that patient in their home—but what ultimately happens is that the sooner the hospitals can get patients out to their home, it is the individual, if they have any assets at all, who meets the bill.

In terms of standards, in my view, we should be encouraging agencies that are providing care to offer at least a living wage for workers—£7.20 per hour and, I think, £8.30 in the London area. Travel time between visits should be part of salaried time. A mileage rate should be set and understood, and everyone should share a mileage rate; in my area, the rate paid to travelling care workers varies between 35p and 40p a mile. There should be a minimum visit time of 45 minutes in very exceptional cases, and at least an hour for most visits, especially if it involves at least two of the following procedures for non-ambulant or semi-ambulant clients: getting out of bed; dressing or undressing; toileting; feeding; washing and mobility support.

An efficient and effective arrival and departure reporting and recording system should be introduced, because there is some dispute between agencies and local authorities on that issue. Registration of care workers is very important, and I hope there will be cross-party support for it. The Select Committee on Health, of which I am a member, has been pushing for it for some time. It would ensure that there is adequate training, proper registration and recognition of the significant job that home care workers do. With that kind of support, I believe that we can give home care workers the proper status and support that they richly deserve.

10.4 am

Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): I begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) on securing the debate. There could not be a more important subject on which to have a Westminster Hall debate. I also thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who made a very important contribution. To add more thanks, the recent CQC and Unison reports have been incredibly helpful; for those of us who have been thinking about care for some time, the two reports have crystallised and explained, in a well researched way, the substantial challenge that we face.

If I may make a slightly parochial Merseyside remark, this is an extremely important issue for us, especially in Wirral, where we have an ageing population, which, I must say, we are very glad about. We are glad and proud that our grandparents and parents are living longer, but with that pride comes responsibility. That is why the challenge that we face is very important. I would like to thank my constituents, who have been very good in coming to several public meetings with me on the subject of care. I have asked them to help me think about that issue, because I know that many of them face this challenge. They have willingly given up their time to inform me about their concerns, and I am incredibly grateful.

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I have also been lucky in the Wirral because home care staff have met me and given me the benefit of their experience, along with council officers and councillors. I recognise that the problem is shared across all those groups. We are going to fix the problem together, and we are here today to ask the Minister whether he will join us in helping to do that.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): On the point she just mentioned, does the hon. Lady agree that one of the pleasing aspects of this issue is the number of active senior citizens in all our constituencies who want, in a voluntary capacity, to involve themselves in the debate to try and lift the standards and ensure that we give the proper care to people in their own homes?

Alison McGovern: I could not agree more. Only last Friday, I was with Heswall Soroptimists, a very committed group of women who volunteer in our community, and who raised various issues about care. That is only one example of committed groups of citizens who are keen to be involved in finding a solution.

It is important that we make the moral case for change. Too often, people in need of care in their homes are hidden from our society, and people who need support, by their nature, can find significant barriers to their participation in democracy. Therefore, it is extremely important that politicians take the time to speak up for them. I have been meeting regularly with Wirral officers to try and work through some of those issues, and specifically, to discuss whether there is a way that we can improve the quality of care in our borough.

On that note, I flag to the Minister that such conversations are made much more difficult by the funding settlement that local government has received. The fact that local government has taken the biggest cuts from Whitehall has certainly impeded my ability, locally in the Wirral, to get change. I ask the Minister to note that point, and next time that he has conversations with Cabinet Ministers and the Treasury, to remind them of local government’s role in care and of the important challenge that we are trying to meet.

In discussions with Wirral council officers, we have also been trying to consider how to tackle the problem of information that has already been flagged. For people who are trying to procure care, it is difficult to know what quality standards they can expect and what the market looks like. I sympathise greatly with the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East about the role of markets in what is, I would argue, a bit of the economy that does not necessarily lend itself well to markets. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I sound like a bit of an economics geek when I say that, in any case, markets do not work well when participants have insufficient information. I believe that if we cannot solve that problem, the current system will never work.

I will move on to talk about two aspects of home care that have repeatedly been shown to be very important to my constituents. As I mentioned, we have had several public meetings in the Wirral to discuss these issues, and we have tried to bring together both those who work in care and those who receive care so that we can see the problems from either side of the coin. Those two aspects are 15-minute appointments and zero-hours

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contracts. Those two issues typify the insecurity at work and low investment in skills that home care workers face.

First, on 15-minute appointments, it might have been mentioned that the recent Unison report found that 46% of staff felt that they had to rush visits—that is nearly half the workers going into the homes of people who are very important and need help. The result is the feedback that I receive that due care and attention cannot be given to people. I am talking about basic matters of respect, such as addressing the person concerned as they would wish to be addressed.

Let me give an example from my own constituency. A care worker was in a couple’s home to make some food for them, but said that they were able to do that for only one member of the couple—the husband or wife—because that was all that they had been allocated time for. Most people expect to be able to sit down to a meal with their partner. That is a basic thing that we all expect to be able to do in our lives. Fifteen-minute appointments may or may not have been the cause of the problem in that case, but if 15-minute appointments mean that the normal standards that we would all expect to be upheld have to be disregarded, that is not a system that will work well.

I will read out a quote from one of the care workers to whom Unison spoke:

“When the person you go to needs more care or has incontinence you are only allocated 15 minutes for a meal and have to leave them. I haven’t left a client like that and would go over my time (although not paid for it), but it does mean you are running late for other calls.”

I cannot imagine what it must be like for someone to turn up at a person’s home and find, if they are incontinent, that the worst has happened. They are supposed to be there only to make them a sandwich or whatever and they must decide between being late for the next person, which will cause stress, or, frankly, rushing around doing things that they know they will not be paid for, which will cause them stress. At the same time, they are trying to make that individual feel better about what has happened. What skills and talents does someone need to make that situation go well? We should first admire the people who do this job, but also question what in the system is causing such a breakdown.

One aspect of this subject that I have highlighted as a result of listening to my constituents is that too much of the way in which our system works is task-orientated, not person-orientated. Dignity is extremely important. Increasingly, people have recognised that the way in which we treat others in society is ever more important. When we are asking people to do a list of tasks—no more and no less—rather than think about the individual and try to help them with whatever their needs are, we will not fix the problem. Individuals will feel bad about the care that they receive rather than feeling that it is a help to them. Another care worker quoted in the Unison report expressed that very clearly:

“I never seem to have enough time for the human contact and care that these people deserve.”

That is a lesson to us all.

Secondly, on zero-hours contracts, my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) and I have recently commenced a survey that is designed to listen to people across all industries who have experienced being asked to do or have taken on

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zero-hours contracts. Of course, for people who want a bit of work but do not need it to be regular—students or others—zero-hours contracts may not be such a problem. However, I think we all recognise in this Chamber the problems with that flexibility and insecurity in a world in which people are trying to provide routine, predictability and attention to detail for some quite vulnerable people. I think we would all question the appropriateness of zero-hours contracts.

There are two problems with zero-hours contracts that we need to consider. The first is inconsistent care. My constituents tell me that they would like to know who the person is who will be turning up and they would like visits to be predictable and regular, not least because of respect and dignity issues, such as knowing the little details. Often, people who need care face communication barriers. Understanding in detail how a person communicates is extremely important, so consistency of care could not be more important. How do zero-hours contracts support consistency of care?

The second issue is stress. Insecurity at work causes stress, and in a world in which we are asking people, as I mentioned in my example, to turn up and help vulnerable people, we need them to feel confident and secure and to have enough skills to be able to tackle whatever problems are there. Recent research has shown the impact of stress and insecurity for those working in care on the manner of treatment received by the people for whom they are caring. That is an important message to us all as politicians. What responsibility can we take for creating more security at work for those who care for vulnerable people?

Comments have already been made about the pay levels in the sector. They are clearly low. Low pay plus zero-hours contracts mean that we will have people of relatively low skill. I mean “low skill” in the technical sense; I would argue that people who work in care are extremely skilled and extremely able practically, given what they have to deal with. However, investment in skills will clearly not happen where there is low pay and an insecure labour market.

Having described the problem, I will conclude by describing what I believe might be part of the solution. First, working in home care needs to be seen as an aspirational job. There is no reason why someone should not work in care and aspire to management, to moving up in their career. We need to find pathways through the career chain so that we can make this a genuinely aspirational job. A significant number of our young people are out of work. We need to demonstrate to them that home care work is valued in society and that if they pursue such a career, they will be invested in and respected as members of our society. We need to make that absolutely clear.

I again thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East for securing the debate. There could not be a more important subject than this. I hope that the Minister will respond positively and explain what we can do to bring some change to the sector.

10.18 am

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I, too, thank the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) and congratulate him on bringing this matter to the House

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for consideration. There will not be one person in the House or outside it who is unaware of the importance of home care workers and what they do. Unfortunately, we can all tell horror stories like those that the right hon. Gentleman told at the start of the debate, but we also have many good stories of care workers who do tremendous work. Where would we be without the good work that they do?

Thanks to medical innovation, people have a longer life expectancy now than they had in the past. As a result, people are trying to live at home just a wee bit longer before they go into a residential or nursing home. A great many people now retire to my constituency of Strangford, because it has the seaside and is also a lovely place to be, and we are very pleased that they are coming to live in our area. However, they are people of a certain generation, and the expectation of people in Northern Ireland is the same as that of people in the rest of the United Kingdom—that they will live that wee bit longer. I believe the Government have been encouraging families to help at home before turning to residential nursing care.

There must be robust regulation of care workers to ensure safety and value for money. In the news, we often hear horror stories of someone taking advantage of the elderly or vulnerable. Hearing such stories concerns and annoys me, but it is not the case in the vast majority of circumstances. There should be regulated training and assessment as well as funding and help, to ensure that we get things right, which is the gist of the debate today.

