My hon. Friend raised the point of there being areas in all our communities with blind spots and blind corners. Whereas someone can hear a normal car, a lorry or even a cyclist who has the good sense to ring

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their bell as they go round a corner, these silent electric cars cannot be heard. We need to remember that disabled people and people with limited mobility cannot necessarily turn their heads to see what is behind them.

We also need to remember that people with learning disabilities, particularly those with autism, get used to certain sounds in the environment—they know what they are looking for and are comfortable with certain things. All of a sudden, an electric vehicle might completely unsettle everything they know and have learned. Because they do not necessarily have the immediate sense of danger that they would get from another vehicle, they become incredibly vulnerable.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the point about autism. Many autistic people will have acute hearing issues and the frequencies they are attuned to can be very different from those who have what is euphemistically called “normal hearing”. Her point is powerful. We have to think about the unforeseen consequences of vehicles that to us might seem to represent an acceptable reduction in noise. Those vehicles can discombobulate people with autism in their daily lives.

Tracey Crouch: My hon. Friend is a great champion of those with autism, and I congratulate him on all the work he has done on the issue. He is absolutely right that those of us without a learning or physical disability do not necessarily understand the challenges that those with disabilities or impairments face. While we all accept and recognise the need for the growth in more environmentally friendly cars, we have to remember the other challenges that come with them.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): As one who represents a rural constituency where we are campaigning for more pedestrian crossings in various villages, I should say that the increase in traffic makes this a serious matter. I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that the issue is acute in rural villages.

Tracey Crouch: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. My constituency is part-urban, part-rural, so I see the challenges from both sides: the densely populated areas with blind spots and corners and the villages with high hedges and everything else. Electric vehicles are bringing challenges in every part of our community.

I had the great privilege of attending the Kent Association for the Blind forum in my constituency last Friday. I did so as chair of the Medway council disability partnership board. I was asked to attend to answer various challenges, and the issue of electric vehicles was rightly raised with me. Other issues were also raised, such as how difficult it can be to get from A to B, even with a guide dog, or just with a stick. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) pointed out, being blind makes the other senses more acute and it shows how much we rely on them.

I heard an incredibly horrific and distressing story about a blind lady who uses a guide dog and came across a lady with a pram on a path. The lady with the pram refused to go into the road, because it would endanger her children, but the dog was trained not to take the blind lady into the road. There was a stand-off.

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As it happened, another pedestrian came along and challenged the lady with the pram, who refused to get out of the way. The pedestrian took the blind lady and her dog into the road and around the lady with the pram.

When the hon. Member for North Tyneside was talking earlier, I thought that if that good samaritan had not come along and helped and if that lady had gone into the road and an electric vehicle had been coming—the dog is there to help see and hear and be of assistance to the blind lady—there could have been a tragic consequence. We need to get greater awareness out to wider society, not only of the issues around electric vehicles, but of the issues around the partially sighted or blind. There are many issues in our local environments that challenge the vulnerable.

Mr Buckland: To reinforce my hon. Friend’s point, I put on a blindfold and used a guide dog along a main road with the help of my local Guide Dogs branch. It became immediately apparent to me that while the dog is there to work and guide the person, it depends on the commands the user gives. The problems that she has mentioned became immediately apparent to me when I found out for myself what it must be like to be visually impaired and rely on a guide dog.

Tracey Crouch: My hon. Friend makes another excellent point. Many members of the public are ignorant as to what the guide dog is there for. The same lady from the previous story told me about how she had got on a bus and asked the driver whether it was the one to Chatham. The bus driver said, “Can’t your dog tell you that?”, as if the dog could somehow read the number of the bus and communicate that in human language to the blind person. These are important issues about electric vehicles, but the debate also gives us the opportunity to discuss the many challenges that partially sighted and blind people face.

I commend the Medway guide dog puppy trainers, who I had the privilege of meeting recently. They are desperately trying to train the next generation of guide dogs in all the challenges of their local community, and they are finding it incredibly difficult to train the pups into understanding the challenges of silent vehicles. It was a challenge for me to hold 18 leads of puppies and for them all to sit still and smile at the camera. It was a pleasure to meet them, and I am pleased that the trainers raised the issue with me.

The studies show that losing sight equals losing confidence. A near miss is enough to make anybody very wary, regardless of whether they are blind, partially sighted, elderly, a child or even able-bodied. The Health Secretary recently spoke of the dangers of chronic loneliness, and we do not want to isolate people further from their communities. People with a physical or learning disability already face social isolation, but if we put extra dangers and challenges in their way by increasing the number of electric vehicles without providing any means to protect them, another vulnerable group could end up experiencing chronic loneliness.

There are international comparisons out there. The US and Japan have taken strong action, and the hon. Member for North Tyneside spoke about the European

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parliamentary vote. I am not often inclined to support things that come out of Europe, but it has taken a lead on this issue on behalf of everybody across the EU, and it is important that we listen to what it is saying. We should do that for not just the visually impaired, but older people and children.

It feels as if the UK is lagging behind, so I urge the Minister to think carefully about the concerns raised this afternoon. If he cannot reassure us today, I hope he will go away and think, as a former road safety champion, about the issues raised for many people and about how we can protect the most vulnerable, including the groups I have highlighted.

3.11 pm

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I am pleased to appear under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) on securing this important and timely debate.

Let me start by declaring an interest. Guide Dogs runs a centre at Forfar, in my constituency, and it is very popular and well supported locally. Trainee guide dogs are a common sight around the boroughs of Angus, and many of the centre’s supporters have asked me to make their views known today. However, I must confess that I also drive a hybrid car—one of the vehicles concerns have been raised about.

As others have said, hybrid and especially electric vehicles were pretty much a niche market until recently, but they are clearly beginning to take off, with many major car makers bringing out models. On my way into Parliament, I noted that Nissan has many posters around Westminster tube station, including a prominent one for the Leaf electric car—the hon. Lady will be pleased to see that. Anyone who has switched on a TV recently cannot have avoided the massive advertising campaigns BMW and Audi have mounted for new electric and hybrid vehicles. Charging stations are now appearing in our cities and particularly at motorway service stations, which is a sure sign that the industry expects a sizeable take-up of such vehicles in the relatively near future.

Guide Dogs is therefore right to raise concerns, and it is a good time to look at this issue, as it is still developing. What has happened is a classic example of the law of unintended consequences. For environmental reasons, we all want to see the greater take-up of these vehicles, but we now find that they may pose a serious danger for the blind or partially sighted. Guide Dogs cites a statistic showing that quiet hybrid and electric vehicles are 25% more likely than conventional vehicles to be involved in a collision with a pedestrian because pedestrians might not hear them coming. Although the debate is about the blind and partially sighted, other groups—particularly the elderly, youngsters and cyclists—are also affected.

The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) mentioned pedestrian crossings, but the danger may, paradoxically, be greater on roads in less busy areas where pedestrian crossings have no audible signals. In the centre of London, people would cross the road only at a pedestrian crossing—at least if they had any sense—and most crossings have audible signals. In relatively quiet areas—in small villages or towns such as those in my constituency—there may not even be a pedestrian crossing. Not only

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may someone who has to cross the road not hear an electric vehicle coming, but there will be nothing to tell the driver someone may be on the road.

Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making a well-informed and comprehensive speech. I came to the debate because I was encouraged to do so by two constituents, who very much share his concerns and those that were expressed earlier. Given the, happily, increasing number of hearing dogs, does he agree that the problem we are discussing goes beyond the important group he mentioned—blind people with guide dogs? People with hearing dogs are also puzzled by what is happening.

Mr Weir: The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Members have pointed to other groups that are affected. Clearly, Guide Dogs has been leading on this issue for its constituency of blind and partially sighted people, and it has made much of the running, but he is right that the problem is much wider.

I took part in a previous Guide Dogs campaign, on the issue of shared streets. At that point, the organisation was concerned by moves in many areas to remove defined kerbs and to allow the intermingling of vehicles and pedestrians, the idea being that each would be more aware of the other and take more care. As part of that campaign, Guide Dogs took me to a shared street, put a very effective blindfold on me and asked me to cross the street. The only thing that would give any indication of the presence of a vehicle was noise. It was a terrifying experience, although I knew it was temporary, and I could take off my blindfold at the end. There were also people there to make sure no one ran me over, although if they had been from the opposition, they might not have done so. The point, however, is that a blind or partially sighted person in a shared street might not even know they had gone on to the road, let alone hear a vehicle coming. That is a very dangerous situation.

