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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 2 July 2014

[Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair]

Cross-border Rail Services in Wales

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

9.30 am

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I thank other hon. Members and hon. Friends from Wales for showing up, and I know that more hon. Members would be here if it were not for the fact that the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs is considering other business.

Transport debates, by their nature, can be extremely parochial, but I make no apology for introducing this debate on rail issues that affect my constituents, because those issues are a big concern for the commuters I represent. I will concentrate on overcrowding and problems with the franchise in my area, but other hon. Members might want to make more general remarks about the franchise, the electrification of the valleys lines and related funding issues.

Like many hon. Members, I receive a lot of complaints from constituents who are frustrated by the day-to-day problems they face when they commute or travel for leisure. My constituency is near the border, so many of my constituents travel to the south-west, Bristol and Bath and to London. The debate is born out of great frustration with train companies and train operators, which is felt by me, by the excellent Severn tunnel action group—I know I am biased, but I believe that it is the best rail users’ campaign group out there—and by their fellow rail campaigners in the next village, the Magor action group on rail. Our frustrations are overcrowding, lack of connecting services and lack of information on electrification. We need to ensure that those concerns are heard as we approach the renewal of the franchises. The debate is a chance to get some of that on record.

The Severn tunnel action group was set up after the last Greater Western franchise, because its members felt that cross-border services were poorly covered. They have campaigned tirelessly for the reinstatement and protection of services, and their aim is to develop Severn Tunnel Junction station, one of the stations in my constituency, to encourage more people on to rail from cars by providing better services. They are a constructive and positive lot who have a lot of rail expertise, but I sense real frustration with the lack of engagement by rail companies. I want to convey that to the Minister as we approach the new franchises.

The latest figures from the Office of Rail Regulation highlight the importance of cross-border journeys to all Welsh rail users, with around a third of the 27 million annual journeys crossing the Wales-England border. Many of those journeys are back and forth to and from the south-west and London. My constituents commute to cities such as Bristol, which offer big employment opportunities, so we need reliable and affordable public transport. However, all too often, people face an unenviable

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choice: pay the Severn bridge toll—which is too expensive and should be reduced, although that is a topic for another debate and I am sure we will return to it—or run the gauntlet of an often overcrowded and inconvenient train service. Unsurprisingly, given the cost of fuel and the fact that the Severn tolls are whacked up every year, people are increasingly opting for the train service.

Partly as a result of that, we have seen substantial growth in passenger numbers. The Welsh Affairs Committee report “Crossing the border: road and rail links between England and Wales”, which was completed a couple of years ago, picked up on that:

“Cross-border services have seen significant growth in passenger numbers in recent years, and it is expected that demand will further increase in the future. First Great Western said that its Cardiff to Bristol service had seen particularly high growth”.

According to the Office of Rail Regulation, the number of passengers going to and from Severn Tunnel Junction station has increased by 72% in the past seven years. That growth is partly caused by commuters, students and tourists connecting from places such as Chepstow and Lydney. Connections have increased by 192% over the same period. That is a huge growth in usage, and it increases every year.

At the Monmouthshire end of my constituency, there are several new housing developments and more are planned. The same is true of Chepstow and Gloucester. Many occupants of those new homes will commute to Bristol and other cities in England, and they will end up at Severn Tunnel Junction station to catch connecting trains, but the rail service has not kept up with demand. For many years, we have received complaints from commuters, but the service remains the same or even gets worse. The main reason I applied for the debate was frustration with the lack of response from First Great Western to the chronic overcrowding on our commuter routes to Bristol; demand for services to Bristol has greatly increased. In fairness to First Great Western, I should say that I have finally got a meeting with the company next Monday.

After having received many complaints, I recently went out with Severn tunnel action group members to survey users on those commuter trains, and I am in no doubt about how frustrated they are. One of my constituents calls the service “the sardine express”. Commuter trains are always overcrowded and, sadly, it is not uncommon for large numbers of passengers to be left on the station because there is no space in the carriages. The 07.55 First Great Western service has been recorded as leaving more than 30 passengers behind at Severn Tunnel Junction station. Some of those passengers have paid more than £1,500 for an annual season ticket, so it is easy to imagine their frustration and anger. I will share a few comments from commuters whom I surveyed:

“Members of my family catch the 07.55 train from this station as they commute to Bristol. For several months now, the train has been made up of only two coaches instead of what used to be five. We have experienced overcrowding, standing room only, people unable to board, etc, etc. I have written to First Great Western on more than one occasion to complain in the strongest terms, but no avail.”

Another said:

“I sometimes catch a train on the opposite platform and have counted some 100 or so persons waiting on the 07.55 to Bristol! When there are only two carriages, the train is full before it arrives at Severn Tunnel. Completely unacceptable, particularly considering the exorbitant ticket costs in this country.”

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Another person recently reported that a passenger had fainted:

“FGW must be in breach of health and safety standards at the very least. Something must be done about this.”

Another commuter directly linked the situation to the effect of the Severn bridges:

“It’s all inefficient. I can’t jump into my car because of the Bridge Tax of £120 per month on the most expensive toll in the country. If I could drive instead I would in an instant. I’ve suffered the pain of these trains for only 12 months. There is no innovation, no new trains, no new operators and prices are set high.”

I have many more examples, but will end on this e-mail from a constituent:

“They just need an extra coach on each train—it’s not rocket science!”

Why is that so hard to deliver?

There is an obvious lack of rolling stock, which has led to a lack of carriages on peak services. There should be five carriages, as constituents have said, on the 07.55 train, but frequently there are three or sometimes even two. I understand that the train company has looked into hiring additional rolling stock to address the shortfall while some of its stock could be away for months on heavy overhaul, but that has not happened. We can only surmise that, as a private business, its financial model means that to do so would not be financially viable, so it has decided not to go ahead. Will the Minister take the matter up with First Great Western following the debate? Does he agree that it is not acceptable for the company to ignore the problem and to ignore complaints from commuters who have legitimate concerns about services they have paid for?

My second complaint is the perennial problem of poor connections, which was covered in the Welsh Affairs Committee report on cross-border transport a couple of years ago, but which has still not improved. Poor connections are not only a problem for those of us who live on the border; they have knock-on implications for those further into Wales. Commuters from Caldicot, Chepstow or Lydney may face a lengthy wait for a connecting service, and poor connections at peak commuting times are common. For instance, there are no trains from Caldicot between 7.40 am and 9.40 am, which is bad for people who are trying to get to work. Stations such as Caldicot have huge potential, particularly among people who want to use them for work, but we need a service that is fit for purpose. Lots of people want to use that service. What can the Minister and his Welsh counterparts do to ensure that the First Great Western service connects better with the Wales and borders franchise, which is up for renewal in 2018? Better connections is a constant grumble, and the matter has been raised by the Welsh Affairs Committee. We need action on better connecting services.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the work on connectivity that she does on behalf of her constituents.

In the north, we now have better services; there has been huge investment on the west coast over many years, which has provided extra trains. Does my hon. Friend agree that the connectivity between the franchises must be looked at? In north Wales, both are coming up

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for renewal at a similar time. I am sure that the Minister is aware of that, and that forward planning is being done. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a need for a direct link from Liverpool to Holyhead, which would bring Dublin and Liverpool closer together? We need to look at the big picture, and we have time to plan to do so before the franchises are renewed.

Jessica Morden: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is exactly right: with the franchises coming up for renewal, we must think strategically. The Government and the Welsh Government must work together for the good of the transport system. They must be constructive so that we can iron out some of the problems. I also agree with his point about the link between Liverpool and Holyhead.

We all support electrification and hope that we will benefit from it soon. As the Welsh Affairs Committee pointed out, it has been an example of good collaborative working and has demonstrated what can be achieved when the two Governments work together on transport—apart from the row over funding the valleys lines. For constituencies such as mine, which will suffer much, it would helpful if the Minister let us know early on what the disruption will be, when the work is to be carried out and what form it will take. We hear talk of the closure of some stations so that work can be carried out on the bridges, but the lack of concrete information is causing confusion. When can we let communities know what will be going on as a consequence of electrification? Staff in my office have asked for information and timetables, but so far we have heard nothing. If would be helpful to know when local commuters will be informed fully.

An example of the uncertainty caused is that commuters at Severn Tunnel Junction raised the issue of the safety of the passenger footbridge, which many rail users feel is unsafe. In fact, an Arriva fire inspector expressed concerns a few weeks ago and Network Rail was forced to do remedial work. If it is unsafe, it must be sorted out, but the latest letter we received from Network Rail—it has been a lengthy correspondence—said that the delay in sorting it out was due to the electrification plans. We have been chasing information about the bridge for some time, but the situation is now critical. The new bridge is funded under the Department for Transport’s Access for All scheme, but is clearly unsuitable as it is now. Will the Minister please intervene with Network Rail, because his Department is funding the improvements? We need action quickly.

I want to discuss the renewal of the Great Western franchise. We have all recently been asked to respond to the consultation on the franchise, which I have done. Rail groups in my constituency want to reiterate to the Minister that whoever is awarded the contract needs to meet commuter demands. In my area that would include a half-hourly or better train service from south Wales to Bristol Temple Meads and Bath; an additional hourly service from Ebbw Vale via Newport and Severn Tunnel Junction to Bristol Parkway, which would provide new journey-to-work opportunities to take advantage of the development and employment sites planned for the area around Bristol Parkway; a minimum of five coaches on the peak services from south Wales to Bristol; a commitment to ensure that train capacity is sufficient for future demand; and greater emphasis in the franchise on working in partnership on interchanges, and on rail companies working together on timetables.

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Getting rail services right in my constituency is an important part of the effort to increase economic and employment opportunities, but we should also give commuters the service they deserve, given how much they pay for it. The debate is focused on getting the cross-border services right, but I should also mention the great work that the Welsh Government are doing on the metro system, which could be of great benefit to communities in my area, such as the people of Magor who are campaigning for a new station through the Magor action group on rail.

It is so important for constituencies such as mine that the two Governments work together on rail as we depend on a properly co-ordinated approach and properly thought out train services. I know that other Members will make more general points about other cross-border rail issues, but I am grateful to the Minister for listening to my speech and hope that he will address some of my specific concerns about the franchise.

9.44 am

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): At the risk of sounding like Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen”, the first job I ever had, at the age of seven, was casing on Rhyl railway station with my older cousins. We would take a pram, and the trains would roll in, 10 to 14 carriages long, and disgorge their passengers. People did not have cars back in the 1960s—or not many working class people did—so they would place their cases on our prams and we would take them to the guesthouses, hotels and caravan parks in Rhyl and round about.

The train has been good to Rhyl and Prestatyn. The train arrived in Rhyl, my hometown, in 1849. I was recently talking to a 94-year-old local historian from Prestatyn, Fred Hobbs, who has researched the topic. He told me that when the train came to Prestatyn, it opened up the Welsh seaside towns to the industrialists and merchants of Manchester and Liverpool, who came and lived in Rhyl and Prestatyn and commuted to Liverpool and Manchester. They brought with them their wealth and investment, and our local towns prospered.

Rhyl was just a fishing village back in the 1840s, but it grew and grew: between 1849 and 1900, there were 900 hotels and guesthouses. The train brought great wealth to the town. The west ward of Rhyl was one of the richest wards in Wales because of the investment in hotels and guesthouses. Unfortunately, those ex-hotels and ex-guesthouses are responsible for the deprivation of seaside towns, as they have now been turned into houses of multiple occupation, but that is a discussion for another day.