In the past I have spoken about the difficulties that welfare reform will bring for carers. I shall use the example of my brother, who had a motorbike accident approximately eight and a half years ago that left him with some brain injuries. My parents are well into their 80s—81 and 83, mum and dad—and their ability to cope with my brother and his particular circumstances lessens as every year passes, because the nature of life is that the older we get, the less physically able we are. We are very pleased and blessed to have my brother able to speak and converse with us; the difference is that our Keith will never be able to work again or, as he would love to, ride a motorbike again—that will never happen. He is able to keep his independence due to the carers who come to see him, and they are tremendous. There is perhaps not as much funding as there should be in the NHS for carers; Keith is reliant on his disability living allowance to pay for the help he needs. If that were to change, he would have to be placed in a facility with full-time carers, which would adversely affect his mental health and cost the Government a lot more to provide. That is my honest-to-goodness, personal opinion in the case of someone close to me.

Such situations are replicated across my constituency and in constituencies across the UK; there are many cases. It is essential that home care continues. If people cannot afford to pay for reputable carers, it is more likely that they will look for carers who are less expensive and perhaps less qualified. That is why the Government must regulate more now.

I make a plea for Crossroads Caring for Carers Northern Ireland, which primarily provides domiciliary respite care. It has offered that service for carers in Northern Ireland since 1984, and provides in excess of 200,000 hours of respite care to more than 1,200 families per year. It does tremendous work, as do many others.

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The service is unique, because it is aimed specifically at the carer. Crossroads is committed to providing a quality, flexible home-care service; its care attendants enable the carer to have a break, by carrying out whatever tasks the carer would normally do. Carers can take a break from caring, in the knowledge that those they care for are receiving quality care from Crossroads. In other words, every bit of quality care will be provided by Crossroads. A break from caring is invaluable in reducing the psychological and emotional stress that many carers face. Crossroads domiciliary respite care helps carers to continue to provide the support they give to a sick, disabled or elderly person.

The care provision is tailored to each caring situation; everyone is unique and the service adjusts to the unique circumstances. Individual care plans are agreed between Crossroads, the carer and the person with care needs. People decide for themselves what help and support they need, and Crossroads responds. Care attendants help with a range of personal care tasks, ranging from bathing and personal hygiene to complex care needs. Through their families, I regularly meet many constituents who have complex care needs. Crossroads adopts a flexible support approach, with care attendants helping with almost any task that is part of everyday living.

Funding for Crossroads is under stress, as I said, so less and less help can be given. That brings us to the thrust of the debate: people are left in situations where they must look to cheaper alternatives, which are not always better. It bears repeating that the Government must address care in the home needs. Too many people are living in dirty homes and not being fed enough. There is only so much that families can do. Although we are trying to save money, care in the community cannot bear the brunt of what the changes will bring. Crossroads Caring has lost the bulk of its funding due to cuts. That will mean more elderly people living in unfit conditions because too much is required of their carers. With respect, the Government do not seem to understand that if they put a little into respite help for carers now, it will mean that carers can continue to care rather than giving up and putting their loved ones into state-sponsored homes, which are more expensive and where issues with carers are more apparent. Saving a penny now will soon mean spending thousands later. I hope when the Minister responds, he will give some indication of the Government’s strategy.

Those advertising care at the moment can do so while providing little training or checks on their staff, as hon. Members have indicated, and that must end. There must be regulation, qualifications and a set standard to which all carers and service providers adhere. When the Government set that in place, we will hear fewer horror stories and more feel-good stories, of which there are thousands and thousands. They are not the stories that make the press; they are about the many carers who go above and beyond their calling to provide care.

As an elected representative—as an MP and a former Assembly Member and councillor—I know of the good work that carers do. They come to me regularly, in their own time, to seek help for those for whom they care. I am always impressed by the fact that carers spend additional time on those for whom they care—above and beyond what is expected. We hear the negative

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stories, but the good ones always make us feel much better about the good work that carers do in our constituencies.

I am sure that, like me, colleagues feel there must be proper training and monitoring and that it must be put in place in a timely fashion. As each day passes, more people are being cared for at home. We have a duty to ensure first, the regulation of all carers; secondly, the safety of those being cared for; and, thirdly, and most important, peace of mind for the family of the person who needs care. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oxford East on securing the debate. I look forward to a good answer from the Minister and to his support.

10.26 am

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) on securing the debate. It is a pleasure to follow all the speakers, who fully and excellently set out the case for care workers.

When I read the “Time to Care” report, I had an enormous feeling of déjà vu. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I worked for Unison as a full-time officer. Back in the 1990s, one of my first jobs as a young officer was supporting the Derbyshire county council home helps joint consultative committee. “Home helps” was the name given to home care workers in Derbyshire, of whom there were thousands. The joint consultative committee used to bring together representatives of home care workers from across the county with senior management of social services, including the director of social services, who so understood the important role of home care that he was always prepared to attend meetings to listen to the views of home care representatives. It was an opportunity for them to raise their concerns and the issues that their members faced.

The 1990s was a period of huge change for such workers. The role of home helps was changing immensely: they moved from providing a service that was basically helping older people with cleaning, shopping, meals and even, back then, laying fires, to providing much more intimate personal care and dealing with people with increasingly complex needs. It was also a period of budget cuts, which accounts for the feeling of déjà vu. There was pressure to change services, to make them efficient, obviously, but also to open them to the private market.

I vividly remember Derbyshire home helps raising concerns about a proposed move to a time-recording system. When they arrived at a service user’s house, the first thing they had to do was telephone to tell social services where they were, so that there was much more detailed information on the amount of time they spent with each service user. A concern they raised at the time was that doing so would change their focus, so that rather than their prime focus being on the needs of the service user, their top priority when they arrived was to record their time so that social services could properly cost the service.

I also remember home helps raising concerns about short calls that did not allow them time to care, to listen to what services users wanted or to respond to their priorities.

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Andrew George: The hon. Lady makes an excellent point about recording arrival and departure times. Often the system simply fails, not only in rural areas, where mobile coverage is poor, but when using the cared for person’s telephone. Carers often cannot get through and calling becomes a greater obsession than providing the care itself.

Lilian Greenwood: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I remember well the representative from the High Peak area constantly making that exact point, which was that there was poor mobile phone coverage. They talked about how much of their time would be spent dealing with the telephone instead of focusing on the person who required their assistance. There were also worries about travel time.

I particularly remember the concerns of people who worked alongside private sector care providers where, they reported, staff training was often inadequate and there was often a high turnover of staff. They also reported that the care providers frequently did not provide personal protective equipment; they talked about the lack of rubber gloves and the like. We often had discussions about which tasks home helps were given time to carry out. They often pointed out that their service users wanted and needed things that might not be what the carers were commissioned to provide.

Unison’s “Time to Care” report and the Care Quality Commission’s “Not Just a Number” inspection programme made me wonder whether we should have listened more closely to the concerns and issues raised by those Derbyshire home helps 20 years ago, particularly when, in describing the current context, the CQC talked about the

“increasing pressure on social care budgets and the rise in the number of people with complex care needs and dementia.”

In describing its key findings—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East said, a quarter of services fell below the standards expected—the CQC said:

“What is concerning is that our findings come as no surprise to people, their families and carers, care workers and providers themselves.”

The findings really do not come as a surprise, because they are exactly the issues that have been raised over many years.

The CQC highlighted several problems, including service users

“not being kept informed about late arrivals, different care workers from one visit to another, not having their preferences clearly documented, a lack of support for care staff to carry out their work, and failure to address the ongoing issues around travel time.”

Those are responsibilities of not just this Government but the previous Government, but the pressure on social services that are commissioning care services is even greater now, and we need to look again at what is required.

There is great similarity between the findings of the CQC and Unison’s “Time to Care” report. Although the care and welfare of service users is the most important focus, the CQC found that staff felt

“unsupported by their management teams and not…able to deliver care in the right way because they are too rushed, with no travel time and unscheduled visits added to their day.”

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It also reported a lack of planning and supervision for staff. Training needs were not identified, staff were not confident in using their equipment, and inductions were not always completed following recognised standards.

As the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) said, the voices of care workers are often not heard in debates such as this one. We ought to address that today. I was pleased to see that Unison’s report included many quotes from individual home care workers. It provided an opportunity for them to have a say and to talk about their experiences. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) has already quoted one of the home care workers who contributed to the report, saying they did not have time to spend with their service users and they had to rush between calls.

One of the most important issues is about older people. I imagine that many hon. Members have this experience when they are out canvassing in their communities: they knock on the door of an older person, and perhaps the Member is the only person they have spoken to that day. Their priority is to talk to someone who is willing to listen. That was well recognised by one of the care workers who contributed to the report, who said that

“care is not just about duties but communication and many providers do not allow for this…How can half an hour be enough to get someone up, dressed, meds given and have a chat? People are being failed by a system which does not recognise importance of person-centred care.”

There are many quotes in the “Time to Care” report, which I am sure the Minister has read. I hope that he listens to the voices of home care workers and the issues that they raise.

It is vital that, like the director of social services in Derbyshire back in the 1990s, we listen to the voice of home care workers, because they meet service users every day. Most of them are incredibly committed to providing a good-quality service and ensuring that people receive the support that they need. It is also vital that we do not simply listen to them, but act. Will the Minister meet home care workers and their representatives to discuss the findings of Unison’s “Time to Care” and the CQC report? Will he set out today how he intends to respond to the findings of those reports?

