Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): As I am so old, I remember the opening of the first Severn bridge in 1966. What it most certainly was not was a bridge from England to the Forest of Dean. It was a bridge from England to Wales, and it was by pure technical and geographical chance that the engineers decided to put it at the tip of the constituency of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). Similarly, when the second

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Severn bridge crossing was built, I was on the Standing Committee of this House that dealt with it. It was the then Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Walker, who decided that it was the thing to do. The vast majority of the traffic on both bridges is due to people wanting to go between England and Wales, so I do not agree for one second with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean that either a third Severn crossing is necessary, or that tolls would have to be maintained after the concession ends to pay for a third crossing. The original Severn crossing is obviously not used as much as the second crossing, although I use it quite a bit, so heaven only knows how little traffic there would be on a third. There is no agreement whatever among Welsh MPs—or, I would have thought, English ones—that the bridges are anything other than a lifeline between England and Wales.

The crossings have brought great benefits to Wales, as they have to England; there is no question about that. However, there are difficulties, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) referred to in her fine speech, because of the haulage industry and tourists. I agree with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean that there are plenty of people who wish to travel to the Wye valley, the Forest of Dean, other parts of south-east Wales, and to the west country on the other side of the bridge, for tourism reasons. They are obviously caught heavily by the high tolls on the bridge, and it is about time those tolls ended.

The question is: when will that happen? In 2010 or something like that—I cannot quite remember—we were told, I think here in Westminster Hall, by the then Minister that 2017 was when the concession was likely to end. We, and the Welsh Affairs Committee, have been told that it is probable that the concession will end in 2018. However, we have been further told—this is a new one—that it could well go on until the 2020s, because the Department for Transport has found that it is apparently owed some £112 million, because it spent public money on, and in debt over, a bridge that was privately owned.

I am a bit sceptical about all that, to be perfectly honest. I think that all these sudden discoveries in the DFT are excuses to extend the franchise and maintain the tolls for as long as possible. I am hugely sceptical, and I fear I have to disagree with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean—for whom I have a great deal of time, although we do not seem to agree on this subject—on the issue of who controls the bridge; it is a bit more complicated than he suggested. Yes indeed, three of the four entrances, as it were, to the bridges are in England, but then two would be anyway—would they not?—because people on one side have to travel to the other side. I have already explained that the first Severn bridge is an aberration, in that it goes into a bit of the Forest of Dean, near Chepstow. Of course, the second Severn crossing completely goes into the terrain of the Welsh Assembly. The Welsh Government’s interest in this matter therefore cannot be easily dismissed. About 25%, if not more, of all traffic that enters Wales from England goes across those bridges.

Jonathan Edwards: The transport spokesperson for the Tories in the Assembly, Mr Byron Davies, said this time last year:

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“Devolution of the crossings—and future use of the tolls—has the real potential to help hard-pressed motorists, provide significant investment in Welsh infrastructure and encourage economic growth”.

That is the sort of argument that I made in one of my first speeches in this place in 2010. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that it is imperative that all parties in Wales speak with one voice, rather than the Conservatives saying one thing in Wales and saying something different here in Westminster? Of course, the same applies to the other parties.

Paul Murphy: I agree. That follows a pattern over the past few weeks, with a huge disagreement on taxation, but that is another issue. It would be worth while the hon. Member for Forest of Dean getting in his car one day, going on the M4 to Cardiff Bay, and chatting with the transport spokesperson for his party in Cardiff.

Mr Harper: I do not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman that the Welsh Assembly and Government have an interest in this. I agree with the conclusion of the Welsh Affairs Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), that the British Government should discuss the matter and have a proper conversation, because it is important. My point was that decisions have to be taken by a Government accountable to people in England and Wales. The problem with decisions about the bridge tolls being wholly under the control of the Welsh Assembly is that my constituents have no democratic input into that Government, who will make decisions solely based on interests in Wales. The United Kingdom Government can consider the interests of the whole UK, and people living in both England and Wales. That is why the decision making should stay there.

Paul Murphy: Perhaps there should be joint decision making, or some arrangement could be made. Yes, of course, the bridge is hugely important to the people of the Forest of Dean and elsewhere in Gloucestershire, but that was not the purpose of building the bridges. I repeat that they were not built to go to the Forest of Dean or Gloucester; they were built to ensure that Wales and England were connected, to avoid the terrible journey through the Forest of Dean, around Gloucestershire and on to the A4.

Stephen Doughty: My right hon. Friend makes a crucial point. Are the bridges not also a crucial European transport road link to the Republic of Ireland? There are benefits from and consequences for that crucial trade link. Access to Cardiff airport is also important and needs to be considered.

Paul Murphy: Indeed. That is why, in a post-devolution world, the Welsh Government have a huge interest in this matter. I hope that the Minister tells the House that he has been in conversation with his colleagues in Cardiff.

Finally, let me mention what happens to tolls after the concession finishes. Yes, of course, VAT means that there will be money available anyway, and what is collected in VAT should at least go to ensuring that the toll is lowered, but there is more to it than that. Lying behind everything in Government is the dead hand of the Treasury. I spent a decade having to deal with the

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Treasury as a Minister. Anybody who has been a Minister knows that it wants to get as much money as possible—that is its job—but it is the job of Ministers to obstruct it as far as they can, to ensure that the people can occasionally benefit from a concession.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): If I may help the right hon. Gentleman, he gave a figure of £120 million outstanding at the end of the concession. The projection that I have is of £88 million at the end of the concession in 2018. It will take one or two years to recover this money. Under the terms of the Severn Bridges Act 1992, an update will be given to the Welsh Affairs Committee in April on the accounts of the previous year.

Paul Murphy: The Minister will, of course, have greater knowledge than me of the figures from his Department, but whether or not it is £88 million, they would like it to be £112 million, and probably a bit more than that. Ultimately, the money that is there to pay the concessioner, which is going into the pockets of the Severn crossing company, could eventually be made available to reduce the tolls on the bridges and save people who use it from being burdened. My fear is that there is a huge temptation, whether in the Department for Transport or the Treasury, to retain that money and simply put it back into the public coffers. That would be deeply wrong.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean made a valid point when he said that the money could be used for infrastructure. However, I disagree, because there is no need for a third Severn crossing. There may be a case for infrastructure around the bridges, but that would be a relatively small amount in general terms. No, the people of Wales and England—and the people of other parts of Europe who use our bridges—should be given the opportunity to have lower tolls when the concession ends. Although the Minister cannot commit himself to that today, I hope that he does not dismiss that outright as the aspiration of all of us.

3.16 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I am delighted to have the opportunity to serve under you, Mr Bone, and to speak in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing this important debate and on continuing to pursue this issue, which we come back to time and again because it is so vital to the south Wales economy—and, indeed, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) said, to the wider Welsh economy.

I thank the Minister for the meeting that he accorded members of the Welsh Affairs Committee on 10 February, but significant questions remain. Hon. Members know that in July 2013 we met the Minister’s predecessor, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), as a result of which there was the hint of a possibility of further concessions for freight.

Owens Logistics is a large haulage company in my constituency with some 500 employees. It has a massive bill, in the thousands of pounds, for tolls on the Severn bridge, so this issue is important for it. It worries that it will not be in a position to compete with companies on the other side of the bridge that do not have such costs.

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First and foremost, it frequently lobbies on fuel and fuel duty. It has depots further east than Llanelli, in Aberavon and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East, because that can help with the amount of travelling. However, when it is competing for business against firms based in England, obviously the bridge tolls are important. Later, I will mention that company’s wish to plan for the future.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, not least because Owens comes up to Blaenau Gwent, in the heads of the valleys area. I asked it before this debate exactly how much tolls cost. Just to inform my hon. Friend’s contribution, it spends £250,000 a month on bridge tolls. That is a huge cost for a successful medium to large-sized business in south Wales.

Nia Griffith: Yes, indeed. Of course, many other firms in Wales are affected by the tolls on the bridge, too. Whether it is a small electrical contractor, a plumbing business wanting to serve customers on both sides, or a large haulage firm, those businesses are at a disadvantage compared with competitors who do not have to use the bridges regularly.

Mr Goodwill: To clarify, on discounts for frequent users in heavy goods vehicles, the Eurovignette directive imposes a 13% cap on any discount for HGVs, and the discount for HGVs on the Severn is near the maximum allowed under that directive. I do not need to mention that hauliers reclaim the VAT on these charges.

