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Planning applications are happening all the time in my constituency. Planning policy needs to be so much stronger, so that people know that, under the process, there can be local objections and that they can, along with the local and district councils, put a case together and be certain that they will be able to reject large turbines in prominent positions. Turbines need to be in an area where there is maximum wind, even though they will still be working only some 30% or 35% of the time. They will always be in the most prominent spots. We are a Government who look to the countryside and to rural areas for support, but we are not providing protection for those areas as far as wind turbines are concerned.

Some people refer to wind turbines as windmills, but they certainly are not. Three or four turbines would probably require nearly half an acre to an acre of concrete in the ground. I can assure hon. Members that a mast some 180 metres high would need an awful lot of concrete to keep it in the ground. Infrastructure, including roads, is also needed to allow access to the turbines, to service them. They are not the fluffy wind turbines and windmills that they are sometimes portrayed to be.

Mel Stride: My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. On the visual impact of turbines, I do not want to get into a bragging war about who has the largest turbines, but those that he mentioned were probably no higher than 60 or 70 metres. Those that are likely to be built now in the Den Brook valley will be 120 metres high; that is almost the height of St Paul’s cathedral. Whether they are smaller turbines up on hill ridges, which are obviously visible, or turbines down in valleys, they are often of such a magnitude that they are visible for miles around.

My hon. Friend knows that Devon’s tourist industry is valued at about £1 billion a year. There will be huge, cumulative detrimental impact on that business if we continue to despoil our landscape in this way.

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend talks about a mast that is 120 metres high; in real money that is 400 feet, which is a huge height. People must remember that it will be seen for miles. Turbines will be put in prominent positions to catch the wind in the first place and they go 200, 300 or 400 feet up in the air, so they can be seen. They cause huge detriment to the visual aspect of the countryside, to the people living there and, as my hon. Friend says, to the people coming to visit Devon, Cornwall and the west country. Believe it or not, people do not come to the west country to see wind turbines; they come to the countryside to see the great landscapes and, dare I say it, the lambs, sheep and cattle in the fields, along with our beautiful rivers. People do not come to see massive wind turbines that are being built in the countryside not because of the economics but because they are over-subsidised.

The Minister cannot be held responsible for the over-subsidy of wind turbines, which is not in his Department’s portfolio, but the Government should consider the over-subsidy more closely because I am certain that if we killed the economics of wind turbines, we would kill the applications, irrespective of planning. The Minister might not be able to answer that today, but it needs to be passed down the line.

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Nigel Adams: I support microgeneration: a single turbine in a farm or business that provides power to that business, with any spare capacity being sold to the grid. We are now seeing more and more single turbine applications that are not microgenerating; they are clearly just cash cows. Would my hon. Friend support a moratorium on single turbine applications that neither provide power locally nor microgenerate for a farm or business?

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point because speculative single turbine applications, especially for very large wind turbines of some 300 or 400 feet in height, are the ones that particularly need to be stopped. Some of the smaller wind turbines that generate for small businesses, farms or communities are acceptable. The other problem, and the Minister may be able to talk about this, is that such wind turbine applications are not linked to local communities. If a local community thinks it could benefit from a wind turbine, despite all my rhetoric this afternoon, people might find them a little more acceptable, but they are foisted upon communities that receive no benefit from them. All a community sees is a vast wind turbine restricting its view.

The flight paths of birds are also affected. One application in my constituency, for instance, is very close to a wood that has a lot of buzzards. Such applications can have a hugely detrimental effect. If I were a bird, I would not want to get caught in a wind turbine. We have to take all those things into consideration.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon for securing this debate, and I look forward to what the Minister has to tell us.

3.13 pm

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) on securing this debate. I anticipate that I will be a dissenting voice—[Hon. Members: “Lone voice.”] We shall see. I may find that the Minister agrees with me, but certainly among Beck-Bench Members, I anticipate being a dissenting voice in this debate.

I start by setting out some common ground in the interests of a cordial debate. I support renewable energy, and I welcome the contribution of onshore wind turbines. Members may agree that renewable energy developments, like all forms of development, should be judged on their individual merits by planning authorities and considered in the light of planning policy. There will be some development proposals that are suitable and some that are not. As I listened to the many skilfully deployed arguments earlier, it occurred to me that I might have been inclined to make those arguments against other sorts of developments, such as certain housing developments in some situations. Although we certainly need housing, and there are developments for which authorisation is right, there will be settings in which a development is simply not appropriate. We ought to have planning law and planning policy, and I believe we do, that enable local authorities to make individual decisions about individual applications.

As I listened to the hon. and learned Gentleman, I asked myself how on earth the Didcot power station ever got planning permission. I am sure hon. Members pass the power station on the train as often as I do. Our

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planning system has to consider the benefits that developments will bring, which will often be further afield than the development’s immediate locale. Although some hon. Members have considered the full breadth of this debate’s title, I came here intending specifically to address planning because of our experience in Wiltshire during the development of Wiltshire’s core strategy, with which I hope the Minister is familiar. If not, I am confident that his aide is familiar with it.

Policy 42 of Wiltshire’s core strategy is heavily based on Lord Reay’s private Member’s Bill, the Wind Turbines (Minimum Distances from Residential Premises) Bill. The core strategy has not yet been adopted. In fact, such was the controversy surrounding policy 42 that, when the planning inspector considered the strategy, he spent the best part of a day hearing evidence on the merits or otherwise of that policy. Although I cannot be sure of exactly why the core strategy has not yet been successfully adopted, policy 42 is one of the issues on which the planning inspector had to deliberate following his examination of the local plan.

Lord Reay’s private Member’s Bill did not become law. Members who have already spoken did not advocate the Bill’s proposals, and I do not know whether they support them, but the proposals are not law. Yet almost by the back door, and with changes proposed at the last minute in Wiltshire council’s deliberation on the local development plan, the council sought to take the Bill’s provisions, which do not have the authority of our democratic Parliament, and introduce them into our local plan. I recognise that there are certain locations in which development should be approved and other locations where development should not be approved, but a policy for minimum separation distances is a clumsy way of making that distinction.

Mr Cox: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are separation distances in Scotland and Wales. Does he not think they are good enough for the English, too? Are the Scottish and Welsh just plain mistaken?

Duncan Hames: The point I am making is that a separation distance, in itself, does not take into consideration all sorts of other factors, such as the quality of the landscape, that we would expect councillors to consider when making a planning decision. My understanding, and the Minister can correct me if I am wrong, is that it is not our coalition Government’s policy that minimum separation distances should apply to such developments in England.

The other argument that I wish to deploy this afternoon is that we ought to be making policy and planning decisions on the basis of evidence. We have heard many genuinely held concerns this afternoon. Some of the objections relate to how people genuinely feel, and I do not suggest that they are anything but a genuine reaction to the situation, but we are in a position to test some of the concerns that have been cited. It would be helpful to consider the evidence. I have heard concerns, but I have not heard evidence, and perhaps hon. Members can at least provide anecdotes. For example, it would be useful to understand how far away from the development of a wind turbine there is evidence of a fall in house prices, or whether there is evidence of the tourism economy in Devon or other parts of the south-west suffering in a different way from the rest of the country. We may want

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to consider international evidence: on a holiday to France not so long ago I saw plenty of onshore wind turbines, but the region I was visiting clearly had a vibrant tourism economy.

Neil Parish: Most of my constituents would not want to risk loads of turbines being put up just to work out the effect on tourism. Once they have been erected, it is difficult to take them down. I suggest we resist them before that happens.

Duncan Hames: I understand that the hon. Gentleman argues for the precautionary principle, which is not supported in many other areas of policy making. I am sure that he would like consistency about that.

We have heard about developments that have already happened. I am not suggesting that we embark on an experiment; I am suggesting that we consider the evidence of what has already happened. It may be reassuring to people to know that house prices have not fallen near other developments—although I am sure it will not greatly reassure those in some parts of the country who are yet to be able to afford housing. I make a plea to the Minister, who will respond to the genuine concerns that are being voiced in the debate, to ground his policy making firmly in evidence. It is not beyond the wit of man, or indeed of his colleagues in the Department, to stick to that principle.

I want to consider the question of benefit to the local area. I have been pressing another Department in relation to the Government’s long-awaited community energy strategy, which was finally published at the end of last year. I believe it is important that as we reform the energy sector, we empower many more stakeholders than the owners of the big six companies. Renewable energy gives an opportunity—it could slip through our hands but we could grasp it, with good policy—to democratise the relationship between consumers and producers in our energy system. An example would be Delabole in Cornwall, where a reduced energy tariff is available to people living near the wind farm. I should like more to be done to enable local people to benefit if their community contributes to decisions—we need those decisions to be taken somewhere in the country—to secure the energy supply. I look forward to that happening in my constituency, where a major solar project presents a substantial contribution to the local councils, to ensure that the community will be a beneficiary. I do not want to stretch the parameters of the debate, Mr Pritchard, but we have heard of at least one alternative source of energy this afternoon.