10.35 am

Liz Kendall (Leicester West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and all other hon. Members who have spoken.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) on securing today’s debate. Home care workers often work in isolated environments, and the people who receive care are isolated. Too often, they do not have a voice, and one of our jobs as Members of Parliament is to provide a voice for the voiceless. My right hon. Friend has helped us to do that today.

The issue is extremely important. More than 800,000 people provide home care in the UK. Some 80% of them are women, and their median age is about 40. They provide vital, intimate and personal services to more than 1 million of the most vulnerable people in society. If any other policy area had that scale of figures, this debate would be on the Floor of the House, with

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many other hon. Members present. It is good to have hon. Members here in this debate, but the issue that requires addressing is a huge one.

The help that home care workers provide is crucial for older and disabled people, because it helps them do what they want, which is to stay living independently in their own homes. It is crucial for families, who often have to go out to work and cannot provide support and care for their elderly relatives. Also, they might not live nearby, as I know well myself. Home care help is crucial also for the public finances and taxpayers, because if we can keep more people living healthily and independently at home and not going into hospital, taxpayers will receive better value for money.

Like other hon. Members who have spoken today, I have been concerned about the issue for a long time. Last May, I held a domiciliary care summit in Parliament with the United Kingdom Homecare Association, with 50 providers coming along. I have work-shadowed home care workers in my constituency, including Amanda White. Going out on an early-morning shift with her was an eye-opening experience. I also speak to many older and disabled people and care workers in my constituency and across the country. Many of the points that I have heard have been repeated by right hon. and hon. Members today.

There are many examples of excellent, decent and respectful care. The home care workers to whom I have spoken, including Amanda, love their job. They feel that they are doing something important for vulnerable people, helping them to live the kinds of lives that they want. However, the overwhelming picture is of a vicious downward spiral, with ever-increasing demand and ever-decreasing budgets, poorly paid, motivated and trained staff, and poor-quality care. Just to summarise, I will go through five issues that many hon. Members have raised today.

The first issue is low pay. Many people do not get even the minimum wage at the end of the week, because they are not paid travel times. Unison’s survey, “Time to care”, which hon. Members have mentioned, found that half of those who responded said that they did not get paid travel time, rising to more than 80% in the private sector. King’s college London has found that between 150,000 and 220,000 people working in the social care sector get paid less than the minimum wage. I will ask the Minister some questions about that towards the end.

The second issue concerns shorter and shorter visits for people with higher and higher levels of need. It is important to remember that as budgets are squeezed, councils raise their eligibility criteria, so people who need care and support at home have greater needs but get shorter and shorter visits. According to the UK Homecare Association, three quarters of visits are for 30 minutes or less, and one in 10 visits are for only 15 minutes. As several hon. Members have said, that is completely inadequate to get someone up, washed, dressed and fed, particularly if they have dementia. Anyone who knows someone or has a family member with dementia will know that they often struggle in the morning, which is a really disorientating time.

Jim Shannon: One thing that carers provide to those on whom they call is a wee bit of a chat in the morning—someone to speak to—because many people have no

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one at all to speak to. When they come in, they light the fire and do all the things that the hon. Lady has mentioned, but communication between carers and those they visit is important. Does she think that that should be given more time?

Liz Kendall: Care and communication is vital for people with all sorts of frailties and conditions, but particularly for those with dementia, as carers try to keep their memories and brains going. Those people often feel lost in a fog, and having some kind of contact is vital to keeping them going, so it is important.

We have heard about the problems of call cramming, with carers being rushed, getting late to one client and leaving early for the next. Older people are worried when they are left waiting on their own, and staff are frustrated that they have to rush in and out.

The third issue that has been raised is zero-hours contracts. As hon. Members have said, such contracts are very bad for workers, because they find it difficult to budget and plan their lives. Zero-hours contracts make it hard to attract people to the sector. They are also terrible for the users—older and disabled people who do not get continuity of care. I cannot imagine someone coming round to get me out of my bed and take me to the shower. I would be naked and they would be washing me, but I would not know who they were, because they would often be different people each time. We would not put up with that for ourselves, and we should not expect it for older people either.

The fourth issue is the lack of training, which is a real problem in dementia care. It is only since having known people with dementia that I have fully understood why they are seen to get aggressive: they do not, but they are frustrated because they cannot remember things. Carers need detailed training for that.

The fifth issue is the vicious downward spiral or vicious circle that leads to poor care for users of services and real problems for staff. The last UK Homecare Association report states that vacancy rates are at 21%, so we are simply repeating the problems.

In my remaining time, I want to make three comments about why that is all happening and what we need to do. Clearly, demand has increased in recent years. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) said, when local councils’ budgets are being cut by a third, when adult social care is 40% of their budget on average and their biggest discretionary spend, and when the money that the Government say they have transferred from the NHS has not been ring-fenced, it is inevitable that care budgets are being cut. Figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government—the Government’s own figures—show that more than £1.3 billion has been cut from older people’s social care budgets since the coalition came to power.

There are a few deeper things going on. First, the caring profession is mostly delivered by women and is low-skilled. Such professions have always been neglected in the past, so that is a concern. Secondly, the problem is invisible: it concerns isolated staff and isolated, frail older people who do not have a voice. In talking about the care crisis, I always tell people that I have received five letters about the care crisis in my constituency and 99 about saving forests. I am passionate about forests,

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but getting only five letters on the care crisis shows that this is an issue of isolation and we should stand up about it.

Andrew George: Like the hon. Lady, I have shadowed care workers in my constituency. One point that often comes across is that when I ask those who pontificate from on high—criticising poor care standards and implying that it relates to the character of the people providing the service—whether they would be prepared to do this job, no one wants to do it, even at twice the salary.

Liz Kendall: I completely agree. That is why Unison’s report, “Time to Care”, which has given people a voice, is important.

The third fundamental issue is that our NHS and care system have not kept pace with changing demographics—people living longer—and changing needs and expectations. Families cannot always cope with caring for elderly relatives, and older people want to stay in their homes for longer. In the past, it was not the business of the NHS and social care to think about the home; its business was always about sending people to institutions.

What should be done? I want to raise four matters with the Minister. First, I know that the Low Pay Commission has looked at the minimum wage. Will he confirm, however, that as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East said, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has ruled that it is not legal to pay for travel time? If that is the case, what is being done about that? What action has been taken? In any other area, there would be legal action to enforce the minimum wage, so what is being done?

Secondly, I know that the Minister wants a shift to commissioning for outcomes, rather than by the minute. That is the Government’s policy, but how will he make that work in action? What are his levers over local councils? Thirdly, it is time to have a national strategy for improving training for home care workers. What are the Government’s plans?

Finally, although the announcement on the Dilnot cap is a step forward, Dilnot has always said, as the Minister will know, that proper funding is needed in the current system, which this Government have not produced. I know that he will be in intense conversations with the Treasury over the future budget. If, following the Budget, the Government decide to pull over more money from the NHS to social care, will he ring-fence that money this time?

10.47 am

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Norman Lamb): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) on securing this incredibly important debate. As was pointed out by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), the subject is too often neglected. It is literally hidden behind closed doors, and it does not get the attention it deserves. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George), and the hon. Members for

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Wirral South (Alison McGovern), for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—he drew attention to the brilliant work done by Crossroads in many parts of the country—and for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), who spoke from direct personal experience.

I totally agree with the shadow Minister that the health and care system has not kept pace with the demands and challenges of an ageing society, and that we need a fundamental re-engineering of how we deliver care. I have a passionate belief in the need to shift towards an integrated care model, in which we shape services around the needs of the individual, rather than those of the institution, which is a shift that must happen.

Before I go into details, let me say that I applaud Unison for having undertaken the report that several hon. Members have mentioned. When its staff wrote to me about the report, I asked officials to meet them, and they will meet soon. I, too, asked to meet them, and I will discuss their concerns with them next month. I recently met some care workers, with another hon. Member, to hear directly from them, and I want to experience myself what goes on—often behind closed doors.

The right hon. Member for Oxford East mentioned whistleblowers, and I have a lot of sympathy with the points he made. Last January, the Government extended the Government-funded whistleblowing helpline to the whole of the care sector, so that any care worker can find out how to pursue their concerns. Of course, as employees, care workers have employment law protection, and we should encourage them all to use their rights.

The Government want to do all we can to ensure that standards of care remain as high as possible, and indeed improve. That is the challenge we all face. People who receive home care and their families should be able to expect the highest quality of care every time. I am aware of the many examples of poor care. The right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members drew our attention to some pretty shocking case studies and to the fact that someone can have up to 13 different care workers over a relatively short space of time. As the hon. Member for Leicester West said, it is completely unacceptable that a person has to receive quite intimate care from someone whom they have never met before. Moreover, the idea of a zero-hours contract is, in most circumstances, completely incompatible with a model of high quality care, in which the individual really gets to know their care worker.

The CQC report “Not just a number” highlighted some serious concerns, which we must take action to address. The responsibility for bringing about improvement rests with all the key players, including the providers, the councils and the regulator. The Government too must take their share of the responsibility here. The trick is to erase the bad, keep the good and improve services across the board.

The care and support White Paper sets out our intentions to improve the standard of social care. We will do that primarily by investing in people—by focusing attention on the staff who provide care in the first place. I want to join the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members in paying tribute to care workers, the vast majority of whom do really excellent work, often in difficult circumstances. They work under real pressures because of the way in which care is commissioned over

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very short spaces of time. We are seeing a race to the bottom, and we must move away from that. It puts care workers under impossible pressure and it does not provide good quality care.