It would be terrifying for someone who could not see vehicles to know that they might also be unable to hear some vehicles; effectively, they would have no way of knowing whether those vehicles were on the road, and they would take a major risk crossing any road, but that is what blind and partially sighted people may face every day. There is also a greater onus on drivers of hybrid and electric vehicles to take care and to ensure they see any people on the road. There is an issue for such drivers, as well as for people crossing the road.

Guide Dogs suggests that the way to deal with the problem would be to fit vehicles with an acoustic vehicle alerting system, which ensures that all vehicles are audibly detectable. That has been done in the USA and Japan, it has been investigated by a UN commission. That is an eminently sensible precaution, and if it is implemented now, it will ensure that the vast majority of these vehicles are fitted with devices as they come on the market, just as the industry takes off.

The one thing that has been put against doing that is the cost to motor manufacturers and the concern that it might impact on their productivity and their ability to produce vehicles. The hon. Lady cited a cost of about £20, which does not seem particularly high, given the cost of the vehicles. I should remind the Minister and

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others that we have not been slow in the past in insisting on safety precautions for those in vehicles. Seat belts are the perfect example, and air bags are another example. Both add to a vehicle’s cost, but they have been introduced because of the need to ensure the safety of people in vehicles. Is it not right, when we develop new vehicles, that we also look at the safety of people crossing the road when these vehicles are about, given that the large section of the population with disabilities may not be able to hear them coming? It seems a small price to pay to ensure that those fellow citizens are safe when they cross the road. Will the Minister seriously consider how to ensure that not only those who travel in a car, but other people on the roads, can be safer?

3.20 pm

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) for a highly informed and moving speech about the importance of the issue and how profoundly it affects so many people’s lives.

If anyone had said a generation ago that there could be reasonably environmentally friendly cars that were also quiet, most of us would have leaped for joy and thought we had reached nirvana. However, today’s debate and the excellent work of Guide Dogs make it clear that those vehicles present a significant problem to many people. There is no excuse not to take action now.

We should pay tribute to Guide Dogs for its work on many related campaigns. I recall one that it did about talking buses, soon after I was elected as an MP. I was interested, especially since—to make an international comparison—I worked in north Japan in the early 1990s and talking buses were standard there, not just in urban areas but in rural ones too. All the announcements were audible, and I can remember how helpful it was, as I had gone to Japan unable to read any Japanese script.

We have had some discussion of technical aspects of electric vehicles. I confess that I dropped physics at 14, and will not enter into anything resembling technical debate, but I remember that only 20 or 25 years ago there were all sorts of arguments about the impossibility of certain disability rights arrangements, such as putting ramps in at village halls. People who used wheelchairs, or who were severely disabled, went on being hoiked up steps in a profoundly undignified way. That was wrong, and we would never want to go back to those days. When we speak of rights and independence for people who are blind or visually impaired, or who fall into any of the many categories mentioned by colleagues in the debate, we should recognise that it is not possible to be a little bit equal. We need to give serious consideration to enabling such people to have the same sort of independent lives that the rest of us enjoy.

A point was made earlier about how a near miss with a car could affect the confidence of people who are blind or visually impaired. If I had been in such a situation, I think I would find it difficult to go out alone again; we cannot know when such things might happen. International comparisons have been cited, and many hon. Members have spoken eloquently, and I urge the Government to act on this matter. It will have a meaningful effect on the lives of many people.

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3.24 pm

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): Thank you for calling me at short notice, Mr Hood. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) on securing the debate and on her excellent opening speech. We have heard moving speeches from other hon. Members, for which I am grateful.

I think it was last week—it is difficult to remember when things have happened in this place—that I attended an event run by the Royal National Institute of Blind People for young people, so that they could meet their MPs and be their own advocates on issues that they had encountered locally. A young constituent with visual and hearing impairments spent some time—and I was glad she did—telling me what lack of confidence meant to her. She had reached the stage of not being confident to go out or travel independently, and she explained how that curtailed her life and how, with the help of the RNIB, she was getting over it. Several hon. Members have talked about how incidents involving quiet vehicles can affect confidence: we need to think about that.

My young constituent told me she was learning to use a cane and hoping to get a guide dog. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) mentioned talking buses, and my constituent talked a lot about different modes of transport and how she could be assisted. However, lack of confidence was her biggest problem. It is vital to consider the needs of such vulnerable road users, because a limit is placed on a young life if such a person does not have the confidence to go out. Action on quiet vehicles could help with that issue.

There is a single trunk road, the A57, in the area where my constituent lives. There is a lot of development going on and a new stadium is being built. There is also at present a complex set of road works and traffic systems. Cyclists and pedestrians share the pavement, so it must be quite common for people to be pushed out into the road, as has been mentioned this afternoon. I have had many complaints about it. A traffic flow system has been installed, but it changes when the stadium is in use. Someone like my constituent, struggling to learn to use a cane or go out with a guide dog, must cope with such complications—pedestrians and cyclists on the pavement, a traffic flow system that is sometimes one way and sometimes another, and two narrow lanes. That is tricky even for someone whose faculties are not in any way impaired. There is nothing we can do about that until the new road is built, which will take more than a year, but that is the environment that my constituent is learning to deal with.

We have heard about people with a guide dog being forced out into the road, and sometimes there will be complex traffic and pedestrian conditions in a locality, as there are in my constituency at the moment. I should hate to think of my young constituent having a frightening experience with an electric vehicle as she was learning to become more independent and confident and get out more. I am sure that if that happened it would push her back into not using her cane or going out with her guide dog. She would not go out—which is the situation she has been in for some time. Sometimes such factors come together in an area, and they make things worse.

I want to do anything that would help my young constituent to become more independent and learn to be away from home. She wants to get out and have a

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social life, and to have opportunities for education and training. The move that we have been debating is essential for people such as her and other vulnerable road users and I urge the Minister to take what action he can.

3.28 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood, in this excellent and powerful debate. All credit is due to my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) for securing it and for raising the issues in such a powerful way. Credit is also due to Guide Dogs and the other organisations that have put the issue of quiet vehicles and vulnerable road users on the agenda for so many of us. It would be an important debate whenever it took place, but it is particularly timely that it is happening now, because further EU negotiations on the regulation on the sound level of motor vehicles will happen next week before an agreement on audio-alerting systems is reached at the next EU Transport Council on 5 December.

The debate is therefore not before time and is critical in the context of our future transport policy. It is important to put it on the record, as many hon. Members have, that this debate is not anti-electric or hybrid cars. Indeed, I am a fan of both. Two weeks ago, the Minister and I both stressed the importance of such vehicles in future transport policy. Making low-carbon transport options accessible and affordable is a priority for us all. I saw the importance of that when I helped to launch the new E-Car Club location in Poplar just last week. As well as improving access, the Government must focus on establishing proper safety standards.

This does not happen often in a Westminster Hall debate attended by many hon. Members from all parties, but we have today had absolute unanimity. We heard interventions from my right hon. Friends the Members for Oxford East (Mr Smith) and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke), my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) and for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). We have heard powerful speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) and for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and the hon. Members for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and for Angus (Mr Weir). One way or another, they all said the same thing: we need action and agreement on audio systems for electric and hybrid cars and other quiet vehicles before they become mainstream and not afterwards, when there has been an increase in collisions. My worry, however, is that that is what the Government’s policy is risking. I echo the points of my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside about the importance of proper legislation for road safety and will ask several questions of the Minister today.

It has been established that electric and hybrid vehicles can pose both a real and a perceived threat to the safety of vulnerable road users. The importance of vehicle noise in helping road users gauge proximity, direction and speed of nearby traffic has been mentioned many times today. It is right that most attention has been focused on blind and partially sighted people, but the

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range of affected people is wide and includes children, people with autism and older people. We are not even necessarily only talking about pedestrians; my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East rightly mentioned cyclists. If noise is eliminated from road vehicles, the risk to vulnerable road users increases.

Tracey Crouch: Another group has been pointed out to me on Twitter during the debate this afternoon. Someone tweeted me to say that they drive a Toyota Prius and are amazed that they have not yet knocked over and killed somebody who has stumbled out into the street when drunk. Walking around our town centres on a Friday or Saturday evening, one can understand where they are coming from.

Richard Burden: The hon. Lady makes a good point. It is important that this debate does not encourage people to wander around the roads while drunk, but we need to consider such people.