The recent rush—and there has been quite an increase—in applications for solar power projects in Wiltshire may not be unconnected with the effective blanket ban proposed under policy 42 of Wiltshire’s draft core strategy. The contribution to energy needs in Wiltshire is perhaps more likely to be provided by solar because of the blanket ban, which is not in the least pragmatic and which is effected by the minimum separation distances proposed in the local plan. There may be consequences, and I do not know how they would be received in sunny Devon, should its councillors go down the same route as those in Wiltshire.

Mr Cox: I wanted to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question about evidence of an effect on house prices. A study in Cornwall analysed 201 sales transactions of

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houses within half a mile of a 16-turbine wind farm and found a noticeable effect. It said that both the noise and the flicker from turbine blades could blight certain properties, and that the view of the countryside enjoyed by the occupier had some value, which might be affected by a wind farm. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors argues that there is evidence suggesting an effect on house prices. The matter is not evidence-free. There is growing evidence of an effect, certainly while there is uncertainty about whether a development will be built.

Duncan Hames: I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for that intervention, but I was rather hoping that in looking for evidence of the effect on house prices, we might examine prices rather than assertions about what might or might not influence them. I understand that house prices have continued to march well out of reach of affordability in Cornwall and other parts of the south-west of England.

I hope that Ministers will stick to an evidence-based policy to avoid the unwanted consequences of unnecessarily closing down one option for a clean and secure source of energy.

3.26 pm

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): The debate and the issue are hugely important. I live in Montgomeryshire, which is a long way from the south-west, and I did not intend to speak when I came to the debate. I came because I have a great love for the south-west. I spend much of my holiday time there. St Ives and Padstow are beautiful, and I find the Isles of Scilly irresistible. We spend a great deal of time in the south-west, so I travel through it. Inevitably one notices the impact of the development of onshore wind turbines while driving through Somerset and Cornwall. They are quite dominant. I was hugely impressed by the power of the speech made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox). Because the issue is so important to me, I felt an irresistible urge to speak in the debate.

My aim is to speak about planning policy. I would not want to incur your wrath in any circumstances, Mr Pritchard, and particularly not when you are in the Chair. I have a special interest arising from my constituency, but I shall make a passing reference to what makes this such a big issue for me: it is scale. My constituency has more than 240 turbines already, and we have a proposal for probably 35 miles of 400 kW cable, a 20-acre substation and about 500 extra turbines—it is a dedicated line—and about 100 miles of cables criss-crossing the constituency from the centre. The proposal would completely change a beautiful part of Britain, which shares a standard of beauty with the south-west. Anyone representing such an area is bound to be involved in the debate. It is a question of scale.

We have a general Government policy, supported by the Opposition and all parties, of seeking an energy mix. I think that that is right, and have never argued that wind should not play a part in it. The question is about the scale. The Government do not have a target, other than having 15% of energy coming from renewable sources by 2020. As for onshore wind, there is, I think,

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an expectation of what it would provide. That expectation is between 10 GW and 13 GW of power. Currently, we have 7 GW of power that is up and operating, 6.8 GW that has passed planning and another 6 GW that is in planning. We have achieved the target that the Government expected to achieve by 2020. Clearly, the level of support is so high that there would probably be an onshore wind farm on every hill in Britain if planning permission could be gained, but the case for a moratorium is strong. As manifestos are prepared, I hope that all parties seriously consider a moratorium to protect the most beautiful parts of Britain.

There is a real issue with local democracy and how people feel locally. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon referred to hopelessness, and that is exactly how people feel. A research project at Aberystwyth university looked at how wind farms impacted on mid-Wales. The research found a sense of hopelessness and helplessness throughout the area about being able to affect the implications of Government policy on where they lived. The council signed off on the development and gave up believing in local democracy. It is probably one of the poorest local authorities in Britain, yet it felt that it had to set aside £2 million to support its decisions and defend its policies at a public inquiry.

Mr Cox: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the other baleful effects of the proliferation of applications for out-of-scale wind turbines is that it tends to turn people against renewable energy as a whole? As they search for arguments to defend their communities, they immediately start to look at the whole case for cutting carbon emissions and do so from a hostile point of view. That cannot be a good thing for a cause that we would all support.

Glyn Davies: I absolutely agree with my hon. and learned Friend on that issue. In 2004, I was thought to be a strong supporter of renewable energy. I campaigned for the principle of renewable energy. When the project that impacted on my area came forward, I said that it would damage the view of renewable energy in a part of Britain that was the most supportive of it—the Centre for Alternative Technology is in the middle of my constituency—and, indeed, the opposite is now true. Some 2,000 people came to Cardiff to protest on the steps of the Assembly with me. The impression is that we are now anti-renewable energy, but that has been driven by this obsession with onshore wind. It seems crazy to me.

I have a few points to make before I finish. The first is on cumulative impact. How can cumulative impact not be a major part of planning? I was a planning committee chairman for seven years, and with every development the cumulative impact was a hugely important factor. Suddenly, as with everything else, there are special rules for onshore wind, and cumulative impact hardly matters. We are seeing huge proliferations close together. We must pay real attention to cumulative impact and take into account the new pylons that the National Grid has to build as part of that development.

The second point is about the individual turbines that are popping up everywhere. The local planning authority has to have a policy that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) said, accepts a certain number, where they support the community. We

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would support a farmer who wants to use the policy to develop their own energy production. Local planning authorities, however, do not have a policy and are approving those turbines on a hit and miss basis. I have seen them go through when the planning officer has recommended refusal, and we are destroying the most beautiful parts of our country.

Finally, we need to have an appreciation of landscape at the core of our planning policies. Before coming to this place, for three years I was the president of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, which is the equivalent body to the Campaign to Protect Rural England. We worked together. It is heartbreaking to see policies being adopted that pay almost no regard to the value of landscape. The planning inspectors have got one view only, which is this mythical target. They say, “We have listened to what you have told us and we accept everything, but it is trumped by the target.” It is devastating for rural parts of Britain, it is devastating for the south-west and it is devastating for my constituency. It is time that the Government recognised that and came forward with a policy based on a moratorium.

3.34 pm

Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and to respond to an interesting and thoughtful debate. First, as a constituency MP, I fully understand the concerns that our residents express from time to time about significant planning applications, and the strength and sincerity with which those concerns have been reflected by Members will be welcomed by their constituents. I am replying today on behalf of the Opposition. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) usually leads on these issues for the shadow Government, but she is not able to be here.

Like all Members who have spoken today, I have a constituency interest in these issues. My constituents have a broad range of views. Most, to be frank, do not get exercised about wind energy. The issue does not come up regularly when I am out and about on the doorsteps in many parts of the constituency, although I find advocates for it as well as opponents. I can think of very few examples where those who are opposed to or concerned about wind farms are opposed to wind energy in principle. It is more often about planning applications that residents feel are inappropriate for one reason or another, such as proximity to existing homes or the impact on the landscape. Members have highlighted those issues, and that is where the planning process needs to take account of local views.

The hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) spoke strongly about the concerns of his constituents. Similar concerns have been put to me regarding applications in my constituency, and I have tried to support my constituents. Many Members have said that local public opinion should be taken into account, and that must be right. I pay tribute to the local authorities in my constituency, which is unique in nature. I represent one very Conservative area that is covered by East Northamptonshire council, and one area that leans heavily to Labour in Corby borough council. Both councils are different in character, but they generally do a fair job of weighing up the representations they receive from the public on planning matters. As an MP, I recognise that I often amplify the concerns of the

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local public. I do not, however, have the same responsibility as a decision maker to weigh those concerns against other considerations of the wider needs of our communities.

Planning applications, whether they are for new housing, new industry or new energy supply, are inevitably not always popular with those who live close to them. At times, people are cynical about that, but we have to be honest. We would seek to protect our communities and what we love about them, and I am fully respectful when my constituents tell me that something is on their doorstep and is not welcome.

Nigel Adams: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the words of the Leader of the Opposition, who, when Energy Secretary, said that opponents of onshore wind farms were effectively guilty of antisocial behaviour?

Andy Sawford: The hon. Gentleman tempts me to comment on something that I would have to see in context. The voices of those concerned about planning applications should be heard in the planning process. I always endeavour, as an MP—I am absolutely sure from the speech made by the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon that he does so, too—to ensure that they are heard. However, the voices of those who want the housing, jobs and energy supply should be heard as well, and that is why the debate about wind energy must be considered in context.

Like my constituents, I am sure that many people across the south-west, particularly in the light of recent events, are concerned about climate change, energy prices and energy security. Climate change is a security threat for families, businesses and the country as a whole, because it could destabilise entire regions of the world and cause the mass migration of millions of people and conflict over water and food supplies. The events of the last few weeks have shown that it is an issue in our own country, too, with people’s homes, businesses and livelihoods under attack from extreme weather, particularly in the region that most hon. Members present represent, and that is the focus of our debate.

Political division at Westminster, some of which has been reflected today, means that we are sleepwalking into a national security crisis on climate change. The science has not changed, and the terrible events of the last few weeks should serve as a wake-up call. The climate change consensus that once existed in this country has frayed. My party stands ready to work with people from all parties who are prepared to do what is necessary. The contribution from the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames), which was slightly different in character, helped the debate by rounding it somewhat. The need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel based energy sources is real. Over 160 Governments, including our own—although that seems to be a moveable feast—and the United Nations agree that the burning of fossil fuels is causing our climate to change dramatically.

The transition to a low-carbon economy is essential, but it also presents a huge opportunity for the UK, with the potential to be a major source of jobs and growth that we need now more than ever. The Government started out by promising to be the greenest Government ever, but the reality is that they have a terrible record on climate change. We see squabbling and inconsistent messages from Ministers and policy uncertainty on decarbonisation and support for renewables. The Prime

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Minister says that he has not changed his mind, but, in the face of pressure from his Back Benchers and the UK Independence party, he has ignored the issue or allowed it to become downgraded across Whitehall. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs apparently refuses to be briefed on climate change by his own civil servants.

Mel Stride: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andy Sawford: I am very short of time.

Government Members have today described their own Government’s approach as “obscene”. As a direct result of the Government’s failure to get behind green businesses and to set a decarbonisation target, the UK is falling behind with investment in green growth, meaning that the jobs, growth and industry that should be coming to this country are now going overseas.

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. Just to be helpful to the shadow Minister, given that he has three minutes left only, given the debate’s title and given the interest, I am sure that he will want to narrow his contribution down to wind farms in the context of climate change.

Andy Sawford: Mr Pritchard, you have anticipated my next remark, which is, “Let me turn specifically to wind energy.”

The UK is the windiest country in Europe. We are the world’s eighth largest producer of wind energy. It is our second-largest source of renewable energy—[Interruption.]

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. The shadow Minister is taking the time to respond. Let us have the courtesy to listen.

Andy Sawford: Government Members seemed keen a moment ago to hear my response, although they may of course not like it.

Wind energy is our second-largest source of renewable energy, with the capacity to power 3.3 million homes. The UK should be a world leader in wind energy, but since the coalition came to power, the UK has slipped from third to 13th in the world for investment in green growth, and investment in wind power has fallen by 40%. The wind industry alone employs more than 10,000 people in the UK, but it has the potential to employ thousands more. Foreign companies, such as Mitsubishi, Gamesa and Siemens, are lining up to invest hundreds of millions of pounds, to create new industries and to bring new jobs to the UK, but they will not commit until the Government get behind green British businesses. Evidence from all over the world suggests that wind power is cheap and is the most developed form of clean energy. It has the potential to create thousands of badly needed new jobs in Britain, but Government splits are undermining this key growth industry and putting Britain’s energy security at risk.

Offshore wind has the potential to be a vital part of decarbonising the UK’s energy supply, too. This debate has focused on onshore, but offshore must be part of our consideration of how we take forward a wind energy strategy.

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The Government’s lack of policy is damaging not only to renewable commitments and tackling climate change but to localism, because it creates an uncertain, ever-shifting context in which local authorities must determine planning applications. My party has made it clear that local communities should be able to shape their local areas, and we want to provide local authorities with the tools to do so. I am unsurprised, however, that communities are sceptical of the Government’s evolving changes over the past year around the extent to which local communities will be consulted. Will the Minister assure us that the statutory instrument introduced in December, which introduced pre-application consultations for all onshore wind developments of two turbines or more, is more than a tick-box exercise?

The Government’s own figures show that more than a third of applications are refused. There will be examples of where hon. Members have disagreed with applications in their constituencies, some of which we have heard about today, but the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) acknowledged the need for a new energy mix. The way forward is to consider a national strategic plan that sets out clearly how we will manage the need for renewable energy in the future. We cannot simply say that we do not want wind farms anywhere. We need to say how we will meet the nation’s energy needs and how we will ensure that the public’s views are more properly considered when determining where wind farms are sited. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

3.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Kris Hopkins): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) on securing this debate and commend his excellent work on representing his constituency’s interests.

I want to set my response in context. I have a constituency. It is a constituency with some beautiful landscape, and it is a constituency where some individuals have sought to place certain applications before planning committees, and I have views on that. I am also aware that another Department has discussed, contemplated and brought forward this Government’s policy on renewable energy and it is for that Department to address that matter. Members have mentioned the costs and merits of mitigating our carbon figures, but I will leave that to those individuals. Although I am tempted to participate in some political knockabout with the shadow Minister, my role is quasi-judicial and I will discuss the matter strictly in that context.

Mr Cox: Will my hon. Friend address three specific points? First, does he agree that the document of July 2013 has not had the effect that was desired or intended? In other words, does he agree that there is an inherent bias in the system, which was intended to be addressed by automatic overriding? Planning departments are telling my hon. Friends and me that it does not do what the Minister thought it would. Secondly, can we get some improvement in the planning framework so that landscape value is accorded the weight and priority that the Secretary of State said last year that it should have? Finally, will the Minister consider giving further guidance to planning departments as to how decisions should be taken in the planning system? More specifically, can he say anything

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about the recovered appeals that the Secretary of State is currently considering and the purpose and intent behind that consideration?

Kris Hopkins: I have 12 minutes. I heard all those points when they were made in my hon. and learned Friend’s initial speech, and I want to address them, so I would appreciate the opportunity to respond. The issues are important and we can provide people with some confidence as to where we are.

It is quite right to challenge the Government on how our planning policy for wind turbines and our recently published planning practice guidance for renewable and low carbon energy are impacting on particular local areas. I hope that I can provide some clarity. I recognise that wind farms have created a lot of interest and debate among local communities in the south-west and right across the country, and people are often concerned about the cumulative and visual effect of wind farms on landscapes and local amenity. We understand that there are concerns over the development of onshore wind, but such issues are addressed by the policies and, in particular, the new planning practice guidance that the Government have put in place.

There is, however, no excuse for putting wind farms in the wrong places. The national planning policy framework is clear that applications for renewable energy developments, such as wind farms, should be approved only if the impact, including landscape, visual and cumulative impact, is or can be made acceptable. We are committed to safeguarding the natural and local environment and we are clear in the framework that planning should take account of the different roles and character of different areas, protect the green belt, recognise the character and beauty of the countryside and support thriving rural communities within it. National parks, the broads and areas of outstanding natural beauty have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty. The framework is clear that great weight should be given to conserving that.

The framework is clear that local councils should design their policies to ensure that any adverse effects from wind farms are addressed satisfactorily. To ensure that decisions reflect the environmental balance expected by the framework and that the views of local people are listened to, we published new planning guidance for renewable and low-carbon energy last summer. Those were integrated into a new web-based resource, which has been accessible since 6 March.

The new planning guidance resource is a key part of the reforms that the coalition Government have introduced. We are committed to making the planning system simpler, clearer and easier for people to use. The new practice guidance is designed to assist local councils and planning inspectors in their consideration of local plans and individual applications.

Mel Stride: My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) raised the fundamental question of whether the new planning guidelines have provided the rebalancing, which the Minister has argued for, of the planning decisions more in favour of the environment and less in favour of renewable energy. A test of that would be the number of applications that have come through and been successful since that new guidance came into effect. Will the Minister

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tell us whether applications are coming through at the same sort of level, or are there more or less than before the planning guidance came into force?

Kris Hopkins: I reassure Members that I will answer every question that they have asked, but I have just had another minute knocked off my ability to answer. Please give me the opportunity to get through these—[Interruption.] I will come to the points made, which were valid.

In particular, we are clear that the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local authorities. The guidance is clear that cumulative and visual impacts require particular attention and it sets out criteria on how to assess them. It also sets out the importance of protecting local amenity, including concerns about noise, and such consideration should be given proper weight in planning decisions. We have made it crystal clear in the guidance that great care should be taken to ensure that heritage assets are conserved in a manner appropriate to their significance.

Under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, local planning authorities have a statutory responsibility to consider planning applications for renewable energy developments of 50 MW or less. Planning law requires that applications for planning permission must be determined in accordance with the statutory development plan for that area unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Those material considerations include national planning policy and guidance.

