“young people unable to access their place of education or training”


“older people who are left in isolation after their lifeline to the outside world has been cut.”

Supported services are particularly important for the elderly. The difficulty of accessing health services can mean that conditions go untreated and undiagnosed, or

17 Jun 2014 : Column 44WH

that the taxpayer ends up paying more for ambulance trips and unnecessary overnight hospital stays because of a lack of transport options. The difficulty of maintaining social links where public transport is poor reduces quality of life and can anger families, especially those in rural areas who cannot easily see their elderly relatives.

The local economy also suffers as shopping centres and services are made inaccessible. Age UK’s report, “Missed opportunities: the impact on older people of cuts to rural bus services”, brings into stark relief the many facets of isolation that the elderly can experience when services are cut; in some places a taxi to the theatre could cost 10% of their weekly pension. People with disabilities also rely on bus services and are hardest hit when support routes are closed, for many of the same reasons. I will come later to other approaches that can improve the services used by disabled people, but the fundamental point is that the service must be operating in the first place.

As we have heard, young people also suffer when services are cut: jobs and training in hard-to-reach areas can no longer be pursued. Young people are among the biggest users of bus services, as the National Union of Students has pointed out. More than 2 million young people come from low-income households, and 64% of jobseekers either have no access to a vehicle or cannot drive. The role that the bus can play is clear: a joined-up network allows aspirations to thrive and prevents young people from being unable to take up job opportunities. It also boosts their productivity, and it is estimated that £1 of public investment in buses can provide between £3 and £5-worth of wider benefits.

We all know from our experience in our constituencies that bus travel is key for young people. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby referred to his experience, and recently I have had a number of meetings with young people in which they have all said that the issue is not simply not being able to get about socially; bus services are a lifeline to their college, as well as to get to job interviews and eventually to take up work. It really is a key issue. My hon. Friend was right to highlight the inconsistency of requiring young people to stay in education until they are 18 when they do not have the wherewithal to do so.

The provision of transport in rural areas, which has already been touched on, can also become a matter of inequality. Recent research by the Centre for Social Justice showed that people who live in rural areas can spend between 20% and 30% more on transport than those in urban households. Such areas therefore have more to lose than most when support for local bus services is reduced. As a former shadow further education Minister, I know how crucial that can be for young people in rural areas who want to access college courses. Campuses in rural areas often require a five to 10 mile journey, as opposed to a one to two mile journey in urban areas.

We also have a right to expect quality provision from bus operators because public subsidy accounts for 45% of bus operators’ revenues. The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South on the situation in Tyne and Wear are pertinent. Virtually all the major bus companies have pointed out that cuts at that level have inhibited their ability to provide services. The example of her county council is not isolated. There has been a 50% subsidy cut in

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Suffolk, a 40% subsidy cut in Hertfordshire and a 30% subsidy cut in Somerset. They are all Conservative-controlled authorities in which issues of social cohesion for the elderly and economic opportunity for the young have not been sufficient to retain the subsidies. Those authorities’ own Government have made their ability to do so even harder.

I commend colleagues who have stood up for their local services, and I commend my hon. Friends who have spoken today. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs Riordan) has been fighting for bus services in her constituency, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) has been vocal about services in his area.

What other pressures do local authorities face, and what powers do they have to respond? The LGA has raised concerns that funding has been cut by £261 million and that often it cannot do much about it. Concessionary fares and supported services must work in tandem, rather than competing for an ever-reduced pool of money. People continue to receive the benefits of the bus pass, but we must ensure that its funding reflects the effects of social and independent living. We want actively to explore what more we can do to incentivise and extend bus support for young people so that we make a further impact to bridge the gap to jobs and skills and, incidentally, to make a real impact on economic growth.

Current contract arrangements give little power or incentive for local authorities to have mechanisms to maintain protected services, and the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Corby on quality control are highly relevant. We would increase the amount of money devolved to regional bodies, which would be a major driver of new initiatives and transport projects to improve the quality of services and the transport network for people across those regions.

We must also consider what we have to do to make access a reality for people with disabilities. In the House, we have raised the issues of bus driver training and audiovisual systems. They will not go away, particularly when loud voices from consumer and public organisations are saying that it is time that Ministers heard the clarion call to take a lead on access.

Government at all levels must never lose sight of the fact that bus services not simply are the preserve of bus operators but exist for their passengers. Public transport must never be relegated to the status of a second-class service. A well funded and prioritised bus service can be a key driver of economic growth. The Government need to be fully committed to those ideals to make them a reality, rather than sidelining millions of people to what my hon. Friend’s constituent eloquently characterised as curfew living.

3.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. Thanks to the Members who made the excellent contributions that we have heard, we will finish by the time at which we hoped to finish.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) on securing this debate on the availability of bus services. I will touch on many elements of his

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speech, and I will answer a couple of his questions directly. I now feel so much more knowledgeable about Corby bus services. He undoubtedly has weeks of press releases and leaflets planned, and I congratulate him on his speech. I also recognise the contribution of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who rightly pointed out that a number of issues affect not only the mainland but his constituency. He made a long speech, and he accepts that some of the issues are not necessarily under this House’s jurisdiction.

The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) and I obviously differ on quality contracts; she will not be surprised about that. My view is that they are a race to the bottom—to poorer services and higher costs. She spoke about services being withdrawn, but any operator has to give 56 days’ notice before a service can be withdrawn. The overall thrust of the Competition Commission’s view, as she will want to recognise, is that the bus market is working well.

I recognise that buses play a vital role in our economy, as any look will show. In England, more than 2.2 billion journeys were made on local buses outside London last year. That number is broadly flat; it is down about 1% on the year before, which is absolutely in keeping with the trends that we have seen since 1997.

Bridget Phillipson: Notwithstanding what the Minister has just said about our difference of opinion on quality contracts, does he respect that local decision-making bodies should be able to introduce schemes that they think best serve the needs of local areas? Will the Government continue to offer support on that?

Stephen Hammond: I accept the proposition that locals know what is best for their area, if they wish to go down that line. The hon. Lady will not be surprised to hear that Ministers would probably express the view that that would be ill-advised. I will continue to express that view, but it is for local areas to make that decision.