Another matter I feel strongly about, and to which I referred in my response to the Winterbourne View scandal, is that there must be much more effective corporate accountability. Some companies are making very good money out of home care, so accountability must go with that profit making. It is unacceptable that home care providers sometimes allow negligent care to take place under their watch, and they must be held to account for it. Poor care, private or public, should be condemned wherever it exists. We must not have the idea that poor care exists only in the private sector. It was intolerable that hundreds of people died in Mid-Staffordshire hospital, an NHS hospital, as a result of poor care, and it is equally unacceptable when it happens under the watch of a private provider.

It is impossible to speak about improving standards without also talking about human capital. Care workers who feel valued and encouraged will perform better; it is as simple as that. The more attention the Government pay to the skills, training and personal development of the work force, the better are our chances of improving standards. After all, it is the care workers, not us in Parliament, who ultimately provide the care. We must increase the capacity and the capability of the social care work force, give people better information about care providers and improve the performance of the regulator, the Care Quality Commission. All those things will make social care a more attractive place for people to work and, most importantly, improve the quality of services.

We will shortly introduce new minimum standards to improve training for care staff to make sure that all employees have the foundations for excellence. My focus must be on training and standards, and ensuring that they apply across the board. I am dubious about the idea of creating a new regulator or of using the Nursing and Midwifery Council, which has not had a great record, to regulate some 1.5 million people. The money that is available should perhaps go to the front-line workers, rather than on creating new bureaucratic structures. I will give way to the hon. Lady, and ask her to be very quick if she does not mind.

Alison McGovern: I will be speedy. I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said about the causes of the problem. He does not seem to have mentioned funding pressures on local government. Will he respond to that point, because it is a massive constraint on improvements in the sector?

Norman Lamb: I will directly address that point. The analysis of the independent King’s Fund said that provided councils apply the money that the Government have allocated to care and undertake proper efficiency savings, which the previous Labour Government recognised had to happen across health and care, they should be able to continue to provide the level of service that exists at present. We need to think more fundamentally about a much more integrated approach between health and care. We can save resources and improve care if we bring the systems much more closely together.

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It was, I think, the hon. Member for Wirral South who made the point about looking at care as an aspirational role.

Alison McGovern indicated assent.

Norman Lamb: I totally agree with her. If a worker can aspire to something better—perhaps a progression in their career—they will commit themselves very fully to the role. The idea of a vocational progression towards nursing, even if, at the end of the day, a degree is involved, should be opened up much more than it is at present. I completely agree with her on the points that she makes.

I share the concerns that hon. Members have raised about pay. There have been reports that some home care workers may be working for less than the minimum wage, which is an absolutely disgraceful situation for a vast number of reasons, not least because an illegally low wage will never produce excellent results and it is an exploitation of the worker that we must not tolerate. It is the responsibility of all employers, including home care providers, to pay staff at least the national minimum wage. The Government are working closely with the Low Pay Commission and local authorities to address that issue. I can assure all hon. Members that we will not accept anything less than 100% compliance with the regulations.

When I was a Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, I wanted to change the rules to make it easier to name and shame employers who fail to pay the minimum wage. We must regard that as completely unacceptable practice, and any employer who indulges in it should be exposed; it is utterly intolerable.

Lilian Greenwood rose—

Norman Lamb: I am conscious that time is tight and I want to address the remaining points.

The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), who is no longer in her seat, raised concerns about potentially bogus arrangements in her constituency in Bexley. I think that she is writing to me on that matter, and I will be happy to look into it.

Care providers are also responsible for ensuring that their services meet the requirements in regulations and essential standards. The regulator, the Care Quality Commission, has powers that it can use to make sure that that happens. The CQC has our full support to use those powers as it sees fit to drive improvements in services. It is worth taking a moment to talk about the CQC report, which we have been discussing this morning. Between April and July 2012, the CQC inspected 250 registered home care providers as part of a themed programme to highlight respecting and involving people who use services and safeguarding them from abuse and neglect. To ensure that everything was examined thoroughly, it involved the people who use the services as well as the people who provide them. It looked at how staff are supported and how standards are maintained. Overall, the CQC found that 74% of the services that it inspected met the standards, and about a quarter did not. That is unacceptable and we must all focus our attention on those services.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to concerns about CQC’s capabilities in Oxfordshire, and I am aware of local media attention on that. My officials have raised

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those concerns with CQC and they were assured that it is on track to achieve its goal of inspecting 100% of adult social care locations across Oxfordshire by 31 March, that its Oxfordshire compliance team now consists of 10 full-time inspectors and that, after a period of recruitment, CQC has had no vacancies in the area since last December. If concerns continue, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to contact me and I will be happy to look into them further.

The importance of commissioning must be stressed. Commissioning over short periods of time—that race to the bottom—is unacceptable. We must commission on the basis of quality, as the hon. Member for Leicester West said. Finally, let me thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing such an important subject for debate.

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Brechfa West Wind Farm

11 am

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Turner. Two minutes ago, I was getting slightly worried that the Minister was going to miss the debate, but I am delighted to see him in his place now. I should have known better, and that he would not let the House down.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. However, if I had my way we would not be having this debate here today, as the matter under consideration, which essentially relates to the exploitation of Welsh natural resources, would be a matter for Welsh democratic institutions.

I have yet to be a Member of Parliament for three years—I am coming up to the three-year anniversary—but I have already lost count of the number of times that I have raised the issue of the need to devolve responsibility for these issues. Indeed, I introduced my own Bill, which was unceremoniously voted down by Tory and Labour MPs before it even got to Second Reading.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Hear, hear.

Jonathan Edwards: To be fair, the Liberal Democrats joined us in the Lobby, and I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who led that rebellion, present in Westminster Hall today.

Many of my constituents are extremely confused why some developments within the two technical advice note 8, or TAN 8, areas that I have in my constituency are a matter for the local planning authority, and why the development at Brechfa West is determined by the Minister. This development by RWE npower renewables is aimed at generating up to 84 MW, and therefore supersedes the ridiculous 50 MW limit that currently determines where responsibility lies.

The Minister will be aware that the UK Government-sponsored Silk commission is currently taking evidence on part two of its report. My party has called for the devolution of power to determine all energy-generating developments. The Labour Government in Wales have limited themselves to calling for full devolution of renewable energy projects. I read in the Western Mail that even the Tory Assembly group wants to increase the limit to 100 MW, although the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) has declared on Twitter that that will happen only “over his dead body”. I have not seen a submission by the Lib Dems on the Silk report but I am confident they will be on the side of progress on this issue.

Mr Williams: The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the Welsh Lib Dem commitment that the power to determine all those consents regarding projects above 50 MW should be vested in Assembly Ministers. That is of direct relevance not only to the two TAN 8 areas in his constituency but to a significant TAN 8 plan in Nant y Moch, which is in my Ceredigion constituency.

Jonathan Edwards: I am glad to see that commitment by the Lib Dems in Wales. However, we have seen the UK Government submission, which I believe was published this morning. I have not read it in great detail, but I am

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led to believe that it argues for maintaining the status quo. If that is the case, it will be slightly embarrassing for the Tories and the Lib Dems in Wales.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is right to say that I am greatly opposed to devolution of these matters, but that is purely because in my view the Westminster Government are more likely to listen to the opinions of local people than the Welsh Government are at the current time. That is the reason why I am opposed to devolution on this issue and will continue to oppose it; it is in the interests of local democracy and reflecting the opinions of local people. I would have thought that he might support me on that.

Jonathan Edwards: I hope that that is indeed the case, and that is why I secured this debate in the House this morning.

Ministers need to be aware that the current situation is frowned upon by people in Wales, who are protective of their natural resources. They do not understand why Scotland and Northern Ireland have full control over this policy field, while Welsh projects over the 50 MW limit are determined in London.

I have been forced to call this debate because my constituents feel that they have had precious little opportunity to express their views. All developments to date within TAN 8 area G have been determined by the local planning authority. Each development has been open to a full public consultation, and the lines of accountability with the planning department and planning committee have been clear. Indeed, based on the experiences of the only functioning development within the TAN 8 area, local planning guidance has been amended to include mitigating measures, such as an enhanced buffer zone.

None of those things applies to the Brechfa West development, as it is being determined under a completely different set of planning criteria. Local people feel that that particular development is being determined in a completely undemocratic manner. Only last week, a group of them travelled all the way down to London to present a dossier to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and I am confident that the Minister has read that document in the meantime. They feel that consultation by the planning inspector was lacking, and are as aggrieved as I am that the Minister and his team are making this decision without having even visited the area concerned. The Minister could have taken his dog, Otto, for a walk in the area, as it is a lovely part of west Wales, enjoyed by tourists from around the world.

As much as I would like to, I am not going to spend the time available to me today making the case—once again—for repatriation of energy powers to Wales. Instead, as the Minister will be making his decision on the Brechfa West project within the next week, I want to move on to the substantive issues regarding this development, and in particular the issues that have been raised with me by constituents.

Put simply, neither I nor my constituents are satisfied that either the Minister or the Secretary of State will visit Brechfa before passing judgment on the wind farm application. Even local planning authorities, made up of councillors living within the county, carry out regular site visits to gain a sound understanding of any proposed development. How can my constituents have any confidence

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in the Minister’s decision when he—sitting in his office down here in London—decides on an application for a project that is more than 200 miles away, in a village he does not know, in a community he does not understand and in a county he will not visit?

Many constituents have written to me regarding the noise levels of existing wind turbines situated in TAN 8 area G, more commonly known as Alltwalis wind farm, which is a stone’s throw away from the proposed Brechfa West development. Target noise limits for the proposed Brechfa West wind farm are based on ETSU-R-97, the same methodology used for the existing Alltwalis turbines. As the Minister should be aware, the 10 turbines at Alltwalis already make the maximum noise permitted under ETSU-R-97. The 28 proposed turbines at Brechfa West would inevitably add to the existing noise, thereby breaching noise limits. My constituents firmly believe there was no proper discussion during the planning process for Brechfa West about the cumulative noise effect, or about the possibility of using alternative noise or turbulence measurements to ETSU-R-97.