Local authorities will take into account relevant representations from the local community on the planning merits of a proposal. The Government aim is that every area should have a clear local plan, consistent with the national planning policy framework, which sets out local people’s views about how they wish their community to develop, against which planning applications and planning appeals will be judged.

I am aware that West Devon borough council put its core strategy in place in 2011, before the publication of the NPPF, and that North Devon and Torridge district councils are working together to prepare a new plan to cover north Devon. It is important that local councils get up-to-date plans in place as soon as possible and use those to set out their plans for the development of renewable energy, and clearly indicate where developments should or should not take place take place in line with the framework. Where councils have identified areas suitable for renewable energy, they should not feel that they have to give permission for speculative applications outside those areas when they judge the impact to be unacceptable.

Bearing in mind the fact that time is running short, I will leave decisions on a site-by-site basis to one side. Planning inspectors’ decisions and recovered appeals are something on which Members wanted clarity. If applications are refused locally and taken to appeal, they will be judged by an independent planning inspector. As is the case with local councils, planning inspectors determine planning appeals in accordance with the development plan for their area unless material considerations indicate otherwise, as I said. In reaching a decision, the inspector would take account of all the relevant material in such planning considerations, including local community views and the national planning policy framework.

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I understand the frustration that local communities can feel when a planning inspector gives the go-ahead to a proposal that they opposed. I will give some reassurance, however, that since the publication of the guidance last summer, appeals for “more significant” wind turbines have been turned down in greater numbers than the numbers approved: 68 were turned down and 56 approved. In the 12 months before that, 85 were approved and 77 were refused. We therefore see a clear turnaround in the numbers compared with the previous 12 months. I am happy to give Members more details if they so require.

Applications can be recovered so that Ministers can check that an application or process meets the published criteria. Instead of an inspector making the decision, he or she will write a report that will make a recommendation on how the appeal should be determined. That will be passed to the Secretary of State to make the final decision.

We are determined to give communities a greater say over the proposals that affect them. On 17 December, the planning regulations were changed to make pre-application consultation with local communities compulsory. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon mentioned his concern that applications were appearing without an opportunity for people to contribute. We now have a pre-application consultation period, which is really important as it will ensure that nothing is sprung on communities; they will have an opportunity to voice their concerns clearly. That will also allow the developer to understand the level of support, or lack thereof, for an individual application. That consultation is required in a development with more than two wind turbines, or if the height of a turbine exceeds 15 metres.

We are clear that communities must be properly engaged with and see real benefits from hosting wind farms. Last year, the Department of Energy and Climate Change announced a fivefold increase in the value of community benefit packages that wind farms developers fund for local communities. That is an important part of the package. I will not comment on individual applications, but if Members believe that a particular planning application has not been processed appropriately, I encourage them to write to me. I will consider the recovery of such applications.

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Mitochondrial Transfer (Three-Parent Children)

3.58 pm

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): I am grateful that the debate has been granted and for the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) will reply, because she is one of the most highly regarded Ministers in Her Majesty’s Government. I would also like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for all her help in preparing for the debate, as well as Dan Boucher, Helen Watt and Luke Gormally.

It is important to begin the discussion by explaining what is at stake with three-parent babies and mitochondria. Mitochondria are the organelles within every cell responsible for the generation of cellular adenosine triphosphate energy. That passes entirely in the maternal line and can carry serious diseases.

There are two means of replacing the mitochondria. Maternal spindle transfer, or MST, takes place before in vitro fertilisation. The spindle, which carries the genes in the nucleus of the egg, is removed from the healthy donor egg and replaced by a spindle taken from the egg of the commissioning mother—that is, the woman at risk of passing on mitochondrial disease. All other parts of the donor egg, including the healthy mitochondria, are left in place. The combined egg is then fertilised by the father’s sperm, and the embryo has three parents: the spindle mother, the egg donor mother and the father. Genetic parenthood is complete in the case of the father but fragmented in the case of the two mothers.

In pronuclear transfer, or PNT, two embryos are created by IVF. One, the embryo of the commissioning women, will have its mother’s affected mitochondrial genes. The other is the healthy embryo of an egg donor. The embryos are combined using a technique somewhat similar to that in the cloning of Dolly the sheep. Interestingly, the licence for the experiment was adapted from the licence originally given for Dolly-style cloning.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Given that this is obviously an incredibly important matter, akin to cloning, with a child having several parents—I know of no other country in the world that has done this—does my hon. Friend think it should be the subject of a full debate on the Floor of the House?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I certainly think that this matter ought to come to the Floor of the House. I understand from an earlier debate that the Government are committed to full parliamentary scrutiny, but no doubt the Minister will confirm that.

To continue on PNT, at the one-cell stage the donor embryo pronuclei containing the nuclear genes are removed, killing that embryo. The partially gutted donor embryo with its healthy mitochondria is then used to form a new embryo when the pronuclei harvested from the commissioning woman’s embryo are inserted. Harvesting the pronuclei from the commissioning woman’s embryo kills that embryo.

It is important to understand that the techniques are non-therapeutic. They are in no sense a cure for children who are already born, nor do they pretend to be.

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Rather, the techniques create new people with altered genetic composition—genetically designed individuals who will not inherit mitochondrial disease. Although the mitochondrial DNA is around only 0.1% of a person’s total DNA, a little leaven leavens all the bread, and a different person is thereby created.

The proposed techniques all promote germ-line genetic modification. That is an infinite change that will lead to all the descendants of someone treated in this way being changed, the consequence of which cannot be known.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for raising this critical subject. Techniques for mitochondrial transfer deliberately create a child who has three genetic ancestors, or, in the case of PNT, four. Is that not extremely concerning, raising as it does serious issues of personal identity for those born through the technique, particularly since Government guidelines propose that such individuals will not be allowed to know the identity of their third or forth parent? Will that not then transfer into future generations, too?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I was going to come on to that. As an aside, the reason we were able to determine that Richard III’s body was his was through the female line, and because we could establish the continuity of the DNA. I do not believe Government promises of secrecy. They promised that to sperm donors historically. Governments cannot be relied upon, because society becomes more open and so demands greater openness. I have no doubt that if the technique is ultimately used the donors will be identified and people with three or potentially four parents will find out.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): On that point, the worry that occurs immediately to me as I listen to my hon. Friend is that if someone does not know who the third or fourth person who created them is, through sheer chance they may well find themselves marrying their brother or sister.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: That is a risk, and there are others. Already in the United States a different price is charged depending on the educational qualifications of the donor. There are worries about eugenics, a point I was going to come on to.

Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co- op): The head of the United States Food and Drug Administration advisory committee on this matter, Evan Snyder, has said that there are not enough clinical data to suggest that mitochondrial transfer is safe. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the present UK regulator and the UK Government should be cautious in approaching this technique?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. That is at the heart of the issue.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): Another issue occurs to me with regard to knowing who the third or, indeed, fourth parent is or was. Let us suppose that, in subsequent generations, further scientific research finds that another fault is being passed down generations. Without knowing whether the third or fourth parent several generations back carried some other gene that

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has come to the fore only after 150 years, someone would not know whether they were affected. There is a Pandora’s box of problems.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: That must be right. It ends up being a multi-generational experiment with the lives of people.

To return to the PNT technique, it is effectively cloning. As I said, it is telling that the licence for the experiment was adapted from the licence given to create Dolly the sheep. Cloning is widely regarded as a dangerous technique. Essentially what is being done is eugenic.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): The company that developed Dolly the sheep received funding from an organisation of which I was chairman. I remember visiting it and expressing a concern that it was one step from cloning sheep to cloning humans. I was reassured that no such thing could possibly ever happen, as the human race was far too sensible. This issue challenges that, big time.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: As so often, my hon. Friend is right.

The dictionary definition of “eugenic” is:

“Of or bringing about the improvement of the type of offspring produced”.

The 1922 Eugenics Congress called it

“the self direction of human evolution”.

There is grave question mark about eugenics. It frightens almost every sensible person. It is not only people who share my views who think that. In a letter to TheGuardian dated 15 March 2013, that fear was made explicit by a number of medical experts. It is interesting that they chose The Guardian, which is not a bastion of right-wing reaction, to make that point. In a country nervous about genetically modified crops we are making the foolhardy move to genetically modified babies.

There are three categories of risks and dangers that have not been fully considered. The first is the category raised by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), namely practical risks relating to the long-term efficacy of the therapy. An article published in Nature in October 2012 said:

“Pioneering work in nonhuman primates is critical for the development, and safety and efficacy evaluations, of new treatments.”

That view has been discounted by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority without any good reason being given. Current research using PNT in macaques has yet to be shown to be successful. Macaque zygotes do not survive the PNT process well, even though their oocytes are less prone to abnormal activation and fertilisation than human ones. If that is the case, surely we should continue with such experiments first, rather than relying on the fact that four monkeys have reached the age of three.

Robert Flello: On that point, the research that has been done talks about generations of mice or of monkeys, but that does not address the fact that until there have been three, four, five or 10 generations, we will not know what the long-term effects are.

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Jacob Rees-Mogg: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I also think that mankind is of a different order of magnitude from other animals. I do not view myself merely as a senior ape—nor indeed do I view Opposition Members as merely being senior apes or monkeys. I think much more highly of them than that. [Interruption.] I will gloss over that point. In their article in Nature, Mitalipov et al showed that they had discovered that 52% of human embryos created through MST had chromosomal abnormalities. If there is a high failure rate early on, how can we be certain that there will not be a similar failure rate later, potentially when people are in their 30s or 40s? It is a life-long, generational experiment.

There are also difficulties with the experiments on fruit flies.

An article in Science on 20 September 2013 states:

“MR in fruit flies had little effect on nuclear gene expression in females but changed the expression of roughly 10% of genes in adult males. The mitochondrial haplotypes responsible for these male-specific effects were naturally occurring, putatively healthy variants. Hundreds of mitochondrial-sensitive nuclear genes identified in that study had a core role in male fertility. For example, one of the five combinations in which mitochondrial-nucleus interactions were disrupted by mismatching was completely male-sterile but female-fertile. In other fly studies MR resulted in male-biased modifications to components of ageing”—

that is very important because we do not know what the effects will be as people get older—

“and affected the outcomes of in vivo male fertility. Together, these results suggest that core components of male health depend on fine-tuned coordination between mitochondrial and nuclear gene complexes and thus the HFEA conclusion that ‘there is no evidence for any mismatch between the nucleus and any mtDNA haplogroup at least within a species’ is incomplete and unsubstantiated.”

It has also been discovered from research in mice and invertebrates that deleterious effects on mitochondrial replacement would not be discovered until adulthood, which goes back to the point that we would have to wait decades.

The second category of risk is moral and ethical. I make no bones about the fact that my thinking on this matter is strongly influenced by the Catholic Church concerning the dignity of the human person. Equally, the Minister and the Government should respond to non-theological, non-religious concerns. I will set out briefly the religious concerns.

Thomas Aquinas wrote in his “Summa Theologica” that

“the soul is in the embryo”.

I certainly believe that to be the case. It means that tampering with embryos is tampering with human souls—tampering with what sets us apart from animals. As Benedict XVI in the Instruction “Dignitas Personae” said,

“the body of a human being, from the very first stages of its existence, can never be reduced merely to a group of cells. The embryonic human body develops progressively according to a well defined programme with its proper finality, as is apparent in the birth of every baby.”

That, too, is absolutely correct. No human, whatever their stage of development, is merely a group of cells.

We must be concerned about the unknown consequences of tampering with the genes of an embryo, and for the unreligious there will be mental issues to be faced by

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those who find out later life that they have three or even four parents. The gravity of the change is such that it should not be made without the most careful thought and properly tested research.


Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. Will whoever has their phone on please turn it off, or put it on silent or vibrate? This is an important debate and it needs to be heard with respect.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: Thank you, Mr Prichard. Silence is golden.

The third risk is legal, and I am slightly reluctant to raise it because it concerns the European Union charter of fundamental rights. It is not a document I often quote in support of an argument, but there is a question about its applicability in the United Kingdom. It is not directly applicable in UK law except when it coincides with EU law. There is considerable debate about how far the overlap between UK and EU law goes. Article 3(2) refers to the

“prohibition of eugenic practices, in particular those aiming at the selection of persons”.

I have established that this is eugenics, so it would be in contravention of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. I do not believe that the Government would want to contravene that accidentally.

Essentially, the Government have started too early and are putting the cart before the horse, which makes travel difficult, by consulting on regulatory approval before sufficient research has been done into the safety of the therapy.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I apologise for not being here earlier. The Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill was being discussed in the House and I had to be there.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept my concerns on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland who are very worried by what was suggested the other day—that the Department of Health is pressing forward with regulations without full consultation and without the impact being fully known? I hope that the Minister will assure us that that will not happen.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: It is essential with such a fundamental change in our understanding of humanity that it is made with the fullest consultation and parliamentary approval. I believe that the Government are sympathetic to that.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): Will my hon. Friend explain what evidence he has seen of any preparatory work on the ethical considerations that would be necessary? Is it not the case that many of the regulatory approval processes have commenced, but no proper work has been done with respect to public opinion on the ethics involved?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: There is consultation, but it worries me that it has been done before the prior research has been completed, so we cannot be certain about safety.

I am glad that my hon. Friend raises the issue of public opinion, which is unpersuaded. A ComRes poll for Care will be released tomorrow, and I can exclusively

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reveal some of the results to the House. It found that 34% are opposed and 35% are in support, so there is no strong balance of support but, crucially, 44% agree that as it is currently illegal to grow most genetically modified crops for commercial purposes on the ground of safety, it ought to be illegal to create genetically modified children.

I return to the point that change of even 0.1% leads to genetically modified children. It is not sufficient to say that that is a tiny modification so it does not matter. It is the essence of the line of inheritance that we all have from our mothers through successive generations and centuries.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is worrying that the assumption is that this will happen and that the consultation is more about how it will happen? Would it not be better for the Minister to say today that the Government will stop the consultation and continue with the research until they are satisfied that the procedure is safe?

Jacob Rees-Mogg: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. If the Minister would say that, her standing in North East Somerset would rise even higher, although it is hard to believe that is possible.

The Government’s own consultation—this is crucial—says:

“It is estimated that 1 in 200 children born every year in the UK have some kind of mitochondrial DNA disorder.”

The number of serious disorders is much lower, but one in 200 has some kind of mitochondrial disorder. It is worrying that that is in the consultation because the premise is that 0.5% of the population are born imperfect and that in future only perfect people should be born. Many of us have imperfections, but they make up humanity, and the mixed variety of interest, thoughtfulness and development that is humanity often comes from our faults, as well as our abilities. It is a fundamentally dangerous road to start down because, although the technique cannot at this stage affect eye colour, some clever scientist will eventually work out how to ensure that babies have blue eyes and blonde hair, or whatever people want. Every time something like this happens, we go to the next stage and the argument becomes, “Well, we’ve done this, so it is logical to continue.” When that line has been crossed, the argument against going further is merely a matter of degree; it is not absolute.

Robert Flello: I fear that we have already had the push to having perfect babies. Abortion on ground E of disability means that babies with even slight imperfections do not see the light of day.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: One aspect of political correctness that I like is calling disabled people “differently able”. People with disabilities have different abilities and skills, and contribute to the benefit of society in a different way from those of us who have the use of all our limbs, and so on.

Although the current aim is small, 10 children every year, who might have been born, will be replaced by 10 different babies. That is not a major problem crying out for an urgent solution, but the solution that is being proposed is a fundamental change in our understanding of our own humanity.

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4.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Jane Ellison): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. With the limited time available to me, I will set out some of the process by which we got to this point, but it goes without saying that these are extremely serious issues. I listened respectfully to colleagues’ concerns. There were some technical interventions and I will get back to colleagues about any concerns that I cannot answer now.

This is exactly why we are having consultation, and why I can confirm that the matter will be debated on the Floor of the House. The regulations will be subject to the affirmative procedure and there will be every chance to return to the issue and to debate it in full. I give that assurance. I know that I will not have time to respond to some points that are technical and scientific and I do not want to get them wrong, so I will write to hon. Members after the debate.

Robert Flello: On that point, will the Minister allow me to intervene?

Jane Ellison: I have not said anything yet, but go on.

Robert Flello: When the debate does come before the House, right hon. and hon. Members will look at things such as Library briefing notes and Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology notes, which normally I commend in the highest terms. My concern about the POSTnote entitled “Preventing Mitochondrial Disease”, which is Number 431 from March 2013, is that it talks about people who oppose this as simply being in a pro-life camp. That sort of language is very unhelpful, because the opposition is far wider than that.

Jane Ellison: I did not write that brief. I have never used that language and I would not. I accept—indeed, it is right—that this will be a subject of parliamentary debate, because it involves important issues. Just as Parliament has previously debated advances in science, such as IVF, and considered and weighed in the balance the concerns and the potential benefits, so that will happen again. I am certain that people will come to their own conclusion. These matters are normally decided by votes of conscience. I would be very surprised if this matter was not decided in the same way; in fact, I am sure that it will be.

Let me try to respond to some of the points and at least go through the process by which we have got to this point. I should say, though, in response to the intervention that was picked up by colleagues that we will arrange parliamentary briefings with, for example, some of the scientists involved and with the chief medical officer. I hope to be able to give hon. Members the opportunity to put questions directly to some of the people involved. There will be opportunities at all stages along the way, I hope, for colleagues to ask questions and get answers. What they think of the answers will obviously be down to them, but we will try to make it possible for people to come to a very informed view.

I am grateful for this opportunity. I am grateful that hon. Members have had a chance to put some of their concerns on the record, because that helps us in preparing for debates ahead. It gives us a heads-up on some of the areas of particular concern. Obviously, I have also been receiving correspondence about the matter.

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The chief medical officer for England announced last year that the Government would go ahead with the development of draft regulations to allow mitochondrial donation in treatment. The consultation began on 27 February and will run until 21 May. I have already recognised the deep sensitivity of these issues. Since we were first approached in 2010 to make the regulations, we have been comprehensively collecting expert opinion and public views, and I will explain how that has been done. However, I understand that for many hon. Members and for many members of the public, this will ultimately be an ethical question. There will be strong views on both sides of the House, as we have seen today.

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) touched on what mitochondrial disease is. It is a genetic condition of mitochondria—the part of the body’s cells that produces the energy that they need to function. It tends to be described, for the benefit of the general public, as the “battery pack” that powers a cell.

A person’s mitochondria come from their mother’s egg. Therefore, if a woman has mitochondrial disease, it is likely that she will pass it on to any children she may have. Mitochondrial DNA is separate from an individual’s genomic DNA, which is in the nucleus of the body’s cells. Mitochondrial DNA disease can be devastating, but the disease affects everyone differently. The range of different effects can include heart disease, liver disease, poor growth, loss of muscle co-ordination, visual and hearing problems and mental disorders. Rare conditions caused by faulty mitochondria include forms of Leigh’s syndrome, which can cause multiple symptoms in infancy, such as muscle weakness, heart and kidney failure and nervous system dysfunctions.

Some affected children live short and painful lives. They are constantly in and out of hospital. The quality of life for them and their families is seriously diminished. I have been contacted by a family in that position in my constituency and I suspect that other hon. Members will be as we continue to engage in this debate in the coming weeks and months.

The condition affects approximately one in 5,000 adults, although one in 6,500 babies are born with a severe form of the disease that can lead to death in early infancy. It is estimated that about 12,000 people live with a mitochondrial disease in the UK, and there is no cure. However, research has been ongoing at the Newcastle centre for life, among other places, for many years. In anticipation of significant advances in this field, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act was amended in 2008 to introduce a regulation-making power to allow mitochondrial donation to treat serious mitochondrial DNA disease. At the time that amendment was made, Parliament was made aware that there was the potential for these techniques to be developed. The Act was thus amended and that was included.

The mitochondrial donation techniques involve removing the nuclear genetic material from an egg or embryo with unhealthy mitochondria and transferring it to a donor egg or embryo with healthy mitochondria, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset said.

Sir Edward Leigh: Will the Minister give way?

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Jane Ellison: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not. I have been left with very little time to respond. I doubt that I will even get through the remarks that I have prepared. However, I would be very happy to talk to him after the debate, and of course we will have much lengthier opportunities to debate the issue, so I do not think that I am cutting off debate.

Allowing the new treatments would give women who carry mitochondrial DNA mutations the choice to have genetically related children without the risk of serious disease. Recent estimates from the scientists leading the UK research in this area are that about 10 to 20 families a year could be helped initially. The scientists and clinicians at Newcastle university believe that allowing these techniques will also advance their understanding of mitochondrial function and mitochondrial diseases. It will enable them to gain a greater understanding of the way in which mitochondrial DNA mutations are passed from mother to child. It could also provide them with a better understanding of how mutations vary in different cells, which may lead to the development of new treatments for those currently suffering from mitochondrial conditions.

The use of the techniques would also keep the UK at the forefront of scientific development in this area and demonstrate that the UK remains a world leader in facilitating cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs. I know that that might be an uncomfortable point for some hon. Members, but other hon. Members have expressed great support for that. There are different sides to the argument. I completely accept that.

I understand that some hon. Members—this has been touched on today—are concerned about a slippery slope. Let me be very clear. Parliament has only provided a power to allow

“a prescribed process designed to prevent the transmission of serious mitochondrial disease”.

That is all that is prescribed in relation to the regulation-making power. We are proposing only to allow the donation of mitochondrial DNA, not nuclear DNA, so that is a further strengthening in terms of the regulation-making power. There is no intention or legal mechanism to go any further.

The draft regulations that are now out for consultation set out how the techniques would be allowed in treatment, the regulatory tests that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority would have to use to give approval to a clinic on a case-by-case basis and how the mitochondrial donor would be treated in terms of information available to any children conceived through the new techniques.

In 2010, the Newcastle researchers approached the Department and requested that, in the light of their progress, we give consideration to the introduction of regulations. Recognising the complexity and sensitivity of this subject, we asked the HFEA to arrange public consultations and oversee a number of independent scientific reviews. An expert advisory group was established and a report passed to the Department in spring 2011. It found that the techniques were not unsafe, but recommended that some further research be undertaken.

After careful consideration of the report, the Department of Health and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills commissioned the HFEA in autumn 2011 to undertake a comprehensive public dialogue and set of consultations in order to understand the public’s views

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on and understanding of this issue. The HFEA consultation was held between July and December 2012. It looked at the social and ethical issues raised by mitochondria replacement, as well as addressing a range of practical regulatory issues. Sciencewise, which plays a key role in helping the public to understand complex scientific issues, commended that public dialogue and the HFEA as an exemplar in its approach to gathering public views on a complex issue. As I am sure colleagues can understand, it is never enough, on an issue as complicated as this, to do a press release-style consultation. A simple “for and against” does not suffice to explore the complexity of the issue and ensure that when people express an opinion, they are doing so with a slightly wider understanding of it.

The HFEA gave a full set of advice to the Government in March 2013 based on the findings of the public dialogue and including further advice from the expert panel that it had reconvened. That concluded that although there continues to be nothing to indicate that the techniques are unsafe, further research on some specific aspects should be undertaken. Overall, the advice from the HFEA, informed by the balance of views from the public and stakeholders, was that the new treatment techniques should be allowed so long as they are safe and carefully regulated.

We have also taken account of other published reviews—for example, the 2012 report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics entitled “Novel techniques for the prevention of mitochondrial DNA disorders: an ethical review”.

Some press headlines have suggested that a child born as a result of the new techniques would have three parents. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset also alluded to that. I do not have time now to go into the detail of why we do not believe that that is the right characterisation. It is important to understand that mitochondrial DNA comprises a very small proportion—0.1%—of total DNA. However, these are issues that we can explore further. I have heard the concerns that have been put on the record today. It is also the Department’s view that this process does not constitute a form of human cloning. The techniques are not equivalent to reproductive cloning, because any children resulting from the use of the techniques would have arisen from fertilisation and be genetically unique.

However, there is clearly a great deal more for us to explore. Today’s debate has been a very helpful chance to hear the concerns of hon. Members expressed on the record. It gives me time to go away, look at the issue with officials and with the experts and ensure that we put in place the right advice and the right level of consultation as we go through the parliamentary process, in terms of—

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. We now come to the final debate of the day.

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Neath-Port Talbot Magistrates Court

4.30 pm

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Pritchard. I look forward to your presiding over it. I ask the Government to reverse their decision to close Neath magistrates court, which has served the town for generations. Written records show that from the early 18th century, and probably much earlier when they were situated in the castle from which the town gets its name—in Welsh, Castell Nedd—magistrates in Neath were so busy that they sat almost continuously, not just four times a year as they did in other places. The current facility has been open since 1977.

Although I am grateful to the Secretary of State for meeting me on two occasions, I totally refute what he said in his letter to me of 5 February confirming his decision to close Neath magistrates court and move it to Swansea. I challenge the costing that he presented to justify the closure, which will have a seriously damaging impact on the quality of local justice for local people. I also challenge some of his basic facts, such as those on the usage of the Neath court, which are simply wrong.

I presented an incredible low-cost alternative that would have delivered savings, namely to transfer the magistrates court to the nearby county court facility, which is underused and might easily be modified for that purpose. That suggestion was rejected, seemingly arbitrarily, which caused deep local anger. More than 1,800 signatures were collected in a matter of weeks on a petition that circulated in the town.

Dr Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate him warmly on his success in securing the debate. His point about local feeling is a strong one. Does he agree that alongside trial by jury and the appointment of local magistrates, one of the central tenets of our common-law system, which has been developed over centuries and of which we are very proud, is the importance of the local delivery of local justice? My constituents share his concerns, because Neath magistrates court also serves Port Talbot.

Mr Hain: Indeed, and I am happy to be corrected by my hon. Friend from the neighbouring constituency. Having examined the Secretary of State’s argument, the proposal document and the consultation response from Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, I am convinced that the transfer of the magistrates court service from Neath to Swansea will severely and detrimentally affect the town and its citizens, and will erode the provision of local justice for local people, as my hon. Friend has eloquently pointed out.

The decision to merge has been driven purely by cost reduction, as part of an exercise across England and Wales in which 130 courts have been closed since 2010. In recent years, the Neath and Port Talbot area has lost two magistrates courts in Pontardawe and Port Talbot. The loss of the third and final magistrates court in the county borough will leave nearly 140,000 people— a population bigger than that of Middlesbrough or Cambridge—without a magistrates court. Instead, the Swansea court will serve a population of 380,000 people. Local topography, transport and economic issues have been completely disregarded.

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The timing of the consultation was perhaps no coincidence, coming as it did alongside the start of work on Neath Port Talbot county borough council’s long-awaited regeneration of the town. The implication in the executive summary of the consultation document and the impact assessment of August 2013 that there was no other option because the county borough council required the land seems to have been designed to lay the blame firmly at the door of the local authority. However, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service had known about the county borough council’s intention since 2008, when alternative venues, including a new courtroom nearby, were being explored. At that time, my suggestion to the then Secretary of State to move the magistrates court to the county court only 300 metres away was being examined, and Neath Port Talbot county borough council had even budgeted for its contribution to the estimated cost of £1.4 million to facilitate the move. Had that been pursued and any problems overcome, which I believe could easily have happened, not only would the Government have made their savings, but Neath would have retained its magistrates.

The costs associated with the proposed merger of Neath and Swansea magistrates courts are far greater than those involved in the conversion of Neath and Port Talbot county court to a new Neath Port Talbot magistrates court. That new facility would have minimal additional operating costs, because the crown court is already fully functioning. There would be no additional travel costs for magistrates or staff. The county court has free car parking, so there would be no additional car parking fees. There would be a net saving of operating facilities costs, estimated to be between £100,000 and £110,000 per annum, which includes utility costs, cleaning, waste disposal, security and maintenance, because those are already in place at the county court.

The projected enabling cost of the Swansea merger is £165,000, but the true figure will be significantly greater. I give notice to the Secretary of State that should he continue to disregard our representations and the case I am making to the Minister today, I will carefully monitor what those costs actually are and report them. Court 6 in Swansea, for example, has no retiring room. Court 5 has neither a secure dock nor secure access and egress for magistrates, so it cannot be used for criminal cases. Even if it is physically feasible to correct those deficiencies, major alterations will be required. Only criminal cases would be heard in Swansea magistrates court after a merger, with all family work being transferred to the Swansea civil justice building. Travel costs after a merger would increase by £55,000 a year.

Had those figures been objectively analysed, not only would the Government have made their savings but Neath would have retained its magistrates court, albeit in a new location. There is a suspicion that the Government decided to merge Neath and Swansea magistrates courts with little or no investigation of the real costs and savings involved. Consequently, they appear to have undertaken the consultation exercise without intending to take much notice if the facts demonstrated that it would be far less costly to convert the county court than to merge Neath and Swansea magistrates courts.

The option of converting Neath and Port Talbot county court and connecting it by secure walkways to the adjacent cells in the police station is supported by

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local magistrates, local politicians, the local police and local court users. The police in Neath no longer require the cells, but they wish to retain a presence in Neath. Because there is a low-cost option for a new court in Neath, there is absolutely no justification for merging the court with Swansea. The conversion of the county court is a viable alternative that can deliver savings in addition to the £300,000 that will be obtained from selling the existing building to Neath Port Talbot county borough council. That is more than enough for a careful remodelling of the county court.

Conversely, if the Government press ahead with the merger of Neath and Swansea magistrates courts, they will incur transition costs estimated to be at least £150,000 and additional annual travel costs of at least £55,000, in addition to the cost of establishing a new digital service proposed by the Secretary of State, which would have to be housed in the county court in Neath anyway. That facility would have to be staffed by relevant personnel, a legal adviser and an usher, duplicating the staffing in Swansea magistrates court. Only one video link can operate at any given time, and the Swansea courts will grind to a halt if solicitors and defendants have to liaise via a video link rather than face to face. Few witnesses will choose to attend Swansea magistrates court for a trial if video link facilities exist locally in Neath, thus denying magistrates the opportunity to assess witnesses’ countenances when they give evidence, which can be a crucial or even determining factor in their assessment.

Even the original, deeply flawed impact assessment produced by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service was not clear on the extent of savings from the proposed closure. It did not adequately take into account the increased travel and parking charges that would accrue in Swansea. As the Neath county court is fully functioning and has adequate security, there would be no increase in total running costs if the county court were to become the magistrates court—indeed, there would be savings to both court services through the merging of overheads.

To accommodate the magistrates, the family and civil work currently undertaken at the county court could easily be transferred to the justice centre in Port Talbot, which cost £3 million some five years ago but currently averages just 13% usage. There are no cells in the Port Talbot building, so criminal cases cannot be heard there, but the transfer of civil work would increase its utilisation. Thus, the county court could become the new Neath magistrates court and the justice centre in Port Talbot could become the new family and civil justice centre. It is just 8 miles from Neath to Port Talbot, so the journey time would be considerably less than the proposed increased journey time to Swansea from the many towns and valley villages.

The times and distances quoted in the consultation document are deeply inaccurate and ignore the difficulties of travelling from valley communities such as Banwen, Glynneath and Onllwyn. A simple journey to Swansea can involve two or three buses, and it could take well over an hour to complete a journey. Getting to Swansea court involves negotiating Fabian way, which is notorious for long delays owing to the volume of traffic—especially at peak times—which can add half an hour to a journey. That is on a good day when the bus services run well, whereas often the tricky topography and poor weather mean longer and more convoluted journeys. In a county borough where 30% of households do not have a car,

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the difficulties of public transport should surely have been recognised instead of simply ignored by the Government.

Even if, as he indicated to me, the Secretary of State is less concerned about inconvenience to defendants, surely he should concerned about witnesses, victims and court staff who will have to make the same trek to attend at Swansea court, incurring additional running costs. We must also remember that magistrates are unpaid volunteers; they are the bedrock of the justice system in this country. In Neath, we have notably dedicated and able magistrates serving in a well-respected team. To suppose that they will just move wherever Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service decides, adding gratuitously to their precious volunteering time, is to presuppose and expect an awful lot.

Many living in Neath will be thinking long and hard about whether they wish to relocate, and prospective magistrates will certainly think twice if that means not being able to deliver local justice locally and continue to serve the local community they cherish, and, in Neath’s case, are proud of. With such uncertainty over their future, the staff, to whom I pay tribute, have acted with great resilience over the past few weeks, as they did during the recent storms, which saw a huge upheaval for the work force when the Neath court roof blew off—but I will come on to that later.

Despite assurances to the contrary, I am concerned that the closure of Neath magistrates court will result in possible redundancies for staff who live locally and cannot commit to a longer commute. The suggestion in the consultation document that

“some staff and judiciary may experience slightly higher costs having to travel further to the receiving court”

is disingenuous, given that increased costs are almost certain because of the much longer distance to travel and the high cost of parking in Swansea. The loss of that local knowledge will be a huge blow to local justice.

Local solicitors representing defendants in Neath will inevitably relocate to Swansea in order to be closer to Swansea magistrates court. A number of solicitors firms are key employers in Neath town and provide well-paid, skilled jobs. If they relocate, it will leave a gaping hole in the economy.

Access to the probation services based in Neath courthouse will be affected, and probation service staff will also have to be redeployed. There will be upheaval and a cost effect on the youth offending service, the victim support service, and the witness service, all of which often work with the most vulnerable in our communities. Relocating all such professional and support jobs will also significantly damage the local economy.

It is wrongly asserted that Neath court rooms are currently 55.3% used. That figure is calculated on the assumption that there are three courts available for criminal work, whereas in fact only two courts are suitable for criminal work, with a secure dock and secure access to the cells. The correct calculation would be 75% usage in Neath court building; Swansea has 74% usage and Cardiff 59%. Of the 16 magistrates courts in Wales, 10 have utilisation figures well below those of Neath.

On efficiency, Neath court staff and magistrates have an exemplary record. Cases are dealt with swiftly and efficiently, fines are collected, and court utilisation is often among the highest in Wales. Neath compares very

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well with Swansea, Merthyr and Cardiff in all areas. There is no justification for the closure of Neath court on the grounds of efficiency, and detailed and up-to-date figures are available to substantiate that statement. It is also the case that, unlike other areas of the UK, crime in south Wales is increasing, and the number of cases being heard in magistrates courts is going to increase as a result of the Lord Chancellor’s review of out-of-court disposals, which was instigated in 2013.

Recent damage to the roof of Neath magistrates court caused by bad weather caused all work to be transferred to Swansea court. The damage has since been repaired, but the staff and magistrates from Neath coped brilliantly. They were welcomed by the staff and magistrates in Swansea, who did everything they could to make them comfortable. Nevertheless, the key point that I want to make is that there is no avoiding the fact that justice suffered, particularly as Swansea’s court rooms 5 and 6 are not fit for criminal court work. All the evidence shows that if Neath is merged with Swansea, the same will happen, except permanently.

One example case illustrates the point. There was a joint alleged assault, and the defendants were in a relationship. They received the letter reminding them of the new venue for their trial—Swansea—but the accused woman, a drug addict, had to get her methadone prescription from her chemist at 9 am, then try to get a bus to Swansea. Receiving the methadone and taking it in the chemist, as addicts must in order to prevent them selling the methadone on the street to buy heroin, she missed the 9.15 am bus, but caught one at 9.45 am. Her partner had given her the fare, leaving him with no money. He eventually found a friend and borrowed the fare.

Meanwhile, the court began hearing the case and, as the defendants were not present, there was considerable delay while options were considered. The woman then arrived, so the trial began again, and an arrest warrant was issued for the co-defendant. Just as it seemed that the trial was concluding, the man arrived. The arrest warrant was cancelled and the trial concluded. One and a half hours of precious court time was totally wasted. Had the trial been in Neath, both defendants would have arrived before 10 am and the trial have been concluded by 10.45 am. That may seem trivial compared with work in our Crown courts, but if there is to be justice for all, courts must be available to deal with the less high-profile cases as well.

The temporary arrangements demonstrated that, despite the best efforts of Neath staff and Swansea staff, Swansea magistrates court was ill-equipped to handle the additional work and the delivery of local justice—indeed, it was pushed to the tipping point of being unworkable. Although I have described extraordinary circumstances, the proposal to move services from Neath to Swansea will make such events the norm.

To conclude, the situation I have described highlights the fact that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has no contingency plans for such scenarios, and has major problems of organisation and viability, making both the decision about Neath and the refusal to countenance the alternative of moving Neath magistrates into the county court very short-sighted and damaging indeed. If Neath and Port Talbot court is merged with Swansea magistrates court, public money will be wasted. That is unacceptable at a time of Government cuts

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everywhere. I therefore urge the Secretary of State to reverse his decision—I hope that the Minister will take this message back to him—and transfer Neath and Port Talbot magistrates court to the local county court.

Local justice should be carried out by local people in a local venue. That is a fundamental principle of our justice system. Should the Secretary of State push ahead regardless, he will be responsible for the erosion of local justice. I put it to the Minister and to the Secretary of State that Neath is an exception in the list of countrywide magistrates court closures because there is an alternative solution that will save money for the overall court service. I strongly urge the Government to change their mind and allow common sense to prevail.

4.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Pritchard. I thank the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) for securing this debate and for his continued interest in the subject. As is clear from his comments and from the record in Hansard, he has taken a huge amount of interest in the subject.

I appreciate that the Lord Chancellor’s decision to proceed with the closure of Neath magistrates court is a deep disappointment to the right hon. Gentleman, who has already met the Secretary of State for Justice twice, as he mentioned. I know that on one occasion he met the Secretary of State with others, who presented a petition opposing the closure.

At those meetings and throughout the consultation process, we have listened carefully to the points made against the proposal to close the court. The consultation on the future of Neath magistrates court was published on 26 September 2013. It proposed that the court should close and that the work should move to Swansea magistrates court nine miles away. The consultation document set out that Neath Port Talbot borough council wished to purchase the site of Neath magistrates court and to demolish the building to enable development of the site as part of its plans to regenerate the town centre.

The impact assessment of the consultation concluded that the closure of Neath magistrates court would save £220,000 a year, whereas retaining and undertaking the required maintenance to the court would cost a minimum of £1.3 million.

Mr Hain: Is the Minister talking about a new court building or a transfer to the county court? I do not believe that that figure is the case for the county court.

Mr Vara: The right hon. Gentleman made it abundantly clear from his speech that he has looked into all the figures. Clearly, he will not be satisfied with whatever figures I give. I have a limited amount of time, because he used more time than is customary for the person opening the debate, and I am keen to put the Government’s view on record. Therefore he will forgive me if I do not repeat the figures, but I will state them as I see them. I will deal with the county court shortly, but as far as figures are concerned, the maintenance work for the current magistrates court would cost £1.3 million.

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Several factors were taken into consideration before developing the consultation proposals, including work load, current and projected future utilisation, and whether there was a suitable alternative location where the work could be accommodated without a detrimental impact on service levels.

When the consultation was published, local stakeholders, partners and elected officials were directly engaged to ensure that they were aware of the proposals and could provide a considered response before the consultation closed. The consultation was conducted in line with the process set out by my predecessor’s written ministerial statement on 17 July 2013, which set out that future consultations on courts and tribunals would be locally focused, run for six weeks, and reduce parliamentary and administrative bureaucracy. Any proposals on the future of a court would be considered with emphasis on the local area and how justice would be most efficiently delivered there.

Some 63 responses were received to the consultation. I am happy to put on the record that most respondents supported the closure of the court house on its current site to enable the regeneration of Neath town centre. However, I am also happy to put on the record that most responses argued for the retention of a magistrates court within the town’s boundaries. That view is clearly shared by the right hon. Gentleman and, I understand, many local magistrates. I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman discussed that during meetings with the Secretary of State. In particular, he suggested that Neath and Port Talbot county court could be converted to conduct magistrates court hearings.

Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has been aware of the council’s regeneration plans for several years. There have been a number of informal discussions with the council about potential options to relocate the magistrates court in Neath. However, the alternative sites suggested by the council were all in unsuitable shared facilities. A site was identified for a new building, but estimated costs at the time were between £6 million and £11 million and simply not affordable.

HMCTS officials have considered in detail the option to relocate to Neath county court. It would have required the use of a custody facility in the adjacent police station. Costs for a custodial facility were estimated at £1.46 million. While there were some preliminary discussions with the council regarding funding, no formal agreement was reached. There would, in any case, have been additional costs, including an estimated £285,000 to transfer the work of the county court to Port Talbot justice centre.

I accept that there will be an impact on court users, justices and staff. Many will have to travel to attend court in Swansea, including some who will have to use public transport. However, I do not believe that that prevents access to the courts system or compromises the quality of the service provided. HMCTS will seek to make arrangements for customers who are unable to attend court at a particular time and will continue to explore ways to reduce the impact of the closure on court users.

I take on board what the right hon. Gentleman said about the number of people in his area who do not have cars. In any case, travelling to Swansea by car will be within an hour. For those using public transport, 65% will have travel times of less than an hour. Travel times will be reduced for people living nearer to Swansea. For

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those who use trains—there is a train service—the extra travel time is 15 minutes each way, with trains running every half an hour.

Discussions are currently under way with South Wales police to consider whether it is possible to establish a facility for vulnerable witnesses to give evidence in criminal proceedings via a live video link from a location in the Neath area. That would provide a safe and secure environment and avoid the need for victims and witnesses to travel to court, improving their experience when giving evidence at trial. Contrary to the concern expressed by the right hon. Gentleman, HMCTS does not intend to locate any video link facility to Swansea magistrates court from Neath county court.

Since the decision to close Neath magistrates court was announced, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the court suffered extensive storm damage in February 2014. During that time, court business and staff were transferred to Swansea magistrates court for 10 days to minimise disruption to hearings. That proved to be a successful contingency arrangement, during which no significant issues were raised. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman would disagree, but from our point of view, that worked well. That Swansea magistrates court was able to accommodate that work at short notice is a reassurance that it will be able to absorb successfully the work of Neath magistrates court when it closes.

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I am pleased to say that, following safety inspections and a new fire certificate being issued, hearings resumed at Neath on 3 March 2014. Officials are finalising plans for the smooth transfer of work, justices and staff to Swansea, and an announcement of the closure date for the court will be made locally.

As is the case with any publicly funded body, HMCTS has a duty to ensure that its estate is utilised as cost-effectively as possible. We must ensure that we provide value for money for the taxpayer.

Let me emphasise that the Lord Chancellor’s decision to close the court was not taken lightly. It was made after a detailed analysis of the work load of the Neath and Swansea courts, and in consideration of all the points raised in the consultation responses. While it was clear to the Lord Chancellor that many people in Neath, including the right hon. Gentleman, had sincere concerns about the closure, on balance, they did not outweigh the benefits of the proposals or suggest that access to court services would be genuinely compromised.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.