If we look at ridership numbers since 1997, and indeed at the broad sweep since the second world war, we see declining ridership on buses, but more than 60% of all trips on public transport are still made on local buses. Some 49% of bus trips outside London are made by people who do not have access to a car. Buses are, of course, essential for many people to get to work, education, doctors and hospitals. The bus is a lifeline for many people, particularly in rural areas. Without the bus, those people would be unable to access essential services, go shopping or socialise.

Yet if one listens to the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), one hears an attempt to portray a network that has fallen apart. Inconveniently, as I have just pointed out, some of the facts do not bear that out. As he will have wanted to acknowledge, the falls in ridership numbers were severe under a regulated regime. Between 1997 and today, the annual fall in ridership, as a percentage, has been almost the same every year. The idea that there has been a complete collapse in bus ridership since 2010 is simply false.

Combined with that is the fact that customer satisfaction with bus journeys is high. In all national surveys, 88% of passengers say that they are satisfied with the service. It is important to recognise, in looking at that number, that under-21s make up about a third of bus passengers,

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and use among the older generation has increased over the past few years, as the hon. Gentleman would want to acknowledge.

Mr Marsden: I accept that bus satisfaction is high, but that prompts the question of whether people are satisfied because they are able to get a bus in the first place. The point that my hon. Friends and I have made is on the disproportionate effect of the coalition’s cuts on key vulnerable groups. The Minister will not find statistics that gainsay that point.

Stephen Hammond: The Minister certainly will. I am happy to read out the ridership numbers, but there is nothing in those numbers that suggests there has been an increasing rate of decline in bus use since 2010. That is simply true. I am happy to check my facts in the Library. I have the numbers before me, and I can read them out if the hon. Gentleman wants them. The fact of the matter is that the numbers do not support his argument.

It is true, of course, that bus usage and access to buses are important for a healthy, growing economy. The recent survey by the university of Leeds reinforces that point. Bus commuters generate some £64 billion in economic output, and one in five journeys is a journey to work. Shopping and leisure trips generate annual value of some £27 billion.

The Government, far from what is suggested in some portrayals, remain committed to improving bus services, and expenditure on buses reflects that: 42% of all bus operator income comes from public funds. This year, the Government will spend more than £1 billion on concessionary travel entitlement and more than £340 million in direct subsidy to bus operators in England. More than £300 million has been allocated to funding major bus projects in the last year; that is on top of the provision through the better bus areas fund to deliver improvements in 24 local authorities, which cost more than £70 million, and the £20 million to support community transport. Many bus improvement schemes have also been funded as part of the £600 million local sustainable transport fund.

A total of £95 million has also been provided for four rounds of the green bus fund to improve environmental performance. We are also jointly funding a three-year project with Norfolk county council to determine a delivery model for smart ticketing across England, recognising that smarter ticketing will continue to drive easier access. In the 2013 spending review, we protected bus spending until the end of 2015-16, despite the current economic circumstances. All that demonstrates a commitment that was not recognised in some of the contributions.

The Government recognise that improvements can and must be made. In 2012, our document “Green Light for Better Buses” set out our plans for buses. The proposals included reforming bus subsidy, improving competition and incentivising partnership working. The hon. Member for Corby gave a clear example of what partnership working can deliver in his support for Stagecoach, some of the services that it is delivering, and the way that it has improved a number of them. Improving partnership working is increasingly important.

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There is no doubt that these are challenging economic times. Government and local authorities have had to make difficult decisions about some spending priorities, but we want to ensure that the bus market is still attractive to all operators—large and small, urban and rural—by ensuring that funding is allocated in the fairest way, giving the best value for taxpayers and ensuring the best service.

Andy Sawford: For the record, the services that I mentioned have not improved; they have been reduced significantly. My praise for Stagecoach relates to it having worked with me to keep as many buses on the road as possible. If the Minister’s argument rests on saying that rider numbers are not declining any more steeply than in previous years, it is a pretty disappointing argument. The Minister for Transport ought to set out a vision of how to improve public transport. People still need to get to work, of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) illustrated; they now just have to wait for an hour, or two hours, and struggle to access bus services that should be much more reliable and available.

Stephen Hammond: As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have noticed, I remarked a moment ago that we have set out a vision for how to improve bus services throughout this country and a view on how we can ensure better services in various areas. I will make some remarks about rural buses in a moment. However, neither he nor I can ignore the trend of declining ridership, whereas for the deregulated rail service, ridership has doubled since privatisation. The idea that we can simply ignore the numbers is not true.

The bus service operators grant has been paid directly to bus operators. To be fair, it has been paid for many years in a blunt and relatively untargeted way based on fuel consumption. Local authorities have told us that they can make the bus subsidy deliver better value for money by working in partnership with bus operators to grow the bus market. As several hon. Members have pointed out, the characteristics of local bus markets differ, so different solutions will undoubtedly be appropriate in different local areas. The Government therefore believe that it is for local authorities to decide which route to pursue. This year, £43 million in BSOG funding will be paid directly to local authorities rather than bus operators; that will relate to the services that councils fund. That will give communities more control over how the money is spent. The funding is now ring-fenced until the end of 2016-17 to provide a period of stability.

The hon. Member for Corby asked several questions, one of which involved concerns about the quality of Centrebus. He will know that all vehicles must meet the relevant standards for roadworthiness enforced by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency. If he has any concerns about that, I will be delighted to help him ensure that the DVSA undertakes that operation. He also discussed the poor reliability of service. Again, that is entirely a matter for the traffic commissioner; I encourage him and his constituents to raise any concerns with the traffic commissioner, who has powers to take regulatory action against operators that are failing to deliver the service that they are contracted to deliver.

The Government are also committed to protecting the national bus travel concession, which is of huge benefit to about 11 million people, allowing free off-peak

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local travel anywhere in England. The concession provides older and disabled people with greater freedom, independence and a lifeline to their community. It enables access to facilities in local areas, helps them keep in touch with family and friends and brings benefits to the wider economy. The issue of young people’s travel and fare levels is complex. There is no statutory obligation to provide discounted-price travel to young people. Many commercial and publicly funded reductions are available.