Of course, ETSU-R-97 is itself unsatisfactory. Since 2009, the UK Government have asked, first, Hayes McKenzie and, secondly, the Institute of Acoustics to review the application of ETSU-R-97, which is the Government’s recommended methodology for predicting and assessing the noise coming from wind turbines. As I have pointed out in correspondence and on the Floor of the House, the issue is not how consistently ETSU-R-97 is applied but whether it is effective in protecting people who live near turbines. The Minister should ask my constituents about this issue. It is their strong view that ETSU-R-97 is far from effective, and I strongly believe—I make the point again today—that the UK Government should commit to reviewing ETSU-R-97 on that basis.

The National Assembly for Wales agrees with that position. In May 2012, its Petitions Committee carried out a review into the control of noise from wind turbines. The cross-party group of Assembly Members made four key recommendations, one of which was that

“ETSU-R-97 guidelines be revised to take into account the lower ambient noise levels in rural areas and the latest research and World Health Organisation evidence on the effects on sleep disturbance.”

My constituents would be very interested to know the Minister’s views on that recommendation and whether he agrees with colleagues in the National Assembly.

Is the Minister content to allow wind farm applications to be judged in accordance with guidance that is 16 years old and arguably out of date? If so, what assurances will he put on record today to state categorically that the proposed 28 turbines at Brechfa West will not exceed the noise limits set out in the guidance? Why is there no provision, for example, for excess amplitude modulation? In particular, how will any breaches of noise regulations be policed? Which development—Alltwalis or Brechfa West—will face enforcement action? To whom will local people complain? Will it be to the local planning authority or to DECC here in Whitehall? Those are complicated issues and I am not convinced that the architects of TAN 8, which concentrates developments within strategic zones, have thought them through. Admittedly, that is, of course, an issue for the Welsh Government, as TAN 8 is Welsh Government policy.

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It cannot be right that some of my constituents consistently lose sleep due to the effects of wind turbines. If the Minister is minded to approve the Brechfa West application, my constituents would expect his personal reassurance that no resident will suffer loss of sleep due to the turbines and that there will be clear enforcement procedures to protect them.

I have also received many complaints from constituents about the access route for the Brechfa West development, which will be built only 150 metres away from the access route to the Alltwalis site. I have written to the Minister about that issue. Surely it is ridiculous that the developments will not be forced to use the same access route, should Brechfa West be approved, because they adjoin the same location. The operator of the Alltwalis development, Statkraft, has a continuing dispute with the landowner of its access route, and the situation has turned extremely unpleasant. Surely the Department should use the new adjacent development at Brechfa West to address some of the outstanding issues with the Alltwalis development, if the Minister consents to the Brechfa West development in the next week.

In answer to my recent parliamentary question, the Minister confirmed that the Planning Act 2008

“allows for applications for development consent for new generating stations above 50 megawatts (MW) and associated electricity connections to be contained in a single application, or in separate applications submitted in tandem”.—[Official Report, 18 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 956W.]

Given that the Minister will be determining the Brechfa West application on its own, my constituents in Brechfa, and in the surrounding communities of the majestic Towy and Teifi valleys, can reasonably expect him to give a cast-iron guarantee this morning that no additional infrastructure, such as pylons or electricity cabling, will be required to connect the Brechfa West turbines to the national grid.

The infrastructure has been more contentious in mid-Wales than the energy-generating projects themselves. The understanding of local people is that, should the Minister approve Brechfa West, National Grid will make an infrastructure planning application linking TAN 8 area G in the north of my constituency and TAN 8 area E in the south before joining the main south Wales electricity network at Swansea.

Glyn Davies: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me a second intervention. Does he agree that, for any other form of application, seeking approval without the associated infrastructure just would not happen? Someone could not seek permission for a house if there was no road to it, yet in mid-Wales we have a public inquiry into six wind farms without any idea of how the power is going out. The idea is that the approval of the wind farms would force the infrastructure to follow. That is absolutely outrageous. The Governments in Westminster and in Cardiff are forcing something on local people and are coming up with every stunt in the book to try to undermine local opinion.

Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman is correct. Indeed, the Department’s planning guidance is that projects and infrastructure should be agreed in tandem.

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The Merched Beca uprising of the 19th century was spawned in the communities of north Carmarthenshire, and if the worst fears about pylons are realised, there will be huge protests throughout Carmarthenshire, as we have seen in mid-Wales.

If the Minister is not prepared to give a guarantee, my constituents would expect a moratorium on the Brechfa West application until additional planning applications for electricity infrastructure are submitted. As UK Government energy planning policy dictates, the applications should be considered together, otherwise the people of Carmarthenshire would rightly feel they have been misled by his Department, the Labour Government in Cardiff and the multinational companies involved in the development.

Given that there are 10 turbines in Alltwalis, that 15 turbines are currently being erected on Betws mountain in TAN 8 area E and that a proposal for 21 further turbines was recently refused for Llanllwni mountain in the TAN 8 area of north Carmarthenshire, it seems logical for electricity infrastructure proposals to be submitted in tandem. Only then will those passing judgment on the applications have a true and accurate picture of the impact the developments would have on the communities I represent.

I find myself in the somewhat strange position of defending the interests of the defence industry and its testing of unmanned aerial vehicles to justify my constituents’ concerns on Brechfa West. My opposition to UAVs is a matter of public record, and I stand by my comments. Nevertheless, my constituents have significant concerns about the safety of operations in what is now regrettably a highly militarised area.

Since the planning process ended, the Ministry of Defence has warned that the proposed Brechfa West turbines would cause unacceptable interference to range-control radar at Aberporth. The interference would desensitise radar in the vicinity of the turbines, leading to aircraft not being detected and not being identifiable to air traffic control. There would also be false aircraft returns, thereby increasing the workload of controllers and air crews, which would have a significant operational impact.

The MOD also states that radar is used to separate and sequence both military and civilian aircraft, and that

“radar is the only way to do this safely.”

The Minister should be aware that the whole of north Carmarthenshire was recently designated an air corridor for the testing of military drones between the air base at Aberporth on the Ceredigion coast and the military training area on Epynt mountain in south Powys.

Despite identifying risks to public safety, and initially demanding that those risks be mitigated by developers before any construction begins, the MOD withdrew its objections before the start of the planning process. It has been suggested that the MOD was subjected to considerable pressure from the developer, and the MOD apparently made the decision only for legal reasons—for fear of facing a legal challenge— and not because of a change in policy or position.

Mr Mark Williams: Does the hon. Gentleman think that the pressure that may have been brought to bear on the MOD goes to the heart of the issue about conflicting

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policy agendas? The Welsh Assembly Government and the MOD are investing a lot of money in the development of drones at ParcAberporth, but TAN 8 wind turbine sites are being designated comparatively nearby. That is a big clash of policy, is it not?

Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. North Carmarthenshire now has the only air corridor over the British mainland, yet the area has been heavily mapped for the development of renewable projects, which affect defence projects. There seems to be a lack of coherence, whether that is the responsibility of the Welsh Government or the UK Government—the air corridor is a UK Government policy, of course.

Additionally, the MOD is blocking the Met Office’s objection to the proposed wind farm, which, again, was formulated on public safety grounds due to interference to the only weather radar station in Wales. As we are talking about flying objects, with rumours of weaponised drones being tested in the near future, those responsible for approving the wind farm must be satisfied that the development poses no public risk. Will the Minister outline his understanding of why those objections from the MOD and the Met Office were withheld?

My constituents have endeavoured to engage with each and every step of the application process. Many have been unable to take part due to different authorities being responsible for developments of different sizes, which leads to confusion. I find myself getting confused, and I am a Member of Parliament. Some of my constituents have requested that, at the very least, turbines 17, 18 and 23 be removed to minimise the noise and visual impact on their homes. If the Minister decides to approve the development in the next week, I would ask that he particularly considers those three turbines.

It is regrettable that I have had to secure this debate to air my constituents’ concerns. My constituents feel that, compared with the planning processes of the local planning authority, they have been unable to express their view on the procedures employed by the Infrastructure Planning Commission and the Department. There is no doubt in my mind that decisions on such developments should be made in Wales. I hope the Minister, before he makes his decision within the next week, will consider the points I have raised today.

11.17 am

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on securing this debate. I know he has taken a strong and long-standing interest in the topic, which is important for his constituents. Over the past three years—his anniversary is coming up—he has been diligent in asking written and oral questions in the House.

I am sorry to start my response to this interesting debate by making what might seem to be an unhelpful statement, but the hon. Gentleman has mentioned that the Department is currently considering the application for development consent from RWE npower renewables on the proposed Brechfa Forest West wind farm. Given my quasi-judicial role in approving the application, I regret that I am unable to comment on the merits of the arguments for and against the proposal made both this morning and during the Planning Inspectorate’s lengthy examination of the application.

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I am also unable to respond to the pithy interventions by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), but I acknowledge their points. I assure them that I have listened carefully to the discussions this morning. I cannot prejudge the outcome, but I will consider whether any of the points raised are material to the deliberations on the consent. There will be a revised submission in light of this debate, and my officials and I will read it carefully before coming to our considered decision.

My deliberations will also have to include the other relevant matters that have been drawn to my attention, including the representations delivered to the Department of Energy and Climate Change by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr and several of his constituents last week, and the report from the Planning Inspectorate dated 12 December 2012, which drew together the various issues that were considered during the examination of the Brechfa application.