The train has been good to the coastal towns of north Wales, and especially to Holyhead. The route planned in the 1840s went from London to Dublin, which was still part of the British empire in those days. It was a very important route. We want to ensure that the primacy of that route in the 19th century is re-established in the 21st century. The trains and transport links to north Wales brought wealth and investment right through the 20th century, up until the 1960s when I was casing to make a few bob on a Saturday morning. The downturn came to the north Wales coast in the 1970s, when people stopped coming to coastal towns for their traditional two-week bucket-and-spade holidays in a coastal town

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and chose to go elsewhere—to Spain and France. That left a big hole in the north Wales economy for a 40-year period, and we are only just beginning to put that right.

The challenge for the 21st century in north Wales is better connectivity between north Wales and the north-west of England. There are 650,000 people living in north Wales, and 6.5 million people live in the north-west—it is a huge population centre, and if a bit more of the area across the Pennines is included, it becomes even bigger. That was an opportunity in the past, it is an opportunity in the present and it is an opportunity for the future. We must improve train and transport connectivity.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that we must think about that now for the future? One problem is that rail has been something of an afterthought. Industry and a lot of other things have come, but the rail system is not up to the standard required to serve industry and the people of our area.

Chris Ruane: I agree with my hon. Friend to a certain degree, but he is no great user of the train, unlike me and my north Wales colleagues. I have witnessed a vast transformation from when I became an MP in 1997 and it took me four hours to arrive in London from Rhyl in my constituency. The trains then were grubby and had not been cleaned; there was chewing gum on the old and faded seats. Now, we have Pendolino and Voyager trains. There has been massive investment, for which I am grateful to Virgin and Arriva. There has been improvement, but I agree with my hon. Friend that we must not rest on our laurels.

Huge investment—something like £45 billion—is coming from HS2. I want to ensure that my area, the north Wales coast, gets its fair share of that investment—that we are electrified and our stations are improved. Big progress has been made: Chester, Flint and Prestatyn stations have been improved—a huge investment of £7 million was spent on Prestatyn. Last week Arriva, Network Rail and Denbighshire county council started a £2.5 million improvement programme for Rhyl railway station. Improvements have been made, but we must not rest on our laurels. We must push for further investment in our stations along the north Wales coast.

The big cities of Liverpool and Manchester were totally transformed under a Labour Government, and we did not make enough of that. Those cities were derelict and riot-strewn in the 1980s, and they are now vibrant communities. Manchester has one of the biggest student population bases in Europe, with 45,000 students. Liverpool is the same. Two principal airports serve north Wales, Liverpool and Manchester, and they have both grown exponentially over the past 10 years. They are the local airports for north Wales, and we need connectivity to them. It is difficult to get directly to those airports by train, so we need to consider a dedicated transport link from the north Wales coast to Liverpool and Manchester airports.

Liverpool and Manchester have huge population bases and huge research capacity at Manchester and Liverpool universities. We need to connect those universities with businesses in north Wales such as Airbus, the OpTIC incubation and research centre in St Asaph in my constituency and Bangor university. We need more co-operation, which would increase and improve if we

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had proper transport links. Connecting the science base of the north-west with the science base of north Wales would be helped tremendously by a proper transport system.

North Wales not only needs to be better connected with England; we need better connections inside Wales, including with the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) in north-east Wales. In 1998, the Labour Government made a £0.5 billion launch aid investment in Airbus, with the Welsh Government investing £25 million. That was a public-private partnership that produced one of the most expansive factories in western Europe. There are 6,000 engineering jobs at Airbus making the biggest wings in the whole world. We have to ensure that our population base in north Wales, especially in the bigger coastal towns that have large numbers of unemployed people, is better connected to the job opportunities at Airbus and the Deeside industrial estate in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Tens of thousands of jobs have been created and will be created, and they need to be made available to unemployed and underemployed people along the north Wales coast.

Ten years ago, the Department for Work and Pensions provided transport grants that helped people get to work. We should be drawing down grant money, European funding, DWP funding or Welsh Government funding to ensure that we have dedicated pull-in stations and dedicated trains early in the morning to take those workers to the huge factories in north-east Wales.

I will conclude on modal points, where trains connect with airports and hovercraft. I am probably one of only two MPs who can claim to have a constituency that has been, or will be, served by a hovercraft. The first passenger hovercraft service in the whole world was between Rhyl in my constituency and Wallasey. I mentioned that fact in a debate in this Chamber in December, and within three days, three hovercraft companies contacted me about restarting the service. The time taken to travel from Rhyl to Liverpool by train is one-and-a-half hours, possibly involving two changes. The time taken for a hovercraft connection to Liverpool would be 34 minutes. I would like to see people coming along the north Wales coast by rail, stopping at Rhyl railway station and getting on the hovercraft for a direct passage to Liverpool. The proposal is for a hover link that takes people from north Wales, through Rhyl, to Liverpool airport. That is a fantastic opportunity, but we need to ensure that we have the facilities to take people by rail, by car or by bus from Rhyl to Liverpool.

We are also blessed in Wales with a fine coastal path. We are the only country in the UK that has committed to, and delivered, a path along the whole coast. Walkers are coming to Wales, and in my constituency we are blessed with being at the northern end of the Offa’s Dyke footpath. We need to ensure that walkers can come to Rhyl or Prestatyn by train to do their rambling—I hope I am not rambling, but I intend to finish soon.

Mark Tami: You are hovering.

Chris Ruane: Yes, I am hovering about rambling. Thanks very much.

In Wales we are also blessed with fine cycleways, most of which are along the coast. The Sustrans bid for Big Lottery funding delivered a £4.5 million dedicated cycle

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bridge at Rhyl harbour. We need to make the most of the investments that have come to my town and north Wales by connecting them to rail users, which is a challenge for all of us. We have two well performing train companies. Virgin has massively improved the service over the past 14 or 15 years, and we north Wales Labour MPs campaigned to ensure that Virgin did not lose the franchise. We were highly concerned when it looked as if a second-rate company was going to take over the franchise, and I hope that Virgin continues to invest. Arriva Trains Wales is also investing heavily in north Wales, but we need to put pressure on the train companies to ensure that they deliver not for the past or for the present but for the future.

9.56 am

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate and to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) tell us about Rhyl station. Big changes have happened in north Wales and in the rest of the country over the past 30 or 40 years. For the benefit of the Minister, it is important to appreciate that north-east Wales, and its economy, is among the most successful and progressive areas of the country. North-east Wales has world-beating companies in the aerospace, automotive and pharmaceutical sectors that compete internationally to secure jobs and high-quality investment for British industry. In a globalised economy, it is important that the world knows we have infrastructure that is competitive, enabling those businesses and people in north Wales to journey to north-west England and beyond.

There is good news for my constituency of Wrexham, because the Welsh Government are investing some £44 million in dualling the line between Wrexham and Chester. In the 1980s, the Conservative Government made the absurd decision to limit the infrastructure for rail services between the largest town in north Wales, Wrexham, and Chester, which therefore inhibited regular rail services. Ever since, we have been able to have only one train an hour between Wrexham and Chester. In fact, we re-established an hourly service only in 2007—the impact had been so negative that rail usage substantially diminished.

Since the reintroduction of hourly services in 2007, there has been a massive increase in the use of rail services, which I see every week when I travel to London. The economy of this important economic area has developed, Glyndwr university has been established and we have seen a large increase in rail usage.

It is important that we use this opportunity to introduce three trains an hour between Wrexham and Chester, which would provide a major boost to the local manufacturing and retail economies by increasing the connectivity between Wrexham and Chester. Businesses that operate on both sides of the border would benefit from access to new markets. Such investments are important, and there are massive further opportunities in the immediate area of north-east Wales.

Another cross-border line runs between Wrexham and Liverpool, and my hon. Friends from north Wales will forgive me for mentioning it again. It runs from Wrexham, the largest town in north Wales, by the Deeside industrial estate, which has businesses such as Toyota, and goes through the constituency of my hon.

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Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), up through the Wirral, very close to the GM factory at Ellesmere Port, then up through to Birkenhead, and links in to Liverpool. The service is interrupted by a necessary change at the Bidston interchange. Direct access along that line would be a massive boost for north-east Wales, the Wirral and north-west England as a whole, so it is important that we consider looking at that line again and designing an improved infrastructure.

In my role as a shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, I visit other countries, particularly in the middle east and Africa, and it is striking to see the investment and support for infrastructure that our competitors are introducing to their economies. Those people are keen to secure the jobs that our own constituents have at the moment and that our young people wish to have in future, so we must focus on delivering improvements to our infrastructure. Although we have had some improvements, particularly on the longer journeys from north Wales to London, which my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd mentioned, the connectivity between north-west England and north Wales is still limited and needs to be much better.

Focusing on the airports is massively important. The airports that serve north Wales are Manchester and Liverpool, but it is virtually impossible to travel to either by public transport. The region has an increasingly choked road system that was essentially designed in the 1970s and 1980s, and in substance has not changed since. It is absolutely imperative that we focus on delivering an improved public transport system to service the airports and to increase connectivity. If we do not do so, we will lose out in the longer term to our competitors.

For me the real frustration over the years has been the investment system, which is too centralised to be able to deliver local transport projects. I am pleased by the tone and content of the Adonis review, which was issued yesterday and talked about the importance of much more regional approaches to investment across England. The lesson also applies in Wales. We cannot have a top-down system only in Whitehall or Cardiff Bay—away from the localities that actually understand the need for local investment and how to facilitate it—determining investment in regional rail projects. That is one of the major reasons why our infrastructure system is so bad.

Contrast that with, for example, Frankfurt in Germany. On a recent visit, I saw the connectivity between the rail system and the airport system. The city is a major regional power player in Germany. There is a regionalised system of cities such as Hamburg, Munich and Berlin, which all contribute massively to their regional economies. The fact is that in the United Kingdom—this issue affects all our constituents—there is a massive focus on south-east England. The major transport infrastructure investments have gone to south-east England. That is unbalancing the economy throughout the country. It is a central issue not only for our constituents, but for the whole United Kingdom.

A tide is flowing in all political parties that recognises the importance of that issue. The practical impact of the policies we are pursuing is that we do not have the regional investment to facilitate projects that could create world class infrastructure. It is important that we have the capacity and the authority in north Wales to develop regional infrastructures. The development of

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lines such as Wrexham and Chester and Wrexham and Liverpool would facilitate investment in the rail system, which would support business and jobs in the local economy. Give us the responsibility, authority and power to make decisions, and we will continue to deliver a powerful economy in north-east Wales that will be able to compete in future.

10.5 am

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): Thank you, Mrs Riordan, for calling me to speak in an important debate on an important issue in mid-Wales. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing the debate. She spoke about services in south Wales and there have been contributions on north Wales, but I specifically want to talk about the services that serve not only my constituency of Montgomeryshire, but mid-Wales.

The line from Aberystwyth, on the extreme west coast of Wales, to London runs in two parts: from Aberystwyth to Birmingham, and the direct service from Shrewsbury to London. They overlap to some extent, but the two lines are particularly important for that rail journey. As other Members have said, the line is very important for the economy of mid-Wales. Perhaps more so than in other parts of Wales, the railway tackles the perception of remoteness, which has always been a negative factor in attracting business.

My purpose today is not to make demands of the Minister. I am highlighting the importance of both parts of the line, and I want to make certain that the long overdue good news that we have had about the intention to invest in both parts comes to fruition and is beneficial.

First, on the Aberystwyth to Birmingham line, I have been involved in the campaign for an upgrade for about 30 years, so I have a reasonable right to call this a long overdue investment. The first issue was upgrading the line with passing places to enable an hourly train service. There has been only a two-hourly service, which is hopelessly inadequate. The campaign started 20 or 30 years ago, and money has been invested. It has taken a long time, but we now have a commitment from Arriva Trains and the Welsh Government that an hourly service will be introduced. I think the various people associated with running the trains are now being trained. The service is due to run from May 2015, just in time to bring the newly elected Members in the general election of 2015 from mid-Wales to London.