Nia Griffith: I was about to come on to the issue that the Minister mentions. He kindly sent me a letter containing that information this week. What I would ask is: how close are we to that 13% limit? Is there any wriggle room at all, and would it be possible to open a discussion on further concessions? I think he said in our meeting that that would be likely only if we had a tit for tat, and traded such concessions off against others. If anything like that were to be suggested, the freight companies would need to be closely involved and see the detail, because they would not want to end up paying much more in the daytime to get a night-time concession if their bills ended up being higher. They are still interested, however; they have said that they would be interested in looking at concessions, even if that means that the tolls continue a little longer beyond 2018.

I question the suggestion that EU law means that freight and ordinary car use charges cannot be varied, and whether that is a competition issue. If all freight lorries use the bridge no matter where they come from, it would not be a matter of having more favourable laws for British-based lorries than for Dutch or French-based lorries. It would be helpful to have a little more information on that.

Mr Goodwill: The current 10% discount, which is offered by way of the season TAG, is based on 22 trips a month; that is quite close to the 13% maximum.

Nia Griffith: Perhaps I could ask the Minister to look at that remaining 3% and see if there is any wriggle room at all, because when we are talking about paying

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the huge amounts mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), even 3% would make a considerable difference.

VAT is a massively important question. The Minister confirmed in his letter to me that VAT comes off the charge when the crossing is managed by a public, rather than private, company. We would be delighted if that meant an automatic 20% decrease. However, if the rates were to be kept the same, that would be a massive penalty for all the business users who currently reclaim the VAT, because effectively they would have to pay 20% more and would have no opportunity for clawback.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) mentioned the figure of £112 million. Mercifully, the letter from the Minister says that that has reduced to £88 million. Of course, we on the Welsh Affairs Committee would be pleased if the Department for Transport were to revise that figure downward again. There was an issue about how that was calculated in the first place, and we want to ensure that we get up-to-date information about that. Although the Minister previously said that 2018 was a long way away, firms such as Owens are investing long-term, looking eight to 10 years ahead, and they have to make decisions. The more certainty such firms can have, the better.

The Minister may think that we will have another Government in place in 2018—some of us hope that we will—but I am sure that every Department plans ahead and thinks about what it would do. The Department for Transport is in a position to make the necessary assessment and get hold of the statistics, so that we can have more information about the £88 million being paid back, about when there will be an opportunity for the bridge to be debt-free and just have a maintenance charge, and about what would be done with that maintenance charge.

I am a little concerned by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) saying that he would like a levy on the existing bridges—in other words, on people coming into Wales—to fund a bridge further up the river. I much prefer his first suggestion, which was that such a bridge should be funded through general taxation spread across the UK, to the suggestion that we penalise one particular group of users. One of the main bones of contention about the bridge all along has been that such charges are unusual in this country; it is not like in some countries on the continent where most of the motorway network is tolled. That is why there is such great resentment of the toll, and the level of it, in the first place.

We certainly want a little more clarification of what will happen in the future. I would be grateful if the Minister gave us any indication of where we are going, and kept the Welsh Affairs Committee fully updated with any further information.

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): Order. It might be useful for Members to know that I intend for the wind-ups to start no later than 3.40 pm.

3.25 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): When the first bridge opened, Harri Webb wrote a telling poem, recalling the pressure from Wales over many decades to build the bridge. However, he made the observation:

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“Two lands at last connected,

Across the Severn wide,

But all the tolls collected,

Upon the English side.”

Things have been corrected since then, but the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) has released another hare that is running, and the implied threat of tolls in perpetuity will cause a great deal of interest in Wales. I believe he has in mind a repetition of what happened when the second bridge went up: the pooling of finances to build bridges into a great lump, with all the complexities of financing that, and added to the total bill and debt—if that still exists—would be a sum of money for a third crossing from somewhere in Gloucestershire to somewhere else in Gloucestershire. Those are thinly populated areas in which I doubt there is a strong case for putting in another bridge. If that is seen to be a further burden on the main artery out of Wales, that would be deeply resented, so we will be interested to see if that is pursued.

Mr Harper: I have two points. First, many people going into Wales do not use the bridges, but come through my constituency. That is an argument for reducing the tolls, as the bridges are not the only crossing. Secondly, I remind the hon. Gentleman, however, that, as I think the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) touched on, the old Severn bridge goes from England to England and it is used by people from England and Wales, not just people in Wales. Therefore, we need to take a balanced view about the impact. The crossing at Over that the hon. Gentleman referred to suffers from significant congestion. If he thinks that the area is thinly populated, I suggest that he goes there on a Monday morning at about 7 am to sit in a queue of traffic. He will see that it is not as thinly populated as he might think.

Paul Flynn: Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), I am old enough to remember not only the opening of the Severn bridge, but the terrifying and unforgettable experience of going across on a ferry: there was roughly one inch between the car and the water on one side and about half an inch to the next car on the other side as they packed the cars tightly on to the ferry. To escape that nightmare, many made journeys around Gloucester. As he said, the congestion was pretty bad at that time. The hon. Gentleman has to make that case, but it should be separate from the Severn bridges, which are not only the main roads from Wales to England, but a main European highway. For those travelling from the continent right across to Ireland, that is the recommended route.

Unfortunately, we have had this long period of a perceived barrier in getting into Wales. It is a psychological barrier, but it is powerful. People see the crossing as an obstacle. They would say, “You mustn’t go that far, or we’ll be paying.” That barrier is perceived to be a great deal more than the actual cost. The toll is high enough, but if the total cost of running a car is added up—insurance, petrol and all the rest—it is not a huge percentage of that, except to those who travel across the bridge daily. The feeling that, somehow, this is an obstacle in the way of going into Wales has inhibited development and progress in Wales for many years.

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I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen that such costs appear to be created by accountants and it is difficult to argue against those. I can recall one time in the House when a courageous, or foolhardy, Conservative Member for Vale of Glamorgan argued for an increase in tolls. The toll was some £3.75, and he argued that it would speed the traffic through the bridge if the toll went up to £4, but that view was not universally supported.

We feel that this is the Roy Hughes memorial debate, because our late comrade mentioned the Severn crossings on more than one occasion, and probably on more than 1,000 occasions, in this House. He became very strongly identified with the bridges through his persistent, long campaigning. If he were alive today, he would be horrified that we are now faced with a new debt. The users of the bridges should be treated in the same way as users of other parts of the motorway network in the rest of the United Kingdom. They should not have to pay this unjustified toll in perpetuity, as it now seems to be. If the £88 million is paid off, the accountants in the Treasury would probably come up with some other pretext for charging even more and keeping the charges going.

3.30 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing this important debate, which will now always be known as the Roy Hughes memorial debate. I also congratulate the no fewer than eight hon. Members who have participated either through interventions or speeches. In the last speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) even treated us to some Harri Webb poetry.

The Severn crossings clearly concern hon. Members on both sides of the House because they are an important transport link between England and Wales that play a vital role for businesses and the economy, that help people to keep in touch with friends and family and that keep our two countries connected. It is therefore unfortunate that the cost and experience of using the crossings have been a source of frustration for so long.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East has raised the Severn crossings previously. For many years she has been pressing for reform of what, in her previous debate in 2010, she called an “expensive, inconvenient and inflexible” system. The issues that she has raised today are very much the same.

I will say something about England later in my speech, but the crossings are a key link in the transport and economic infrastructure of Wales, and they are essential to the Welsh economy and its ability to grow. Approximately 25 million vehicles use the crossings each year. Obviously, nobody wants to pay tolls, but the benefits of the crossings are clear and include increased access to markets, suppliers and consumers, and quicker journey times. It is important, however, that the toll price reflects a fair balance between the cost of better infrastructure and the benefits to the people who use it. This debate has made it clear that the cost of the Severn crossings does not appear to be fair, and it has not appeared to be fair for some time. Road users who rely on the crossings have been hit hard by annual increases and, as my hon. Friend said, an inflexible and old-fashioned payment system.

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There is an impact on people. First, the tolls are the highest of any crossing on the strategic road network. As we have heard, the current prices are £6.40 for a car, £12.80 for a light goods vehicle and £19.20 for a heavy goods vehicle. On the Humber bridge, the toll for a car is just £1.50 and the toll for an HGV is £12.

Mr Goodwill: The hon. Gentleman must bear in mind that the toll is free in the other direction on the Severn crossings, so the prices are not comparable in that respect.