The hon. Gentleman expressed his frustration that I had not been able to visit the site. I can assure him that that is nothing peculiar to his constituency, and it has nothing to do with the fact that it is in Wales. It is not usual for a Planning Minister to visit individual sites, because that might jeopardise, counteract or duplicate the professional site visits that the Planning Inspectorate undertakes. It is my job to bring together all those detailed observations and the representations made locally, and to consider them. I could carry out that consideration in Whitehall or Kathmandu, but I have to look at the evidence impartially and reach a decision. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no reluctance on my part to visit such a beautiful part of the country, and I am sure that were Otto given a say in the matter, he would be all in favour of a site visit.

For the sake of clarity, it might be worth setting out briefly the process by which the Brechfa application and other infrastructure projects classified as nationally significant—in the case of onshore wind farms, those with a generating capacity of more than 50 MW—are considered and determined. One of the key planks of the Planning Act 2008 process for such projects is the role of the Planning Inspectorate. Until its report and recommendation are submitted to the Secretary of State, the inspectorate leads on various aspects of the process. It is, therefore, the inspectorate that engages in discussions with applicants before an application for development consent is submitted; it is the inspectorate that considers whether an application should be accepted for examination; and it is the inspectorate that will conduct the examination of that application. As part of the examination, the inspectorate’s examining authority—either an individual or a panel of three of five members that is hearing the case—visits the sites of proposed developments. That is as it should be. The inspectorate’s officers have the expertise to assess the issues on the ground and weigh up the benefits, or otherwise, of the proposed development package. It is not Ministers’ place to engage in that aspect of the process.

Jonathan Edwards: I accept the points that the Minister makes, but that means that we must essentially accept on blind faith the advice of the inspectorate. My constituents have expressed to me their concern that such work was not carried out properly.

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Gregory Barker: In considering all the evidence, I will have the opportunity to weigh against the professional submissions that I receive additional submissions from local people, not least the information that the hon. Gentleman has so assiduously brought to my attention. He brought it to my Department last week, and I can assure him that it will be weighed in the balance as a decision is reached.

As indicated earlier, it is only at the end of the process that the Secretary of State can consider the information that has been provided by the applicant and any interested parties, and the way in which the Planning Inspectorate’s examiner has considered those matters. Finally, the Planning Act process is precise about the timetable for decision making. Decisions must be made within three months of the submission of the Planning Inspectorate’s report and recommendation. I am sure we all agree that it is in nobody’s interest for such decisions to be spun out, leaving local communities and businesses hanging, waiting for Government decisions. If that timetable cannot be met, the responsible Minister must make a statement to Parliament and to interested parties indicating why not. In the case of the Brechfa application, a decision must be reached by 12 March 2013, so we are close now.

Jonathan Edwards: I know that the Minister wants to make progress, and I am listening intently to what he is saying. One of the arguments against the development is that it will not be possible to use the existing electricity connection grids to transmit the energy to the main line in south Wales, which runs from Alltwalis to Carmarthen. New infrastructure will be required, and the UK Government’s planning guidance clearly states that such projects should be considered in tandem.

Gregory Barker: I understand why the hon. Gentleman raises the question of grid connection for the Brechfa project. Although I cannot go into detail and comment on the specifics of that case, for obvious reasons, it might be worth outlining the process that is set out in the overarching national policy statement for energy, which is known as EN-1, for considering grid connection issues. EN-1 sets out that, wherever possible, applications for new generating stations and related infrastructure should be contained in a single application to the Planning Inspectorate or in separate applications submitted in tandem that have been prepared in an integrated way.

Glyn Davies: Does the Minister know that the inspector in the conjoined public inquiry into the six applications I mentioned has specifically refused to do that? Protesters, including me, have wanted that to happen, but the inspector has refused to look at the infrastructure side at the same time, even though that would satisfy local people’s concerns.

Gregory Barker: I hear my hon. Friend’s point, and clearly it would be best for the applications to be made in tandem. However, that is not always possible, and it

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may not always be the most practicable way of dealing with such issues. In some cases, therefore, applicants may decide to submit an application that seeks consent for one element but contains some information on the second strand of the project, including an assessment of impacts. Where that is the case, the decision maker will need to be satisfied that there are no obvious reasons why the necessary approvals for the other element—the grid infrastructure—are likely to be refused.

I would like to touch on the other big issue that was raised, namely the devolution of consenting powers for energy infrastructure to Welsh Ministers. I understand that that raises a degree of emotion. The Government support the principle that decisions for particular matters should be taken at the most appropriate level, and as locally as possible, wherever that is feasible. For nationally significant energy infrastructure projects in England and Wales, as defined in the Planning Act, we consider that the right decision maker is the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. For offshore renewable energy projects of up to and including 100 MW, that responsibility is vested in the Marine Management Organisation, under the relevant provisions in the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. We believe that the present arrangements for decision making are fit for purpose in that they minimise delays and unpredictability and ensure investor confidence in the decision-making process.

The major infrastructure planning regimes are different in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for historical reasons, and they reflect each nation’s devolution settlement. The Planning Act and the Localism Act 2011, which broadly cover England and Wales, introduced the current major infrastructure planning regime. Those changes were devolution-neutral and did not make any significant changes to the division of responsibility between the local and national consenting authorities. The Government are clear that any requests for further devolution of powers in this area to Welsh Ministers or the Welsh Assembly should be considered in the light of any recommendations made by the Silk commission, which is currently reviewing the powers of the National Assembly for Wales and is due to publish its recommendations in spring 2014.

The hon. Gentleman asked about noise and reliance on regulations that date back to 1996. We have procured updated analysis from acoustic experts Hayes McKenzie, which carried out a research project. Its report was published in June 2011, and it found that although ETSU-R-97 guidance remained fit for purpose, good practice guidance was needed to confirm, and where necessary clarify, how it is being implemented in practice. We are producing new guidance, which will be published in the first half of 2013. We are updating the guidance, but we believe that it is fit for purpose. I am afraid I cannot go into more detail, but I will be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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British Retail

[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Richard Harrington (Watford) (Con): It is a pleasure to introduce this debate under your chairmanship, Sir Alan.

I chose to call a debate on retail for two purposes. From a parochial point of view, retail is a significant employer in Watford and a significant contributor to the economy. Also, the press that retail receives nationally, with glamorous Sky reporters standing in front of shops such as Blockbuster and HMV that are shutting down, gives a false impression of the sector’s overall prosperity and contribution to the economy.

Members of Parliament and the public at large should realise that retail is a big sector of the economy, and contributes in excess of 5% of GDP. Although the Government are trying to encourage growth in the manufacturing sector, the retail sector contributes more added value to the economy.

Retail is able to offer increasingly sophisticated employment. The old impression that people work in shops because they cannot do anything else is no longer relevant. Retail jobs are highly trained, and there are many apprentices. Many people, including me, started their business career in the retail sector. Following my law degree, I was a graduate trainee at John Lewis, which gave me ideas for developing my life both in business and more generally. It all went well until I became interested in politics.

Retail contributes employment and taxation not only through pay-as-you-earn and corporation tax but through business rates. The sector is a big contributor to urban regeneration. People do not think of retail as a factor in urban regeneration, but they only have to look at places such as Westfield on the Olympic site. When I went to work in Watford’s Harlequin centre, which is now known as Intu, in 1980, it was the poorest part of town, notwithstanding the efforts of John Lewis and other old retailers that had been there for 50 years, 100 years or more. The Harlequin centre was certainly not the sort of place people would want to go unless they had to go shopping.

Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the vibrancy of high streets that are under pressure from some of the multiples is also down to niche independents? Allowing niche independents to thrive and grow is vital.

Richard Harrington: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I would expect nothing less. Independents are very much part of the story, and they are necessary, but large companies developing real estate and operating shops create massive employment, massive taxation and a massive contribution to urban regeneration, although that takes nothing from the validity of my hon. Friend’s point.

Things have changed. Everyone knows that in the past, apart from the high street, most towns had parades of shops. The developers of the masses of residential

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areas across London and the home counties from the time trains opened up those places would, for every few hundred houses, build a parade of shops that included a fruiterer, a greengrocer, a fishmonger, a general grocer and so on. Various things in the cycle, certainly in my lifetime, have kept those parades going.

I remember when the supermarkets started to take hold and some of those shops became empty and were replaced by banks, which were opening chains of local branches. It is hard to imagine now, but there was a big fight for which bank could get there first. Then there were estate agents. Again, if there was a spare unit, people would open an estate agency. There always seemed to be something, but that is not the case now.

With the internet there is less demand for individual units. There is plenty of supply, because, in many cases, the units were built before the second world war, if not before the first world war.

Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate.

One of the changes is that massive supermarkets are also becoming dominant players in the convenience sector and are appearing in every community, rather than simply in out of town or city centre locations. Has the hon. Gentleman reflected on the health, or otherwise, of that for British retail and market diversity in those communities?

Richard Harrington: Yes, I have reflected on that fundamental point. Many hon. Members want to contribute, so I cannot address all aspects of retail. Suffice it to say that although in the past shops appeared, on the surface, to give people much greater choice, if we add the internet and other channels, people have great choice now. I do not completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, but his point is valid.

Many people of my father’s generation came out of the Army with a small amount of money and could never dream of opening a big factory or going into a big form of business, but they were able to use their money to open a market stall, as my father did in Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the Marks and Spencer dream of going from a penny bazaar to a major multinational did not happen in my family, but we ended up with two market stalls. My father’s business doubled in size over 30 years from one market stall to two.