The second part of the line is the Shrewsbury to Euston connection, which is hugely important to mid-Wales. People will be able to drive to Shrewsbury, park, and then catch the direct service to London. Having to change is incredibly inconvenient and it discourages people from using the line. I would prefer to use the train and not drive to London, but that is simply inconvenient for me. However, the hourly train service will change that.

Such a service used to run, but it was stopped. We had a promise that it would run when there was an agreement with FirstGroup to provide a west coast main line service. The franchise was let, but it was cancelled. Now, of course, there is an agreement with Virgin Trains that the line will run from December. Perhaps the Minister will confirm how often that train

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will run and at what times. It is hugely important that it runs at convenient times that enable people who wish to work in and travel to London to use it. Otherwise, we would deliver on a promise but not deliver on the actual need.

So, there are two aspects. One is the line within Wales, which we anticipate will come into effect in May next year. I very much hope that that is the case. There is no reason why it should not happen, but we must always be vigilant to ensure that it does. Secondly, the Minister here today has responsibility for the direct line from Shrewsbury to Euston, and I very much hope that that line comes to fruition later this year, with times and frequency that are convenient for the people of mid-Wales.

10.10 am

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing the debate, which is extremely important to all of us in Wales.

First, I will speak about the main line that goes from London to Fishguard, connecting to ships going over to Rosslare in Ireland. The line goes right through my constituency, passing through the stations of Llanelli, Burry Port and Kidwelly. It is absolutely vital that we are part of the trans-European network and that we have good connections on the line.

Recently, the Welsh Government made significant investment in the Loughor bridge, which has enabled it to take two-way traffic, but what grieves me is how few through trains we have. I hope that, with the new franchise, the fact that we have this new bridge will enable us to have much greater connectivity and far more through trains. To have only one train from west Wales up to London and only one from London to west Wales per day is not good enough, and even those trains go only as far as Carmarthen; they do not go right up to the Pembrokeshire coast.

The problem that that poses for people is the lack of connectivity. There is the inconvenience of having to change trains and the fact that, often, the trains run by First Great Western are late, so people end up having to wait at stations for long periods—usually Cardiff, Port Talbot or Swansea—because there is simply no way to get from west Wales to London without changing, except for two trains, one each way, per day.

Let me give an example. If I got the 5.25 am train from Llanelli to come up to London morning, I would hope that I could make a 10 am meeting in London by getting to London at 9 am. However, only recently I had the experience of sitting on that 5.25 am train, which had been five minutes late, and being told that we were waiting outside Port Talbot station to let the First Great Western train go through, so the very train that I needed to catch to get to London was passing by my window. My only option, therefore, is to get the 3.25 am train if I want to get to an early morning meeting in London, which is quite inconvenient.

Rail is also vital for freight. We have refineries in Milford Haven and obviously the steel industry also uses the railway line. Last winter, storm damage closed this line for three or four days. Mercifully, that was all the time it was closed for. However, there is significant

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risk of closure because the railway line follows the coastline, which is exposed to the elements, and it will need continuing investment. I stress that that needs to be UK Government investment, because this line connects London with Ireland.

I look forward to electrification and remind those present that the Labour Government had a commitment to electrify as far as Swansea. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) will speak at greater length about what has happened since then and about the uncertainty over electrification.

I understand fully why we are not going for bimodal trains—trains that can be both diesel and electric. They are heavier than other trains and any investment in them would be a major investment, for what I hope would be only the short term. I want electrification to come not only to Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea, but right through west Wales. However, there will be an issue when part of the line is electrified: when that happens, where will we change trains and how will that change work?

To my mind, addressing that issue will be crucial to keeping passengers loyal to the service, because if the process of electrification is messed up and we end up with yet another, perhaps inconvenient change—bearing in mind that we already have one change for west Wales—that will make things very difficult.

I would like there to be only one change—a change off the train from where the line has been electrified up to and on to another train to take people all the way to west Wales. Whether that happens to be at Swindon or at Bristol, there should be only one change so that we do not end up with people having to make two changes to reach west Wales.

The line that goes from Pembrokeshire up to Manchester Piccadilly can be a useful service if I am going to conference, but I do not meet many passengers who go all the way from Pembrokeshire to Manchester. The argument that the train will not stop in some local stations such as Kidwelly because it is trying to get from Pembrokeshire to Manchester as quickly as possible seems to be completely fallacious. If someone is going to spend six or seven hours on a train anyway, an extra 10 minutes is neither here nor there. The fact that this train is going through stations at a very low speed but does not always stop at them is extremely annoying. If it stopped just on request, that would be a help. The argument about not stopping is fallacious, and I understand that some towns on the English side of the border are also concerned about the fact that some of those trains do not stop at their station.

I reiterate the comments on overcrowding made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East. I have constituents who commute to Filton Abbey Wood and to Bristol, and they have to change and catch very overcrowded trains. If they cannot get on those trains, they are disadvantaged as they are unable to get connecting trains back to west Wales, so they are very concerned about overcrowding.

We need a much greater number of Sunday services, particularly in winter, when it is impossible to get from my constituency to important places such as Twickenham, where rugby matches happen. People cannot get there on a Sunday, and I am sure the Minister understands the importance of such sporting events. Not to be able

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to get from west Wales to London on a Sunday in time to get to a match is obviously very much a disadvantage nowadays, when people do so much on a Sunday, from shopping to—of course—going away on holiday.

That brings me to the issue of the train that, last year, got stuck in remotest Wiltshire for six hours. It was a First Great Western train coming from the west country, but it could equally well have been a train from west Wales. I wrote to the Minister asking what lessons had been learned from that case, or perhaps I put down a parliamentary question, but it was too early to get a response because a report on the case had not been produced by that time. I hope that that report has now been produced; I could not understand how that case happened. We all allow for First Great Western trains being at least an hour late, if not two or three hours late, but when people are going away on holiday they do not allow time for a train to be six hours late. People were kept on that train without adequate water for all that time.

I understand that it was not necessarily possible to get a bus up to where the train had stopped, but it would have been possible to get other trains along the track, which would either have allowed passengers to be decanted and taken on or allowed water to be taken to the passengers. A six-hour delay is completely unacceptable, and I hope that steps have been taken so that my constituents do not have to face such a situation if they are going away and hoping to get to Heathrow airport or are going to London for any other reason this summer.

I will make one last point that may not seem terribly relevant to this cross-border debate, but is terribly relevant if people have to change trains: on Cardiff station and on Port Talbot station, it is impossible to get into a ladies toilet cubicle with a very large suitcase, probably because the cubicles are made to a specific design that came from one book. I would suggest that some quite large or portly women might find it difficult to get themselves into those cubicles. Of course, it becomes necessary for people to use the cubicles if they have to change trains, and for some passengers—in particular, some older passengers—using toilets on trains is quite difficult.

Will the Minister take note of the fact that, whenever stations are being redesigned, consideration should be given to that issue, so that we do not end up with the situation we used to have in Paddington, whereby people had not only to go down stairs, but get their suitcases over a turnstile before they could get to a cubicle. That has now been put right, and people can use the disabled toilet on the platform. Nevertheless, those issues need to be taken into consideration.

10.19 am

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op): I noticed an advert in London the other day that mentioned a Virgin train from London to Manchester costing just £19 and taking two hours and nine minutes, a train from London to Birmingham taking one hour and 24 minutes and costing £7.50 and, of course, one from London to Swansea that takes three hours and costs £78.

The Government have decided to invest more than £40 billion in High Speed 2. There is an issue about geographical equity in economic development, and we

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need to think about that. Some £5,000 per head is spent in London, versus £500 elsewhere. It is important to people from Wales—certainly, those from south Wales—to link up to the city regions in south Wales, which are also networked into the city regions in the south-west. As it happens, my father was the head of economic development in the Welsh Office many years ago—Rhodri Morgan used to work for him, interestingly enough—when a study was done showing that, in respect of the invoice network, the economy of south Wales was linked more to the south-west than to north Wales. Clearly, infrastructure investment in rail and road connectivity should follow that.

There has been talk about HS2 connecting to north Wales, but KPMG has suggested that it will be different in south Wales and that we in Swansea, for example, will be losing some £16 million a year and Cardiff will lose £70 million a year. There is a case for a Barnett consequential of approaching £2 billion to help connectivity to south Wales.

I appreciate that the Minister will mention electrification, and I was pleased that the Prime Minister promised to electrify the railway from Paddington to Swansea, but I should like some clarification on that, because there is a bit of a spat going on with the Welsh Government. It now seems that the Government are saying that they will electrify as far as Cardiff and then from Bridgend to Swansea, but not from Cardiff to Bridgend. The issue is who pays for the electrification of the valleys lines. In my mind, the bit that runs from Cardiff to Bridgend, which is not the valleys, does not seem to be involved in this spat and should be paid for by the Prime Minister’s undertaking. Although we welcome electrification, we will be worse off downstream in inward investment, as I have already said.

My focus is on acknowledging that we should be making connections between the economic clusters in, for example, Neath-Port Talbot, Swansea and Lllanelli, and Cardiff and the valleys, so that we can stimulate economic growth. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) mentioned tolls. Today is not the time to talk about tolls, but, again, that is a cost for south Wales that is not faced elsewhere.

We have a second-class service. In that regard, hon. Members have mentioned the frequency of trains, which is arguably equivalent to train speeds. From Swansea, there are two trains an hour to London Paddington, one at 28 minutes past the hour and one at five minutes to the hour, and people have to change at Cardiff from one of those trains. However, on the way back, at various times, particularly in the afternoon, there is only one train an hour. An inward investor thinking of investing, and going back and forth between Swansea and London, might have to wait nearly an hour at Paddington before getting a train, and they will then spend three hours on the train—a total of four hours. I urge the Minister to work with the Welsh Government on train timetabling. For example, in the other direction—I do not mean to be too parochial—people get the Manchester Piccadilly train one way, get off at Cardiff and then pick up another train and go on. On the way back, why can they not get the Cardiff train, then pick up the Manchester Piccadilly train or even a Bath train?

Hon. Members mentioned connectivity with Manchester. Looking at traffic flows, the economic network is, as I mentioned earlier, with the south-west, not with Manchester.

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It would be better to have much better, regular connectivity between Swansea and Bath and the south-west than connectivity with Manchester. Traffic flow and volume make the economic case for frequency and connectivities. I appreciate that it would involve working with the Welsh Government to get the train timetabling right. That is a simple thing that could be done within the next weeks, and overnight we could end up with an assurance of having two trains an hour from Paddington to Swansea. That would make a big difference to me when talking to inward investors who might want to go to Swansea bay city region.

There has been talk about nationalising Arriva Trains and about public ownership of various franchises. The Minister knows that the east coast main line is in public control and we are saving something like £700 million a year. It is worth looking at such cases around Britain. I understand that in Wales, we are spending some £170 million a year of taxpayers’ money on Arriva Trains. Again, the Welsh Government should look at that, not for the sake of it, but to deliver best value for money for the taxpayer.

I appreciate that Deutsche Bahn, the biggest railway company in Europe, has command over our freight system and, with a turnover of £39 billion, has the economic muscle to make the investment. I am particularly interested in investment in the south Wales rail network to make it part of the transnational transport network acknowledged by Europe. As Members will know, South Wales is not on the map of strategic European rail routes that people are willing to invest in; the connectivity just goes up the spine of England, not to south Wales, and one reason is that the criteria for such investment include core ports and airports.