In certain manoeuvres, quiet vehicles can be twice as likely to be involved in collisions with pedestrians than vehicles with conventional internal combustion engines. Evidence from the US shows that quiet vehicles travelling at low speeds—we are principally discussing accidents at low speeds—cannot be heard until they are just one second away from impact with a pedestrian. Recent research from the TAS Partnership revealed that such vehicles were involved in 25% more collisions causing injury to pedestrians in 2010 to 2012 compared with the overall vehicle population.

Many hon. Members also mentioned that it is not simply a question of accident statistics; we are also discussing perceived danger and its impact on confidence. Recent EU research showed that 93% of blind and partially sighted people are already experiencing difficulties with electric vehicles. Personal testimonies collected from Guide Dogs reveal how vulnerable people can now feel less confident about leaving their homes. One guide dog owner said:

“Crossing roads safely is a huge part of my independent mobility. Quiet vehicles take away this independence.”

That point was made powerfully by the hon. Members for Sherwood and for Angus and by my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South. Another guide dog owner said:

“the idea of stepping off the pavement into the path of something as lethal as a silent car is truly frightening.”

Big improvements in road safety for people with sensory loss have been made over recent years, including making crossings safer through the use of audible warnings, but the failure to ensure that low-carbon vehicles are audible would be a real backwards step. In the light of the evidence presented today from across the Chamber, will the Minister confirm whether he accepts that quiet and electric vehicles pose both a real and a perceived threat to vulnerable road users?

In February 2013, the European Parliament voted on an amendment to the EU regulation on the sound level of motor vehicles, which I am pleased to say that Labour MEPs supported. The amendment would make the fitting of an acoustic vehicle alerting system—AVAS—mandatory in all electric and hybrid vehicles. Legislation mandating AVAS in all quiet vehicles has already been passed in the US and in Japan. A globally applicable UN technical specification will also be agreed in 2014.

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I am, however, unsure about the Government’s position. Parliamentary question after parliamentary question has been submitted, but the answers seem to be the same: the Government are considering moving their negotiating position from a voluntary to a mandatory approach or that they are considering how to implement the requirements in the UK. In reply to my recent parliamentary question, I was concerned to hear the Minister say that the Government’s position had actually moved backwards and that they were opposed to a mandatory approach. I hope that he will confirm today that that is not the case.

If the change is anything to do with alleged burdens on businesses and on the motor industry, hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East, have made it clear that the technology to fit such devices is available and is relatively cheap. What motor manufacturers need is certainty. They need to know what is going to happen and when. For the Government constantly to say that they are considering this or thinking about that or considering making such devices voluntary is frankly no help to motor manufacturers. What is the intent behind the Government’s decision to wait until more electric and hybrid vehicles are on the road? Are the Government against mandatory AVAS systems in principle—most hon. Members here today, myself included, would not welcome that, but it would at least be a clear position to take issue with—or are they waiting for something to happen before they take a position on the EU regulation and its mandatory nature? If it is the latter, what is the Minister waiting for?

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I apologise to the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) for not being here for the beginning of the debate, as I was detained elsewhere. I rise partly because I believe that I am the only Member who is an electric car driver. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government will have to decide whether existing electric cars should be retrofitted with some form of device, so that all road users, particularly the blind, children and others identified in the debate, can be safe in the way that he is advocating?

Richard Burden: I am not sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman is the only electric car driver, but I do not want to get into an argument about that. He makes an important point about retrofitting, which raises various issues. In my judgment, it is important to regulate quiet vehicles across the piece, not simply new ones. I say to the Minister that the longer we delay regulating or giving clarity to motor manufacturers about fitting devices, the greater the problem of retrofitting further down the line. Will the Minister state clearly what the Government are waiting for?

Evidence from other countries has already shown that quiet vehicles pose real dangers to vulnerable road users, and that has led to action in Japan and the United States. Such evidence is patchy, but I hope that the Government are not waiting for more accidents, with more people being killed or injured, to provide conclusive evidence before they will act. Surely, there is now enough evidence to support other European Union member states and some British MEPs who are saying that now is the time to do something. We have opportunities to act in the negotiations next week and the discussions on

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the regulation on 5 December. The UK Government should not hold back or delay that process or wait for proof, the form of which is not clear; they should be at the forefront of promoting road safety and standing up for vulnerable road users, and they should respond to today’s very clear call from Members on both sides of the Chamber.

3.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) on securing this debate on electric vehicles and vulnerable road users. I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate—the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) listed them, so I will not do so—which has given me an early opportunity to review the issue.

I am responding to the debate, but my noble Friend Baroness Kramer covers this area of competence in the Department, and I have taken her advice. I hope hon. Members will feel as free to lobby her as they have lobbied me today. The Government take the issue seriously, because the concerns are very real and affect many road users daily. Ministers in my Department are united in our ambition to do what we can both to maintain and to improve safety standards.

The Government understand the real concerns of the visually impaired and other vulnerable road users about the potential hazards of very quiet vehicles, including electric vehicles. Quiet vehicles are not new. I am not sure whether it was Mr Rolls or Mr Royce who bragged that only the clock could be heard when one of their cars was running. Many of my generation will remember milk floats making deliveries to houses. Indeed, I came to Parliament today on a silent vehicle, a bicycle—panting was the only noise that could be heard—and there are hundreds more bicycles than electric or hybrid cars on the streets of London. Anyone who ventures to cross the road because they can hear nothing coming will quickly find that they might be hit by one of the bicycles ridden around London at breakneck speed.

I commend the Guide Dogs campaign, which has been effective in bringing concerns to the attention of a much wider audience. My predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), attended and spoke at its reception in June, and my officials have advised me that his speech was well received.

The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) said that many Members had expressed their opinions, but opinions are not a sufficient basis for Government action; we need firm evidence. Although the number of plug-in electric vehicles on our roads is still relatively small, it is growing. By the end of September, we had received more than 6,000 claims for plug-in car and van grants. More than 1,200 such claims were made in the last quarter, which makes it the best quarter to date, being 25% higher than the previous best quarter.

The Government are committed to establishing the UK as a leading market for ultra-low emission vehicles. We expect the uptake to continue to grow significantly as more and more vehicles—particularly those produced

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in the UK, I hope—come on to market. The Department for Transport is committed to promoting safety systems and new technologies wherever there is evidence that they help to reduce injuries and there is clear justification.

The European Commission has produced a proposal to permit the fitting of added noise systems to electric and hybrid vehicles, and separate steps are being taken at international level to agree standards for added noise systems and to ensure that they are effective without being intrusive. Once complete, those agreements should be incorporated into EU legislation. Factors to be discussed include the speed at which systems should be active, the type of noise and the sound levels, all of which have yet to be decided internationally.

On mandatory sound alerts for ultra-low emission vehicles, our position is based on an assessment of the risk that those vehicles pose to pedestrians. The Government sponsored research into that question, because research carried out in the United States had raised understandable concerns about the safety implications of quiet road vehicles.

Our research has suggested that there is no increased pedestrian risk associated with electric or hybrid vehicles in the United Kingdom. The published report has shown that although quieter vehicles are harder to hear approaching, as would be expected, the accident rates for electric and hybrid vehicles are broadly similar to those for conventional vehicles. The contradictory research in the US had suggested that there may be a higher rate of accidents for electric and hybrid vehicles, but we should be cautious about applying those results to the UK, where infrastructure and driver behaviour are different.

Barbara Keeley: We do not have many such vehicles, although their number is increasing, as Members have said. Should not the caution be about not waiting till there have been lots of accidents? I just think that the Minister is approaching this the wrong way round.

Mr Goodwill: In introducing the debate, the hon. Member for North Tyneside said that the number of accidents involving such vehicles had tripled, but that is almost entirely attributable to the increased number of vehicles. The statistics show that although there is a slightly higher number of accidents per 10,000 cars for electric and hybrid vehicles, the increase is certainly not of the magnitude she mentioned.

Richard Burden: Is the Minister aware of the research from the TAS Partnership indicating that quiet vehicles were involved in 25% more collisions in which pedestrians were injured between 2010 and 2012 compared with the overall vehicle population? That surely cannot just be down to the increase in electric vehicles.

Mr Goodwill: I accept that there is a slightly higher level for such vehicles, but that may be down to other factors, such as the amount they are used. We certainly need more research and data before that point can be recognised as valid.