Richard Burden: If we do the sums, the point is still made. Whether or not the toll is free one way, the price is clearly still higher. Those amounts are not theoretical. We are living through the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation and they hit people hard. A lot of attention has been paid to energy costs, fuel bills, food bills and so on, but the cost of transport is a large chunk of people’s household budgets. That has been made worse for domestic users of private motor cars because they have also been hit by the VAT increase to 20%, which has hit the price of fuel, too.

It would be lovely to say that the tolls should just be scrapped, but, as we have heard, that is not necessarily practical. There is a strong case, however, for considering whether there is a way to make the tolls fairer. It is possible to consider a cap on annual increases, which is a model we use for other modes of transport. There might be a way to take regular and local users into account, for which there are precedents. From March 2014, local people eligible for the resident discount on the Dartford crossing will be able to make unlimited trips over the crossing for just £20 a year, thereby ensuring that that toll on the strategic road network does not hinder local mobility.

Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point on the local discount, and my constituents have raised the Dartford issue. The Minister might want to address what “local” means. My understanding is that, for the Dartford crossing, it is a very local and tightly drawn boundary. If we had something like that on the Severn crossings, would “local” include my constituents? Would it include some of my constituents and some of the constituents of the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden)? How widely would the boundary be drawn? My view is that if we are to have such a boundary, the right people to make the decision would be the UK Government, who could take into account both sides of the national boundary, rather than just the Welsh side.

Richard Burden: I will address the UK Government and the Welsh Government in a while, but the substance of the hon. Gentleman’s point is correct. Working out the meaning of “local” is complex. I am simply saying that the Government should not close the door. They should consider it and see what is feasible, and they need to do so relatively quickly because decisions have to be made in the near future. The situation has gone on long enough.

Jessica Morden: That is the point. We do not know whether the Government are even considering the measure. We want clarity.

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Richard Burden: My hon. Friend makes her point well.

I have principally referred to the impact on private transport and cars, but the tolls also significantly affect local businesses. We have heard that many believe the cost of the crossings to be a tax either on Wales or on people trading with Wales that restricts economic activity between our two countries. Even if that is only a perception, it is a problem for confidence. As we have all said, the crossings are undoubtedly an essential link between our two economies, so it is fair to welcome the Welsh Assembly’s analysis of tolling, which provides important evidence on the economic impacts of the Severn tolls. The picture is complex, as has just been underlined by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), but the research shows that the tolls have a severe impact on small businesses, particularly those operating in the transport and logistics sectors across the border. My hon. Friend puts the figure for some businesses at up to £250,000 a year, which is a major burden on a small business. Indeed, it is a pretty significant burden on a business that is not small, too.

There is also an impact on tourism, particularly on those making short trips. When asked if they would expect to make more trips to Wales by car if the Severn tolls were removed, apparently 22% of people surveyed in south-west England said that, yes, they would visit Wales more often in the next year, which is a significant statistic.

In light of those serious concerns for small businesses, tourism and wider economic growth, we would all appreciate the Minister’s assessment of the social and economic impact of the Severn crossings. Also, we would all appreciate knowing the Government’s response to the evidence produced by the Welsh Assembly, which provides food for thought and, hopefully, food for Government action.

I have mainly referred to Wales, and the Severn tolls are not just an issue for south Wales. They are a whole of Wales issue that affects tourism and businesses across the country. The crossings also affect England, particularly south-west England, and businesses and people travelling from further afield. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean made his point on that today. The issue is important and has been raised with me by Steve Parry-Hearn, who, as the Labour candidate for the Forest of Dean, is after the hon. Gentleman’s job. Mr Parry-Hearn has clearly outlined to me the impact of tolls on people in that area. Small and medium-sized enterprises are hit hard by the cost of the crossing, either directly from the tolls or indirectly from increased traffic as operators attempt to avoid bridge tolls by using other roads. He is campaigning against the level of the charges, which he says are having a

“detrimental impact on the lives of working families, businesses and on tourism across the Forest of Dean.”

My hon. Friend for Newport East referred to a protest on the Severn bridge at the weekend, coinciding with St David’s day, which showed the level of local anger. I must admit that I was not aware until today of the particular attire worn on that protest. I hope the Minister listens to those voices and considers discounts for regular business use or some kind of flexible pricing structure. Off-peak pricing for businesses has been suggested, which could provide an economic boost, cut congestion and mitigate the environmental impacts of heavy traffic

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at rush hours. These things are complex, but I would appreciate the Minister indicating whether he is prepared to consider such options.

We have heard that it is not only the costs of the crossing that are such a big issue, but the lack of convenience. There is no doubt that the Severn crossing has provided a poor service to users. It is absolutely astonishing that a modern card payment system was not introduced until 2011. I note the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) in his previous role as Transport Minister in helping to make that finally happen. It was overdue. Even with that, the Severn crossings are still playing catch up. I understand that the system still requires road users to enter their PIN number into a handheld device, which takes time. That means that cash is still encouraged for quicker transit.

The technology exists for easier and more convenient methods. Remote payments are a possibility and free-flow technology is set to be implemented at the Dartford crossing later this year. Will the Minister confirm the Government’s plans for further modernising payment and usage at the Severn crossing? Can some kind of free-flow technology option be considered? Will he consider the recommendations of the recent Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency review, which called for the agency in Swansea to become a digital centre of excellence? That could be a real opportunity to make online payments and improved digital services a reality on the Severn.

On questions for the future, “What next?” will be important for whichever Government is in power after 2015. I have talked about reforms to price and payment that could bring big benefits for users, but those do not on their own fundamentally address the main point, which is that the concession will soon end. I understand that the estimated end date has slipped again, because of the VAT rise and the costs of introducing card payment. When the date finally does arrive, the crossing will revert to the control of the Secretary of State and into public ownership. The annual cost of maintaining and operating the toll will only be a fraction—20%, I understand—of the current net revenue made from the crossing, which was estimated to be £87 million in 2012-13.

As we have heard, the Government will be left with an estimated debt of some £88 million due to extra operating and maintenance costs. My hon. Friend has asked a perfectly reasonable question. As well as confirmation of that figure of £88 million, it would be useful to have a breakdown of it. That would inform decisions about what is fair for the future. In the fairly near future, a decision must be made about how the debt will be recovered and about future toll charges. That is why it is important that the Government work in partnership with the Welsh Government and the Welsh Assembly to sort these things out. They should also work with Severn Crossings plc, while it is the concessionaire, to prepare for that without losing much more time.

Last week, the Department for Transport launched a consultation to simplify the procedures for toll increases at local statutory tolled bridges, tunnels, lifts and crossings. If the Minister is considering how best to regulate the price of tolls across the UK, will he set out a clear strategy for the future of the Severn tolls at the same time? The consultation creates an opportunity to do that, and I hope he will seize it.

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3.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing this debate on the Severn crossings. Before I discuss the tolls on the Severn crossings, I make the point that it has been the policy of successive Governments since 1945 that crossings on estuaries should be paid for by the user rather than by the taxpayer. Successive Governments have taken the view that tolls on all such crossings are justified because the user benefits from the exceptional savings in time and money that those expensive facilities make possible.

It might be helpful if I give a brief outline of the history of the Severn crossings, some of which is relevant to the issues that have been raised. The first Severn bridge was opened by the Queen in September 1966, providing a direct link from the M4 motorway into Wales, with a toll in place for use of the bridge to pay for the cost of construction. In 1986, the Government said that a second bridge would be constructed. In July 1988, they announced that the private sector would be given an opportunity to participate in the scheme, and in April 1990 they announced the selection of the bid led by John Laing Ltd with GTM-Entrepose to design, build and finance the second crossing. That consortium was also to take over the maintenance and operation of the existing Severn bridge.

In October of that year, the concession agreement between the Government and Severn River Crossing plc was formally signed. In February 1992, the Severn Bridges Bill received Royal Assent. The concession agreement was enshrined in an Act of Parliament and commenced in April 1992. Severn River Crossing plc then took over both the operation and maintenance of the present bridge and the construction of the new bridge. The concession agreement was structured so that certain risks were borne by the Government, rather than by Severn River Crossing plc, for example, costs relating to latent defects on the first Severn crossing. By bearing those risks, the Government could finance the construction of the second crossing and maintenance of the crossings at a much lower cost. If those risks had been included in the concession arrangement, the tolls would have needed to be higher or the end of the concession would have been longer than under the current arrangement.