Bus services in rural areas do not depend only on public funding. Commercial operators will provide services in areas where there are enough passengers, and overall commercial mileage in very rural areas of Britain has increased rather than decreased over the past year. However, the Government accept that where commercial services are not feasible, local authorities must and do play a vital role in supporting rural bus services. Almost 30% of bus mileage is in predominately rural authorities, and it is therefore for local authorities to decide what is the best support to put in place in response to local views.

It is vital that local authorities have the opportunity to maximise the funding that they provide. To help with that, last year my Department met its commitment to publish revised guidance to local authorities on best practice when procuring local bus services and other types of road passenger transport. Although I recognise that a lot of innovative and hard work is done by councils all over the country, there is certainly scope to do more. The best practice document sets out some really good practice and highlights some of what local authorities can achieve.

Providing bus transport solutions in rural areas can be challenging. Undoubtedly, the traditional fixed-route service operating to a timetable cannot be and has not always been appropriate. The combination of lower passenger numbers and longer journeys can also put pressure on funding. That is why many local authorities, learning from best practice, are considering other solutions, whether they involve supporting community buses provided by voluntary services, dial-a-ride or other types of demand-responsive transport such as taxis and minicabs. My Department is undertaking further work to examine the barriers to procurement of better types of service, and we are committed to ensuring that that knowledge is spread through the industry.

In conclusion, this Government believe in buses. Since 2012, we have set out a clear vision for a better bus service with more of what passengers want: punctual, interconnected services, greener and more fully wheelchair-accessible buses, and widely available smart ticketing. That will encourage more passengers to use the network, cut carbon and encourage economic growth.

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DEFRA Communications: Hill Farmers

3.59 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Thank you very much indeed, Ms Dorries, for calling me to speak. It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon.

I am raising the issue of the communications by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with hill farmers. I requested this debate following a meeting I had with Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services—UTASS—a charity that works with hill farmers in my constituency, and I have also had discussions with some of the farmers themselves. I should just say that the hill farming in my constituency is very long-standing and it is rather unusual in that most of the farmers involved are tenant farmers farming on common land. There has been hill farming in this way for about 500 years in my area.

The problem is that DEFRA requires farmers to communicate online, and the Government have failed in their project to roll out broadband across the country. Across the entire country, 5 million people do not have access to broadband and the problem is particularly severe in the rural areas. The counties with the biggest problem are Cumbria, Devon, Dorset, the East Riding, Herefordshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Northumberland, Rutland, Shropshire and Somerset. I think that we can all agree that there are large farming communities in all those counties.

In my constituency, only 46% of the farmers who go to UTASS have broadband. Obviously, therefore, a Government policy of delivering public services that is digital by default is doomed to fail, and DEFRA should be the Department that is the very last to introduce digital by default in its communication system and not the first, which it seems to be at the moment.

On 6 May, UTASS found that 19 farmers were booked in to the charity to complete their application forms for the online single payment scheme, but the system was down, just as it had been on the previous Friday and on several days in the previous weeks. This meant that farmers were driving several miles to access the IT point, but then the Government’s IT system was down and they were unable to transact the business. This process is time-consuming and stressful; it is the very opposite of what we expect from DEFRA.

I am pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), here in Westminster Hall today, but I am disappointed that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), is not present, because he replied on 3 June to my initial letter about this issue. His response to me was wholly inadequate. He wrote:

“Although I accept that these intermittent problems will have been frustrating for RPA customers”—

customers of the Rural Payments Agency—

“the system has been performing well for the majority of the application period.”

What level of failure does DEFRA believe is acceptable or unacceptable? The problem is that if the farmers’ applications were not in on time, they could lose money,

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but it was difficult—indeed, for some farmers it was impossible—to get their applications in on time due to the failures in DEFRA’s own system.

In his letter, the Under-Secretary of State continued:

“The Agency has had record numbers of on-line submissions with almost 70 per cent of the nearly 102,000 submissions received to date (16 May) being made online.”

However, he does not know or does not take into account in that statement how much time, energy and work was involved in submitting them on time; nor does he seem concerned about the 30% of farmers who, by 16 May, had not completed their submissions. So he says:

“Given that overall picture, I cannot give a blanket assurance that penalties will not be applied.”

That seems to be wholly unreasonable.

The animal reporting and movement service also has a history of crashing online, and it is simply not practical for farmers to take several hours out of their day to travel to ICT facilities.

The next problem is the number of personal identification numbers that farmers are required to have in order to interface with DEFRA, which is a staggering 27. There are so many different systems run by DEFRA and on each one farmers are required to have a different PIN. I do not know about you, Ms Dorries, but I find it difficult to remember my code to enter the House of Commons and my bank number. The thought of having to have 27 different identifiers, or maybe even 28 for some farmers, is absurd.

Let me inform the House what those numbers are for. For the RPA, there is a single business identifier; a personal identifier for each partner in the business, because obviously many farms are family-run; a vendor number; an integrated administration and control scheme number; a PIN to access the single payment scheme online; a holding number, which is called a county parish holding number, with an additional one required for each block of land that is more than five miles from the boundary of the main holding; a herd number; and a flock number. For Natural England, an “AG number” is required for “ELS/UELS/HLS agreements”, which relate to the high-level scheme and the systems of support for the rolling out of the common agricultural policy in this country; and a Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 access number is also needed. The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency has its own system of identifying numbers; for the Environment Agency, a groundwater authorisation number, a waste carrier number and a waste exemption registration are required; and for DEFRA itself, a holding transport registration number and a City and Guilds number for the transport of animals and PAl to PA6 and so on are needed.

Of course, farmers are running businesses, so they need to interface with other parts of the Government, which involves a national insurance number, a health service number and a passport number. In addition, of course, many farmers have shotgun and firearm licence numbers; they have VAT numbers; they have Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs numbers, both individual numbers and business numbers; the Government Gateway has a number and password; the British Wool Marketing Board number is obviously important for sheep farmers;

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and the breed societies have numbers. Also, there are separate numbers for every bovine animal and sheep over the age of 12 months on the premises, and separate transaction numbers for every movement or passport issue. That is a proliferation of numbers that we would think incredible if we read it in a novel by Kafka. However, it is not incredible in modern DEFRA.

There is also an extremely important set of further numbers, which are individual field numbers. These feature highly in the operation of the SPS applications. Most of the SPS forms are now pre-populated by the RPA, but all information needs to be cross-checked by the farmer, as the onus is placed on the farmer to correct errors made by the RPA. Each field number needs to be checked by the farmer against four further items: the correct size is stated for that particular field; the net land area is eligible, as detailed on the rural land register for that particular field; the claimed area details are correctly detailed for that particular field; and the land use code is correct for that particular field. If the farmer does not spot an error made by the RPA, the farmer is liable and financially penalised.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Helen Goodman: Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman, I will just point out that in my constituency the farmers have 20 fields, so 80 administrative cross-checks are required in this process.

Simon Hart: I had not come to Westminster Hall with the intention of making a political point, because I sympathise hugely with a lot of what the hon. Lady has said. Therefore I hesitate to say this, but almost every one of the regulations that she has mentioned were introduced under the Government of her own party. Therefore, is she here today to support the coalition’s efforts to reduce red tape in farming?

Helen Goodman: I will come on to this Government’s attempts to cut red tape in the red tape initiative, which—as I have read out the 27 numbers, plus the field numbers and I have not finished yet—has been a miserable failure, frankly. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was in this House in the last Parliament, but I was and I criticised the system under the previous Government, because I am very concerned at the way the hill farmers are treated by DEFRA, the RPA and Natural England. And if I might say so, I thought that a coalition of Tories and Liberal Democrats with more rural seats than the previous Labour Government would do better, but that is not the case. It has not done better. If anything, the situation is getting worse and this causes a huge number of problems.

Let me move on to the costs to farmers of running the various schemes. Every sheep needs an electronic identification tag. These used to cost 10p each, but now they cost 85p each and each sheep needs two. There are 100,000 sheep in Teesdale, so immediately we see that Teesdale farmers are landed with a bill for £170,000. Every farmer needs a tag reader, and those cost £700 each. DEFRA is putting massive costs on to farmers.

The cattle need passports: their movements have to be recorded, as do their births and deaths and medicines they have been given. The system for medicines must be

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even tighter than that required for humans in the NHS. One farmer told me that he has to

“report movements, births, deaths—

but, fortunately—

“not marriages in our Holding Register for sheep and Herd Register for cattle. All veterinary medicine treatments have to be recorded with the identity number of the animal, batch number of the medicine, dosage and expiry date”.

He said that the impact of the red tape initiative has been

“so small as to be imperceptible.”

As well as changing the rules of the CAP, DEFRA is trying at the same time to move the system online, and that is getting worse at the moment. That is being done by this Government and their failure in that regard is totally their responsibility.

There are also changes to the timing of higher level stewardship payments. One big problem is that, whereas farmers received regular in-year payments, now, because of the changeover, most will have to wait for 18 months for a payment, rather than six months. However, some farmers will have to wait as long as nine years for payments. Therefore their incomes are severely pushed down and they are not paid any interest while they wait for money for long periods.

In case Government Members are under any illusion about the farmers in my constituency—I have already mentioned that they are tenant farmers—Newcastle university estimates that the average income of a hill farmer in my area is £11,000 a year. These are not people who can cope with severe fluctuations up and down in their cash flow or cuts to their income.

The RPA online system is, as I have said, deeply problematic. The farmers feel that DEFRA has not done an adequate job in negotiating with Europe.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I thank the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene. I think that Members of Parliament of all parties from rural constituencies will have a huge amount of sympathy with what she is saying. I was a livestock farmer before being distracted by politics. Although I would not phrase it in the same aggressive, political way that seems to be part of this debate, this is a serious point that the Government should take on board. We should try to persuade the unions to help, wherever possible, as they are doing in Wales.

Helen Goodman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

Let me just tell hon. Members what the farmers are saying about the Rural Payments Agency online system. They want clarity about the definition of “active farmer”, about whether the scheme refers to net or gross income and whether it should include the single payment scheme. Since more than 200 farmers in my constituency rely on the SPS, they need to understand what the rules and mechanisms are. I asked for clarification on those points more than a month ago, but we have not received it. I am disappointed that the Minister has not responded to my second letter.

Let me now return to the fact that the tenant farmers are grazing their livestock on common land, which is unusual in the European context, because there are not many parts of Europe with commons on the English

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pattern, but the European legislation does not really take that into account. I urge the Minister to sort out the issue of definitions of “naturally kept land” and commons grazing.

The farmers are worried that, if the system does not get sorted out, DEFRA does not have a plan B, although it really needs one. It cannot continue to put the farmers under such pressure.

This is the worst kind of government. Far from being a supportive, helpful public service, the farmers experience it as oppressive, bureaucratic, arrogant and insensitive. Furthermore, as is obvious from the amount of time and energy that has to be spent on this problem, it is quite clear that the systems are ineffective and counterproductive.

4.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Rogerson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing this important debate. There has been agreement throughout the House, among all parties, that those of us who represent rural areas, and those who love those areas, want those farming in some of the toughest environments in our country to get the support that we would aspire to provide. I will come back to some of the specific points that she made, but I should like to frame the debate a little bit and talk about the common agricultural policy reform and current progress on the new programme.

Last week, we submitted to the European Commission the programme document for our 2014-2020 rural development programme for England. That sets out our proposals for providing £3.5 billion of funding over the next six years to farming, wildlife, rural businesses and the wider economy in England. Overall, across the whole CAP programme, we are looking to provide more than £15 billion of support in these areas.

Developing the programme over the last couple of years has been a massive undertaking. At each step, we have consulted our stakeholders and taken account of their views. I have seen farmers taking part in local consultations in my part of the world. I look forward to their continued support as we move to implementation and delivery from 2015. There is still a lot of work to be done. We are now liaising with the European Commission on the programme document to secure Commission approval by the end of October.

A significant change in the CAP for upland farmers is our decision to uplift payments under pillar one. That means that we will almost double the direct payment rate in the moorland from 2015—I hope that the hon. Lady welcomes that; I am sure that her upland farmers will—and equalise the direct payment rates in the severely disadvantaged area and the lowland. Taken together, these changes will distribute direct payments more equitably across English farms. They will also ensure that upland farmers on large areas of moorland are not put at a disadvantage in comparison with other upland farmers. The changes should give all upland farmers greater security.

I hope that the hon. Lady found that bit of background about reform helpful. I also hope that she will welcome the significant funding that we will provide under the CAP, particularly when viewed against the severe budgetary constraints that are in place. However, I agree with her

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that access to 21st century communication is one of the most important challenges of our time. I know that she takes a wider interest in this issue, in urban and rural contexts across the country. That is an absolute top priority for the Government and supports our long-term economic plan. I cannot accept her criticism that this Government will fail in that regard. We will move on a lot more rapidly than the previous Government did and we will do a great deal to broaden access to that vital telecommunications infrastructure. Telecommunications is a key part of that long-term economic plan and, because of that, rolling out broadband to rural communities is a top priority for the Government. That has the potential to be transformative. There are already areas where that has happened.

Clearly, such provision is important for hill farmers, as the hon. Lady mentioned, due to their remoteness and the associated difficulties they face in accessing services. That is why the Government are investing heavily in the roll-out of broadband across the country. We are making good progress under the £530 million roll-out programme.

More than 20,000 homes and businesses a week are currently gaining access, and that will rise to 40,000 a week over the summer. Projections suggest that we will reach 90% superfast coverage in early 2016. By the end of the current programme, virtually all homes and businesses will have access to standard broadband at a minimum of 2 megabits per second. An additional £250 million will extend superfast broadband coverage to 95% of the UK by 2017. We are exploring how to reach the final hard-to-reach areas with superfast broadband—the areas that she is talking about and the areas that I represent, some of the upland and more remote parts of Cornwall. Pilot projects testing how that might be achieved are due to be announced shortly.

Having 21st century telecommunications networks also means having high-quality and fast mobile connectivity, including in more remote rural areas. Improving mobile phone connectivity is therefore another top priority for the Government. We are investing up to £150 million through Broadband Delivery UK’s mobile infrastructure project to build new masts for areas where there is no coverage for voice calls or text messages. Those will be used by the key mobile network operators, who are working together as never before to find ways to extend coverage to remote areas. Once built, most of the new sites will also have the capability to provide 3G and 4G coverage.

For example, I have seen the introduction of a project in Cumbria, where a rural area that does not have superfast broadband now gets 4G coverage from one of the networks. That is making a huge difference to businesses and people who live in that area. That is being done on a commercial basis by the company, which I very much welcome. The first new mobile infrastructure project site went live in Weaverthorpe in north Yorkshire in September 2013. That site is now providing coverage to 200 homes and businesses that did not have the mobile signal before.

Helen Goodman: I have heard all that a thousand times from his colleague in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I probably know that better than the

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Minister does and the record is not that great. What I am interested in is DEFRA’s performance on this matter, given that the roll-out is in progress.

Dan Rogerson: I wanted to come on to the concept of digital by default, which the hon. Lady raised, and how DEFRA uses technology to interact with all the people who rely on the support we give. The common agricultural policy information service is one of 25 Government Digital Service exemplar projects that are leading the Government’s digital transformation agenda, which aims to deliver efficiencies within the public sector and savings for taxpayers. That is crucial to us, but no matter how fast we are able to move to deliver broadband and mobile access across the country, there may be problems for some farmers, as she pointed out, who have either no or slow broadband. We recognise that that could have implications for submitting applications and forms online from 2015 under a single, digital, easy-to-use application and payment system as part of the CAP reform. That is why, in the early days of the new service, we will look to provide support to those customers who need more time to adapt. We will also ensure that our digital uptake campaign makes it clear to customers how to find paper-based guidance. Online guidance will be available in printable formats and will of course be the most up-to-date version.

The hon. Lady mentioned some of the problems being experienced by hill farmers in her part of the country. I believe that she has been looking at the current online system and the problems that happened with that. Those have been addressed. We are now looking at how to take forward digital by default under the new system. Offline assistance will always be there for those who need it. It could be in various forms, including through intermediaries, by telephone or face-to-face help through digital support centres across the country. If she can give me, subsequent to this debate, more information on how many days the service that the charity was dealing with was failing, that is something I can report back on. A huge amount of effort has been put into getting this right and improving the service for customers.

The hon. Lady and I were both elected in 2005. She will remember the chaos around the implementation of the single farm payment at the time. We have moved on hugely since then. Even she, who is seeking to find as many ways as she can to criticise the Government, would recognise that the system under the Rural Payments Agency is much, much better than it was at the time of the transfer under her Government. Some of that improvement happened under her Government, but considerably more has happened under ours. I very much welcome how colleagues in the RPA are delivering a much improved service.

A large number of organisations provide digital skills training across the country, and I know that the hon. Lady is interested in that. Local libraries and advice centres will be able to help users to find details. We are also working closely with the charity Go ON UK to map providers that can help users to access a computer and get online in their area. That is being rolled out regionally. She mentioned the number of numbers involved in day-to-day farming. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) pointed out, that is the history of the system that

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we work within. The Government are making huge efforts to minimise the number. We will operate within the boundaries of the directives that we have, and some will add layers of complexity. The important thing is that we are moving to one PIN being needed for the new common agricultural policy system—the identity assurance. That will be a big step forward, and I can send her further information on that.

Helen Goodman: DEFRA provides no digital support. It does not give a grant to Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services. The Government’s total spend on digital inclusion, via the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is £3 million. The Minister needs to be realistic. Moreover, Durham county council has had 60% cuts. When he says one PIN, does he mean per farmer, one for each animal, or one for each field? What does he mean?

Dan Rogerson: There is a difference between PINs, which one must enter to get into the system, and reference numbers, which can be written down and are less of an issue for security. Those reference numbers will in different circumstances be needed for different aspects. We all have these numbers in our daily lives. In terms of accessing the system, we are moving to one PIN. I am happy to talk or write to the hon. Lady about that.

The hon. Lady raised the important issue of consultation. She painted a picture of farmers in upland areas who are very busy, dealing with tough weather conditions and farming on low incomes at the very margins of what is possible. She said that we are moving ahead without talking to them. That is very much not what we have done. We have made the changes on payments that I set out earlier to split the money more equitably across the country, to support upland farmers and to recognise the great job that they do, and all the landscape and other benefits that they offer society in providing access and in producing food of which we can all be proud.

The rural and farming network was created in January 2011 and consists of 17 self-determined local groups representing rural communities, business and farming interests across England. Its purpose is to enable two-way communication between DEFRA Ministers and rural businesses and communities. The RFN helps to underpin Ministers’ roles as rural champions within Government, ensuring that the dialogue between national and local decision takers is more joined up. Ministers agreed to meet with all RFN chairs twice a year. The last RFN chairs meeting took place in January, and three DEFRA Ministers attended: Lord de Mauley, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) and me.

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There is also the upland stakeholder forum, which is chaired at senior level in DEFRA and has senior members drawn from a range of upland interests, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Moorland Association and the Foundation for Common Land. The hon. Lady rightly pointed out that the way in which farming happened in this country might be different from the way it happened in some other parts of the European Union. The forum considers many strategic and cross-cutting issues that impact on hill farmers.

Equally important is that we keep customers up to date and well informed on changes and how they are likely to be affected. Indeed, DEFRA, working with the RPA, Natural England, the Forestry Commission and the rural development network, is determined to implement the CAP in a way that is as simple, affordable and effective as possible and to not repeat the problems we had in 2005. We want to ensure that the countdown to the new CAP is as smooth as possible for our customers and we have published a “Countdown to CAP” timeline. At each stage, information will be made available to help people to understand how the new CAP will affect them, what they need to do and by when. The new CAP reform countdown symbol on the cover of the information is being used to flag up important information about CAP reform. Farmers, including those on the hills, and land managers will see that symbol on web pages and other documents in coming months. The gov.uk website provides a single point of access to information on the CAP and we are looking to further develop those pages in the light of feedback from users.

In April, we published, “An introduction to the new Common Agricultural Policy schemes in England”, which provides an overview of what the new schemes will mean for customers. Information has also been provided about the greening rules, including an overview of permanent grassland, crop diversification, ecological focus areas, definitions, exemptions and crop lists, so that farmers can start to get seed in the ground. That is the sort of detail to which the hon. Lady referred. Although that is of less relevance in some respects to hill farmers, because they are not generally farming arable land, it is an important step forward that has been welcomed by the National Farmers Union.

In conclusion, we will be providing more than £15 billion of funding to farming, wildlife, rural businesses and the wider economy in England. We are moving forward rapidly on broadband and mobile access, and we are taking steps to ensure that we offer alternative support for those who cannot immediately benefit from our single and more efficient IT service.

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Business Loans Appeals System

4.30 pm

Sir Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, although it is probably a pleasure that neither of us would have expected in an earlier existence. It is good to be here, and it is good that the Minister is also here. I hope that he gets his breath back and will be ready to listen.

This subject has come up at an appropriate time, because Professor Russel Griggs’s third annual report on the performance of the banks’ appeals system for businesses refused finance by them was published yesterday. It is also only three weeks since the British Chambers of Commerce commissioned its Business Banking Insight website, which provides bank customer feedback and gives a clear picture of the performance of some 74 banks, as set out and decided by some 5,000 businesses across the country. Plenty is going on, and I will certainly acknowledge the Government’s good work. However, I am driven to bring the matter back to the House, having first done so some 15 months ago, by the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises in Hazel Grove. The Government have done a lot, but there is more to do. I will set out why that is and some things that should be done.

The most obvious problem is the huge gap between what the banks tell the Government and Members of Parliament about what they are doing and about their performance on the one hand, and what they tell small and medium-sized enterprises when they knock on the door and say, “Please can we have some help” on the other. Every Member of Parliament—it is certainly true for me—is approached by small and medium-sized enterprises in their constituency who say that they have been treated badly by the banks and do not believe that they are in a friendly environment.

The figures for the number of small enterprises are astonishing. There are 4.8 million companies with fewer than 50 employees, employing 11 million people, so they form a significant part of the industrial and commercial ecology of this country. There are another 30,000 SMEs with between 50 and 250 employees that employ 3 million staff, so there are many enterprises out there.

I received a letter in January from HSBC, one of the principal banks, that stated:

“SME demand for finance is low…. In Q3 2013, 78% of SMEs were ‘happy non-seekers of finance’. These businesses have neither sought loan or overdraft facilities in the 12 months prior to interview, nor felt that anything had stopped them from applying for credit.”

That quote was in the context of HSBC saying that everything was fine, as banks often do. I took a ruler to that: 78% were happy, which means that 12% were not happy, and 12% of the total number of SMEs is 585,000 companies. According to the survey quoted by HSBC, therefore, 585,000 companies were discontented. If that was evenly distributed, it would be 900 enterprises per constituency across the whole country. I want to put that in the context of the briefing sent to me by the British Chambers of Commerce when it heard that I was speaking today. On accessing finance, the BCC said:

“In 2013, 60% of first-time applicants ended the process with no facility in 2013, compared to 51% of applicants in 2012”.

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In other words, the number of first-time SME applicants getting banking facilities had dropped, with the refusal rate increasing from 51% in 2012 to 60% in 2013.

As a consequence of all this and of my previous discussions, I wrote to the big five banks at the beginning of this year, asking them, “How much has your bank loaned out to SMEs in the last three years? How much was repaid by SMEs to your bank? What proportion of all loan applications for SMEs that you received was approved, and what proportion was refused? Of those who were refused applications, how many appealed? How many of those appeals were successful?” I did that because I was less and less happy that the bank review process overseen by Professor Griggs was really giving us the kind of information that would be useful in deciding whether the system was working.

I should perhaps say that the system is internal to each bank, but it is closely supervised and monitored by Professor Griggs and his team. Each year, he produces a report, the third of which was produced yesterday, and I am happy to have had a conversation with Professor Griggs yesterday, in which we discussed some of the report’s findings. He has published how many appeals were made to banks and how many were successful. The figures are used quite widely, including by the Government, to illustrate that the system works. Just over 11 months ago, I received a letter from the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), in which he said:

“Results out recently showed that for the second year running, 40% of decisions to refuse lending were overturned on appeal. This shows that the process works.”

If 40% of appeals were overturned in another system, it would seem that something was wrong with the first round of decision making. I discussed that with Professor Griggs and his report comments on it quite extensively. It is worth noting that that figure has been reduced to 31.7% in the latest report, so the overturn rate is lower and the number of appellants is higher, which has to be good news. However, that does not provide a good indication of anything at all when one thinks about it.

The responses that I received from the banks were somewhat disappointing. I will deal only with the response from what I will call bank A. Bank A told me that in 2013 it received 265,000 loan applications, of which it granted 80%, resulting in loans of £2.7 billion. That sounds pretty impressive, but the 20% equates to 50,000 refused loan applications. Of the 50,000 refused, 2% decided to appeal, which is just over 1,000. Bank A gave me a precise figure of 1,063. It tells me that 11% of the appeals were overturned, meaning that 117 appellants had success.

In his report, Professor Griggs says that last year he paid particular attention to the people who did not appeal, but who were refused, to see whether any of them could or should have appealed, and if they had, whether they would have been successful. I must say that he did that in a thorough way. He sampled the different banks, and he reports that between 2% and 5% of the refusals where there was no appeal could have had a case for being reconsidered. He does not say that they would have been successful, but that they could have had an opportunity, had they appealed.

I do not know whether bank A has a 2% rate or a 5% rate, but a 2% rate would mean that 10,000 SMEs were refused, but did not appeal, and yet had a chance,

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Professor Russel Griggs believes, of having their decision overturned if they had appealed. If the rate was 5% in that particular bank’s case—we do not know which bank has which figure attached to it—then 25,000 applicants were potentially in that position. Quite a large number of companies are not being drawn into the appeals system, but should at least have considered an appeal, according to Professor Griggs’s study of their cases. The appeals system is therefore delivering fairly well, but as the figures from bank A show, appeals are not yet running at a level that can give us real confidence that that system is doing its job fully.

The British Chambers of Commerce refers to many businesses being discouraged from applying in the first place. I certainly have a case in point in my constituency—a company that came to me in the most recent quarter to say that it needed some short-term bridging finance from its bank. The company applied and was refused, but decided not to appeal simply because the appeal would have taken so long that the short-term bridging finance would have been irrelevant to its circumstances. The company made do with other arrangements. The BCC also made the point about there being no effective transparency or open competition between the banks on business by SMEs. The five banks that I wrote to cover 90% of all business accounts and lending in this country. There is a widespread call for the Government’s new business bank to be more active and, in particular, to be in direct contact with businesses, rather than using the banks as its proxy.

The Minister might say that all that can be explained away if the banks were in fact lending more to businesses, weeding out the bad guys—the defaulters and the no-hopers—and giving money to everyone who might possibly deserve it. In fact, however, lending by banks to small business has gone down in each year; in the two years since the Government’s funding for lending scheme was introduced—in which time the Government have provided £41.9 billion to the banks to lend to businesses—the amount of outstanding loans to businesses has gone down, not up, by £25.9 billion. In other words, the banks have fattened themselves up to the tune of £67.7 billion. SMEs around the country are not accessing the appeals system as much as they could—and, in Professor Griggs’s view, should, because it would benefit them.

Please will the Minister promote greater transparency of data? I should not have to say “bank A”, “bank B” or “bank C” to the House; we should know the performance of each bank. If there is to be open competition that is meaningful for small businesses seeking finance, we certainly need such transparency. I had the information provided by bank A, and I got some information from bank B, but the other three banks simply said, “We conform with the process established by Professor Griggs.” In other words, they were not prepared to tell me whether they were 40%, 11% or 20%. They had no information that they were prepared to disclose about how good their systems, including their appeals system, were.

I want the Minister to say that he wants to work with the British Bankers Association and with the banks—I had in mind the word “push”, rather than “work with”—to get more of those who are refused applications into the appeals system. Some money is being spent, and there is

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a campaign, but it still strikes me as odd that a refusal letter is not automatically required to have information about the appeals system set out at the bottom of it. Some banks do that, but not all.

I also want the Minister to respond to what the British Chambers of Commerce is saying about the British business bank. The BCC has welcomed the £1 billion that the Government have put into the bank, as I do, but the BCC is also saying that it needs to be bigger—the bank needs to be sufficiently big to lever in external finance. It also needs to be organised in such a way that businesses can approach it directly, rather than having to go cap in hand to the banks, with their miserable performance. The banks are of course taking all the credit for the loans that they give and, on the whole, are not saying, “We’re giving you this money because of the Government’s finance for lending programme”, yet they are sheltering behind that programme to fatten themselves up to the tune of £67 billion and counting.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that. I hope that he and I can work together to loosen the grip of the banks on the Government’s money, in order to ensure that small businesses in my constituency become the beneficiaries.

4.46 pm

The Minister for Skills and Enterprise (Matthew Hancock): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, I think for the first time. I am grateful for the opportunity to reply to the debate of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell) and to answer his questions about bank finance.

The context is of course that the economy is recovering from the biggest financial crisis in generations and, while bank finance is important—most of my response will be on bank finance and the specific points made—sometimes too much focus in the UK is put on it, as opposed to other sources of finance. As we recover from the financial crash, the use of new technology to allow peer-to-peer lending, the growth of crowdsourced finance, the increased private placements market and the development of challenger banks increasingly offer a positive and long-term solution to some of the problems that my right hon. Friend outlined. Alongside the strategy for deficit reduction, of course, turning around the banks is a mission-critical part of the economic recovery, to ensure that small businesses can obtain the finance necessary for investment and growth.

The business lending appeals process is an important part of the answer. In 2011, the banks agreed to give businesses with a turnover of less than £25 million the right to appeal if turned down for credit. As my right hon. Friend said, appeals are to the same bank, but they have to be handled fairly, promptly and transparently—I will come on to that point in more detail later—and the whole process is subject to external audit by Russel Griggs. I want to pay tribute to his work over three annual reports, with the latest one published recently. It is important that that process takes place internally to the banks, because an external appeals process would leave an external decision-maker de facto in charge of a bank’s decision-making. People may ask questions about whether that is a good thing when bank loans are good, but when loans are bad, the question of who takes the hit would be a real one.

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The report from Russel Griggs shows an improving picture. Over the past year, there have been more than 3,500 appeals and in 32% of cases the original decision has been overturned. It shows that the process is robust, but, as my right hon. Friend says, that means that since 2011 more than 9,000 small businesses have appealed a bank’s decision and, of those cases, 36% on average have been overturned, so nearly £42 million in additional lending to small businesses has occurred that would not have occurred otherwise.

Equally important has been the increased attention that the appeals process has given to lending processes and improving dialogue between banks and their business customers. The decline in the overturn rate is an indicator that things are moving in the right direction.

As my right hon. Friend said, there is a concern that some businesses do not or might not appeal when they could have secured finance if they had decided to do so. The fact that only between 2% and 5% of declined borrowers would have succeeded in obtaining finance if they had chosen to use the appeals process suggests that that is not a significant problem. It affects some borrowers, but those figures are relatively low.

Sir Andrew Stunell: I appreciate that 2% does not sound very large, but in the case of bank A, which I quoted, it would double the number of people who came into the appeals system and more than double the number of people who would have succeeded.

Matthew Hancock: If 2% of the total proportion of those applying for finance are in a position where they could have succeeded had they chosen to appeal, that will be relatively small in terms of the process’s macro impact. Of course the situation has an impact on the companies affected, but out of the 100% applying for finance only between 2% and 5% chose not to appeal but would have been able to obtain finance had they done so. There may be other reasons for their choosing not to appeal that we do not know of.

Awareness of the appeals process among the small business population at large is still too low. The latest SME Finance Monitor figures, for the first quarter of this year, show that awareness is at only 12%, a decline of 2% on the previous quarter’s results. There has been discussion about whether the right population to measure is the small business population that is actively seeking finance or a broader set of businesses that may not be seeking finance because they suspect that they will be turned down. Clearly we need to make inroads into the broader small business community. The banks have started to take steps to raise awareness of the appeals process, and launched an industry-wide campaign in January. But those efforts need to be sustained and picked up by individual banks.

Introducing a lending appeals process and raising awareness of it is just one part of our broader efforts to improve access to finance for small businesses. Recently we published research showing that 37% of businesses appear to give up their search for finance and cancel their spending plans after their first rejection, without looking elsewhere—a problem that my right hon. Friend mentioned. That figure of 37% is far too high for us to be comfortable with it, so we have recently launched a

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consultation on whether to mandate banks to refer businesses that are declined finance to alternative providers. That would be good for the businesses concerned, which would be able to explore a wider range of alternative financing options, and good for the development of a more diverse sector with challenger banks and a competitive market for business finance, as well as augmenting the current appeals process. The consultation closed at the end of April and the Government will respond shortly. Although I cannot possibly prejudge that consultation, my right hon. Friend may have noticed my enthusiastic tone.

The Government are also committed to legislating through the small business, enterprise and employment Bill that was announced in the Queen’s Speech to require banks to share credit data on their small and medium sized business customers with other lenders through credit reference agencies, a measure that I think will have a big impact. Again, it is designed to help challenger banks and alternative providers by helping them to conduct accurate risk assessments on borrowers, so making the market for access to finance more competitive.

Another measure to improve the situation, announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 28 May, is the decision to commission a survey of banks to measure how more than 5,000 businesses rate their banks against factors such as value, appetite for lending and how well they keep their customers informed. The survey is being taken forward by the Federation of Small Businesses and the British Chambers of Commerce. The first results were published in May, and the survey will be repeated every six months. The idea is to develop a tool that over time will help businesses choose the best lender for them, based on the opinions of their peers. It is similar to a ratings system that small business borrowers can use to rate their bank.

A further area allied to the problem of access to finance is late payment, which continues to have a serious effect on the cash flow of some small businesses. Professor Griggs’s report yesterday pointed to 48% of declined loans over £25,000 being declined on grounds of affordability. Late payment squeezes cash flow and has a direct effect on the ability to repay loans. Through measures in the small business Bill, we will require large businesses to report on their payment practices and performance. We consulted broadly on the options for those measures, which will give small businesses the opportunity to judge better which companies they should trade with and to plan for external finance.

We will also introduce legislation that will override contractual bans on the assignment of receivables. That sounds rather technical, but it will allow companies to make effective use of their trade debt as an asset in access to external finance. If a company is engaged in international trade, that will give it more assets that it can use to access finance.

Finally, the British business bank has been established to make finance markets work better for smaller businesses. One of its key objectives is to help create a more diverse market for small business finance, with greater choice. That is reflected in its combined investment programme, which has a current portfolio of 10 commitments to nine finance providers totalling £172 million. It will support lending capacity of over £800 million through leveraging in other finance. That will support a whole range of alternative finance providers. Those include

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direct lending funds, peer-to-peer lenders, to make sure they can get up to scale, and supply chain finance providers.

To date, over £280 million of lending to smaller businesses has been supported as a result. We hope that the bank will also help to accelerate the development of competitors and alternative providers in this space. There is clearly further to go on that, and the British business bank is working hard to seek options to continue to expand competition in this market.

In conclusion, overall credit conditions are starting to ease. Gross lending to small businesses is ticking up, but repayments by small businesses are also increasing. There was £12 billion of new lending in the last quarter, up 18% on the same period a year before. New financial

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technologies such as crowdsourcing, the support of the business bank and Government policy changes mean that the position is more encouraging than it has been for some time, but I have no doubt that vigilance is required. We stand ready to take action as necessary to make sure that small businesses get appropriate access to finance. That is necessary to ensure that we can continue to finance the recovery, so that small businesses can create prosperity and jobs and ultimately work to strengthen the financial security of families around the country, which of course is central to the successful pursuit of our long-term economic plan.

Question put and agreed to.

5 pm

Sitting adjourned.