In respect of the Silk report, there is a case for nationalisation of ports in Wales, in particular—the Minister may think this is an ideological point—so that Swansea port and the port at Port Talbot would be regarded as one port. Then we could increase the amount of freight to that port, triggering a process to make it a core port and in turn triggering its becoming part of the transnational rail network. That in turn would trigger European funding to provide connectivity that would then extend, transnationally, over to Ireland. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) made those points.

The trouble is that, if the only way to get rail investment is on the basis of its being demand-led as opposed to supply-led, we will always have a problem in Wales. The reality of the economics of transport is that, when a rail or tube link, or whatever, is provided, more people use it and more people buy houses, so house prices increase and there is more economic activity. To a certain extent, we have to lead with greater frequency and greater investment, and I certainly want to see that.

I am asking the Minister about extra investment in Wales, so that we get our fair share; about the frequency of trains; about whether he has a balanced view of whether the public or the private sector should run particular train franchises; and about whether he is willing for the public sector to bid in, as with the east coast main line. That would, of course, be a question for the Welsh Government.

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In passing, let me mention some other rail projects. We should look more imaginatively at opportunities for some trains to go directly to Swansea from Cardiff without stopping, or from Cardiff to Port Talbot Parkway, with a light rail route going all the way through to the Mumbles.

The Minister may or may not know about the conversations about the Swansea tidal lagoon. I saw a presentation recently about it—three new lagoons would be provided, stretching across Swansea bay city region, but not the whole way across. It would not go as far as Swansea bay itself, so as not to distort the view towards the Mumbles. There would be a reconfiguration of the road and rail networks and a visitor centre that would generate, in the view of the plan’s originator, some 3 million visitors a year.

Will the Minister explain whether the planning regime is merely some sort of incremental process of upgrading, extending or reducing existing networks, or whether it is part of a more creative vision of economic development, which perhaps embraces a vision of Swansea—the area I represent—as not only an economic and academic hub, with its universities and traditional industry, but a quality tourist destination, building on the city of culture bid, Dylan Thomas and so on? That vision is of a place in a global marketplace, in which increasing numbers of people from China, India, Russia and Brazil want to go to English-speaking non-sun cultural destinations. How should that infrastructure be planned? How should we provide multi-modal connectivity with road, rail and the development of Cardiff airport to ensure that that vision works in a holistic way, rather than keeping an incremental, slightly pedestrian approach to transport planning?

10.31 am

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing this important debate. Indeed, I thank all my hon. Friends for their contributions. Clearly, the transport infrastructure linking Wales and England is of great importance. In many ways the debate represents a continuation of the ongoing parliamentary scrutiny of cross-border transport links. It follows the publication of the Welsh Affairs Committee’s 2012 report on cross-border road and rail connections, which was debated in Westminster Hall in February and the Westminster Hall debate in November on transport infrastructure in north Wales, which was ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami).

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East set out the real challenges for her constituents, including those who commute over the border. She spoke about the difficulties of aligning timetables so that connections can be made, and the overcrowding that some passengers still experience. I am familiar with some of those services, because the CrossCountry trains from Cardiff terminate in my constituency at Nottingham station. I have a sense of how overcrowded those trains can be. Clearly, however, there are significant issues with some First Great Western services in her constituency. It is clear from her contribution that more needs to be done, and it is important that the Department look closely at the rolling stock issues that she raised, which are giving rise to that overcrowding.

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A similar message may well apply to all rail services in Wales and cross-border services. In the past 20 years, passenger numbers in Wales have more than doubled, and the increase in the number of people travelling between Wales and England has been almost as impressive. As my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) said—in fact, I think everybody has said this—it is vital that people in Wales can connect to airports and the jobs and educational opportunities available in places such as Manchester and Liverpool. Similarly, good connections are needed in south Wales to Bristol, Bath and other places in the south-west. The Welsh Assembly Government have successfully opened the Ebbw Vale line, where passenger numbers have exceeded all expectations, and there was the welcome news in April that hourly peak services will be funded between Aberystwyth and Shrewsbury, starting next year. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), who is no longer in his place, noted that that would be just in time to carry newly elected Labour MPs. The internal devolution within Network Rail is an important step towards achieving a more cost-efficient railway that is more responsive to local issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham described the welcome investment in the Wrexham-Chester line, and we have also seen funding committed for greatly improved cross-border inter-city services through investment in electrification and the new intercity express programme trains.

There are, however, real obstacles to overcome. The cuts of the Beeching era, a long time ago now, still cast a long shadow. The Heart of Wales line only narrowly evaded closure. It is well known that a rail journey from south Wales to the north is by necessity a cross-border trip, as passengers must travel into England first. As we have heard, there have been problems with timetabling onward connections. Given the number of services that cross the border at some point on their journey, there is a continuing need for close co-operation between Governments and transport authorities. One cross-border operator was lost in 2011, when Wrexham & Shropshire failed. Passengers as well as some of the excellent local rail user groups that have been mentioned hope that existing services can be improved across Wales. I know from colleagues that it can sometimes cause frustration if we talk about north and south Wales in isolation, but it is important that future service specifications take into account the needs of passengers in mid-Wales and west Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) described some of the frustrations facing her and her constituents and touched on issues to do with freight operations.

Welsh Ministers have spoken of their desire to play an active role in shaping service priorities after the Wales & Border franchise expires in 2018, and the National Assembly for Wales will be entitled to act as co-signatory under the Railways Act 2005. However, in their submission to the Silk commission of March last year the Government said that the Department for Transport

“is in discussion with the Welsh Government to assess the feasibility of devolving franchise responsibilities, the financial and legal requirements of doing so and how the UK Government’s interests in services affecting locations in England could be protected.”

Will the Minister update the House on any progress arising from those discussions? What form does he envisage that devolution taking, and would he compare

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the models under discussion to the control that the Scottish Government exercise over the ScotRail franchise? What proposals has he put forward for managing risk, and what protections would be in place for English customers whose services are provided by Arriva Trains Wales? His answers will be of keen interest to passengers and transport planners on both sides of the border.

Further discussions have so far yielded more heat than light from the Westminster Government, and I hope that the Minister will provide some illumination. In the official response to the Welsh Affairs Committee’s 2012 report, the Government said that they would

“work with the Welsh Government to explore how Wales can get the most out of the new national high speed rail network.”

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) spoke about maximising Wales’s benefits from investment. Will the Minister update us on that work? We have heard Members speak about how High Speed 2 will bring direct benefits to Wales and its cross-border services—in particular, I have in mind the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones)—but can we expect to see a strategy document from the Government? In the same official response, the Government stated:

“The UK Government will continue to work with the Welsh Government and train operators to identify cases where the frequency of cross-border rail services could be increased, without the need for additional public subsidy.”

Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made in that area? The Welsh Government have committed to funding hourly peak services from Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury in 2015, but have any additional cross-border services been identified by the UK Government since that commitment was made last May?

On transport investment, it is certainly true that the Welsh Administration have looked at additional projects, but it must be recognised that they are doing so in an extremely challenging climate. The Tory-led Westminster Government have cut the Welsh capital budget by almost a third, which has constrained the ability of Welsh Ministers to deliver important investment projects, and it is difficult to resist the conclusion that those restraints are holding back growth. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham described the importance of improving transport infrastructure to support economic regeneration, and the strong desire for more local decision making, closer to those who understand the population’s needs, is well known.

Notwithstanding the improvements that have already been secured, we believe that the Government’s proposals for devolution, as set out in the Wales Bill, do not go far enough. In particular, Ministers have not explained why Wales must have a borrowing cap that is more constrained, on a like-for-like basis, than that of Scotland. The Silk commission concluded that the Welsh Government should have

“the capacity to borrow for capital investment on a prudent basis subject to limits agreed with HM Treasury.”

That investment could well be in public transport schemes, such as the rapid transit proposals for Cardiff mentioned today which have secured additional funding. Such projects could attract investment to deprived areas and deliver much needed skilled jobs, but the allocation of that funding should be decided by Welsh Ministers and the Welsh National Assembly. Long-term funding settlements could deliver the certainty needed to keep

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costs low and to ensure that projects are actually delivered, as would the political stability that would be established were the Welsh Government’s powers moved from a conferred to a reserved basis, as my colleagues in the shadow Wales team have set out.

That desire for stability contrasts with the reality under this Government. Electrification of the great western main line is a case in point. Despite the previous Labour Government committing to the project in 2009, it was paused after May 2010. We then faced a drawn-out process by which the plans were slowly reconfirmed. Electrification to Newbury was announced in November 2009, but the project’s extension to Cardiff was not announced until March 2011. Ministers said then that the line to Swansea would not be electrified, as originally planned. A year later and in the face of public pressure, however, they agreed that the route to Swansea would be electrified after all. In other words, thanks to the Government’s prevarication, a project initially announced in July 2009 was not confirmed until three years later. Following the delay in bringing forward that investment, will the Minister offer an assurance that the reported hold-ups in the initial works elsewhere on the line will not cause the timetable for electrification to Wales to slip? I hope that he will also assure my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea West and for Llanelli about future services and connections.

Similarly, the Government’s position on valley lines electrification has also changed somewhat. Ministers need to demonstrate that they are working in a spirit of constructive collaboration with their counterparts in Cardiff, and I hope that the Minister will provide an update on progress in the talks between the two Governments and answers to the questions posed by my hon. Friends.

Finally, I have a technical question for the Minister. Level 2 European rail traffic management system technology—ERTMS—has been trialled on the Cambrian line, but teething problems have been reported. What conclusions have been drawn from the trial? Is ERTMS fully operational again on the line following the extreme weather damage in January and the reopening of the line to Harlech in May?

In conclusion, the railways helped to forge the industrial strength of both England and Wales. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd described in interesting terms, the tourism industry in Welsh seaside towns depended on the development of the railways—and obviously provided employment for young boys in Rhyl. From the world’s first passenger rail services on the Swansea and Mumbles railway to Brunel’s Severn tunnel, Wales has a railway heritage to be proud of. Cross-border services make a vital contribution to the modern economy of Wales and those of its neighbouring English city regions. It is clear from today’s debate that hon. Members of all parties want to see those services improved.

10.43 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. Today’s debate has shown the importance of transport and the rail industry to economic growth and the lives and livelihood of so

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many people across the country. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on securing the debate.

Many of the questions that hon. Members have posed this morning reflect the challenges of success. Since the Conservative Government took the decision to privatise the railways back in 1993, the number of people using the railways has doubled. The hon. Lady raised issues of great importance to the economic development of both England and Wales. From her service as a member of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, she will know that cross-border links have been the subject of several inquiries, as have tolls on the Severn bridge, and I am grateful that she did not raise that matter today.

I will now address several of the points that hon. Members have raised during the debate. The hon. Member for Newport East asked some specific questions about her constituency, some of which I will answer in writing, if I may. On timetabling, however, franchise agreements require train operating companies to co-ordinate services, but that co-ordination clearly has not been as strong in certain areas as it might. There has been dialogue between the Severn tunnel action group, Arriva Trains Wales, Arriva and the Welsh Government, but I am disappointed that no sensible conclusion has been reached thus far. I urge the groups to continue to talk, because meeting the obligation is possible.

On connectivity, some of which is determined by constraints on the Cardiff to Cheltenham and Birmingham to Bristol routes, if there is a solution, which is possible, it will require some substantial work by Network Rail, the TOCs and the Welsh Government to investigate the options and then agree on one.