The serious point is that in those days the barriers to entry were low and could be met by people with small savings and an idea. For almost any item of clothing, household goods, luggage or anything that people could think of, there was a place for a niche shop. It is easy to say, “All that has changed. It is now in the hands of Tesco and the other big companies.” I do not quite buy that, although, yes, in the start-up system it is generally true that not many people, for a number of reasons, are opening shops; they are not saying, “I want to sell shoes, so I am going to take a store in Watford high street.”

Even if someone is acceptable as a tenant, they probably cannot afford to pay the rent or the rates. Compared with my father’s generation, there probably is not the same demand for the high street, but that does not include internet start-ups. There are many such examples in my constituency, including the sister of

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Jenny Reed, who works in my office. Hayley Reed had no business experience, but she set up a shop in her spare room. If I might ruthlessly plug the shop, it is called ProperPresent.com, and is similar to what previous generations would have created in bricks and mortar. The retail sector, albeit differently, still allows for start-ups and for choices that fit people’s modern lifestyle.

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this hugely important debate, and I support his point. The coming changes in technology represent enormous challenges and opportunities for retail. Does he agree, therefore, that it is important that the Government take a long, hard look at the changes taking place in the sector and the policies that we need to implement to maximise employment opportunities? Does he welcome the news that the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills has recently agreed to launch an inquiry into the changes that are taking place in the retail sector?

Richard Harrington: I more than welcome the inquiry. It shows that retailing is being treated seriously as an industry in its own right, rather than as just a mechanical part of the distribution chain. It contributes as much as manufacturing and other sectors. I warmly endorse what my hon. Friend says.

The ultimate answer to the question of choice in retail is whether the public are given a better service today. I argue that they certainly are. When I worked at Trewins, which was John Lewis in 1980, we shut on Saturday at lunch time, on Sunday and on Monday. Now the equivalent—the Intu shopping centre, formerly known as the Harlequin, in Watford—is, for better or for worse, open every day. People have the choice to shop all the hours they want. Similarly, from the small independent point of view, although I agree that the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker are not there, the internet gives the public a huge amount of choice and very good service. Although the developments in the retail trade are muted in people’s minds by the shops, chains and household names that have closed down, the public are given a much better service.

We need only look at the effect on the economy. Again, to be parochial, the main shopping centre in Watford replaced a sprawling mix of businesses, including the smallest abattoir left in England, an old Sainsbury’s branch and lots of different warehouses. For the past 20 years, the main shopping centre has had 147 stores, but the important thing is that it directly employs more than 4,000 people, plus the distribution chain and all the businesses in it. The shopping centre contributes about £14.5 million in business rates, which is a tremendous amount. It has about 750,000 square feet of infrastructure, and has upgraded that whole part of town.

I am not saying that there have not been consequences. It would be wrong of me to say that things are all one-way and all about prosperity; I am aware of the effect that shopping centres have on other things, but they are economic powerhouses in their own right. By any standards, the shopping centre is a big business, employs a lot of people and contributes a lot to the economy.

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Similarly, nationally, companies such as Westfield have come from abroad to invest significant amounts of money in what it sounds trendier to call “urban regeneration” than “retail”. The east end, White City and other places throughout the country are major, long-term investment projects. Westfield has invested about £3.5 billion since it came to the UK in 2000, and created 25,000 jobs. If it were another kind of business and that sort of growth were announced over 10 years, there would be headlines all over the place.

Although I accept that retail is not the total answer to our economic problems, we must accept what it does for employment, infrastructure and areas where the rest of the private sector and the public sector have failed completely. It is a significant and serious business, and its problems must be considered by Government. I am delighted to see the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) in the Chamber; I know that he is experienced in this subject. Government must turn their mind to retail, because it is such a significant employer and a significant contributor to the national economy.

Jessica Lee (Erewash) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate him on securing the debate. The issue of employment has been raised, but does he agree that apprenticeships are another of retail’s valuable contributions? Sectors such as retail and catering offer important apprenticeships. They certainly do in Erewash. I recently visited Anderson’s on the High street, an independent coffee shop and caterers offering apprenticeships. Next week is national apprenticeship week. It is another important aspect of this debate that we must not miss.

Richard Harrington: I very much endorse what my hon. Friend says. As I said, it is easy to think of retail as “Open All Hours” with Ronnie Barker or Young Mr Grace appearing and saying “You’ve all done very well”, but shops invest a lot of money in training staff, and they know that a lot of their capital assets lie in the skills of those staff. Retail used to be minimum-wage drudge work, but it is fair to say, despite my lack of success in the John Lewis hierarchy, that now the management teams in some retail firms are comparable with almost anything else in this country, and the work starts from apprenticeship level. I totally agree.

However, there are some industry issues that we need to consider, and I will speak of them as I perceive them; I am not in any way a spokesperson for the industry, but I have tried to observe it and take all things into consideration. Business rates are a significant issue. In many cases, they are a more important overhead than rent. I believe that the industry contributes just short of £24 billion a year in business rates. That is a direct contribution to the local and national economy, and it is a serious amount.

The way that rates are linked to the retail prices index means that average shop rates have more or less doubled in the past 20 years. As most other valuations in the Government system these days are being linked to the consumer prices index rather than the RPI, that seems a little unfair. The industry’s greatest disappointment, which seems to have merit, is that there was talk of a fundamental revaluation that would remove many of

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the anomalies in the system, but it has now been postponed. It seems to me that there is a legitimate argument that in the interim, until the system is properly reviewed, rises should be limited by linking rates to CPI instead of RPI.

Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab): I agree that business rates are crucial. I also think that we cannot divorce this debate from the general economic climate. Towards the end of last year, Ashfield lost its two Jonathan James shops. One of them, in Eastwood, has now been replaced by the Money Shop, a payday lender. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what is crucial to this debate and to what our high streets look like is growth in the economy, not in payday loan companies?

Richard Harrington: I do not think that point is relevant in this particular case. As far as retailing is concerned, a payday loan company, provided that it is legal and proper in all that it carries out—I accept that there is a different issue—employs people in much the same way as a shop with the same number of staff. That is not to take away from the hon. Lady’s point, but from a retail perspective, it is important to realise that like traditional retailers, all those companies employ a lot of people and in that respect contribute a lot to the local economy, which is the subject of the debate.

Rates are an important issue to which the Government must turn their thoughts. The planning side of things is also important. The national planning framework, which I thought was absolutely excellent, gives a lot of emphasis to town centres and their development, but there seems to be no compliance mechanism. It must be remembered that more than 80% of planning applications for retail currently being considered are for out of town rather than in town centres. Given that it is generally agreed that the regeneration of town centres is a good thing, it would be good to have some form of compliance for ensuring that local authorities emphasise it.

We must accept that because there are now fewer functions for retail premises, local parades do not have the “get out of jail free” card that they used to have when new industries and uses would by and large appear. However one looks at high street retailing, there is less demand because of the internet, which has also brought many benefits. The Government’s current policies on relaxing planning rules to allow some units to return to residential use are a good thing and an acceptance of reality. Although one would hope that it was not the case and that some units could be live/work—for residential use at the same time as retail—the fact is that there are a lot of places where, if there is a convenience store, it is very good. I commend the convenience store sector for how it has adapted, notwithstanding the point made by the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) about the big supermarkets in all their guises, from hypermarkets to convenience stores, doing their best to dominate the market.

There is still a strong and good independent sector in this country, and long may it continue, but that sector will not fill up all the parades of shops and tertiary units, which were built with very good reason. In the case of many of our parents or grandparents—for some hon. Members, their great-grandparents—the husband would be at work and the wife would walk to the shops every day with the baby in the pram and the shopping

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trolley. The shops had to be nearby, because there was often no public transport and people certainly did not have a car. Most of us accept that has changed, and that planning laws have to change in respect of empty properties; we need both private and social accommodation and some of it could come from surplus retail space.

Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West) (Con): I declare an interest. Like my hon. Friend, I worked in the sector for about 20 years, either as a landlord or a tenant, and I echo his sentiments. The vital issue with retail space, in particular in city centres, is utilising the upper parts: residential conversion is crucial. For far too long, we have been obsessed with the ground-floor unit, almost dismissing the upper part. In continental Europe or other areas, people utilise the upstairs, which provides an alternative use.

Richard Harrington: I wholly endorse what my hon. Friend said.

I finish with two suggestions that might be unpopular with the large commercial sector, the shopping centre providers and commercial landlords. I mentioned many good points about companies such as Westfield and the strong regeneration sector; retail happens to be their product, but they are really redeveloping important parts of our landscape. However, it is almost impossible for independent retailers to get into such units. I am not talking about community efforts, an area for a market with local craftsmen and that type of thing; I am talking about people who are running proper businesses, be they start-ups or just one unit. They cannot get into the shopping centres because of the commercial value of a rent paid by an individual operator to the shareholders, many of which, ultimately, are the pension funds that look after all our pensions; those capital values are very much dependent on having big names in the units. As part of planning, the Government should look at the possibility of allocating to independent retailers a small number of units paying market rent; I am not arguing for any form of subsidy, except the sort that people get to move in, such as fitting out or a rent holiday. A number of shops should be allocated to companies with only one or two stores. That is the only way. It could be part of a general planning permission. I am not specifying half the units, or a quarter, but somehow it has to be realised in the retail sector that small companies and start-ups with capital—properly capitalised, I am not talking about ones that cannot compete from a capital point of view—should be allowed into those main retail centres.

My second suggestion will probably make me extremely unpopular, in particular with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal). Although the Government cannot do much about the role of small commercial landlords, those landlords are absolutely deluded about their ability to get the rents they ask. Their mentality is to ask for yesterday’s rent; because a shop was rented out 10 years ago at £40,000, they will keep it empty for three, four or five years under the delusion that they will get the same rent, and notwithstanding the fact that they are paying empty property rates, which I point out to the Minister it is right for them to be doing. If the vast array of small commercial landlords are listening to the debate or reading Hansard tomorrow, which I accept is completely

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unlikely, I have a suggestion that might help, although it is not the panacea for everything. As MPs, local councillors and people involved in the community, we could persuade small operators to come into some of those empty shops, but landlords asking for a rent that they once got 10 years ago makes it almost impossible.

In summary, retail should be recognised as a modern, vibrant sector, something that this country is good at and which contributes a lot to our national economy. It has to be accepted by Government that retail is up there with manufacturing and all the other businesses that the Government are promoting to help the country, and not, as used to be thought, something that just sucks in imports and is part of the distribution sector.

Several hon. Members rose

Sir Alan Meale (in the Chair): Order. I thank the hon. Gentleman for being short with his time and generous to his colleagues who have made a number of interventions; I think we have had six. Six Members have written to me and I hope they will be called, but there are the two Front-Benchers and seven other people are indicating that they wish to speak, so I need your help to call everyone during the debate. Bearing in mind that most of those who have written in are sitting on the Government side of the Chamber, as are most of the Members attending, I hope that they will help their colleagues.

2.55 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on securing this important debate. I agree absolutely with many of his excellent points, which are based on huge experience of the sector.

The retail sector provides jobs for 3 million people nationally and is the UK’s largest private sector employer, accounting for about 10% of all jobs. More than half the people in the retail sector work part time, compared with about a third in other sectors, making it an important source of jobs for people seeking non-standard hours, such as pensioners or those combining work with study, child care or caring responsibilities. Retail is a diverse sector, ranging from market traders to high street giants, or from self-employed start-ups to global companies; they are the face of our high streets. Those high streets, however, are changing, not least because of the impact of the enormous growth in internet sales which, according to figures released this week, have seen a 10.9% increase since February 2012.

The UK is now the global leader for online shopping, and there has also been a dramatic growth in m-commerce —sales over mobile phones—of more than 500% in the past two years. Verdict, the retail analyst, has forecast that almost £1 in every £4 spent online will be through a mobile in 2017. A staggering 73% of smartphone users now use their phones when out shopping. Successful town centres in the future will be those that understand that, and where traditional retailing and leisure converge seamlessly with new technology.

Recent figures show that retail sales are up but that footfall is down, perhaps reflecting changing shopping habits that have led to many empty retail units nationally.

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It is not entirely helpful to produce a league table of empty shops as a reflection of what may be happening in a particular town, because high streets are going through transition and many councils are looking to use some of the surplus units for other uses, such as residential use. A couple of hon. Members have made that point. That is why a key principle of the Portas pilots was understanding that high streets are not simply collections of shops but public spaces where people can socialise, eat out, access other services and enjoy leisure, arts and cultural activities. I am pleased that Stockport is one of the Portas pilot areas. Our pilot is being led by the creative industries bringing together local people to think up new and innovative ideas.

Stockport is facing the challenge of revitalising a traditional shopping arcade squeezed by competition from nearby centres in Manchester and Trafford Park, and the historic Market place and Underbanks with their empty retail units. We have attracted new retailers, in particular young entrepreneurs, into historic parts of our town. We have a “Vintage Village” market, which takes place every month in the market hall, attracting traders and visitors from throughout the UK. It recently won a prestigious magazine award and has been so successful that the organisers now have a permanent shop in which they rent space to other traders. The fair contributes to the efforts to regenerate the beautifully restored and redeveloped market hall and Market place into the thriving trade hub it has been for 750 years.

We also have the innovative teenage market, which Mary Portas has described as “unique and inspiring”. It was created in 2012 by teenage brothers Joe and Tom Barratt as an event where young people could have a free stall in Stockport market to sell their creative products. It is not only an event but an online television show and an initiative dedicated to supporting young creative talent. It provides a free platform for young painters, fashion designers, jewellery makers, graffiti artists, photographers, graphic designers, bakers, poets, comedians, musicians, singers, dancers and other performers.

Stockport’s famous Plaza, which is a splendid vintage cinema and theatre, has been awarded £20,000 from the Portas pilot initiative towards the cost of installing digital projection equipment. That has enabled the Plaza to start satellite screenings of the National Theatre, the Bolshoi ballet and, later this season, the Glyndebourne opera, alongside community usage for events and film screenings, including old and much-loved classics.

One of Stockport’s difficulties is that it shuts at 5 pm. It needs to develop a night-time economy to compete with nearby towns. Stockport market has a major role to play in enabling the change to a night-time economy. Traditional street markets like that in Stockport must provide better food offers, with specialist stalls, and offer cultural events. It must be seen as not so much a shopping experience but an entertainment experience—a sort of retail theatre.

On market day 750 years ago, families would come with goods to sell and see and experience the sights, smells and sounds of the market, which offered not only fresh produce but entertainment, food and drink and the chance to catch up with fellow townspeople. I believe that such an environment is still hugely attractive, particularly to families, and can provide early-evening entertainment that could kick-start a night-time economy in Stockport.

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As chair of the all-party markets group and co-chair of the all-party retail group, I am looking forward to “love your markets week” in April, which will celebrate our historic markets and showcase new and vibrant markets. At the same time, it will offer training opportunities for new traders through the “First Pitch” initiative by the National Federation of Market Traders.

Like other parts of the country, Stockport has many empty shops, and the reality is that many will never again be retail units, but might start a new life as artist’s studios, outlets for council services or residential accommodation. Despite the closure of some retail chains, the issue is clearly not as simple as shoppers deserting the high street for their computer or mobile devices. Recent research has shown that frustration with online shopping is driving some customers back to shops. The market is complex and it is changing fast.

In Stockport, 5,700 people are employed in retail. The jobs are popular and sought-after. During a visit to a local Stockport store last week, I met many long-term staff, including people who had worked there for up to 35 years. They had a lot of commitment, local contacts and knowledge about their products, which all contributed to a friendly and successful store. The company had invested in them and they in turn had an investment in the company.

I was interested that one of the main themes at the British Retail Consortium’s annual reception recently was how to help people to build a career in retail. In a 24/7 environment, there is obviously tremendous pressure to have maximum flexibility from the work force, and many companies are introducing zero or eight-hour contracts to keep costs competitive. I acknowledge that some people may find that attractive, but others will have little alternative.

The problem with short-term contracts is that they are unpredictable, and people have no pension, sick pay or tax credit entitlement. That is clearly difficult for the work force, and I believe that in the long term it will be a problem for employers who will not get in return the sort of commitment they need from staff. In future, because of changes in how people shop, customers will want more service from staff in the information that they provide about goods, as the hon. Member for Watford said. That means that increased investment in skills and training for retail staff will be required, and that is not totally compatible with zero or eight-hour contracts.

Retail is a vibrant and exciting industry with much scope for future success. From market stalls to superstores, whether a trolley-shop in a supermarket or using the latest technology to buy online, the nature of shopping is changing. People no longer want just a shopping experience, and towns such as Stockport will have to be a mix of traditional retail, independent and specialist shops, special markets and cultural events. The challenge is to create a high street that is attractive to 21st-century mobile phone shoppers and also meets the social needs of the community. Combining retail with a place to meet has always been the challenge of the high street through changing times, but I am confident that with proper support the high street will survive, albeit in a new and exciting form.

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3.4 pm

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): Thank you, Sir Alan, for calling me to speak in this extremely important and pertinent debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) on securing it. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), who has immense knowledge of the subject, and has made a good pitch for what she thinks should be the future of our town centres.

There is no doubt that our retail sector is undergoing a fundamental and lasting structural change, and that the full force of the internet is being felt. In the past few months, HMV, Jessops and Blockbuster, to name a few companies that once had a successful business model, have succumbed quickly as their business model, overtaken by the pace of change in technology, has become obsolete. Traditional retailing is being eroded and is likely to give way to e-retailing.

Destination retailing is joining e-retailing as the focus for many of our multiple chains. It is said in retail that the customer is king, and it is impossible to stem the tide of what is happening. I am chairman of the all-party town centres group, and I think it is important to manage that fundamental change in our town centres and high streets. That is what I want to speak about today. We must look carefully in many areas at how we manage the change because many things need to be done. I want to focus on three issues.

The first issue is business taxation. Rents are falling in many small and medium town centres, but business rates, which are one of the greatest costs for retail businesses, are not following that pattern. I understand why the Government may not want a business rate revaluation at the moment, but the Minister and my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Treasury should consider freezing business rates in the forthcoming Budget, to give a fighting chance to small businesses in our town centres that might not benefit from small business rate relief.

Toby Perkins: I commend the hon. Gentleman for his comments about business rates. There is no question but that the issue is significant. He seems to be calling for the Government to forgo expected income to invest in the future, which is the Labour party’s economic strategy, so is the hon. Gentleman coming on board?

Mr Jones: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. If my right hon. Friend the Chancellor sought to freeze business rates, I would expect him to do so in a way that balances the books. It is certainly not the Conservative-led Government’s policy to do things that impact further on the deficit. The hon. Gentleman and the Labour party are advocating an increase in the deficit instead of reducing it as the Government are doing.

Mr Robin Walker: My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. Before he moves on from business rates, does he agree that we inherited with the terrible deficit from the last Government a huge backlog of appeals against business rate decisions in the Valuation Office Agency? That continues to be a problem. Will he join me in urging the Treasury to do everything it can to clear that backlog, and to recognise that that shows that there is a real issue with the valuation and revaluation process?