We are aware of recent research carried out by Guide Dogs, which indicates a slight increase in the rate of pedestrian accidents involving electric and hybrid vehicles over the past three years, as has been said. Most of the recent difference between the figures for conventional

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vehicles and those with electric drives is due to a welcome, but unexplained, drop in the rate of pedestrian accidents involving conventional vehicles.

The lack of robust data is problematic. Before we decide to require the fitment of acoustic vehicle alerting systems, we should first undertake work to identify the real issues and decide whether they should be addressed through vehicle technology or by influencing the behaviour of road users. One of our main challenges is to decide when regulation is appropriate. We do not want to stifle innovation, but nor do we want to miss the opportunity to deliver real safety benefits. We are committed to a “better regulation” approach, which means that we will avoid the use of legislation in cases where market forces and industry standards can provide an outcome that is as good, or better, and we need to be clear about the costs and benefits before we consider a legislative approach.

Mr Andrew Smith: If the Minister does not think that the information is there now to take that decision, when does he think that it will be there?

Mr Goodwill: Certainly, we will be keen to look at research as soon as it becomes available. Funnily enough, as a former MEP, I know that the issue was discussed in Europe more than seven years ago, but there was not sufficient research on which to move forward. Much of the work that we carried out in the European Parliament was about how to make vehicles quieter. We looked at how to make tyres quieter and how to improve our urban environment by having quieter vehicles. After all noise has an impact on us all.

Tracey Crouch: Is the Minister aware that research from the European Union found that 93% of blind and partially sighted people have already experienced difficulties with electric vehicles? In the Department’s research, are the figures broken down by groups of people? For example, do we know whether the instances that he has highlighted involved other vehicles or pedestrians and whether those pedestrians were partially sighted or blind?

Mr Goodwill: I shall certainly mine into that information to see whether I can give my hon. Friend a bit more detail. As there is a relatively small number of hybrid and electric vehicles, and a small proportion of people affected because of sight problems, it is difficult to get statistically valid information.

We should recognise that drivers are responsible for driving with consideration and for avoiding accidents, and we need to be cautious about taking any position that might be seen as shifting responsibility for accident avoidance further towards the pedestrian. We should also avoid confusion with, for example, alerts that sound at pedestrian light controlled crossings. Bearing in mind that people travel extensively around the world, any confusion over that is something of which we should be aware. That is why we support an international agreement on that, and hopefully we can move forward in that way. Drivers should be paying attention, and they should not rely on the noise of their vehicles to warn pedestrians of their approach, or that they are about to move off.

We are keen to continue to work with Guide Dogs and its partners on this issue. We have forged a valuable relationship with them, and ministerial colleagues and I

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remain committed to finding a solution that continues to help its members enjoy their use of the road. Equally, we must be wary of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We should not forget that vehicle noise is a major blight on our towns and cities. A significant proportion of UK citizens are regularly exposed to road traffic noise above the level that the World Health Organisation considers a serious risk to public health. Quieter vehicles have the potential to transform our towns and cities, making them far more pleasant places in which to live and work.

Mrs Glindon: I rise in relation to the perception that we all have of danger. Some 80% of it comes from our hearing, so sound plays a significant role in orientation for all pedestrians. Does the Minister not think that that is important? It affects everybody. If we are talking about 80% of our perception, it is a massive factor in avoiding danger, so we need sound to help us.

Mr Goodwill: Certainly any pedestrian who relies solely on hearing a vehicle coming would have problems given the number of cycles on our roads.

Let me briefly touch on one or two points that have been made in the debate. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) said that there was a genuine debate to be had over the type, volume and direction of the sound. That underlines the fact that we still do not have an absolutely clear way forward. What is the best sound and at what speed should that sound come into action? Indeed, should we have sounds coming out of the back of the vehicle when it is reversing, as many lorries already have, or out of the front?

A number of Members talked about their experience of wearing blacked-out spectacles. I also had that experience but without the guide dog. I found that there were many hazards with which people with impaired vision had to contend, including cars parking on paths and all the pavement clutter, such as tables and chairs at cafes, which most of us take for granted.

The hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) talked about rural areas. It is certainly the case that in towns, there are often pedestrian light controlled crossings or traffic lights with crossings at them, which make it much easier for blind and partially sighted people. He also referred to the concept of shared space, which a number of towns in the Netherlands have developed. A few tentative approaches have been made in this country as well. He said that, for a person with limited vision, it was a terrifying experience going on to a shared space area. However, in general, the evidence is that towns with such areas are safer than the ones with conventional traffic and pedestrian segregation. He also made the point that we introduced seatbelts to make the car safer, but there was very clear and real evidence that safety belts did improve safety.

I will briefly outline our commitment to ultra-low emission vehicles and why they offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity to support our growth ambitions and environmental commitments. Last month, we published an ultra-low emission vehicle strategy, “Driving the future today”, which set out our ambition to establish the UK as a leading market for such vehicles, with UK industry at the forefront of their design, development and manufacture. That included a commitment to launch a call for evidence later this year to help shape our

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package of support and to inform us on how best to utilise an additional £500 million of funding, which we are making available between 2015 and 2020 to support the growing market for low-emission vehicles.

We will launch the call for evidence shortly and welcome any views of vulnerable road users’ representative groups, and we will ensure that they are on the distribution list. The strategy and funding announcement together with the Budget 2013 commitments to maintaining a favourable tax regime for ultra-low emission vehicles to 2020 was specifically designed to give certainty to the market. We have already seen our policies bear fruit—for example, by attracting production of the Nissan Euro Leaf and battery in Sunderland, the Toyota Auris at Burnaston in Derbyshire, and BMW’s i8 powertrain at Hams Hall in Warwickshire.

We also recognise the importance and excellence of the UK’s automotive research and development sector, with £1.5 billion of annual investment by the industry. In support of that, the Government have provided more than £80 million of targeted funding for low-carbon vehicle technologies through the Office for Low Emission Vehicles. By channelling that money through the Technology Strategy Board, and working closely with industry, we have helped generate more than £350 million of total investment in nearly 200 collaborative projects that will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from road vehicles. Following publication of our new strategy, I am proud to say that the UK now has one of the most long-term and comprehensive packages of support for ultra-low emission vehicles in the world.

Richard Burden: The Minister is giving the Chamber some impressive statistics about investment. Will he say how much is being invested in the safety of quiet vehicles? If he is not able to tell us today, will he write to us about that?

Mr Goodwill: All manufacturers have to produce vehicles, including ultra-low emission ones, to safe standards. I shall ask my officials to find out what specific research and development funding has gone into that.

We recognise that there is a balance to be struck between the growth opportunity and the concerns of the vulnerable road users. We welcome any evidence that will help us refine our policy so that the switch to ultra-low emission vehicles will provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people while maintaining the paramount importance of safety considerations for all road and pavement users, including those with limited sight. I will certainly pass on the comments that were made today to my noble Friend, Baroness Kramer.

3.58 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Low Pay

4.15 pm

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood.

Growth may be making an overdue return to the UK economy, but the continuing slump in real wages is forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility to extend into 2014, and the UK currently has the highest inflation rate in the European Union, both of which contribute to the cost of living crisis. The Office for National Statistics confirmed this morning in its November economic brief that real disposable household incomes have not risen in a sustained way under the Government’s policies.

Despite employees working more hours than before the economic crisis began, the recovery is not making its way into the pockets of ordinary workers. Workers in the lower half of the income scale, particularly low-paid workers, are falling even further behind the top 1% of earners in our society. There has never been a more important time for this House to discuss the issue of low pay and how together, as a Parliament and a society, we can tackle what is now a crisis.

As the report of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission recently made clear, poverty pay blights the outcomes in life of millions of men, women and children across our country. Every week, those of us with the honour of representing our great cities such as Glasgow meet those who suffer the effects of being trapped in low pay for long periods. According to the Poverty Alliance, 870,000, or 17%, of the population in Scotland live in poverty. A fifth of all children in Scotland are below the breadline.

This afternoon I will show that low pay is a problem not only in urban parts of the UK; there are pockets of truly shocking poverty in rural parts of Britain, too. If we are to come up with the right answers on low pay, we must first acknowledge how serious and widespread a social evil this now is across our country.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, and I endorse his comment that low pay affects rural areas such as mine as much as urban Glasgow. However, does he accept that the decision to raise tax thresholds provides the best possible support to low-paid workers?