The hon. Lady also mentioned her constituents’ desire to be able to use the Bristol service to work there. Some substantial work has been done with local authorities in the west of England to fund additional services, including those to Portishead, which will introduce a metro service to the area. While that is of benefit to the Bristol area, as the hon. Lady is right to say, we are currently encouraging the Welsh Government and the West of England local enterprise partnership to talk to ensure greater connectivity between the two schemes, which would be of benefit to her constituents.

The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) spoke of his time as a casing boy, as I think he described it. Although probably not as glamorous as that of the hon. Gentleman, I too had a job on the railways and spent two rather hot summers as a carriage cleaner many years ago during my university career. He was right to mention the potential of connectivity to Airbus in Deeside to generate jobs, but that is unfortunately a matter for the Welsh Government, so I urge him to take the matter up with them to see whether it can be improved.

Chris Ruane: The Minister will recall that I said that the Department for Work and Pensions had grants available 10 years ago to improve transport from areas of high unemployment to areas of employment. Is that not another possible source of funding?

Stephen Hammond: Most issues concerning rail services wholly inside Wales are now a matter for the Welsh Government, which is the key point here.

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The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), who is no longer in his place, suggested that rail is an afterthought. That may or may not have been the case previously, but it is certainly not the case under this Government. Rail is at the heart of both our economic and transport strategies.

The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) referred to the scale of investment that he had seen elsewhere. The scale of investment proposed in the current control period between now and 2019 dwarfs any of the investment that he has seen in any other country, because £38 billion is being invested in this country’s rail system. On top of that, £30 billion is going towards the road system. He mentioned regional input, and we will soon be announcing local growth funds, into which local authorities will bid. We have also encouraged local authorities to come up with local rail projects, and there is also the local pinch point fund, so there is much local activity.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Wrexham to Bidston line, and I recognise and understand his desire for its electrification. At the moment, however, the aspiration should be to get a more frequent diesel service so that plans can move forward. The hon. Gentleman is right to have such hopes and I promise to work with him, because increasing frequency on that line would be of substantial benefit to his constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) spoke of his campaign for an hourly service from mid-Wales so that newly elected Conservative MPs can actually get to London, and I am delighted that that service is in place. He also asked about the new Virgin direct award deal and direct services from Shrewsbury to Euston. I confirm that he is absolutely right: there would be little point in putting in place a service that did not allow for economic growth and for easy movement from London to Shrewsbury, and the other way around, to do a day’s work. The first train in the morning leaves before 6.30 am, but gets into London by 9.15 am; the last train back in the evening leaves around 6.30 pm—I think at 6.32 pm—which gets someone back into Shrewsbury for 9 o’clock, allowing a full day’s work in London if necessary.

The hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) made a number of points, some of which I will cover later in my speech. He talked a little about his aspiration for renationalisation of certain parts of the line. I am not entirely sure where that fits with the shadow Chancellor ruling it out on the television on Sunday. I am happy to reaffirm to him, however, that the Government’s view is that franchising, and the creation of partnerships between the public and private sectors, is the best way to get value for money and better services for the fare payer and the customer, as well as the taxpayer. That is clear.

Geraint Davies: What I was getting at was that the east coast main line is now in public ownership, or publicly run, and we are saving £700 million, so does the Minister have an open mind on individual franchises? There was a basis for competitive tendering to include the public sector, so that we got the best value for money. I am not talking about total nationalisation for the sake of it; I want best value for the taxpayer. Does he agree with that, or does he want to give money away willy-nilly to the private sector because he is the one that is ideologically driven, not me?

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Stephen Hammond: I absolutely disagree. The east coast franchise, however, will be out of public hands and back into private hands as a result of the franchising. By the end of the year, we will have announced the winner of that competition.

The hon. Gentleman must have noted the Rail Delivery Group report that came out on Monday, which pointed out that, since privatisation, the level of private sector profits for the rail companies has fallen, while the premium going to the Government has risen by more than £400 million. The facts show not only that privatisation has seen a doubling of passenger numbers, but that franchising has benefited both passenger and taxpayer. He should agree that those facts bear out the point that the process is not ideologically based at all.

The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) talked about the Pembrokeshire to Manchester stopping service, but that is a matter for the Welsh Government, because the stops would be inside Wales. I am sure that the Welsh Government will read her comments, and I hope that they will take them on board. As hon. Members know, it is true that co-operation on and, where appropriate, co-ordination of transport matters between the Department for Transport and the Welsh Government is important to the success of cross-border links. Relationships have advanced significantly and co-operation under the joint parties agreement occurs regularly. The Welsh Government and the Department have a good working relationship. Officials can therefore provide Ministers with the best advice possible to deliver some of the aspirations that we are discussing.

Co-operation between the two Governments is clearly vital if we are to secure the best possible benefit from the record levels of investment now going into the rail network. The investment for 2014 to 2019 that I mentioned—the details were published in July 2012—is built around four priorities: further electrification; increased capacity and faster journey times between key cities; facilitating commuter travel between and into major urban areas; and improving the major railway links to ports and airports. More specifically in Wales, the strategy includes the £1.35 billion electrification of the Great Western main line between London and Cardiff, on which services are expected to be electric by late 2017, and the electrification of the valley lines, which is due to be completed by 2019. Furthermore, the UK Government are specifying and funding electrification of the line from Bridgend to Swansea, thereby completing the 47-mile main line electrification from Cardiff to Swansea.

Geraint Davies: Is there, therefore, an undertaking for the Government to finance it all the way from Paddington to Swansea? The Minister also seems to be suggesting the valley lines will be included, but is there now at least a commitment that the UK Government will pay from Paddington all the way through to Swansea? Is there clarification of who is paying for the valleys bit?

Stephen Hammond: As the hon. Gentleman knows, that discussion is ongoing. The Welsh Government have raised issues about the arrangement signed with my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), who was Secretary of State for Transport at the time.

Nia Griffith: Will the Minister flag up in all franchise discussions the issue of people having to change trains as the line is gradually electrified, so that we do not end

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up with more changes than necessary? We want one simple change, if necessary, in Swindon, Bristol or Cardiff, according to how far the electrification has gone, and then to go right through to west Wales.

Stephen Hammond: With regard to that and to First Great Western, we have undertaken a consultation this year about what the services might be and how they might be improved in the next direct award. I hear what the hon. Lady says, and I am keen not only to specify services that provide the best value and best opportunity for travellers, but to allow the privatised companies the best advantage to ensure that they can look at new services and new opportunities for new markets, using innovation within the franchise.

Other elements of our strategy will also be of benefit to Wales. The Heathrow western access scheme will reduce journey times between Cardiff and Heathrow airport by about 30 minutes from 2021. The UK Government have committed to the introduction of super-express trains on the Great Western main line by 2018, which will reduce the journey time between Cardiff and London from about 2 hours to 1 hour and 42 minutes. Crossrail will then speed up access between Paddington and central London from 2019, which will provide a fast, one-change journey from south Wales to the City of London, the docklands and beyond. Welsh stations will also share in the £100 million of station improvement funds and the £100 million of Access for All funds from 2014 to 2019. Overall, therefore, Wales stands to benefit directly and indirectly from almost £2 billion of investment in modernising the rail network.

Cross-border rail services between England and Wales are provided by four franchised train operators. The Department for Transport has a statutory obligation to consult Welsh Government Ministers before issuing any invitation to tender for a franchise agreement that includes cross-border services. As I said in response to a number of questions, where a service is provided wholly within Wales, the Welsh Government must be a signatory to the franchise.

The Arriva Trains Wales franchise is not due to expire until October 2018. The Welsh Government specify and fund services within Wales and across the border,

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and they carry out the day-to-day management of the franchise and have the powers to fund improvements. Train operators are of course free to run additional services if they consider that is the right thing to do. The Department is working with Arriva Trains Wales to provide additional cross-border services from December 2014.

On Silk and further devolution, which came up several times, the Government support the decision to devolve Welsh services in the Wales and Borders franchise to the Welsh Government. A joint agreement governs joint management of the existing franchise to 2018. In our evidence to part 2 of the Silk commission, the UK Government noted the strong case in favour of modifying the devolution boundary in respect of the Wales and Borders franchise. The Silk commission subsequently reported that further devolution of the rail network in Wales would be possible and desirable, although it would require close cross-border co-operation. Our response to Silk made it clear that recommendations that did not require primary legislation could be implemented early if we were satisfied that the case for change had been clearly made and there were support across Government for its implementation.

We recently held a consultation on the second direct award, and I recognise the concerns that have been expressed about the First Great Western franchise. That was why we carried out the public consultation, so that it could inform us of some of the concerns and issues so that they can be addressed when the award is made.

A number of Members raised the issue of the high-speed network. High Speed 2 will deliver significant benefits for Wales through the interchange at Old Oak Common and the improved journey times to London and the north via Birmingham and Crewe. It will also allow for greater commuter, freight and local services from the capacity released on the existing networks. Intercity express programme trains will also be coming to Wales from 2017—

Mrs Linda Riordan (in the Chair): Order.

To allow the next debate to begin, I ask Members leaving the Chamber to do so quietly.

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Rural Paper Industry

11 am

Mr Iain McKenzie (Inverclyde) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mrs Riordan. I thank the Minister for coming along to give his thoughts on the Government’s position on securing and enhancing our rural economy.

Creating business opportunities and increasing jobs rightly continues to be an important focus of this Parliament. There is no greater challenge than bringing jobs and business to all areas of the UK, be they rural or urban. My constituency has both rural and urban communities, and the more rural areas are growing. Although those communities can be sustained by people travelling to towns and cities for employment, for various reasons we still need to provide work for the rural population.

With that in mind, I recently visited a new business venture in my constituency called West Coast Woodfuels. The business, which was set up in the hills behind the village of Inverkip, uses sustainable forestry management to produce and supply wood chip for biomass energy. However, the sustainable forest maintained for that purpose relies on servicing a limited number of biomass customers. The plan was always to establish a green industry, acknowledging that the UK’s forest and timber industries are virtually carbon neutral.

Forestry management maintains vital investment in rural economies and plays an important role in the construction, renewable energy, paper and tourism sectors. Historically, forests were planted, maintained and harvested to provide wood and building materials, as well as tools and timber for industry. Britain saw a serious decline in its forested land in the 19th century, when deforestation occurred at an alarming rate to meet agricultural and industrial demands. The 19th century also saw wood pulp from trees gradually replace other sources of fibre used for paper making, such as straw, grasses and rags. Our history shows that the recovery from world war two did much to focus minds on the need to rebuild industries and the economy. As a result, forests were intensively harvested primarily for timber production.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. I speak as the representative of the constituency with the largest forest in the United Kingdom—Kielder. Egger, in my constituency, has a cross-border interest in Barony, which is in Ayr, and in Hexham. As a supplier of wood chip, it is very dependent on the businesses the hon. Gentleman is talking about. Does he agree that this and future Governments must consider the commercial forests of the future so that we have an ongoing forestry ecosystem?

Mr McKenzie: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely spot on: forestry must be managed for the future, to provide not only raw materials but jobs and industry in the areas I am talking about.

The trend towards deforestation has now been arrested, but even though the UK has favourable growing conditions, only 12% of its land is forested, compared with 28% in France and 32% in Germany. Since the 1950s, increasing quantities of paper have been made from recycled sources, but the rest comes mainly from virgin wood fibre from

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coniferous trees grown in sustainably managed and certified forests. On the whole, that makes good economic and environmental sense in the densely populated but under-forested UK.

Of the timber extracted in the UK, less than 5% is used in paper and pulp production, compared with about 11% in other countries. That timber is lower-grade conifer logs and forest thinnings. Higher-grade timber is generally used by other industries, such as construction and furniture making.