Construction of the new bridge started in September 1992, and the new crossing was opened on 5 June 1996 by the Prince of Wales, almost 30 years after the opening of the first bridge. As part of the concession agreement, Severn River Crossing plc is authorised to collect tolls to meet its financial obligations. The tolls repay the construction and financing costs of the second Severn crossing, the remaining debt from the first existing crossing from 1992 and pay for the maintenance and operation of both crossings. It is worth stressing that that is the company’s only source of income. The concession period is limited to a maximum of 30 years. The actual end date will be achieved when the concessionaire has collected a fixed sum of money from tolls, which is £1.029 billion at 1989 prices.

The Severn Bridges Act 1992 applies a clear structure to the tolls to give the concessionaire confidence that it will be able to meet its liabilities and manage the risks that it accepted through the concession agreement. The

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toll levels were set for three categories of vehicles at the time of tender and are embodied in the 1992 Act. The Act sets out the tolling arrangements and the basis for yearly increases in the toll rates. Toll rates are fixed in real terms. The new rates are introduced on 1 January each year and are increased in line with the retail prices index using a formula, and rounded to the nearest 10 pence.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), asked about the possibility of introducing free-flow tolling on the Severn crossing, as is to be introduced on the Dartford crossings, but that depends on decisions on future charging arrangements that are yet to be taken. For example, it would be imprudent to invest in an expensive tolling system that operated for only three or four years, were the Government of the day to decide to discontinue charging. We would need to assess the costs and benefits of free-flow tolling on the Severn crossing as we did on the Dartford. However, as a general principle, the Government support moving towards more efficient ways of collecting tolls, which benefit traffic flow.

Jessica Morden: As the Minister looks toward the end of the concession in 2018, could he address the VAT issue and clarify what was meant in the letter sent to the Welsh Affairs Committee this week? When the VAT charge comes off the bridges, because they return to public ownership, will that mean a reduction in the tolls, or are the Government planning to keep the tolls at the current level?

Mr Goodwill: I thank the hon. Lady for that question. From 2003, when VAT was imposed, to 2012, about £120 million gross has been collected. However, some business users will have reclaimed a fair proportion of the VAT. It is the case that when this Parliament comes to an end, it would be open to the Government of the day to make a decision as to whether they continue to charge the same fee, or reduce it by 20% or whatever the prevailing rate of VAT. No decision has been made, and I suspect it would be above my pay grade to make that particular decision. It is probably slightly early to consider that point.

Jessica Morden: Will the Minister provide us with an update on the money that has been collected to date, since the VAT changes and the changes in the industrial buildings allowance, so that we can have a full update of how much money the Government have collected so far? I am happy for him to write to us.

Mr Goodwill: Yes, by all means. I have given the hon. Lady the latest figure on the VAT. If I may, I will write to her with a more up-to-date figure on the VAT, if we can get hold of it, and also on the buildings tax that she mentioned.

Mr Harper: On the VAT, may I clarify what the Minister said? I think he said that the Department for Transport can account for the gross amount of VAT collected, but it is not able to ascertain how much was reclaimed. It would be helpful, so that people can see the net amount that the Government have collected, at least to break it down into that collected for car users and that collected for freight. It would be a reasonable assumption that most freight users were VAT-registered

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and would therefore have reclaimed the VAT. It would be unhelpful for people to assume that the gross amount was collected and retained by the Government, and not to take into account the fact that for freight users, a lot of it would have been reclaimed, or would not have been a cost to their businesses.

Mr Goodwill: Yes, it would be reasonable to assume that most business users reclaim the VAT, so when we write to Members participating in this debate, we will estimate that level. When there is talk of the Government using this as a cash cow, it must not be forgotten that every vehicle saves 52 miles by crossing one of the crossings, but on the long journeys going the long way round, they would actually be paying a fair amount of fuel duty. So it is not simply that the Government benefit from the VAT; there is actually a loss in terms of the amount of fuel revenue that otherwise would have been collected.

I want to stress an important point: the Secretary of State does not have the authority to reduce Severn tolls without amending primary legislation and obtaining the concessionaire’s agreement. The concessionaire would not be able to agree to anything that would affect its net revenue without compensation and agreement from its shareholders and lenders, which would result, if such an agreement were forthcoming, in a cost to the taxpayer. Any discounts or exemptions are a matter for the concessionaire to decide, provided that those provisions comply with existing legislation, such as the Eurovignette directive. Where that is not the case, such schemes cannot be introduced without changes to the concession agreement.

Discounts of 10% for vehicles of over 3.5 tonnes, and 20% for other vehicles, are offered by way of a season TAG, based on 22 trips per month. Blue-badge holders and the emergency services are exempt. There are significant discounts for users, including businesses that make multiple trips per day. Tolls are charged in a westbound direction only, from England into Wales. The current toll prices are: £6.40 for cars; £12.80 for vans; and £19.20 for vehicles over 3.5 tonnes.

Once one-way tolling and the distance saved owing to the existence of the crossings are accounted for, Severn tolls compare favourably with toll levels on other crossings. On the points raised by the hon. Member for Newport East, I can give some examples. The toll for a car is £6.40, but, with the free return journey, it is equivalent to £3.20 for a saving of 52 miles; the Dartford toll is £2 for a saving of 22 miles; and the Tyne tunnel has a charge of £1.60 for a saving of only eight miles.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield mentioned lorries. In the case of the Humber bridge, lorries pay £12.50 for a saving of 45 miles, whereas on the Severn crossing—if we divide by two for the free return—it is £9.60 for 52 miles. Some of the comparisons made with other crossings in the country do not necessarily bear scrutiny, or perhaps Members can pick their example to support their case.

Jessica Morden: Does the Minister also accept that the Government stepped in recently to the tune of £150 million to reduce tolls on the Humber bridge? If they can do that on the Humber, why can they not do it for the Severn bridges?

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Mr Goodwill: If the hon. Lady looks into it in more detail, she will find that the Humber bridge review in 2011 found that the Humber bridge had a unique burden of interest in relation to its original cost of construction more than 30 years ago. Although the bridge cost only £98 million to construct, rolled-up unpaid interest meant that the bridge debt had grown to £439 million by 1992. Such unique circumstances justified the Government writing off £150 million of the £332 million owed to them by the Humber bridge board. I hope that provides some context. Some Members might even remember Barbara Castle announcing the construction of the bridge at a by-election in Hull.

At the end of the concession, the Severn crossings will revert to public ownership. The Government will need to continue tolling to recover the costs that they have incurred falling outside the concession agreement. The Department’s latest estimate is that they will be £88 million at the projected end of the concession in 2018, and it will take one to two years to recover that money. Once in public ownership, VAT will no longer be payable on the tolls.

My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) raised various issues. I can confirm that the bridges are indeed a UK asset for the benefit of all UK road users and taxpayers. Much has been said about the Treasury or the Government benefiting from this, but I humbly suggest that it is taxpayers who benefit, and the debt that we have inherited from the previous Government can be reduced by the tolls.

My hon. Friend spoke about maintenance of the bridge, which is of paramount importance. I am well aware of the issue with the cable on the old bridge, which I am pleased to say has now been stabilised, but the toll income already pays for maintenance. On his other point about a new bridge upstream, which would avoid a 33-mile round trip via the M48, there are precedents around the country. There is the Merseylink toll, although those bridges are slightly closer together, and many consider that a new lower Thames crossing could incorporate the existing tolls from the Dartford crossing to make it affordable.

Richard Burden: On the £88 million, I am pleased the Minister has clarified that that is the estimated figure. However, might we have a breakdown of how that is made up? What is the debt that is estimated to remain?

Mr Goodwill: I am more than happy to provide the hon. Gentleman with that information.

In conclusion, no decisions have been made regarding the operation and tolling arrangements for the crossings once the current regime ends. However, the Government have been clear that any future arrangements will need to make proper provision for repayment of Government costs and future maintenance, and reflect the needs of road users in England and Wales. I suspect that this is something that various political parties may visit when they write their election manifestos, although there is nothing to stop the hon. Gentleman making an announcement today about what a Labour Government—were we to get such a Government after the election—would do at the end of the concession, or at the end of the period when the tolls are paid off.

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The Government are committed to the successful operation of such vital crossings. They have provided a huge benefit to the Welsh and English economies through quicker access to places and markets. As the concession draws to an end, the Department will work with key stakeholders, including the Welsh Government, affected local authorities, business representatives, the Welsh Affairs Committee, and other interested parties.

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Rural Crime (Mapping Scheme)

3.59 pm

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.

Those of us who represent rural and semi-rural constituencies face something of a paradox. We rightly want to promote their natural beauty, what seems like a timeless way of life, and the strong sense of community, but we must not shy away from the other side of the coin. What sometimes appears when we flip over to the darker side of the coin is poverty, social deprivation and sometimes isolation, poor transport and, as I will discuss today, rural crime. Rural crime is undoubtedly a very dark side of the coin, and it is made even darker, as the Countryside Alliance rightly pointed out in its manifesto for the police and crime commissioner elections, by the fact that the police face large cuts while being expected to provide the same levels of service.

Rural crime is unquestionably a negative aspect of rural life, but I come to the debate with a sense of optimism born of the story of the Esclusham and Ponciau strategic community-assisted mapping pilot scheme, which for the purposes of the debate I will refer to simply as the mapping scheme. It is the story of how a few communities came together and produced what I believe to be a unique programme to tackle rural crime. I hope that the Minister will allow me and the people involved in the scheme to be even more optimistic, and will agree to investigate the roll-out of the programme in rural communities across England and Wales.

In this country, there are a number of examples of local success stories being transformed into national programmes to tackle the menace of crime, and in the United States, a fledgling community safety scheme of the 1960s called Neighbourhood Watch was adopted nationwide in 1972 by the National Sheriffs Association; it was adopted in our country fairly soon after that. An excellent initiative of my party’s in government was the role of the police community support officer, which was first introduced throughout the country in 2003. That idea came from south-west England, but the value and impact of the programme, which totally revolutionised community policing in this country, is now felt nationwide.

In case the Minister is worried that I have not yet mentioned the coalition parties, a Conservative Home Secretary, albeit one from a little while back, Sir Robert Peel, established the Metropolitan Police Service for London in 1829. That creation proved so successful in cutting crime that in 1857 all cities throughout the country were obliged to have a police force; the idea went from local to national. The Esclusham and Ponciau strategic community-assisted mapping pilot scheme is worthy of being rolled out nationally.

Only a couple of miles from the centre of Wrexham, one is in the heart of the countryside, much of which is beautiful. In addition to the scenery and the fresh air, however, local farmers, residents and the police were finding something else—something that was happening far too often. I am referring to a specific set of unwanted crime-related problems, which included the theft of farm machinery, fly-tipping, illegal hunting or lamping, car crime, including the burning of stolen cars, and thefts from outbuildings, sheds and gardens. The local police realised from the outset that it was vital to have

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the support of local residents in tackling these and other related crimes. I cannot praise highly enough those residents in Esclusham and Ponciau who battled away and organised with much-needed ferocity to tackle the problems head-on.

How did the project come about? Local residents and the police recognised the police’s lack of rural knowledge. Let me make it clear that I am strongly of the view that our local police officers and PCSOs are outstanding, especially given their financial constraints, but they faced an awareness that not even thousands of rural versions of the characters from “Inspector Morse”, “Bergerac”, “Kojak” and “The Bill” all rolled into one could have possibly dealt with the situation on their own without the collective knowledge of the local communities.

To start with, we are talking about an area too large geographically for visible policing. Then, to take the example of hunting rights on a plot of land, in many cases it is simply unknown whether such rights exist. There were instances of people who claimed to be lampers making bogus claims about a right to hunt. They were not bona fide hunters, because no such rights existed, and in many cases they were not even any sort of hunters at all. They were finding an excuse to be on land, in the dark, that they had absolutely no right to be on so that they could commit theft or other crimes. The situation was made worse by the fact that there were inevitably delays in tracing landowners when there were incidents.

A new programme was needed to deal with the situation. The ideas formulated came from local residents, councillors, PCSOs and the police at monthly community police meetings at the Aberoer Institute. It is fair to say that the mapping scheme was able to develop because the area in question already had a Farmwatch and OWL—Online Watch Link—alert system, through which members can contact police with information or be warned if thieves are about. OWL is used by North Wales police and local co-ordinators to build and communicate with thousands of other watch schemes.

The mapping scheme in my area was developed to support our local policing team in cutting rural crime incidents. It is run by members of the local community, and information about key areas is compiled on one central digital map. The map includes details specific to local areas, such as information about land ownership, permissions for hunting, where household closed circuit television is installed, livestock and public footpaths. Contact is made with residents throughout the area, some of whom live in scattered communities and on farms. Residents are encouraged to complete an information form—in fact, they need to do so in order to participate. They give information about their land, state what they know about other land, say whether they have household CCTV, and give details about hunting rights, land ownership, livestock, public footpaths and more. The information collected is put on a digital map, which is issued to the North Wales policing team on tablet computers. With that equipment, police officers may open the map, which is fully compliant with data protection laws. Details are constantly updated, and that is integral to the success of the project. An updated map is issued monthly on the tablet devices.

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I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that the mapping scheme has resulted in a major resource to assist rural policing teams. The data device at the heart of the project has provided police officers with information on demand—things such as a contact name and telephone number when they are dealing with an incident. This has proved extremely effective when officers need to ascertain local land ownership in order to get in touch with the owners of the land. The scheme has already proved useful when animals have been reported loose on the public highway and the police have needed to ascertain the name and telephone number of the animals’ owner. Details on hunting rights are also provided, so the project has enabled police officers to check up on lampers, real and imagined, and to stop certain individuals who have claimed that they were rabbiting. Officers confirm that no lamping permissions are in place and then move the individuals from an area. That happens quite frequently.

The programme is also able to orientate police officers and give specific geographic details about rural areas. The resource might be used, for example, to locate a reservoir. The project can provide potential back-up intelligence from available CCTV coverage. To clarify, the mapping resource has a number of household cameras highlighted, and officers have used that information to view CCTV data on several occasions.

The mapping resource has proved extremely useful in many incidents, and although, understandably, it is not always possible to link the pilot scheme directly to a successful outcome on a specific crime, it has undoubtedly assisted the policing team, at least indirectly, with rural crime incidents. Indeed, some situations have not involved an actual crime, but have been ones in which reassurance or intelligence gathering has been required. That too is, of course, vital.

Since its inception, two police officers have been piloting the mapping scheme. On average, the resource is referred to two to three times per week. It is highly significant that crime in the rural area implementing the programme is in decline. One sage community member, who has taken a leading role in the project, rightly makes this point:

“Word has got out, and many offenders and potential offenders now get the message that we know more about the area than they do!”

As anyone who has had the misfortune of dealing with any element of the criminal fraternity in rural Britain will know, that in itself is no mean feat.

One local farmer who is very involved in running the programme made this point:

“If there is theft of farm machinery, sheep worrying or a breach in a livestock boundary, it will help the attending police team to have immediate access to know who the field belongs to.”

Another local resident observed:

“The aim is a police officer or PCSO attending a rural crime will have this tablet to hand making it quicker to orientate themselves to the outlying rural areas and giving them immediate access to data.”

Meanwhile, a local PCSO has described how much local PCSOs and the police have welcomed the project and the approach of the local residents who have worked collaboratively with them on it. In the PCSO’s own words,

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“They have a ‘can do’ attitude which has led to this great development, and it is important that we have as much information as possible, and as quickly as possible”.

The team that runs the programme continues to develop the scheme by introducing their objectives at monthly community police meetings, and by visits to rural households and farms to promote the system and sign up residents to the pilot scheme.

Although I am delighted to have the opportunity to share the success story of the Esclusham and Ponciau strategic community-assisted mapping pilot scheme with the House and the Minister, my purpose in this debate is not merely to provide a good story. I would like to ask the Minister three specific questions. First, will he agree to meet representatives of the scheme? Secondly, will he investigate the feasibility of rolling out the programme across England and Wales, and then report back to the House? Finally, will he investigate new funding streams within his Department to support community programmes that help to tackle rural crime? I look forward to hearing his response.

4.13 pm

The Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims (Damian Green): It is always a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Bone. I congratulate not only the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on introducing the House to what she rightly describes as a good news story, but the residents in Esclusham and Ponciau who developed the mapping scheme.

Like the hon. Lady, I represent a semi-rural constituency, so I know all about the tensions between the policing of rural and urban areas; people in each area feel that those in the other area get more than their fair share of the cake. It is always difficult for police forces to decide where to point their efforts. However, it is obvious that in rural areas local information such as land ownership and livestock details can be important to police attending incidents. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s constituents for gathering the information to provide the digital map that she described, which will help North Wales police tackle rural crime in the area. The other key element to the scheme is that the information can be accessed via a tablet, helping the police to get the information while they are out on the ground. That keeps police on the street—perhaps in this case, in the field, but certainly out of the station—for longer than would otherwise be the case.

The hon. Lady rightly laid great stress on what wider applicability there can be for this type of local initiative. The answer is, “a great deal.” As I set out in a speech to police and crime commissioners in January, and again at a recent conference we held for digital pathfinder police forces, one of the biggest opportunities for the police to improve the service that they give the public is through embracing new technology. It allows the police to address not only the challenges posed by rural crime, but new emerging threats.

I will talk about the wider national scene first. Clearly, technology of the type the hon. Lady has described is shifting people’s behaviour and expectations of public services. Policing is responding to that, as the example of the mapping scheme shows, but the question that I pose regularly to those running individual forces and to PCCs is whether we are responding fast enough. Technology will be a significant key to the police continuing to cut

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crime in the future, and the intelligence input from the local community will continue to be vital in ensuring that technology is a success.

The hon. Lady referred to Sir Robert Peel; his famous dictum was:

“The police are the public and the public are the police.”

Part of that is an instinctive daily—hourly, if necessary—information flow between the police and the public. Technology makes that much easier than it ever has been, not just through social media but by various other means. The capacity of an informed, intelligent and helpful citizen to tell the police that something is going on somewhere where we could not remotely expect a police officer to be at that moment is greater than ever before.

The other side to that is that officers should have access to information while out on the streets, so that they can make quick decisions and avoid having to go back to the station to fill in forms or access IT systems. In a world of apps that allow people to book a taxi, find out when the bus is coming and do their banking on a smartphone, online police services and information should become business as usual. All forces now provide information via their website and Twitter; nearly all forces provide information via Facebook, and two thirds do so via YouTube. The public can contact individual officers or specific neighbourhood teams in many forces directly.

It is disappointing, however, that people cannot routinely do relatively basic things, such as reporting individual crimes, online. There are exceptions. Sussex police force allows the public to report crime online, and in Avon and Somerset, victims of reported crimes can track the progress of the police investigation online. I would like to see that spread across all forces.

We want to be ambitious, not simply doing old things with new tools but harnessing the potential of technology to bring about transformational change. That is what digital policing is about. Many forces are serious about digitisation, and I am delighted that 32 forces have signed up to be digital pathfinders. The College of Policing digital pathfinder programme is about bringing together forces that are serious about forging a digital path to share innovative ideas and identify collaboration opportunities. The programme will identify what a fully digital force will look like, highlighting how technology can improve the public experience of dealing with the police, and how officers can be more efficient and effective while out on the beat and can streamline processes to link up with their criminal justice partners. I hope that North Wales police will consider becoming a digital pathfinder, building on the innovation the debate today has highlighted. I am sure that the hon. Lady will want to challenge her local force and PCC on this matter.

One of the hon. Lady’s questions was about funding. She may be aware of the Home Office innovation fund. Recently we allocated over £11 million to IT projects from the 2013-14 precursor police innovation fund. There will be another round of allocations next year, for which the fund will be two and a half times the size. Much of that money is used on precisely the type of development in IT that she has described today.

For example, Avon and Somerset will use the funding to set up a citizen portal, which will allow the public to report and track non-emergency crimes. Cambridgeshire,

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Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire were successful in their joint bid to support their work to build innovation in IT into their end-to-end business transformation project to make all possible processes digital. South Wales is using global positioning system technology linked to police data to provide officers with relevant information and intelligence about the area they are in, or a person they encounter. Building on that money, the police innovation fund will have £50 million available next year to support further innovation, including digital projects.

The Home Office has recently awarded a contract for the provision of evidence-based decision support, a service that will enable the right team of experts from industry, small and medium-sized enterprises and academia to be assembled to focus on the customer’s specific problems before making critical decisions. It will ensure that transformation programmes are fully sighted on the latest technical innovations. By using the service, forces can be confident that they are investing in the right things and not just the latest gadgets. Those things combine to provide an opportunity for forces to bring about real, transformational change.

The hon. Lady was right to praise the innovative work that the PCSO did in partnership with her local community in developing the system in Esclusham and Ponciau. PCSOs have played a huge part in providing effective neighbourhood policing, and they are a highly visible presence in communities. As that work shows, PCSOs have proved an invaluable link between the police and the communities that they serve by understanding and identifying local priorities, solving local problems and low-level crime, and engaging with the community. That is even more important in rural areas, which, as the hon. Lady knows, can present different challenges because of their size and the remoteness of their communities.

Lasting success in tackling rural crime will lie in local police and communities having a tailored joint response to the problems that they face, as we have seen in the partnership in north Wales. Although crime rates in rural areas tend to be relatively low, it is right that rural communities can know what crime looks like in their area and can hold somebody to account for doing something about it.

We provide the public with local information about crime and what the police have done in response to it. That information is regularly updated, so the public are able to hold local forces to account., the national crime and policing portal, provides rural communities with local information about crime and antisocial behaviour. information is presented clearly and concisely, which enables the public to access crime and policing information in a way that is useful to them. The number of hits on since it was set up is evidence of how useful people find it.

We have shifted power to local communities through locally elected police and crime commissioners, who ensure that the public have a stronger voice in determining local policing priorities. A national rural crime network

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has been set up to tackle countryside crime, and it has been endorsed by 18 police and crime commissioners. It is good that PCCs in rural areas are coming together to discuss issues of mutual concern, and, as with the system that the hon. Lady spoke about, to spread best practice. As she rightly said, local initiatives can turn into national or international initiatives, which need to start somewhere.

Susan Elan Jones: I am grateful to the Minister for much of what he said. May I gently turn him to my question about whether he will meet with my constituents who are involved in the programme?

Damian Green: I was saving that for the end. I promise the hon. Lady that I will get there.

The rural crime network includes organisations dedicated to rural communities, which will be able to learn from one another and work collaboratively on new ideas and solutions that will benefit local people. Several PCCs have prioritised rural crime, which shows concretely that rural communities are able to have an effective say. In North Wales, the PCC has put in place a rural crime plan to engage with the rural community and address their concerns, including theft from rural areas of equipment and livestock. The force is providing a presence at farmers’ markets and agricultural events, and a rural crime team, comprising four full-time police constables and a sergeant, has been created.

Such schemes are not restricted to Wales. In Suffolk, the PCC has introduced a dedicated team of special constables to work with safer neighbourhoods teams to tackle offenders who target farms and rural communities, and rural crime police officers who will focus on hare coursing. The PCC in Thames Valley, Anthony Stansfeld, has also prioritised rural crime, and has introduced the “Country Watch” messaging system. So far, more than 7,500 people have signed up to the system to receive crime alerts and witness appeals, to see galleries of wanted criminals or suspects, and to receive information on community groups, events or meetings and details of operational work, by e-mail, text or telephone. Those examples from around the country illustrate that there is welcome new thinking and activity in the hon. Lady’s constituency and other parts of the country to deal with the problems that rural crime creates, and to enable police forces around the country to become more effective in stamping it out.

The hon. Lady asked whether I will meet her constituents. Of course I will; I am happy to do so. As I said, spreading best practice is an effective way of ensuring that good ideas have benefits beyond the local communities in which they were created. I hope that other communities will be inspired by the initiative that she spoke about and some of the others that I have mentioned. Rural crime is one the key examples where the use of new technology can, and will, transform policing, so that we deliver a better, more efficient service to the public. I hope that the good idea in the hon. Lady’s constituency will bring benefits to not only her constituents but many others around the country.

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Mental Health Services (South-East Essex)

4.27 pm

Mr David Amess (Southend West) (Con): I make this speech in sorrow and anger—in sorrow because as a result of the South Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, SEPT, my constituents are suffering, and in anger because I am a parliamentarian who takes his job extremely seriously and I have simply not been listened to.

In this very place on 1 March 2001—13 years ago—I made a speech outlining in graphic terms how disgracefully the mental health services that look after people with problems in Southend were run. I see no purpose in having Adjournment debates if when Members of Parliament raise an issue, Ministers say that they are glad it has been raised and then it gathers dust. Let me make it clear that I will not remain silent on this issue until something is done. The Minister is a Liberal, and will understand me well. Liberals like to dig themselves into their constituencies and have a high profile. That is what I did in Basildon and in Southend West. I know my area better than the Minister, the Care Quality Commission, Monitor, the civil servants and the trustees and directors of SEPT. I really do know what the service is like. I will be making a presentation to the House about the organisation. It will be horrified when it has a private meeting and reads what I have to say about it and how it will be reported. Let me use new Labour terms: the organisation is not fit for purpose. Let me then use terms that the Minister might respond to: there are lessons to be learnt.

Then there is the issue of governance. I can remember only too clearly the then Labour Minister listening to what I was sharing with the House, but absolutely nothing was done about it and people suffered. Under the Labour Government of 13 years, the organisation did extremely well under its previous chief executive. I will outline all sorts of honours that he received—he did extremely well.

Thinking about my old constituency of Basildon, when Sir John Major visited Basildon hospital, it was a first-class hospital. I am very proud to say that; it is where all my five children were born. We use local health services. I do not have private health care; I use the national health service. The previous Labour Prime Minister visited Basildon hospital just before the election on a public relations exercise, and the media reported how marvellous everything was. In the past three years, as the Minister knows, an inspection was done of the hospital. What went on with that fabulous hospital breaks my heart. Fortunately, new management is in there and it has been turned round in a remarkable fashion. It has perhaps the finest cardiac unit in the country, so I cannot speak highly enough of Basildon hospital now. I am only sharing that with the House because a public relations exercise can mislead in a graphic way.

What am I after in this debate, so we do not lose sight of what is happening? What went on is totally wrong; the previous chief executive was on his huge salary and all those personal things happened with the trust that we, the residents, had been paying for. It is absolutely outrageous that the governing body, whose duty is for

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governance of the organisation, then appointed the deputy, who has been with the organisation since 2005. What is so wrong about the organisation is the management. That is why they are not going to like what I shall say, but it is absolutely disgraceful.

Since I have been a Member of Parliament, I have observed how little power Ministers have these days. It was under Tony Blair’s Government that gradually powers seeped away, so I absolutely accept that the Minister is limited in what he can do. I have had meetings with Monitor and the Care Quality Commission—my hobby horse is that, for the life of me, I do not know why we have two organisations, one of which is in Wellington house, very close to the health service—and when I challenged them on these issues and on all the complaints, they were completely lost, so it is very frustrating.

When I first became a Member of Parliament, I could get things done. I saved Basildon A and E with just two days to go—there is a long list of things. Now we pass things to Ministers. It may take four weeks, eight weeks or 12 months for the civil service to produce a letter that is topped and tailed, and at the end of it all, it is a complete waste of time. I will not have that with this issue, because the mental health service is the Cinderella service of the country, as we all know. I applaud what the Government are doing with all their notices on the tube, as has been pointed out to me, and the way in which they are trying to turn round, in real terms, the way people see others who are suffering from mental health issues such as depression, so they are seen in a better light. However, I am not holding my breath that the Government will take action on this matter. Frankly, I think it has to be done through people power.

When I first became a Member of Parliament, I never saw as many people with mental health problems as I do now. They are growing in number. Whether it is depression or all sorts of matters, the numbers are definitely increasing. I really feel for my constituents who have a loved one with a mental health problem—not just through drug or alcohol abuse, but a real mental health problem—and then they have to go through the sectioning process, which is not easy. Of course, that process involves the police, and that is another subject as well, but what I want from the mental health service that looks after people in Southend is some honesty. Is it that they can no longer cope or that they do not know what they are doing? I am sick to death with my constituents’ endless list of complaints about mental health services. They are not part of the nanny state, wanting to dump their problem on to the state; they are in complete anguish about what it is like to get someone sectioned.

Of course, there is then the nightmare that when someone is sectioned, people are told, “Well, we can’t talk to you directly because the person being sectioned has a number of rights,” yet when they are released, the families, who can often be aged, have to cope with these very difficult circumstances. Sadly, I say to the Minister that all the figures seem to show that the number of people with mental health problems is growing.

According to figures provided by SEPT, in 2004 there were 184 complaints. There was no record of any of the complaints being upheld. I would have thought that someone, somewhere in Government, when I complained about it, would have said “How on earth can that happen?” In 2012-13, under an enlarged organisation, which of course seems to be an excuse, 434 complaints

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were made against the service. Of those, 243 were upheld, so more than half the complaints were upheld. We do not have the time to go into the details of the stress caused by raising a complaint and the length of time it takes to deal with it. Those figures in themselves should have set alarm bells ringing in the Department of Health, but I do not think that has happened.

My question today is: why on earth has this service, which in the early 2000s was already in a shocking state of affairs, been allowed to continue in that fashion? Why did no one intervene when I raised it in this Chamber in 2001? It really is not good enough, frankly, that nothing has been done. What makes matters worse is that the organisation is rewarded for failure.

Many people in the organisation, and there will be lines to take on the matter, were not there on the journey I have been on. After 31 years, I have a real picture, but I go back to the appointment of the present chairman, who has been with the organisation since 2005. In 2010, 118 employees earned more than £60,000. That was up from 99 in 2009. More recently, in light of the numbers of complaints that I have just quoted, in March 2013, 161 staff earned more than £70,000, 49 of whom earned between £100,000 and £150,000. That is absolutely crazy—50 earning between £100,000 and £150,000.

It gets worse, however. Although complaints to the trust were increasing exponentially, SEPT staff were rewarded with higher salaries—rewarded being the norm. In 2009, while many ordinary people were suffering from the worst effects of the global recession, the salary of the chief executive of SEPT rose from £170,000 to £200,000, and then it became much higher than that. That is absolute madness, and it is all in Hansard. This is supposed to be the mother of Parliaments, which runs the country. I have complained about this time after time and yet nothing at all has happened. It is an absolute disgrace that my words of caution have been ignored about this matter. Apparently, the salaries were justified

“to recognise the trust’s exceptional performance”.

Well, that is a joke if ever there is a “Tick the box” exercise. The constituents and whistleblowers who have contacted me would certainly question it.

Following my Christmas pre-recess Adjournment debate, in which I raised this issue, I was informed by a Minister that the CQC currently has no concerns about SEPT’s services in Southend. Well, that is a laugh in itself, frankly. No concerns? What on earth has it been doing? It is absolutely ridiculous. I do not necessarily dispute whether the inspections of these services were carried out rigorously enough, but what I would dispute is that a recent inspection, in September 2013, when I started to make a fuss about this again, found no overarching concerns for any of the “four essential standards”, one of them being “complaints”. Surely the increased number of complaints in the past 10 years is evidence enough to suggest that we should question an inspection that declares that there is no cause for concern at all. Surely I should be listened to, as a local representative. I have been there longer than all these other people; I have 31 years’ experience.

Perhaps the CQC is not missing something, but in 2010 a whistleblower, who was a practising doctor for the service, claimed that the previous chief executive of

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the service would often circulate e-mails to encourage staff members to “talk up the service”. That actually happened when inspectors came to visit. Nothing at all was done about the people who were responsible for governance. In fact, according to the whistleblower, internal surveys that were meant to help the service to improve itself would often be loaded to ensure that a negative response could not be input into the questionnaire, so the service was either “excellent”, “very good” or “quite good”. And we, the mother of all Parliaments, have, as power has seeped away, allowed all this to happen. What is the good of elected Members of Parliament if we have become so impotent?

I recognise the motivation behind what the Care Quality Commission does to ensure that the health services across the country are serving the interests of patients, but I cannot help but feel that the inspectors are missing something or being misled by staff at SEPT, who have in the past been reported as ensuring that patients are on their “best behaviour” when an inspection takes place. I think that it is important to link that with the statistics that I referred to; the numbers of complaints have increased. How the CQC does not consider that to be not only incredibly concerning for patients and their relatives but very suspicious is alarming. That said, I welcome the recent report on Bedford hospital.

I talked in the Christmas Adjournment debate about the previous chief executive, Patrick Geoghegan, who left in September, and his history. I have mentioned in this debate the very large salary increase. I do not have time to go into how he described himself as a doctor. I have my own view as to what a doctor is. I will leave it to others to reflect on him. But I think that it is curious how that chief executive went from the modest role of a hospital porter when I was Member of Parliament for Basildon to become one of the highest paid chief executives in the whole country, and the mother of Parliaments has done absolutely nothing about this disgrace. We have just had heads down and a rule of silence: “This is the line to take, Minister, and let’s just get on with it.” Well, I am certainly not going to remain silent about it. For example, in 2009, under Labour, Mr Geoghegan received the NHS leader of the year award, beating 700 other candidates, and he was rewarded with a huge pay increase.

One of the most consistent complaints that I receive is with regard to the number of locum staff that the service employs. There is evidence to suggest that agency staff often work two jobs and, as a result, will turn up late for shifts.

In 2008, an independent inquiry criticised the staff turnaround rate after a murder was committed by the schizophrenic Gary Roberts. There was a report on that. I am rushing through this because I have so much to say. John Vesey, former chairman of SEPT for six years, has told me that there was a problem getting staff when he was there and he knew of extra money being offered to prospective psychiatrists on the side. He said that the directors—this is coming from the former chairman—

“lied through their teeth about this”

when it was brought up at a board meeting. In 2007, the trust was still facing staff shortages, and the board discussed the issue but concluded that the shortages had no detrimental effect on the quality of care. What an absolute joke. And the trust went on ignoring things.

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In response to a freedom of information request that I put in to the trust in September 2013, I was told that £600,000 was spent on promoting this organisation. That was three times the salary that Mr Geoghegan was receiving at the time. We could have employed a number of hospital consultants for that. The uses of the public relations techniques are an absolute disgrace

Sharon Tattoo, a constituent of mine, became a whistleblower. I want briefly to talk about two issues now. John Vesey, while chairman of Thameside mental health service as it was then called, recalled how he was forced to dismiss a member of the board by the regional chairman after he was threatened with dismissal if he did not dismiss that individual from his post. That example of bullying is absolutely typical of SEPT, and the corruption does not end there. There was a particular incident in which Mr Vesey, in response to a large and elaborate party that had been held for his birthday, approached the director responsible for finance and inquired how the party had been paid for. The response unnerved Mr Vesey: the money had come from funds donated by what the then finance director called “grateful patients”.

Sharon Tattoo worked for SEPT. She became aware of what she saw to be the misuse of funds by the leadership. She told Mr Vesey, the chairman, about the funding being redirected. The chief executive then warned her that if she were to raise these issues with the chairman, his job would be at risk, and she was advised that she should refrain from making further complaints. I could go on and on about what happened.

Mr Geoghegan left in September, but what on earth was going on with the board when it replaced Mr Geoghegan with his deputy, Sally Morris, who had been there since 2005? I have looked at the present board members and where they come from. It is now a much larger organisation. But what on earth has Lorraine Cabel been doing, as the chairman of the trust, in overseeing all this? I think that what has been happening is an absolute disgrace; and all the time, my constituents have been suffering as a result of this poor care.

For instance, there is a young girl who is now in Rochford hospital as a result of having suicidal thoughts. She recently escaped, with another patient, from a ward, and the staff apparently allowed that escape to happen. I want to ask how the staff on duty at the time, bearing in mind that these patients have fragile minds, allowed two patients to escape from a secure unit. What has happened is absolutely disgraceful.

I want to end my speech by paying tribute to the work of one of my constituents, Cheryl Higgins, who in 1999 recognised how poor the health services were in my constituency and, supported by John Barber, set up Trust Links to address the gap in mental health services. That organisation is still flourishing today.

I say to the Minister that I am not going to let this matter drop—I am really not. I am very, very angry about the way I have been ignored on this issue. I have no doubt that there will be a line to take and that I will be told, “All is well.” It is not well. This is a very expensive service, and it seems to me that we want a complete clean sweep of the management. That is what I am asking the Minister to achieve. Mental health services have always been the Cinderella service. When the Government whom I support came to power, under one of our colleagues who was then a Minister, a pledge

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was given that it would no longer be the Cinderella service and it was going to be front line now. From what is happening in my own area, I am not at all satisfied that the organisation that is in charge is fit for purpose. I will not shut up until I get some real action on the matter.

4.50 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Norman Lamb): It is clear from the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) how strongly he feels about the matter, and I absolutely respect that. I am not interested in any line to take from the Government. I have a speech here, but I want to address directly what my hon. Friend has had to say. I share his passion for trying to improve mental health services. That is something that I feel strongly about. I never like the idea of sweeping failures of service under the carpet. He has raised some serious concerns, although he did not have time today to go into the detail of all the things that he wanted to raise, and I would be keen to meet him to discuss those issues further.

I want to say a word about what I am trying to do in mental health. I agree that it has always been the Cinderella service, and there is what I would describe as an institutional bias against mental health in the NHS, which manifests itself in all sorts of ways. The spotlight is not on standards in mental health as it is in other areas of the health service. When the Government responded to the Francis report on Mid Staffordshire, we made it clear that addressing the concerns he raised about culture in the NHS was just as important in mental health as it was in any other part of the health service. If my hon. Friend reads the Government response to Francis, he will see that that is the case.

One of the ways in which we have responded to Francis is substantially to change how the Care Quality Commission goes about its work. My hon. Friend sought to make the case—by putting it in such a way, I do not suggest that he is wrong; I am not in a position to judge —that there is a massive gap between what he knows about a local service and what the regulators say about it. I know from my own part of the world, Norfolk, that when one raises acute concerns about, for example, the ambulance service, the response is often that everything is fine even though we know that it is not. We must try to ensure that inspectors and regulators reach a clear and accurate view of the quality of services.

The inspection regime that we are introducing, first in acute hospitals but soon in mental health trusts as well, is much more rigorous than anything that has gone before. One of the things that the previous Government did in 2008 was to remove specialist teams of inspectors, so that everyone in the CQC became a generalist. They might one week inspect a dental practice, a GP practice, an acute hospital and perhaps a mental health trust. That is no good; we must have people who know what they are looking for. It is also critical to involve clinicians and service users, who may well have an insight that others will never achieve. The CQC has appointed a deputy chief inspector who is in charge of the inspection regime for mental health, and I urge my hon. Friend to contact him directly to raise the concerns that he has expressed. At the end of the inspection process, mental health trusts will be rated so that the public has a much better view of the quality of a service in their local area.

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Regulation on its own does not change culture; I absolutely get that. There must be carrot and stick. We must do things to change the culture within organisations as well as seeking to secure good standards through regulation. Regulation and inspection are a critical part of the overall picture, however, and we must have confidence in the inspection regime.

Everything that has emerged from the CQC’s work under the new leadership of David Behan and David Prior—a former colleague of my hon. Friend’s whom I happened to beat in North Norfolk to give him the opportunity to become the chair of the CQC—shows that they understand about compassionate care and high standards of care. We will shine a spotlight on mental health services and other parts of the health service in a way that has not happened before. I think that that will be of some value.

Mr Amess: Does the Minister understand how frustrating the whole thing is for me? The previous chief executive, Patrick Geoghegan, was in an unusual relationship, which I will not enlarge on, with someone who was first installed in a property in my constituency—there was a dispute about that—and later became a top-earning member of the board. With all this due diligence and inspection, how on earth was that allowed? What has happened is absolutely crazy, and I will need quite a bit of convincing, whoever the Minister introduces me to. It seems to be only when we air things publicly in Parliament that there is any interest—“Yes, Minister. Let’s get a brief ready.” I am not going to let the matter drop because my constituents deserve better than they are getting at the moment.

Norman Lamb: I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that I have sought to address his concerns directly, rather than reading from a pre-prepared speech. I share his concern about levels of pay in the upper echelons of the NHS, and I believe that that must be addressed.

On a more positive note, in the short time that I have available let me mention some of the positive things that we are doing. In January, we launched a document called “Closing the gap”, which directly addresses the fact that mental health services always fall behind physical health services. We have stated publicly, and we have put

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into legislation, that there should be parity of esteem and equality between mental and physical health services. The document identifies 25 areas in mental health services in which essential change is needed. One example is the widespread use of face-down restraint. Such restraint is not acceptable or necessary in a modern mental health service, and many areas have demonstrated how to create positive regimes without the use of such a barbaric approach.

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) on securing this important debate. There are various shades of mental health problems, and care in the community is an important aspect of looking after those who suffer from such problems. However, day centres up and down the country, including Mundy House in my constituency, are under threat. Will the Minister look at what more can be done to support day centres as a means of caring for not only mental health patients but other patients and community members generally?

Norman Lamb: I am conscious that I am close to running out of time, but community services often do enormously good work in their local areas. The focus on mental health must shift towards a prevention approach. We must intervene early rather than allowing a problem to deteriorate and acting only after something has happened. We must also focus much more on recovery. So often, we seek to contain people’s ill health rather than helping them to recover in a meaningful sense.

Finally, I would like to mention our crisis care concordat, which will set high standards of crisis care in mental health that have never existed before. We expect every area to implement that concordat to ensure that people, wherever they are in the country, get access to the right standards of care.

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): Order. I apologise to Members for having to curtail the debate, because I am sure that it could continue.

5 pm

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