Mr Bain: I am grateful for that intervention; I will be considering that point later in my speech. However, I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that those on the lowest earnings will not gain a penny from further increases in the personal allowance. I can direct him to the research that the Resolution Foundation has produced on the subject. It has looked at the matter in detail.

There are also issues—I shall also come to this point later—about the effects that universal credit will have, particularly in relation to any future increases in the personal allowance. Sadly, given how the Government are designing the credit, what they give with one hand, they may be taking away with another, and that is an important consideration.

The hon. Gentleman has a good record on the subject. I am sure that is borne out of his own experience in his constituency, where 47% of part-time workers are earning

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less than a living wage. He is absolutely right to campaign on the subject—more power to him for doing so from the Conservative Benches.

As I grew up in Glasgow, the real life experiences of people paid less than £1 an hour for security work were a scar on my conscience and a powerful spur to action on poverty pay. The success of the minimum wage in raising pay rates for the most disadvantaged working poor households is shown by the fact that the Conservatives who opposed it, and the Liberal Democrats and members of the Scottish National party who did not vote for the legislation, now would not dare abolish it.

Indeed, several Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, including the Secretary of State and the Minister for Skills and Enterprise, who I am pleased to see in his place, claim that they want to build on the success of the national minimum wage. It is important that today we see precisely how the Government anticipate changing the remit of the Low Pay Commission to that end.

According to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics in response to a parliamentary question I recently submitted, the average gross median wage in Britain in 2012 was £405 a week, which is almost 7% down in real terms from 2010. For the low paid, the situation is even more desperate, given that higher energy, housing and food costs affect them with even greater severity.

More worryingly, the argument that having a job is enough on its own to lift a family out of poverty has lost much of its potency, because two thirds of the 3 million children living in poverty in this country today live in households in which at least one adult is in work. October’s rise in the main rate of the national minimum wage to £6.31 an hour was the fourth successive uprating below the rise in prices. The minimum wage has lost a fifth of its value in real terms over the past decade, and we must begin to reverse that.

Under-employment and the low-skilled, low-paid work that has been created in an increasingly hourglass-shaped labour market in the past few years have made the cost of living crisis worse for millions of the working poor. The Resolution Foundation has established that 4.8 million people, or one in five across the UK, earn less than the living wage rate set by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. That figure is up by 1.4 million in the past four years alone.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend ask the Minister whether, to help all those on the national minimum wage across the UK—including 7% of the Welsh population, some 95,000 people, which is higher than the UK average of 5%—he will seriously consider why the cost of living has eroded the rises in the national minimum wage so quickly in the past two or three years and what he can do about that?

Mr Bain: My hon. Friend is right, and she speaks with great passion on behalf of her constituents. Some 57% of her constituents in part-time work earn less than the living wage, so she will be seeing on a weekly basis the real effects of poverty on the living standards of people in Llanelli.

Other analysis that I recently received from the ONS shows that in parts of the north-east of England between a half and two thirds of part-time workers are earning

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less than the living wage. In parts of Northern Ireland and the south and south-west of England, poverty pay among part-time employees is equally endemic. Even in the constituency of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, more than two in every five part-time workers take home less than the living wage. With women more likely to be in part-time work than men, extreme low pay, particularly in the social care sector, represents not only economic injustice but gender inequality.

Guy Opperman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me for a second time. I know he is a passionate advocate of the living wage in Glasgow, where there has been some success. Does he agree that, for the living wage to gain greater traction and to have the take-up that we all want without the statutory empowerment that nobody wants, the key issue is trying to find ways to incentivise businesses, particularly in low-wage economies—the hospitality sector being an obvious example? Does he accept that, and does he have any ideas about how that should be done?

Mr Bain: That is a very good idea. We should be considering what is available in fiscal terms and what we can do through procurement. As I will describe, local authorities and other parts of the public and voluntary sectors have a good record of addressing low pay, but that needs to be extended to the private sector. Procurement is one means by which we can do that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) is here today. He will know that the Procurement Reform (Scotland) Bill, presented by the Scottish Government, is particularly disappointing and simply does not meet the test of ending low pay in Scotland.

As many as 220,000 direct care workers may be paid less than their legal entitlement to the national minimum wage. That is a national scandal, and the Government must act to end it. Worse, poverty pay is creating an even larger burden on the state because it is one of the biggest drivers of the increasing costs of housing benefit and tax credits. The recent report of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found that 84% of the public agree that employers should do more to pay wages that better reflect the cost of living.

It is becoming increasingly clear that, if there is to be a wage-led recovery that reaches all the people of the United Kingdom, further action on the national minimum wage is needed now. According to the 2012 labour force survey, low pay is more prevalent in the private sector, with sole traders, partnerships and companies reporting rates of low pay at 47%, 35%, and 26% respectively. That compares with a low pay rate of only 15% in local government.

Although the tax credit system cushioned living standards between 2003 and 2008, and remains an important means of improving work incentives now, the case for building on the success of the national minimum wage has never been stronger. We should support councils and other parts of the public sector that pay or use procurement rules with the voluntary and private sectors to extend a living wage to more and more people. The Government should at last support the recognised living wage accreditation scheme, which would be a splendid way to mark national living wage week next week, but we also need to understand that a rise in the national

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minimum wage will help substantially more workers than even a voluntary expansion of the living wage by employers.

We also need better enforcement of the minimum wage to stop the exploitation of unpaid interns for months on end and should back the superb campaign led by Intern Aware. Equity highlights the ongoing issue with performers and arts organisations in relation to the exemption in section 44 of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998.

It is particularly shameful that the maximum penalty for fly-tipping is 10 times the penalty for not paying a worker the legal minimum rate for an hour’s work and that the average fine per breach of the minimum wage rules was just over £1,000 in the last financial year. There were just two successful prosecutions of employers last year for failing to pay the minimum wage rate, according to information provided to me by the Treasury. The Government can do a great deal more on enforcement, and I hope the Minister will outline the next steps.

As I said to the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), increasing the personal tax allowance does not in itself end the crisis of low pay. Many low-paid workers do not earn enough to pay income tax and so would not benefit from further rises in the personal allowance. For lone or couple households with children, the interaction between a rising minimum wage and the help provided by the tax credit system will do the most to raise living standards.

We also need to be mindful that the introduction of universal credit will mean that what low-income taxpayers may gain from a higher personal allowance will be lost through the new tax credit system, which is assessed on after-tax income. New research by Gingerbread published this morning shows that the Government’s current plans for universal credit will make it far harder for low-income lone parents to make work pay beyond 20 hours a week, as the incentives rapidly taper away.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He rightly says that having a job is not an automatic route out of poverty. For example, 50% of people who use a food bank in my constituency are in work. Does that not demonstrate that we need to create not only employment but a quality level of income so that people can lift themselves out of poverty and give opportunities to their children?

Mr Bain: My hon. Friend is entirely correct. He represents a constituency in which nearly half—44%—of male part-time workers are earning less than the living wage and in which nearly a third of all part-time workers are in the same predicament. We both see, therefore, the costs that that has on society, with people unable to make their salary or wages last the week or the month, so that they are forced in increasing numbers into using food banks, just to feed their families. That is wrong and shameful, and we can collectively do something about it.

The Resolution Foundation has shown recently that once workers, women in particular, are trapped in jobs paying the minimum wage, they find it hard to progress out of them. The Government need to do a lot more on

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skills in the workplace, to help progression and allow people to advance within a job and have the potential to earn a larger salary as a result. The truth is that the low rate of the national minimum wage is acting as a ceiling, rather than as a springboard, to higher living standards. The Government must do more on workplace skills to ensure that people can progress in their jobs.

I have some specific points, which I hope the Minister can deal with. In what ways might the Government change the remit of the Low Pay Commission? Are they looking to what Gavin Kelly of the Resolution Foundation has termed “forward guidance” on future rises in the national minimum wage as the economy, we hope, continues to grow?

What particular issues has the Minister asked the Low Pay Commission to examine in looking at how, sector by sector, national minimum pay rates might be increased? In sectors such as finance and banking, it has been established that higher pay rates might be affordable now, at no or relatively little cost to those employers, whereas for hotels and restaurants a more phased approach to raising wage rates might work best, to maximise employment.

The prize for employers is real: higher productivity, higher job satisfaction and reduced staff turnover. For workers, the Government and society, tackling chronic low wages could restore the principles that work will pay and that low-income Britain should share more fairly in the wealth that it generates for this country. Such a policy should commend itself not only to Opposition Members, but to every shade of political opinion in the House. It is time for this Government to do the right thing for once, and to support giving low-wage Britain a much-needed pay rise.

4.33 pm

The Minister for Skills and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) for securing the debate and giving us the opportunity for discussion. I have listened carefully to his arguments, which were passionately put. As he said, there is a strong cross-party consensus behind the minimum wage and the institution of the Low Pay Commission, which advises the Government on the appropriate rate. Interestingly, more Government Members than Opposition Members are in the Chamber, which demonstrates the cross-party support for the minimum wage and a commitment not only to it, but to its effective enforcement. We are absolutely clear that anyone entitled to be paid the minimum wage should receive it.

Before I answer some of the points made and set out what the Government are planning to do, I want to give some statistics in response to the hon. Gentleman. Times are undoubtedly tough following the great recession of 2008 to 2009, but since then the bottom quintile or fifth of the population have become around 6% better off, in part because of measures taken by the Government. Overall, household disposable incomes have risen in the past year and in the past quarter.

Specific actions taken by the coalition Government include freezing council tax; freezing and then cutting fuel duty; introducing the apprenticeship minimum wage, which did not exist before, in 2010; cutting beer duty; and of course raising the tax threshold, which was

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mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman). The tax bill of people working full time on the minimum wage has been cut in half.

Government Members would argue that the best route out of poverty is work, with benefit and education reform and, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East mentioned, an enhancement of skills. That is vital in the long term, but we have been able to take some shorter-term fiscal measures to support people’s disposable incomes—after tax—even in difficult times.

The hon. Gentleman also discussed universal credit and tax credits. Tax credits have the disadvantage of the withdrawal rate and the increase in marginal effective taxes. However, universal credit will ensure that work always pays, so it and a consistent withdrawal rate will be part of the solution to poverty. We want to ensure that incentives are right to support people who get on and work hard.

Mr Bain: How do the Government respond to the research produced today by Gingerbread? Given the new way in which universal credit will work—assessed on after-tax income—what lone parents get through the tax system they will in effect lose through universal credit. Frankly, will that not make it difficult for the Government to make good the pledge of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, that work will pay for every hour that people work?

Matthew Hancock: Absolutely; it is vital that work always pays for every hour, and that is why having a consistent withdrawal rate in universal credit matters. It is valuable that this debate is not particularly partisan, but I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that, with tax credits as they were, withdrawal rates were sometimes more than 100%, so in some cases—not in large numbers—people were taking home less when they worked harder. Universal credit will put an end to that, which should be welcomed in all parts of the House.

Guy Opperman: Does the Minister accept that the true way to engineer people out of low pay is to provide them with the skills to do a better job and to make progress? Last week, I opened an engineering academy in Hexham, and shortly we hope to welcome to the north-east the skills funding pilot of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Does he accept that skills are the real secret for the future of the low-paid?

Matthew Hancock: Yes, of course. As the Skills and Enterprise Minister, everyone would be amazed—I would not be doing my job—if I did not support that argument, which I do.

Nia Griffith: As has been rightly pointed out, whether with tax credits or universal credit, there is an issue about tapering. More importantly, there is also an issue about the public purse. Whatever the history—which, in my opinion, shows that when the national minimum wage was introduced, it was opposed by certain parties, so it had to be brought in at a compromise level—the issue remains that, unless we look seriously at raising the minimum wage at a faster rate, we will continually have to top up from the public purse.

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Matthew Hancock: I was about to answer that point. To consider what best to do to ensure that everyone gains from the economic recovery as it comes, we have to understand all the factors affecting low wages and low pay in our economy. I imagine that there is a common desire to see wages rising without damaging employment.

The Low Pay Commission was set up to get that balance right. We have now asked it to look at what economic conditions might be needed to allow the national minimum wage to rise more in future than current conditions allow without having an adverse impact on jobs. Improving incentives to work by having a higher minimum wage has a positive impact on employment, but we must get the balance right. Employment is growing strongly in this country, which is good because unemployment is worse than being in a job on the minimum wage. We must get that balance right.

We are doing what we can to protect the incomes of working households that have been squeezed, hence we have cut income tax by raising the tax threshold and taking almost 3 million people out of tax. The rises in the personal allowance are worth up to £700 in cash and more than £500 in real terms from April 2014, which is a significant improvement.

We are also taking important action on enforcement of the national minimum wage. Anyone who is entitled to it should receive it. Since 1 October, employers who fail to pay it will be publicly named, and revamped criteria were announced in August to make it easier to clamp down on rogue businesses. In 2012-13, more than 700 employers received penalties totalling more than £775,000 for failing to comply with minimum wage law. From the start of this month, I am writing personally to every new apprentice to ensure that they are aware of their rights under the legislation. Under the original scheme, we named only one employer because the benchmark was set high. It was introduced only in 2011 and did not exist in that form under the previous Government. We have strengthened it from 1 October.

All that is part of an effort to toughen up enforcement of the national minimum wage, not least because it is fair that scrupulous employers who pay the national minimum wage are not undercut by unscrupulous employers who do not pay it. We are taking a multi-faceted approach, including improved new targeted communications, to raise awareness in addition to letters from me, which I am sure every apprentice enjoys receiving. This work is starting to produce results. In 2012-13, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs identified £3.9 million arrears of wages for 26,500 workers.

Action has been taken, but we must get the balance right. We have asked the Low Pay Commission to take further action, but we must do that in a way that supports the rising number of jobs in this country. Overall, it is valuable not only to debate the issues, but to continue to try to get the balance right between ensuring that work always pays and that the minimum wage is at a level that supports people in work as consistently as possible with ensuring that it does not harm the employment prospects of those who are seeking work.

Doing that at the same time as trying to remove some of the fiscal costs—the taxes on jobs—asking the Low Pay Commission to take a forward-looking view of

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what economic conditions would be necessary to allow a faster increase in future and the stronger naming scheme demonstrate that we are working hard to ensure that the national minimum wage is effective, fairly enforced and supports people who do the right thing, work hard and are trying to provide for their families in tough times. That shows that the coalition Government are on their side.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): I confirm that the next debate must be concluded by 5.15.

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Release of Bodies from Hospital

4.44 pm

Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): As ever, Mr Hood, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I particularly thank Mr Speaker for granting this important debate on a subject that, had it not been brought to my attention by a constituent, I would not have believed possible outside the scripts of comedy or perhaps, more appropriately on the day before Hallowe’en, a horror film. However, the occurrence is possibly far more widespread than is known about, and my constituent fears that it is the modem equivalent of body-snatching by unscrupulous undertakers who, keen to ensure that they are subsequently contracted by bereaved families to organise funerals, take unlawful control of a body.

This situation, which the funeral industry states is rare, and the hospital concerned states arose under unusual circumstances, is none the less one raised by my constituent amidst fears that it was in fact a deliberate attempt to exploit bereaved families in the immediate aftermath of a death, and that it was made possible by a legal grey area and poorly drafted Department of Health guidelines. As a result of my constituent’s case, and after acquainting myself with the guidelines on how bodies are dealt with, I decided to seek this debate to raise two issues. The matter is clearly of limited interest to colleagues, but I welcome the opportunity to make my points direct to the Minister, and I look forward to his response.

First, the existing legislation needs clarification. There is a definite need for guidelines for hospitals and hospice staff to be revised, so that they comply with the existing law, and prevent staff from being exposed to unwarranted prosecution based on the technicalities of existing legal grey areas. Secondly, and probably more importantly, I want to highlight a culture of complicity between undertakers and hospital staff, and potentially deliberate unscrupulous practices deployed by undertakers, who get away with them not in spite of Department of Health guidelines but, worryingly, because of them.

A further point worth raising is Bristol royal infirmary’s failure in its duty of care towards the deceased and her family. On Saturday 23 March this year, Gladys Pugh, the mother-in-law of my constituent, Mr Peter Williams, sadly died in Bristol royal infirmary. Her body was taken to the hospital’s mortuary to await the coroner’s permission for it to be released. The following Tuesday, Mr Williams and his wife began the painful task of contacting undertakers to ask for quotes and to discuss possible funeral arrangements. Three funeral directors were contacted. Mr and Mrs Williams planned to travel to Bristol to register the death and to visit the funeral directors they had contacted, but with the long Easter weekend so close, they could not make the journey until 2 April. The family contacted all the undertakers they had spoken to and informed them they would come back to them if they were interested in taking matters further after the Easter break.

On 2 or 3 of April, one of the undertakers, Thomas Davis, part of Bristol Funeral Directors group and a member of all the relevant trade organisations, including the National Association of Funeral Directors, contacted Mr Williams and asked what was happening about the

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arrangements. Mr Williams informed them clearly that they had decided to engage the services of another undertaker, thanked them for their interest, and left it at that.

It then transpired that without the permission of the Williams family and without any form of verbal or written contract, Thomas Davis had driven to the hospital’s mortuary on 27 March, the day it was contacted by Mr Williams, and removed Mrs Pugh’s body to one of its own facilities. The situation came to light 10 days after Mrs Pugh’s body had been taken from the mortuary when the company subsequently appointed by my constituent contacted the mortuary to arrange collection of Mrs Pugh’s body, only to be told that it had been taken away some 10 days previously.

There was an understandable feeling of horror, shock and disbelief that Mrs Pugh’s body had been kidnapped by an undertaker whose sole instruction was to offer a quote, which incidentally was never forthcoming, and to inquire about available dates for cremation. I use the word “kidnapped” after considerable thought. First, I cannot use the word “stolen” as a dead body is not technically the property of anyone except the deceased. That is one of the grey areas that legal experts agree needs clarification. Secondly, as kidnapping is the removal of a person without their consent, and as a dead person is still considered a person in law but is unable to give such consent—and, as “stolen” would not be legally correct—“kidnapped” is the only suitable word that I can use to describe what happened.

I argue that Thomas Davis acted unlawfully, because all that had been requested by the Williams family was for a quote to be provided for the services, and for provisional inquiries to be made with a local crematorium. There was no contract, no formal quote, and at no time were the family informed that the body had been collected. Furthermore, at no time was any of the paperwork required under Department of Health hospital guidelines for the release of Mrs Pugh’s body handed over by the family to Thomas Davis.

It is that point—the lack of consent given by the Williams family—that makes the removal of the body unlawful. That is where the first issue arises. Ignoring the motivation for a moment, how can an undertaker take possession of a body from a hospital lawfully? The answer—for it to be lawful, the person in control of the body must be enabled by law, by dint of their status in the life of the deceased or through being appointed the agent of such a person. In the case of Mr Williams’ mother-in-law, the undertakers had not been given the legal right to take control of the body by the family and were therefore not in legal possession of it.

What checks were made by the mortuary staff to ascertain the lawful right of the undertakers to take responsibility for the body? None, it would appear. It seems that the law is at the same time both very clear and utterly confusing on that point, and furthermore, contradicts the Government’s own guidelines. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will bear with me while I try to explain that.

Although NHS trusts have very strict guidelines on releasing bodies, largely based on the Department of Health’s publication, “Care and Respect in Death: Good Practice Guidance for NHS Mortuary Staff”, and usually stipulate that the person collecting the body must be in possession of the relevant paperwork, often including

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“the green form”—an interim death certificate releasing the body for disposal—those guidelines are, I am told, probably of no legal effect. In the case of Bristol royal infirmary, its own release note, which Mr Williams was told would be essential for the release of the body, is also possibly not worth the paper it is printed on.

That is because case law dating back to 1841 states that once a person has died, unless the medical staff or the coroner order an autopsy, the deceased person’s body becomes the responsibility of—but not the property of—in the following order: the executor of the will; the next of kin; or, in the absence of the above two, a person or persons intending to pay for and arrange the funeral. Failing that, the local authority must take control. There are, therefore, a limited group of people to whom lawful control of a body can be given, which can also include their appointed representatives. That is the bit of the law that is absolutely crystal clear.

However, what follows is much more confusing. Even where guidelines stipulate which forms must be presented before a body can be released—such as Bristol royal infirmary’s own release form—in fact, once someone who can lawfully take responsibility for a body demands to be allowed to do so, the hospital is apparently powerless to prevent the release of the body, irrespective of trust or Department guidelines, and irrespective of what paperwork the person or persons may or, in this case, may not have.

That is a very important, albeit technical, point, which I wish the Minister to take note of, because if a hospital employee, following the appropriate guidelines, refuses to release the body to someone who can lawfully take control of it, honestly believing that he or she is doing the right thing, that employee can technically open themselves up to prosecution for preventing a burial or cremation—even if that was never the intention and even if they were simply seeking to establish whether the person taking responsibility was legally entitled to do so.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I spoke to the hon. Lady beforehand about this issue. She has outlined technical issues about how the body should have been released and where the process has fallen down. Is she also concerned at the impact that such a situation has on the families at a time of grief and sorrow? No matter what, that cannot be overlooked.

Caroline Nokes: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is, of course, exactly correct on that point. It is a time of great grief and distress to families, and they are often not in a position either to know what the legal technicalities are or to ensure that they are properly implemented. I will come on to his specific points very shortly.

According to some legal experts, this grey area has arisen from a number of test cases—including one in 1974—that have apparently established that a person claiming lawful control does not need to provide any paperwork at all to justify their claim over a body. Furthermore, and of great concern, not only are there no stipulations in law regarding what paperwork must be presented, or what conditions met, irrespective of guidelines, it is apparently illegal to demand that anyone seeking lawful control of a body do anything to justify their claim. In other words, unless my understanding is

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incorrect, not only are trust guidelines of no legal effect, but they can actually put the staff seeking to implement them at a technical risk of prosecution—something that I know will be of concern to my hon. Friend the Minister.

The first issue, therefore, that I would like my hon. Friend the Minister to consider is clearing up the discrepancy between the guidelines that NHS, hospice and care home staff are given and the technical exposure to prosecution that they face if they seek to abide by them. Furthermore, perhaps the law can also, at the same time, be clarified to state what rights the next of kin have over a body, which is something that it does not clearly do at the moment, because, as I said earlier, the body is not technically considered to be the property of anyone.

I turn to the second point that has been highlighted by my constituents. The right of lawful control does not pass to undertakers unless they have been properly contracted and bestowed with the right to take the body. Furthermore, departmental guidelines clearly state that that right must be demonstrated by the production of the relevant paperwork. What we have to ask, therefore, is how did this situation arise and how widespread is the practice?

In accordance with Department of Health guidelines, Bristol royal infirmary operates a system where a body will not be released without staff being presented with one of its own release notes—something that my constituent was very clearly told. However, in this case, no such release note was presented, because the undertaker was never given it. How, then, did the body come to be given to the undertaker? In answer to that, I again draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister to his Department’s guidelines, which, like the law, can at best be described as vague.

For example, while the guidelines state that a body must be released to “the correct recipient”, they do not say who that is. The guidelines also say that “standard operating procedures” should be known by all staff through training, and be robustly audited. They clearly state:

“Before a deceased person’s body is released, mortuary staff should check that all necessary documentation is complete”.

Even if that was a legal requirement, which it seems it may not be, in this case there were clearly no checks of the paperwork because none can have been presented. The guidelines go on to state:

“The body of a person who has died may be collected from the mortuary by the family, but is usually released to a representative, most often a funeral director. Mortuaries should therefore ensure that they have good lines of communication and working relationships with local funeral directors.”

Here, the advice is that hospitals need good working relationships with local undertakers. It seems that that advice has been taken far too literally in this case at least, and I fear elsewhere, with the establishment of a very cosy relationship between undertaker and hospital—a relationship where it is deemed that things can be taken on trust, and contrary to guidelines, no checks are required as to the legal right of the undertaker to take control of the body. That is not a good working relationship with clear lines of communication; it is an abuse of trust.

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Certainly, what is clear in this case is that Bristol royal infirmary and the undertakers did not act in accordance with the Department’s guidelines and were, in fact, acting like some modern-day Burke and Hare operation. What is abundantly clear is that Bristol royal infirmary’s response to Mr Williams is inadequate. Although some changes to policy have been implemented, those are changes that my constituent calls “minimal”, and there is no guarantee that it will not happen again. As my constituent noted in a letter to the hospital’s chief executive, Mr Woolley:

“The Post Office would appear to take more care in the release of a parcel than the BRI did in the release of a body”.

To say that my constituent is unhappy with the response that he has received from the hospital would be an understatement. He is desperate to see the changes required to prevent other families experiencing the kidnapping of bodies belonging to their loved ones, but feels that the points he has raised with the hospital have simply been ignored, with the hospital blaming a member of staff for not following procedures.

Mr Williams asks two perfectly reasonable questions in his complaint to the hospital. Those questions are, as yet, unanswered. First, why did Thomas Davis arrive at the hospital without the paperwork that the hospital itself says is essential for a body to be released? Secondly, why was the body released without that paperwork? Mr Williams is worried that the answer to both those questions is this: because the undertaker assumed that he would not need the paperwork—an assumption based on past experience of acting in a similar manner. That begs the obvious question: how many other bodies have been taken in that way? It appears that the hospital will not accept responsibility for its failure in its duty of care towards the Williams family, seeming to want to blame individual hospital employees and the funeral industry.

That is another area of concern to Mr Williams, because all that has been received from the funeral industry is a response that is, to say the least, disappointing, stating only that “these mistakes sometimes happen” and offering nothing beyond that. My constituent has rightly complained to the health service ombudsman, and we await with interest the decision on that complaint, but there is no redress against the undertakers who took the body of my constituent’s mother-in-law, held it unlawfully and refused to take responsibility for doing so, knowing that they are virtually free of any legal consequences for their unlawful behaviour.

I hope that, in his response, the Minister will touch on both aspects of this sorry tale: the lack of legal clarity, rights and protection that both relatives and NHS staff have; and measures designed to prevent undertakers from seeing distressed and grieving families as representing a lucrative opportunity provided that they can first kidnap the body by relying on the cosy relationship that they might enjoy with the local hospital, which the Department’s own guidelines encourage.

From grave robbery to daylight robbery, the funeral industry has questions to answer, as, having spoken to campaigners in preparation for this debate, I can tell the Minister that, despite the comments of the industry, this practice is said to be far more widespread than is believed or acknowledged. Sadly, I am told that people rarely complain, because they simply want to grieve and move on, and the funeral industry is rarely held to account.

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I suspect that neither the Department nor the funeral industry keeps figures on how often this practice happens. It would be interesting to know whether the Department has some figures. However, my constituent fears that his experience is merely the tip of the iceberg—a view shared by campaigners in this area. I hope that now that this issue has been highlighted, the Department will seriously consider bringing clarity to what the legislation says and will offer protection to NHS, hospice and care home employees and to grieving families, protecting them from undertakers who should be there to offer a service at the time of greatest need and ensuring that bereavement and grief are not exploited.

5.1 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Norman Lamb): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing the debate and raising an issue of extreme sensitivity. I can imagine the enormous distress for the family involved. As the intervention suggested, at a moment of grieving, no family would want to have to cope with this situation. Let me be very clear that the practice that my hon. Friend describes, whether it is a one-off or more widespread, is completely unacceptable. That message has to be disseminated to the entire system, because respect for families who have suffered a bereavement and respect for the deceased person are of paramount importance. I am therefore very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this subject and enabling me to respond. I am grateful also to her constituent, Mr Williams, for raising the issue with her so that it could be exposed in Parliament.

Each year, more than 500,000 people die in England and Wales, with local mortuary and bereavement services working hard to ensure that during the period of grief, the bereaved are supported and due regard is given to their individual needs. I think that in the vast majority of cases, that happens and people are treated with the respect that they deserve.

The current guidance, entitled “When a Patient Dies: Advice on Developing Bereavement Services in the NHS”, which was published by the Department in 2005, highlights the importance of involving relatives in decisions about care after death, but does not set out specific guidelines on the release of bodies. In addition, the document entitled “Care and Respect in Death: Good Practice Guidance for NHS Mortuary Staff”, which was issued in 2006 and to which my hon. Friend referred, states:

“Where families have individual, cultural or religious preferences concerning the storage, handling, transportation or presentation of the deceased person, these need to be carefully documented and accommodated wherever possible.”

Let me now deal with the legal context. A dead body is a possible source of infection, so society requires that the law balances the need to give regard to the respectful disposal of the dead with the need to ensure the protection of public health. Hospitals have put in place procedures to try to manage a number of competing demands and legal requirements in a way that causes the least difficulty for the vast majority of people and that allows coronial, health-and-safety and other requirements to be met.

The law does not recognise—my hon. Friend made this point—a dead body as someone’s property, but it has been held in case law that the executors, administrators or other persons charged by law with the duty to dispose

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of the body have a right to its custody and possession until it is disposed of. In straightforward cases, in which the coroner is not involved, the duty to dispose of the body can rest with a range of individuals or organisations, with an established order of precedence. The executor of a will, not the next of kin, has the primary claim to possession.

Generally, when a person dies, an early priority for the family is to arrange the final disposal of the person’s body. Lawful disposal may occur once a registrar has received a satisfactory medical certificate of cause of death and subsequently issued a certificate of disposal, commonly known as the green form, or the coroner issues a certificate of disposal where a death has been referred for a coroner’s investigation. My hon. Friend has clearly done an enormous amount of research on this subject. I am very impressed by the amount of knowledge that she has acquired.

The person with the authority to administer the estate of the deceased person has the right to possess the body in order to arrange disposal of the body— the funeral. The green form is one of the pieces of documentation required to allow a funeral to proceed and is often passed from the family to the funeral director. However, it is not a legal requirement for an individual to produce a green form in order to collect the body from the hospital. In practice, many hospitals appear to treat the green form as the key documentation for body release. I understand that hospitals do that to confirm that the death is not a coroner’s case. Potentially, up until the green form is issued, a registrar could refer a death to the coroner because new information relating to the death has come to light and the registrar finds themselves under a duty to report the death to the coroner. The other reason for some hospitals insisting on seeing the green form is, understandably, for reassurance that the body is being released to the right person. That is key to the case that my hon. Friend has raised today.

In the context of about 500,000 deaths a year, my Department has had very little representation to suggest that local hospital procedures for the release of bodies are causing difficulties. I am interested in this. My understanding is that the Department has not had many representations, yet my hon. Friend’s assertion, which I take seriously, is that the practice could be more widespread. We need to understand whether that is the case. At the moment, there appears to be a lack of evidence, but if she or anyone else is aware of more evidence, we need to hear about it. This is a very important matter.

Caroline Nokes: On that specific point, which relates to the concern the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised earlier, one issue my constituent raised was that the practice occurs at a time of bereavement and grieving, and consequently people are far less likely to complain, because they wish to move on and get on with their lives and the grieving process. That point is important, because we simply do not know the extent of the problem. My constituent is concerned because his mother-in-law’s body was released with no paperwork whatsoever, so the practice could be far more widespread than we will ever know, because it is unreported.

Norman Lamb: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I appreciate that if such practices have occurred, families will in many cases feel reluctant to

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raise a complaint. None the less, we need evidence, so if people are aware of such activities, I encourage them to come forward.

In some areas, funeral directors had experienced delays in collecting bodies from hospitals due to the documentation required by the hospital, which relates to the problem my hon. Friend raises. A national representative body of funeral directors reported its members’ concerns to officials in my Department. Following the concerns being raised with us, my Department re-circulated advice on the release of bodies to the NHS in a 26 October 2012 edition of The Week bulletin, to highlight to NHS trusts that having sight of the green form was not a legal requirement for the release of bodies, that holding bodies can cause unnecessary delays, and informing them of proposals to consult on a draft body release form as part of the consultation on death certification reforms. I want to reinforce the point that a delay in the release of the body can also be distressing for loved ones, who are going through bereavement. Ensuring that the process works efficiently is incredibly important.

Some hospitals have been using their own body release forms, which is the impression I received from Bristol. The situation my hon. Friend describes would not have happened if the hospital had followed its own procedures. Such forms are used to facilitate release of the body,

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and that is potentially a way forward to resolve the problem. Officials have worked with key partners, such as mortuary technicians, bereavement services and funeral directors, to develop a draft body release form designed to provide the NHS with reassurance about the appropriateness of releasing a body, which they currently achieve via the green form. My Department will seek views on the merit of such a form, and the contribution of key groups, such as funeral directors associations, will be vital. The consultation will make further relevant proposals, and when it is published in due course, I will welcome my hon. Friend’s participation.

My hon. Friend made detailed points about the legislation and raised concerns about the potential conflict between legislation and guidance and concerns about employees seeking to comply with the law while under pressure to release a body. It is important that we respond to all the points she made, and I will ensure that we do so. I end by again thanking her for raising this important, sensitive issue. Whether this practice is a one-off or more widespread —whatever its prevalence—it is important that it is dealt with properly and that this sort of thing never happens again.

Question put and agreed to.

5.12 pm