Clearly, the paper industry depends on trees and needs new, thriving forests. It is very much in the industry’s interests for trees and forests to be used sustainably and to remain available as a raw material for future generations and as a source of future employment. The industry employs thousands of people across the UK and indirectly provides even more jobs in sectors such as publishing and packaging. That helps to generate wealth, and it creates jobs in predominantly rural areas, where it can be the only source of revenue for local populations.

In many ways, the pulp and paper industry is a business model of sustainability, and 2013 was relatively successful for it—more so than recent years. Increased consumer spending helped the packaging sector and other sectors. Looking to the recent past, we see that peak employment directly in the paper industry was reached in 1959, when it employed 100,000 people. By 1960, UK paper consumption exceeded 4 million tonnes per annum for the first time. However, by 1981, imports of paper and board exceeded UK production for the first time. Since then, this employment has declined, along with the number of mills. However, tonnages have continued to increase. By 2012, there were 53 mills in the UK, producing an estimated 4.4 million tonnes of paper and board.

Paper mills use recycled paper to produce 70% of the fibre for paper making in the UK. However, paper can be recycled only a set number of times—I am told the maximum is about seven. After that, the paper loses its fibre and is no longer useful for making good quality paper, so forestry still underpins the industry.

Virgin pulp comes from northern England, Scotland and abroad, and 5% of harvested UK timber is used in paper making. As I said, UK timber can also be used in biomass energy production, making biomass an ever-growing additional competitor of the paper industry for new wood, and suggesting that more forests are needed. Forests are a renewable, sustainable resource. They are carbon neutral, and they also create pleasant environments for leisure activities. In the UK, there is consensus that improved forest management would increase rural employment.

What, then, of the impact of recycling as we steadily improve our performance on our recycling targets up and down the country? Since the 1950s, UK paper makers have steadily increased their use of recovered paper, and nearly 70% of the fibres used to make paper in the UK now comes from paper that has been collected and recycled. As I said, however, there is a limit to the number of times paper can be recycled. There is also an ever-growing and fiercely competitive market for recycled paper, so new pulp needs to be sourced.

It is not only the paper industry that requires access to new pulp. The UK packaging manufacturing industry also requires it. It has annual sales of £11 billion and

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employs 85,000 people, and represents 3% of the UK’s manufacturing work force. It is a powerful addition to those demanding access to new sources.

I have visited a packaging firm in my constituency. McLaren Packaging, which produces packaging for more than 100 whisky products, has invested in cardboard tube manufacturing with great success. In fact, most of the whiskies that are on display in shops or exported will feature distinctive packaging from McLaren Packaging in Port Glasgow.

The cardboard packaging industry’s main product segment, however, is corrugated cardboard boxes, with additional cartons and cases. Such products are made of three layers of cardboard sheeting, with a corrugated sheet in the middle, making the box more durable than standard containers. Cardboard boxes have a wide variety of applications and are used to package many products across a range of sectors. Its customers include manufacturers, wholesalers, storage owners and retailers. In general, demand for cardboard boxes correlates with demand for consumer goods as greater manufacturing output triggers a greater need for packaging.

In my part of the UK, forestry is sometimes described as the secret industry. About 40,000 jobs would disappear from the area if there were no forests or forest industries. Every week, some 4,000 lorry loads of harvested wood are transported to mills for conversion into timber for house building, quality paper and many other essential products. After felling, more trees are planted and the cycle continues. That makes forestry truly sustainable. It promotes economic activity in rural areas in ways that protect and conserve the natural environment and wildlife. Forests also support a network of interdependent businesses, including those of forest owners and managers who produce wood while creating wildlife habitats and providing recreation facilities. There are forest nurseries, where young trees are grown. In addition, contractors harvest the wood, and hauliers transport it, and there are businesses that process wood, such as the paper industry.

The development of wood-processing industries really took off in the 1980s. That was when the forests created during the middle part of the 20th century began producing significant volumes of softwood. However, careful management of the forests can also produce the energy for manufacturing of paper through energy biomass. Thus there is a natural resource that can not only be transformed into a product but can fuel the manufacturing process to create the product. More than half the energy used in the EU paper industry now comes from biomass, and the UK paper industry is using biomass with increasing frequency. That means that more forests will be needed to provide adequate supplies for both energy biomass and other industries, such as paper. Creating a rural paper industry next to a forest would seem as natural and logical as it was in the past to match up a mill with a stream for hydro power.

The European pulp and paper industry is in many ways a business model of sustainability, and it is largely rural.

Guy Opperman: The industry experts to whom I have spoken on both sides of the border are opposed to Scottish independence and the impact that that would have on the businesses we are concerned about. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

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Mr McKenzie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing in the Scottish question, which I think will come into just about every debate from now until September. Yes, clearly, as he pointed out, in the context of the industry, independence would create another problem for the population of Scotland.

A need has been identified for more forests in the UK, and it would seem that a clear start could be made by creating more forests in the rural north of Britain. Related manufacturing industries could then be attracted to forested rural areas, bringing even more jobs and business to areas of the UK where we can tap into a sustainable natural resource. The Confederation of Paper Industries, which has 68 member companies employing 25,000 people directly, tells us that there is a need for access to new sources of paper, to sustain demand and enable the industry to grow. Also, the paper industry is said to support a further 100,000 jobs indirectly. The turnover of CPI member companies is reported to be in the region of £6.5 billion. Competition for recycled paper and the limits on the number of times paper can be recycled mean that new sources are increasingly in demand. Great quantities of paper are never recycled—we need think only of the volume of paper being flushed away each day that will never be recycled.

Will new technologies ever truly replace paper? That idea is used as a counter-argument—against increasing the number of sources of new paper and pulp fibre. We strive for the paperless office, but we are miles away from achieving it. Merely looking around Parliament provides evidence of that. Paper and card will always be necessary for packaging. Paper is more environmentally undisruptive than plastic. Even paper for print and writing is unlikely to die out, despite e-books. Some 80% of social network users—diehard committed onliners—say they still require paper. Demand for paper and paper products can only increase. Even the mighty iPad requires packaging.

Rural and semi-rural areas can only benefit from sustainable management of their forests and attracting a paper industry with access to new material and an energy source. That would hopefully mean an increase in jobs, business and population for rural areas. Let’s try to see the wood from the trees.

11.15 am

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) on securing a debate on this important matter. As he said, the paper industry is an important one and always has been. The hon. Gentleman gave historical figures, and he might like to know that I was brought up in a paper mill village. Bullionfield paper mill in the village of Invergowrie supplied high-quality paper for more than 100 years, including, as I recall, paper for the Tokyo Olympics programmes.

The Government recognise the challenges facing all the energy-intensive sectors, including paper, and I welcome the industry’s positive recognition of Government support in its June 2014 review. That review commended the steps being taken by the Government to ease the direct and indirect costs that climate change policy places on the industry. Improving economic conditions have fed through, as the hon. Gentleman said, to a more successful

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year for most paper sectors. The data show that measures to help the paper industry have resulted in real growth in the sector. I want to comment specifically on what we are doing to help the paper industry with its energy costs and respond to what the hon. Gentleman said about the importance of job creation in rural areas. If there is time, perhaps I will give a little more detail on what we are doing to promote sustainable forestry.

The Government are increasingly concerned about the effects of high energy prices on the competitiveness of our energy-intensive industries, including paper. That is why we now make compensation payments for the indirect costs of the EU emissions trading system. We intend to make the first payments for the indirect costs of the carbon price floor this summer. Further measures were announced in the Budget: a cap of £18 per megawatt-hour on the carbon price support mechanism, which will benefit all sectors of the economy; and compensation for the costs of the renewables obligation and small-scale feed-in tariffs from 2016. That is the most significant policy cost affecting the price of electricity. The Chancellor also announced the continuation of the ETS and CPF compensation schemes until the end of 2020.

We have paid some £32 million in ETS compensation to 53 companies so far, across the UK, including £5 million to eight companies in Scotland, operating 17 sites between them. The paper industry shared £8 million between 28 companies, including three in Scotland: Ahlstrom Chirnside in the borders, UPM-Kymmene near Kilmarnock, and Tullis Russell paper makers, near Glenrothes. Those companies have been benefiting from the support that we are making available. I am pleased that paper, as an energy-intensive industry, is eligible for compensation across the whole spectrum of measures. The industry recognises that those Government support measures will save it up to £170 million over the coming years.

The hon. Gentleman said some important things about the role of the paper industry in helping to stimulate jobs in rural areas. That is a priority for the Government. We have introduced a range of policies and initiatives to promote growth in rural areas by helping to deliver new infrastructure, particularly broadband; by raising skill levels; and by supporting small and medium-sized enterprises. We are also trying specifically to support the rural economy by investing in rural tourism and supporting micro-enterprises. We have five pilot rural growth networks—not in Scotland but in Cumbria, in the north-east of England, and in the south of England—aimed at tackling specific barriers to growth in rural areas such as a shortage of work premises, slow internet connectivity and fragmented business networks. Those pilots are expected to create up to 3,000 jobs and support up to 700 new businesses. We want to share the lessons we learn from them with local authorities and local enterprise partnerships.

Tourism is an important driver of the rural economy. We must ensure that we are doing more to take advantage of the predicted growth in the tourism sector as a whole to ensure that the rural part of the tourism sector does not lose out. We are making funding grants available to tourism businesses to boost the rural economy through the rural economy growth review and rural broadband. We are also providing support for a high-quality tourism visitor economy through a £25 million package of support, including £6 million for partnership projects funded by the rural development programme.

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I turn to the creation of sustainable forestry that can feed back into the industry. Forestry is a devolved matter, so any specific concerns the hon. Gentleman has relating to Scotland should be raised with the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament. Throughout the United Kingdom, we are working to promote the future success of our woodlands by ensuring their sustainability. In January 2013, we set out our vision in a forestry and woodlands policy statement, which included our priorities for future policy implementation, focusing on protecting, improving and expanding public and private woodland, and recognising the multiple benefits that woodlands provide to the economy, to society and to the environment. Alongside that, we recognise that a strong timber industry helps to deliver the core objectives of protecting, improving and expanding woodland, and contributes to the growing strength of the rural economy.

Guy Opperman: We all agree that we need more forestry to cope with existing businesses and the enhanced and expanding subsidised biomass businesses. Post-world war one, we planted Kielder in my constituency specifically to accommodate the need for large forestry infrastructure. I am worried that the Government do not have the big project ideas for large forestry planting going forward. Will the Minister expand on that? It is very much what businesses that I speak to, including forestry businesses, are looking for a steer on.

Michael Fallon: My hon. Friend is right, and I will address the steps that the Government are taking.

The forestry industry makes a significant contribution. It provided some £230 million gross value added in the latest year for which figures are available, an increase of 52% over the two or three preceding years. We are committed to invigorating the woodland economy, bringing neglected woodland back into management and helping to create jobs and growth. We support and are encouraged by the new sector-led “Grown in Britain” initiative, which is creating increased market demand for British wood products. Although it was launched only in October 2013, it already has the support of 200 organisations, ranging from forestry suppliers, processors and product manufacturers to big-name high street retailers and UK construction firms.

“Grown in Britain” is driving a change in forestry that could see the management and new planting of woodland become more economically viable. Strengthening and expanding our forestry supply chains is not only creating new market opportunities but, crucially, creating an incentive for increased private investment in woodlands. We are working with “Grown in Britain” to pioneer ways of making it easier for businesses to direct their corporate responsibility investments into projects that improve the ecosystem services delivered by woodlands and result in more tree planting.

We are also making good progress in expanding the woodland cover across England. It is now as high as it has been since the 14th century. We want it to increase by planting the right trees in the right places for the right reasons. We also want more of our woodlands to be managed sustainably to maximise their public benefits. We estimate that if we work together with the sector, we could help to achieve 12% woodland cover by 2060, provided that private investment in woodland creation increases in line with our expectation.

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We continue to do our bit in supporting woodland creation. The total area covered by the woodland creation grant in the year to March 2014 was 2,691 hectares, which is more than the seven-year rural development programme target of an average of 2,200 hectares a year. In this financial year, some £30 million of rural development programme funding is being invested, £24 million of it on management of the existing resource and £6 million for planting about 4 million trees on 2,000 hectares of new woodland.

Our woodland carbon code also provides a mechanism further to enhance private sector investor confidence in woodland creation projects for carbon benefits. More than 142 projects have sought certification to the code, representing more than 14,000 hectares of new woodland being planted that will sequester more than 5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide during its lifetime. That is a huge increase from the position a year ago and reflects the growing interest in domestic carbon emissions projects and the success of the woodland carbon code.

On improving woodland management, more than 50% of England’s woodlands are now managed under the UK forestry standard, which sets good practice guidelines for sustainable forest management. The UKFS is a world-class forestry standard administered by the Forestry Commission, and is the foundation for good forestry practice throughout the United Kingdom. It is therefore fundamental to the delivery of sustainable forest management. It provides a valuable toolkit for helping woodland owners to manage their woodlands productively and sustainably. Its application can lead not only to increased timber yields but to better flood risk management, the safeguarding of clean water supplies and the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity.

Our ambition is to increase the proportion of existing woodland under the UKFS. In our forestry and woodlands policy statement, we estimated that working effectively

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together with the sector could bring two thirds of woodlands into active management in the next five years, with the potential to reach some 80% if markets develop. Good progress is being made, and already the area of woodland under active management has increased from 52% three years ago to 55% in March this year. The key to bringing more woodland into such management is economic viability, and a range of measures are promoting sustainable woodland management, underpinned by the UKFS.

We are actively supporting the sector-led “Grown in Britain” initiative in its efforts to increase demand for and supply of British wood and wood products. Although still in its early stages, the initiative is beginning to make a difference. For example, to date some 19 major UK contractor group companies with a collective turnover of more than £24 billion have pledged to look into ways of procuring more British timber for their construction projects. Their buying power will help to stimulate demand for British wood products, which should lead to more woodland management and economically sustainable woodlands, and in turn to more private investment in woodlands, which we all want to see.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Inverclyde for raising these important topics. The paper industry is important to us, and we recognise the challenges it faces and the high cost of the energy that it necessarily uses. I have outlined the measures we have taken to alleviate those costs. I have also explained how we see rural development as a major part of our economic recovery and our pilot work to improve the success rate of small businesses in rural areas. Finally, I have explained what the Government are doing to increase investment in private woodland and to drive up the proportion of woodland that is under active, sustainable management to increase the supply of timber to our own industries.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

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Disabled Students Allowance

[Mr Jim Hood in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Before I call Dr Julian Huppert, I inform hon. Members that I already have 12 speakers on my list, plus the two Front Benchers, and I will be calling the Front Benchers at 20 minutes to 4. After Dr Huppert has made his speech, I will then work out a time limit and advise hon. Members of it. I hope that interventions, if they are taken, will be brief, and I may have to remind Members of that if they try to make speeches in their interventions.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I will do my best to abbreviate my speech in deference to the large number of Members who have shown up. It is good to see everybody who has come here. We are united by a belief that everybody, regardless of who they are, should be able to aspire to go to university. Regardless of disability, whether it is physical or mental, visible or invisible, there should not be a barrier as a result of it. There have been improvements on widening participation. At the university of Cambridge, where I used to be and which I now have the pleasure to represent, in 2007, only 4% of students were disabled. That has gone up to 10% now, and it is a trend that we see across the country. Universities have worked very hard to try to get disabled applicants to apply, to support them and to get rid of barriers. As a former director of studies and supervisor, I have seen some of that work and engaged in some of it to try to support students.

We have to ensure that the progress continues, because there are challenges. In general, life costs more for people who are disabled, and the same applies to student life. The disabled students allowance is a lifeline for many students with disabilities. That is why I sought the debate and why I am pleased to have secured it, after having seen the Minister’s proposals and heard the concerns that many people have expressed to me.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Does he share my alarm that that National Union of Students has said that as many as 55% of students with disabilities have seriously considered giving up their courses, many of them precisely because of financial concerns?

Dr Huppert: I do indeed share that concern—I will now take that point out of my speech—and the key point is that that number is significantly higher than it is for non-disabled students. I have been working with the National Union of Students, Anglia Ruskin university students’ union and Cambridge university students’ union on that. I want to draw Members’ attention to early-day motion 48, which was tabled by the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett). It is a pleasure to work with him on that—I am one of the co-sponsors—and we have now reached 99 signatures to that motion. I hope we can get over 100 today, because it shows that the issue matters to Members across parties.

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In 2012-13, the payments helped 54,000 students up and down the country, doing so at a slightly lower cost than was necessary in 2011-12.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He talks about “the country”, but has he considered the implications of the policy for students studying in Wales and in Scotland, where there is great concern about the Government’s proposals? Although the review is England-only, it has dire implications for Wales and Scotland.

Dr Huppert: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have mostly been focusing on the effects in England, and mostly on the effects in my constituency, but he is right that there are concerns about what might happen in Wales and Scotland. Of course, students study across the borders.

The support helps students with all sorts of equipment, such as computer software, but also with non-medical helpers, note-takers and all sorts of travel costs. It helps people to reach their potential, and it works. Figures from the Equality Challenge Unit report the year before last showed that disabled students who get the support are more likely to achieve a first or upper second-class degree than students who do not get that sort of help.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that although an equality analysis of the proposals has not yet been carried out, the Minister, in a letter I have just received, states that it is the detail of the implementation of the proposals that is yet to be decided?

Dr Huppert: The hon. Lady raises an absolutely reasonable concern, and I will, again, take that point out of my speech.

We should be able to help people, and there are so many advantages to attending university; as well as the human benefits, the economic benefits are clear. It boosts the national economy, and it boosts personal earnings by something in the order of £100,000 over a lifetime.

As the Minister said in a speech to the Higher Education Funding Council for England last year:

“Going to university increases the chances that you will vote and appears to make you more tolerant. It improves your life expectancy. You are less likely to be depressed, less likely to be obese and more likely to be healthy. These are benefits for individuals and for society.”

He went on to say that

“I said it would be a tragedy if anybody were put off from applying for university”

because of costs. That is what this modernisation could do; it could act against those excellent words from the Minister.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Huppert: I will make some more progress.

Although the Minister will, I am sure, make it clear that the changes are not due to come in for another 18 months, and that current students will be protected for 2015-16, they are already having an effect. Paddy Turner, from the National Association of Disability

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Practitioners, said that his staff are already seeing prospective students who are rethinking 2015 entry applications because they are concerned about the changes. Open days are already under way. Many students are visiting universities to find out what will happen, and universities simply do not know what to say. The changes could mean that people are put off, or that they struggle when they get to university.

Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Huppert: I would like to make some more progress, if I may.

I have spoken to many people about the issue. I pay tribute to the three unions—from Cambridge university, the National Union of Students, and particularly the union from Anglia Ruskin—that organised a fantastic event with a large number of people who have been supported by DSA. They spoke very movingly about the experiences that they have had. I was intending to say a bit more about individual cases, but in the interests of time I will not. However, I was struck by how many of the cases involved mental health issues rather than just the physical health issues that people so often think about. There were people with dyslexia who had not had the support that they needed. It was only quite late on that they discovered the help that was available. They would never have been supported otherwise; they would have never have been able to do what they wanted to do.

At Anglia Ruskin university, 1,800 students are eligible for DSA, so there are 1,800 stories of people being helped. There are similar numbers at the university of Cambridge. It has made a huge difference, but that is at risk, because universities are being expected to provide the support themselves. Where will they get the extra money? There is to be no additional funding—indeed, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough has had that confirmed through a written question.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): How far does the hon. Gentleman think that the reasons for this decision go back to the Government’s mismanagement of the student loan book and student finance as a whole?

Dr Huppert: That is a somewhat broader question. There have been issues with the student loan book dating back some 15 years, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will know. Rather than arguing about that broader debate—he will know that I am staunchly against the fee system that his Government set up, which is being expanded—we should fix the problem in question. I am always happy to discuss those issues with him, as he well knows.

We have heard concerns from the National Autistic Society about what support will be available for people who are on the autistic spectrum. How will they be able to hold universities to account?

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I commend my hon. Friend for securing the debate. In the course of proceedings on the Children and Families Act 2014,

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there was much discussion about whether the duty in it should extend to higher education. We were assured that in light of the particular grants that are available, we need not worry. Does he agree that it may be necessary to reconsider extending the duty to higher education, to cover students between 19 and 25 years of age?

Dr Huppert: I agree completely. My hon. Friend makes an essential point. He is a dedicated campaigner on autism issues—and I will now remove page 12 of my speech.

What sort of support will there be? I have some sympathy for the Minister’s comments about the provision of basic computers. The world has changed since I was an undergraduate. Most people have a computer now, but a lot of the software that is needed simply will not run on a basic computer. What happens if people need software that is not compatible with the perfectly reasonable computer that they have? What about technical support—how would that work? What about support for scanners if optical character recognition is needed? What about training? There are many, many questions.

Several hon. Members rose

Dr Huppert: I will take an intervention from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), then I will continue.

Jack Dromey: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is absolutely right about the importance of access for disabled people. Does he agree with the comments of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign that young women such as Keisha Walker in my constituency—she is from a modest background, and no one in her family had ever gone to university before—simply could not have gone to university, stayed at university and become a success, as she is determined to do, without the help of DSA?

Dr Huppert: I agree completely. The Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s trailblazers case studies have been incredibly powerful. I hope that the Minister has had a chance to look at them. I will not go through them in any detail, in the interests of time, but there are many of them.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD) Will my hon. Friend give way?

Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab/Co-op) Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Huppert: I will take these two interventions and then try to finish my speech. I will take the hon. Lady’s intervention first.

Lucy Powell: The hon. Gentleman has been very generous with his time. I agree entirely with his point about computer facilities. I met my constituent Suzannah last week. She suffers from autism and described to me exactly what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but she also said that the desire for students to use banks of computers is not appropriate for those with autism and other problems, who find public areas too distracting and too difficult to work in.

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Dr Huppert: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We need to tailor the support to the individual. What is suitable for people on the autistic spectrum can vary substantially, which is why they need assessment and the help that is right for them. For some people, a bank of computers will be perfectly fine; for others, it will not be.

Duncan Hames: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this important debate. My constituent, a member of the British Assistive Technology Association, points out that whoever is providing the support, whether it is the Government or higher education institutions, it is vital that students have the support that they need to use the technology—hardware and software—as effectively as possible, to get the maximum benefit from it.

Dr Huppert: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As it happens, my mother is registered blind and relies on assistive software. It takes a huge amount of support for her to be able to use it, and I often have to provide that support. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the point about the need for that.

I will make further progress, because I understand that many hon. Members want to speak. The NUS has highlighted a number of specific concerns about how the system will work, and I would be interested in the Minister’s specific response. There is a risk that the reforms could deter institutions from actively recruiting disabled students, because if the institutions are responsible for paying the extra costs, there will be an incentive not to take people who will be a bit more expensive. Although universities have a duty to provide reasonable adjustments for their students, there is no clear definition of what “reasonable adjustments” mean and no funding available to provide them.

The NUS makes another point, which is about the routes of redress for disabled students when there is a problem. There is only a finite amount of time available to fix that. Who would provide advocacy—would it be the disability support office? It could cause huge internal tensions if one part of the university is having to fight another.

The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is rattling through a lot of important points very quickly.

It is important to recognise that universities are of course under an equality duty. The House has voted under successive Governments to introduce that duty, and at no point has there been the suggestion that extra funding has to be given to a public or private body to enable it to discharge its equality duty. Fortunately, the resources available to universities for teaching are increasing from £7.9 billion at the beginning of this Parliament to £9.9 billion at the end of this Parliament. That is a result of the changes that the hon. Gentleman “steadfastly opposed”, to use his words. They are among the few major national institutions that are seeing increases in cash, and they have a clear equality duty. Along with the retention of DSA, does he not accept that we should expect them to discharge that duty?

Dr Huppert: The Minister makes a valid point about the total cash being spent on teaching. As he knows, my problem is with the method of payment rather than the

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existence of the extra money for teaching. We should be keeping DSA—he is right about that, and we will talk further—and universities should apply the equality duty, but there will still be pressures on them and there will still be changes. I look forward to his detailed answers to the concerns.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op) Will the hon. Gentleman give way on the Minister’s point?

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab) Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Huppert: No. I would like to make more progress.

Universities themselves are not content with what the Minister has been saying. I spoke to the head of the disability resource centre at the university of Cambridge, John Harding, who highlighted the fact that the real concern for higher education institutions, including Cambridge and all the Russell Group institutions, is the significant lack of clarity in the announcement and the complete lack of prior consultation. The Minister would have been better able to make his case had there been formal consultation and discussions. How will “complex” be defined? What is “the most specialist support”? There are many concerns about how this will work for people.

Yasmin Qureshi: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Huppert: I will give way if there is time towards the end, but I know that many hon. Members want to speak.

Mental health problems are more common among students than the general population, and we must take action on that. Some 3,500 people applied for support last year citing mental health issues. It can help people to develop realistic study patterns and with organising their time and setting goals—things that are easy for some, but much harder for others. Students can require support from specialist autism mentors. It is unclear what band those would fall into and whether people would still be able to get support.

There are many concerns about how the new system will work. We know that people are likely to drop out if the cuts occur while they are at university. Randstad, an organisation that works with many institutions, surveyed students and found that more than one third would not have attended university without DSA and that about the same number would be more likely to drop out without it.

Kate Green: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Yasmin Qureshi: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Huppert: I will try to finish.

We have many problems, and the Open university is concerned. It has about 20,000 disabled students. Where will it get the funding to support them? The university of Cambridge has short, intense terms, which changes the nature of the help that is needed. DSA is tailored at the moment. I am sure that some universities will provide good support, but I fear that others will not.

Mr Willetts: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Dr Huppert: I will always allow the Minister to intervene.

Mr Willetts: There is no picking or choosing. Universities have an equality duty. They have more funding for teaching, and they also have more funding in relation to access agreements—more than £700 million. Under the hon. Gentleman’s approach, that funding might not exist. Does he accept that, in my letter to the Office for Fair Access on how universities discharge their access obligations, I specifically identified disabled students as one group to whom they had to reach out in access agreements, for which extra funding is available?

Dr Huppert: I do not have the Minister’s letter to hand, but I do not doubt the facts of what he says. However, there is a concern among higher education institutions, among students and among Members of this House—about 100 of them—that the system will not work and will result in a less even playing field and less of the support that people need. I therefore urge the Minister to rethink it some parts of it.

I have asked many questions—I realise that I have rushed through a number of them—that the Minister will have heard before in letters from me and from other right hon. and hon. Members and seen in comments from the National Union of Students and all sorts of other organisations. I hope that he will consider them and rethink the cuts, the way they are being made and the pace of them. I hope that he will then return with alternative proposals that achieve what we surely all want to see, which is that support is available and we do not leave people out as we are trying to develop them through the university system.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. As I said earlier, there are 12 hon. Members on the list of speakers, and I would like to get through everyone, so I will begin with a four-minute limit on speeches. I may have to cut that down if there are too many interventions.

2.46 pm

Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on obtaining the debate and on rushing through his speech, which I will also have to do. The sadness about this move is that it is clearly driven by the desire of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to cut £117 million from its budget. That is a tragedy for those who will be affected and a failure of Ministers, whom I like, to have fought the battle with the Treasury on this matter.

Let us be clear: the pre-consultation was non-existent. The review was not undertaken with or on behalf of those affected, those who support those affected or those who will have to pay out. It was not, in my view, honest, because the Government, during the passage of the Children and Families Act 2014, which has been referred to already, gave reassurances that there was no need to extend the Act’s requirements precisely because of DSA. Baroness Northover wrote to the Royal National Institute of Blind People and said that disabled students in the higher education sector are already successfully supported by institutions and directly by the Government through DSA. DSA is not means-tested, is awarded in

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addition to the standard package of support and does not have to be repaid. We should not seek to duplicate or replace the system. Either the Government meant it or they did not.

Kate Green: My right hon. Friend will be interested to know that it is not only in the context of the Children and Families Act that the Government said one thing before and are saying another now. In relation to the independent living fund, Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions are citing DSA as an alternative source of support.

Mr Blunkett: And if we want another contradiction in relation to Government policy, I have to say to the Minister, who has always been extremely helpful and respectful to me, that it is not acceptable to use the argument that the universities have a lot of money and therefore can afford to replace DSA under the Equality Act 2010. If that were the case, the Department for Work and Pensions—God forbid it should hear this and do it—would remove the access to work requirements, on the grounds that quite a lot of individuals who receive the support could go to a potential or actual employer and say, “You have a lot of money swilling about with your shareholders. Why don’t you use some of that to fulfil the equalities requirements on you?” That would include public services. Please, please do not get the idea that universities have got money so it can be diverted from somewhere else and benevolently given to support students who have a right not to some sort of benevolent charity, but to be supported properly.

Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): For profoundly deaf students, DSA pays for note-takers. Without a note-taker, how on earth would a profoundly deaf student be able to take notes during their lectures when they are at university?

Mr Blunkett: Absolutely, and that would entail employing someone, not simply diverting a bit of resource. My support systems, back in ’69 to ’72, were funded by the local authority; at the time, the local authority had a duty to support students under the grant system. Even though the local authority was helpful, however, I had to organise reading circles of volunteer students to assist me. That was a mutual arrangement and it was obviously socially responsible, but it should not have been necessary. Under the proposals, we will find ourselves going back to a bygone era where people have to plead for help rather than receiving it directly.

Mr Willetts: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Blunkett: I just want to make this point, because I think others want to speak. I emphasise what the hon. Member for Cambridge has already said. When it comes to taking a student in, the access provisions of universities and other higher education intuitions will always contain a subliminal question: can this student manage? That question was asked of me all those years ago. If the answer is, “Yes, if I have the support systems necessary: the equipment, the extra readers and other provision that other people will not need”; if the university thinks, “Is it worth it?”; and if the department thinks, “What imposition will this cause? Will resources be diverted from somewhere else? Will this responsibility be devolved

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to this department?”, there is a chance that that student will not be offered a place. If that were to be the case, I say to the Minister: be it on your conscience. Go back to the Treasury and say that the money in its existing budget should be retained. The rights and opportunities of individual students should be retained, and the Government should be ashamed of themselves if that does not happen.

2.52 pm

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): For the avoidance of any doubt, I will not take any interventions to ensure that as many people speak as possible. I am pleased to speak in the debate, because I am one of the few MPs who benefited from DSA, as a student in 1994. I had some problems and I had to use a computer for part of my course. I thought I would get a laptop, but when I went to my assessment, I was given a half-screen word processor. I say that not to underpin the point that we do not need laptops any more, but to agree with the Minister that we should not gold-plate the provision. The fund is limited, and we cannot write a blank cheque for it.

I accept that, after 25 years, we have to look again at disability living allowance in particular, and I accept that public bodies have to adhere to their duties under the Equality Act 2010. However, I have concerns about the detail of the proposals. The Minister is thoughtful, good and decent, and I urge him to listen carefully to what we have to say before he places his regulations before the House.

I will try not to repeat myself too much. The report from the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign’s trailblazers team, a key member of my all-party group on young disabled people, has been mentioned. That report stresses that DSA was the area of the university experience that worked best. What concerns me most is the language of written communications from the Minister. It may seem obvious, for example, to translate the language of disability from the 2010 Act into DSA, but there are real concerns that that leaves, for example, dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia outside the remit of DSA. Will the Minister guarantee that no disability that was previously covered by DSA will be left out under the new regime?

I am also worried about the laxity of some of the language, which has caused real concern among those with the most complex disabilities. If, for example, someone requires a non-medical helper to stay with them overnight, the language is not clear enough to give that person confidence that they will be covered under DSA. That is causing a lot of anxiety.

More widely—the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) has mentioned note-takers—I am greatly worried by the idea that a course can be delivered in such a way as to allow the student to benefit from it without having to participate in the same way as the other students. I want students to be able to attend lectures, participate fully and enjoy full integration in student life. If one goal of DSA is to enable them to complete the course at the lowest possible cost, it will reduce the university experience almost to the level of a correspondence course. I am sure that that is not the Minister’s intention whatever, but that is where the language appears to be leading us.

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I also stress my concerns about augmentative and assistive communications software. I urge the Minister to consult with the Communication Matters forum, which is the specialist in that regard. It is a fallacy to think that much of that technology can be used even on the most complex laptops, let alone on iPads. As technology, particularly AAC technology, advances ever faster, the computing technology required advances equally.

Finally, in the 30 seconds that remain, I draw the Minister’s attention to the document “Fulfilling Potential: making it happen”, published by the Department for Work and Pensions. Great strides have been made in increasing disabled students’ participation in higher education, but one key indicator measured in “Fulfilling Potential” is the number of students who abandon their course after one year. If that number goes up as a result of the changes, that will be a serious concern and we will need to look again at what we are doing. I urge the Minister to have regard to “Fulfilling Potential”. I will write to him with everything else that I wanted to say.

2.56 pm

Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). His powerful arguments and testimony, like those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), underline the argument made by the hon. Gentleman who represents the other place, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert). I agreed with everything he said in his opening speech.

I was particularly keen to take part in the debate because in our area we are lucky to have not only two great universities but ACE centre south—ACE stands for aids to communication and education—which has achieved great things working with students with severe communication disabilities and giving them a voice. Twenty years ago, many of them would have been locked in a world without communication and unable to go to school, let alone university. Now, however, some of the young people whom the centre has helped have got PhDs. Quite rightly, there was cross-party support to save the ACE centre when it had financial difficulties in 2012. We need a big cross-party effort to stave off the cuts to DSA. It is heartening to see so many Members present and to hear the arguments from both sides of the Chamber.

The cuts risk rolling back what has been achieved and blocking access to education for many disabled students from poorer backgrounds, in particular, including those who have dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties.

Yasmin Qureshi: Bolton university in my constituency is not rich and has 900 students who receive DSA. Imagine the impact of the proposals on those students and the university, which has not got the resources to look after them if they do not have enough money.

Mr Smith: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As has been said, there is a real danger that the proposals will provide universities and other institutions with a perverse disincentive, with the best will in the world, to accommodate all the students that they would like, especially those who have the most severe disabilities. Like other hon. Members, I have been contacted by

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many students, academic support staff and lecturers who are appalled, as I am, by the proposed cuts. I recently had the pleasure of speaking to the disability officers of the two university student unions in my constituency. They brought powerful testimony of how students at both Oxford’s universities have benefited from DSA and are well on their way to building fulfilling careers. Their determination to help ensure that young people with disabilities have the same opportunities in future is inspiring. One of them told me: