Perhaps I can push the Minister for a little more information. Is it the intention to publish the options quarterly surveys of caller outcomes on a continuing basis, rather than as a one-off? What continuing tracking of parents will there be, with respect to their arrangements

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and the flow of maintenance after the first six months? If we are serious about improving outcomes for children, we need to know not just what families agree or do at first, but what maintenance actually flows and continues to be paid regularly. When exactly does the Minister expect the Government to publish the first results?

On the question of the pilots, I recognise that the Government want parents to reach their own arrangements wherever possible, and in the past Ministers have said that 51% of parents with care and 74% of non-resident parents said they would make a family arrangement if they had the help and support of an expert and impartial adviser. I assume that that is, in part, exactly what the HSSF initiatives are intended to provide. However, we must also remember the figures given to Members by Gingerbread and Families Need Fathers, which have been mentioned this afternoon: 13% of parents with care and 14% of non-resident parents say that their relationship with the other parent is not at all friendly; and 42% of parents with care and 41% of non-resident parents say they have no contact with the other parent at all. It would take a heroic effort for those parents to make private arrangements, and I fear that the HSSF will fall well short of what will be required.

In cases where there is no contact at all, or where there is considerable hostility between the parents, it will be particularly difficult and challenging to reach private arrangements, and will need specialist and specific support. Yet most of the pilots appear to have been quite generic. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East pointed out, only the most recent, quite small-scale pilots have focused on those whose relationships might be seen as the most intractable, or those who have been separated for a long time. My hon. Friend also pointed out other difficulties with and deficiencies in the pilots. Some began late. We should bear in mind that they are short term, so a late start has a significant bearing on their impact. Some are offered by only a small number of organisations. Those are, as my hon. Friend said, highly respected, but none the less with only a small number of charities and other bodies engaged in the pilots, there must be some concerns about coverage. As she highlighted, use of the Sorting out Separation online application has been at a level well below what Ministers expected; just 9,132 unique users had clicked through to a signposting action by January this year, whereas the Government said that there would be 260,000 users in year one.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) pointed out, there were plans to strengthen co-ordination of local face-to-face services by identifying and utilising touch points that parents have contact with, providing information and links, appointing regional co-ordinators to develop regional networks of contacts, recruiting and training advocates to promote collaborative parenting across delivery organisations and promoting quality mark use, but those pilots have been dropped from the scheme. It is not clear why, especially when we think of those parents with more difficult or long-standing separations who may need highly skilled and longer interventions that that local face-to-face support could best provide. Perhaps the Minister will explain the rationale for dropping that initiative.

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There are questions about the impact of the kitemark. It is welcome, but we must know how widely it is used or recognised, and what improvements in service it has helped to bring about. I understand that 35 organisations have been awarded the kitemark, but there is little evidence that parents are aware of its significance and little effort has been made to communicate that to them.

The innovation fund that the Government have set aside has been underspent. With little time left to complete the pilots, it would be useful if the Minister could explain why, and whether they intend to get the rest of the money out of the door before the pilots are due to conclude and to be evaluated in spring 2015. Meanwhile, very little information has been published about parents’ participation in the 17 projects financed under the innovation fund, nor have details been made public of the evaluation process to assess what works in assisting parents to collaborate. Will the Minister say more about that? Who will carry out the evaluation and what will be the criteria for success?

Most disturbingly—colleagues highlighted this—no commitments have been given to scale up the lessons learned from these projects of what works and can be implemented on the scale necessary throughout the country, yet we are now heading into the period when not only new applications but thousands of case closures from the legacy systems will be coming into the new scheme. In truth, the HSSF initiative is way too limited an offer for the almost 2 million parents who will be steered towards making their own child maintenance arrangements over the next three years.

Pamela Nash: On the limited offer from HSSF, does my hon. Friend share my concern about couples who have been separated for a long time? It seems that many of the pilots are aimed at those who are separating imminently or have done so recently. Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions have shown that 70% of couples who are using child support allowance have been separated for more than five years.

Kate Green: I share my hon. Friend’s concern and I find it puzzling that it was so late in the organisation of the pilots that we began to see efforts to address that specific and challenging group of separated parents. It is hard to imagine how people would be able to make a private arrangement easily with someone with whom they have had no contact or only hostile contact for a long time. I am puzzled at the lack of attention, given the effort that has been put in to, for example, planning the transfer of the legacy cases. It would be helpful if the Minister could say whether the Government intend to offer more support or different support to couples who have had a long period of separation and little or no contact with each other.

Funding for the HSSF pilots ends in March 2015, whereas the CSA legacy cases closure programme runs between 2014-15 to 2017-18. Will the Minister say whether there are any plans to extend HSSF funding to cover the period of CSA case closure? Can she tell us now what financial resources will be made available post-March 2015 to support the HSSF initiative? What funding plans, if any, are in place to implement the lessons learned from the 17 HSSF innovation fund pilots on a wider scale when they have been evaluated? Without decent answers to these questions, we cannot

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avoid the conclusion that the HSSF initiative, with its pathetic budget of £20 million over three years, has been intended only as window dressing for the scheme.

In scaling up to meet the level of real need, those 17 projects come nowhere close. How can the Government claim to be serious about the HSSF programme when the £10 million awarded to 17 projects is expected to help at best only around 24,000 families face to face plus around 270,000 online while around 300,000 couples separate every year, and around 1 million CSA cases face closure over the next three years? If the Government are to succeed in reducing use of the statutory maintenance service and at the same time enable more parents to collaborate in fixing and paying their own child maintenance, the success of the HSSF initiative is fundamental. Today’s debate raises big questions about whether it is up to the task.

3.35 pm

The Minister for Employment (Esther McVey): It is a pleasure, Mr Streeter, to serve under your chairmanship. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions could not be here today, but I am happy to respond as best I can, and if I do not have the full information, I will write to hon. Members individually. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) for securing this important debate. As a former family lawyer, she takes a close interest in the matter. I welcome the opportunity to talk about the support that the Government are putting in place for separated families, including through our child maintenance system.

Before I explain what we are doing and what we are putting in place, it is important to look at the present system—the Child Support Agency. We may view it with rose-coloured spectacles but, as many hon. Members have pointed out, how many people have come to our surgeries complaining that it does not work and has not been helpful? How many people have said they have never seen the money they hoped they would receive? That system has not functioned since it was put in place; only about half of parents receive child maintenance, and we remember the significant IT failings at the beginning.

The system is expensive to run, costing almost £500 million; it awards about £1 billion. It has complex calculation rules and a slow assessment process. We must take that on board when talking about it. On top of that, it never really put the child at the centre, nor did it resolve conflict.

Sheila Gilmore: Was the system not set up because the preceding arrangements, which were a mixture of people trying to make their own arrangements and the courts intervening, also had severe failures? This is a complex subject that requires a lot of care and attention. We should not necessarily think that the problem lies in having a statutory system, although that seems to be the Government’s view.

Esther McVey: No, we have to look at what has worked throughout this journey, so that we can use whatever worked with the CSA and on the ground with families. We must go into the process knowing that, without a shadow of doubt, it is complex. This is about families, emotions and relationships that are not working, but what are we trying to do? We all agree that the sad

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reality is that too many people are affected by separation and, too often, it is the children who suffer the consequences. In Britain today, there are 2.5 million separated families, and one in three children live in households in which their mother or father no longer lives at home. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, the cost of family breakdown is £48 billion, and he spoke about parental alienation; what are we going to do there, too?

This Government believe passionately in strong families who can provide the stability that is vital to enable children to thrive. The family environment provides the foundation for raising a child, and we are committed to supporting safe and loving family environments. When parents’ relationships break down, we want to help parents to work together more effectively, so it is important to reduce levels of conflict after a separation and to minimise the negative impacts on the children. That is key. As I think we have all agreed today, this is about moving the child to the centre of what we are doing and focusing on their needs.

We do not need to increase conflict; we want to minimise that as best we can. Where we can help people to have a more conducive family environment, that has to be key, because conflict between parents puts children at a greater risk of anxiety, depression and antisocial behaviour, but when children continue to have positive relationships with both parents, they are more likely to do better at school, stay out of trouble, have higher self-esteem and develop healthier relationships as an adult. That was part of the “Impact of Family Breakdown on Children’s Well-Being” evidence review, so that is the context in which we have to view the changes. How do we support those young children going forward? How do we do the best for them?

That is why we have invested some £14 million in the Help and Support for Separated Families initiative, which has various parts to it: the Sorting out Separation online information tool; the HSSF mark; telephony training to promote parental collaboration; and the innovation fund. On the Sorting out Separation service, we have looked at how many people are using that and going on to the website. Some 205,000 visitors have accessed it since it was launched, 120,000 of those being unique visitors. That is close to what we had hoped for, and not to the numbers mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East.

Kate Green: I recognise the overall figure that the Minister gave for the number of visitors to the site, but the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) and I were making was about the number of people who then click through to a signposting element of the site. I wonder whether the figures that the Minister is quoting are actually about those people, because clearly, merely visiting is not about taking action, or even thinking about taking action, beyond the initial turning-up.

Esther McVey: I have spoken to people who use the site, and I have been on the site myself. There is a lot of information that people can get from it, and there are names and links to the various organisations that they might want to go to. It is not a site where people would do everything at once. They would jot the names down, follow up what they want to, and speak to friends and

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to other people who would signpost them to the relevant places. What I am explaining is that people do not need to link through; they could get all the information just by going through the site. However, the actual linking through is nearly double what the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said; it is over 9,000. I think we need to look at this in the round. Could people get all the information they want? Could they go back to Google and put in the names that they got from that website? Yes, they could. There are different things that people can go to via that website.

Sheila Gilmore: Although I would acknowledge that people might want to go back and do it later, one test of a good website—anybody who is designing one or using one will look at this—is whether it is click-through, and how many people do that. Opening up the website up is not sufficient. Why would we think, “It is all right; we expect people to write it all down, and then type it all in,” when it would be just as quick to go through and get that information? Surely the Minister has to look at that and say, “This may be failing.”

Esther McVey: As I said, I have talked to people I know who have used the site, and I have used it myself. The number of click-throughs is nearly double what has been claimed. Equally, it is a usable site in its current form, and people can get all the information that they want from it, then and there. People might reflect and, later on, type all the information into a Google search, so I do not necessarily follow the logic that everybody straight away would have to click through. I have done research among people who have used it, and they did not feel that they needed to do it that way. We are measuring all those who have accessed the site, unique visitors and click-throughs.

We have already begun work on improvements and enhancements to the site. One of those, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions talked about, was optimising the service online, making it easier for people to reach out and go to that website. Search engine optimisation also means that users can find the relevant pages without necessarily going via the homepage. More people are coming to Sorting out Separation, clicking beyond the homepage and spending more time on specific pages. If they are spending more time on specific pages, that shows that the information has reached out and is speaking to them, and that they are taking more time to read what is on the page.

There are now over 350 HSSF mark holders; the overwhelming majority of those have been awarded the mark via our five umbrella organisations, which is a real indication that the appetite for the mark remains high, and we continue to receive applications from organisations that wish to be assessed. It is particularly reassuring to see the diversity of organisations keen to carry the mark, and the range of excellent support and expertise for families. I want to pay tribute to all the organisations that do valuable work to support families at what can be, as we all know, a very distressing time.

On the question of promotion, mark holders have told us that they are best placed to promote the mark to their clients. It is encouraging that these organisations want to support the HSSF initiative, and we are working

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closely with them through regular forums to develop a promotion strategy that can take into account the pivotal role that they play in targeting properly the promotion activity, in explaining to parents what the mark stands for and what to look out for, and in parents knowing what they are getting when they see that mark.

The HSSF telephony training is designed to make sure that separated parents get consistent information, messaging and onward support. It is not a network in the traditional sense of one phone line supported by one piece of infrastructure, but over 300 agents have received the tailored training, meaning that the benefits of collaboration can be promoted to parents, regardless of which of the partner organisations’ helplines parents choose to use.

The bulk of the HSSF investment—some £10 million—is being spent on the innovation fund to support separated families, with the aim of helping parents who are going through separation to work together to resolve that conflict. The 17 projects have collectively engaged with 53,500 parents up to September 2014. The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) asked whether we were reaching out to those who have been separated longest, who might have the most trying of relationships, and yes, indeed, that is what we are trying to do. We have gone for really innovative projects, looking for greater engagement. Those are the kinds of people whom we will look to help. The hon. Lady also asked about a specific case. I am happy to get my officials to look at that case, see what is happening, and see how we can resolve that issue.

Hon. Members will know that one of the projects, the family decision making service, funds three key Scotland-based organisations to work much more closely together to enable parents to get help on the wide range of issues that they face during separation. For example, a father recently called Children 1st in Scotland for help. He wanted to know about his rights, and to find out what he should do with regards to arranging contact with his son. Children 1st advised him of the family decision making service and asked if he wished for further advice. The father agreed that he did, and he was transferred to the Scottish Child Law Centre, after which the organisations worked together to provide the help that he needed on all the issues that he faced.

This is what we are trying to do—to get all the agencies working together to best provide the support that is needed. In these instances, the information that we are getting back is that the system has helped. People have managed to follow a clear process and have got the result that they needed. This method of transfer ensured that the father I referred to did not need to repeat himself, and that all the elements of the situation were dealt with through one joined-up service. As a result, the father said that he left feeling clear about his options and very confident about setting up an amicable, family-based parenting arrangement that covered finance and his contact arrangements with his son. Those are the outcomes that we want to pursue and obtain. We want people to be able to follow the path that that family followed, although we know that everyone’s circumstances are different.

As part of these interventions, most projects try to work with parents to establish parenting arrangements, which include child maintenance. Measuring the success of the projects in helping parents to establish those types of arrangements will form part of the evaluation.

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Evaluation will be crucial to determining the learning from the projects, and we are in the process of procuring an external evaluator to ensure that there is an independent assessment of the projects. The independent evaluator will assess the performance of each project separately, and those results will be published after the projects close and sufficient time has passed to analyse and assess performance. We do, however, have some good news stories about what has happened so far to help families.

Sheila Gilmore: The Minister appears to be telling us that the process of finding an evaluator is still ongoing. Can she say how close that is to being done? We are virtually in November, and many of the projects are due to finish at the end of March next year; that is a very short time in which to carry out an evaluation, and it is very unusual to be evaluating so late in the process, not having set up the arrangement in advance. Is it true that part of the reason for the hold-up was the Department for Work and Pensions having concerns about data protection? Will it be possible to scale up the projects in any sensible way soon after March next year?

Esther McVey: I can tell the hon. Lady that we will provide further details as part of our overall evaluation strategy, which we expect to publish by the end of this year.

I was giving details of what was working, what we know is happening and various innovative projects. For example, a Birmingham project run by Malachi recently worked very closely with both the mother and the father of a boy who had been excluded from school because of bad behaviour, and who had not seen his father in three years. Now, following the intervention, the father spends time with his son regularly and contributes financially to the child’s household, and the child’s teacher has confirmed that his behaviour at school has dramatically improved. That is what we want to happen. Those are the outcomes that we want.

Of course this is about finances; we know that. The CSA was not necessarily providing that. We need to work with families and the child’s surroundings more generally, and get the father seeing the son. We need the son not to be excluded from school and to have better attendance, which will allow him a better education and support him later in life. It is right that a key strategy and raison d’être of this Government is fighting child poverty, and fighting poverty full stop. How do we go about that? It is through education. It is about getting people into work. It is about supporting the family. All these things have to be key, and not just now, for those parents who have made their decision. They have brought a child into the world; how do we as a society protect that child? That is the only way to prevent poverty.

Kate Green: The Minister is being rather ambitious if she thinks that the HSSF projects will provide all those very laudable outcomes in and of themselves. The anecdotes are very helpful and give us a flavour of the projects that are being conducted, but can she assure us that the evaluation will go well beyond anecdote? We want to be able to look at data and trends. In particular, Opposition Members want to see the number of parents who are receiving maintenance, the amount that they are receiving, the sustainability of that maintenance and the proportion of children who are benefiting from it.

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Esther McVey: As I said, we will provide further information on that, and hon. Members will have that by the end of the year.

A point was raised about the 38% drop in applications. Of course we felt that there would be a drop, but not that great. However, as the application fees have been in effect for less than four months, it would be imprudent to draw any meaningful conclusions from the early data—the data that we have so far. The Department will continue to monitor the rates of application to the 2012 scheme, but the correct time frame in which to consider the effects of the reforms will be in the 30-month review. That is what we have to continue to do. The overall objectives and aims were set out in our strategy, in the bids. That is what we are looking for. Of course the projects will be evaluated and monitored. As I said, we are hoping to bring that information to the House by the end of the year.

In addition to the help and support for separated families, it will be helpful to touch on the support available as part of our reforms to child maintenance. We know that after a relationship breakdown, most parents still want what is best for their children. It is increasingly the norm for parents to be doing what is right by their children and contributing to the children’s upbringing, even if they do not live with them any more. Central to our reforms of the child maintenance system is our belief that turning to the statutory service need not be the default position for all families. We do not believe that Government intervention in setting up a child maintenance arrangement is either necessary or beneficial in the majority of cases. It not only puts an unnecessary barrier between parents, but can increase conflict and reduce the incentive for them to work together.

Sheila Gilmore: I am grateful to the Minister for reiterating the Government’s position, which is what we have heard ever since the proposals were put into the Bill that became the Welfare Reform Act 2012. The aims are very clear. The issue is: is that happening? Is it working? Is the kind of support and advice that has been set up scalable? Are there any plans to fund this beyond next March?

Esther McVey: I will come to those points, but I believe that it is important that we put in context what we are doing, who we believe should be sorting out the arrangements and how best we can help these families—the mum and the dad—to put the arrangements in place. That is why we believe that family-based child maintenance arrangements are often the best option, and we want to encourage and support families to achieve those. We also recognise that separated parents will need a service that helps them to consider all their options in the light of the introduction of charging for the statutory child maintenance system and the process to close Child Support Agency cases, so, since November, the child maintenance options service has also become the gateway to the statutory child maintenance service. The gateway is flexible and personalised to each individual. It uses the same empathetic approach and is designed to ensure that parents can consider the full range of options, including making family-based child maintenance arrangements.

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Where appropriate, the child maintenance options service promotes the benefits of making a family-based arrangement with parents, helps them to overcome the barriers that they face to working together, and provides them with the tools to make effective arrangements. The service also continues to signpost to other specialist sources of support.

The Government are committed to helping and supporting the family, which is why the HSSF initiative and child maintenance reforms are a key part of our overall social justice strategy. As part of that, we are bringing relationship support policy into one Department, with the DWP investing £30 million to deliver successfully marriage preparation, couples counselling and relationship education.

We will take forward recommendations from the family stability review. We will introduce perinatal pilots to provide information to expectant couples about the impact that having a baby will have on their relationship, as well as strategies on how to address conflict. All of that is part of a journey—having a family, and understanding those extra pressures and what will happen in a way that maintains family stability. The hope is that parents will not get to the point at which they are looking to separate and have to deal with the fallout from that. All this has to be part of an ongoing strategy.

We have also announced our plans for local family offer trials—

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): Order. Our time is done. We must move on to the next debate. Will colleagues leaving the Chamber please do so quietly?

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Domestic Energy Efficiency

4 pm

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): I believe this is the first time I have served under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, in what I hope will be a constructive debate. I want to focus on the effect of the Government’s changes to the energy companies obligation on domestic energy efficiency and the local schemes to improve efficiency in my area. I welcome the opportunity to discuss those things with the Minister.

When the ECO was devised, the architects of the scheme aimed to improve the energy efficiency of dwellings exactly like those in Haslingden and Hyndburn. However, since the last time I spoke in the House on the subject, the help provided for home energy efficiency has been significantly reduced. In terms of energy efficiency, Hyndburn has some of the poorest-quality housing stock in the country, with 45.1% of all dwellings built before 1919, which is well above the English average of 23.6%. Terraced properties of that age tend to have hard-to-treat cavities. It is estimated that 90% of such stock has a cavity of some sort that can be insulated, but doing so is costly and requires a subsidy. Because of the age of the stock in Hyndburn, 50.2% of category 1 hazard properties are so designated because of excess cold, and for category 2 hazard properties the figure is a staggering 78.5%. The housing health and safety rating system states:

“If the score produces a Category 1 hazard, for example if there is a high risk of serious health implications”—

such as damp—

“from exposure to cold then the Authority have a duty to take action. If there is a Category 2 hazard, for example there is risk that exposure to cold may have an adverse affect on health, the Authority may take action.”

Hyndburn borough council therefore has a duty to take action on properties where excess cold is a category 1 hazard, but such is the scale of the problem that that legal duty cannot simply be a matter for a small district council.

My constituents face having to live in homes that were designed a century ago, with no thought for thermal efficiency. Hyndburn borough council undertook a comprehensive housing condition survey in 2009, which noted that the rate of thermal comfort failures was 24.5%, compared with an English average of 18.3%. My constituents, therefore, are the very people to whom the ECO can offer most, but Hyndburn borough council’s warm homes energy company obligation scheme has come under threat before it has even begun in earnest. Moreover, the businesses in the green economy in my constituency that were innovating and creating jobs as a result of the ECO are now concerned about their futures. Indeed, 49 of the 149 schemes nationally have been cancelled.

As I have said, nine out of 10 stone terraced properties of the sort that are prevalent in Hyndburn have hard-to-treat cavities that would benefit from the ECO. For that reason, the ECO presented a particularly welcome opportunity to my constituents and to local councils across east Lancashire to tackle insulation, fuel poverty and the UK’s climate change obligations. The most recent Government statistics state that 5,088 households in my constituency are living in fuel poverty, which

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equates to some 13.1% of homes. On the alternative measure, which is based on the number of households forced to spend more than 10% of their household income on energy, there are 6,712 such households. The fact that 17.3% of households struggle to heat their homes is a tragedy, and it comes as no surprise that the poor live in the older terraced stock. There is a direct link between the age and condition of the housing stock and the high levels of fuel poverty in my constituency.

I raised that issue in the Energy Bill Committee in June 2011, and the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), told me that the ECO would

“play a huge part with regard to harder-to-treat properties.”––[Official Report, Energy Public Bill Committee, 14 June 2011; c. 199.]

My question to the new Minister is simply this: what has happened to that aspiration? Is it still an aspiration, or was it only ever an aspiration? My constituents would be right to feel let down by the Government’s domestic energy efficiency policies.

As I have indicated, my constituency has an incredibly high number of hard-to-treat properties. Plenty are in the private rented sector, where there are excessive problems, and many are owner occupied. Thanks to the roll-back of the ECO, my constituents who are in most need will miss out. When that is coupled with the Government’s record on place-based housing regeneration, the outlook is depressing.

Even more galling is that despite the Prime Minister’s claim that cutting levies would save consumers £50 on their energy bills, four of the big six energy companies refused to pass on the full £50 reduction to customers on fixed-price deals. Not only did those customers not receive insulation, but they did not receive that discount, lamentable though it is in comparison with the savings that would result from energy efficiency measures. In January this year, the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, said that for the energy companies not to pass on the full savings to consumers “would not be acceptable”. However, no action has been taken to ensure that the 3.8 million people on fixed-price deals do not miss out on that saving.

In response to the consultation on the future of the ECO, the Government openly stated that energy companies were

“likely now to be in a position to make greater savings than they had originally projected in December”.

When the Government make no effort to recoup those savings for consumers, the result is more money for the energy companies. In attempting to kick the long-term problems of the cost of energy, market failure and domestic energy efficiency into the long grass, the Government have effectively cut the energy companies some slack, with no noticeable reduction in prices for millions of people and at the cost of thousands of much-needed domestic energy efficiency projects, such as those in my constituency.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I apologise for missing the first two minutes of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate during energy week. Although great progress is being made, I accept that there are gaps that the Government need to address. The hon. Gentleman is talking about cavity wall insulation, but surely his

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constituents would be entitled to and eligible for boiler replacement under the affordable warmth element of the ECO.

Graham Jones: Yes, they would, but the terraced properties in my constituency seep heat. We need to look at energy conservation; it is not enough simply to lag the loft. There is no point in having a new boiler without also implementing a range of measures to capture the heat that it generates. If we continue to allow heat to flow out of stone terraced properties with semi-solid walls, we do a disservice to those properties. They will remain energy-inefficient. I accept that there are some modest improvements that can be made, but the main beneficiaries of insulation and energy efficiency improvements will be householders who live in properties with hard-to-treat cavities.

Another point that has seemingly been absent from the debate on the changes is that the energy companies’ revenue streams are protected by inefficient, uninsulated houses. Rather than reducing the use of gas through greater energy efficiency, the energy companies have a perverse disincentive to support energy efficiency because they are making profits from selling so much gas to my constituents.

There is concern in the cavity wall insulation industry about the effects of the changes. Isothane, a company in my constituency that produces cavity wall insulation, stated to me recently that the cavity wall industry is effectively “at a standstill” due to the changes. That was after the company had prepared itself for increased demand under the ECO. The carpet was pulled from under the company after it had been encouraged to be part of the green revolution. Job losses across the industry, which has a strong base in the north-west, make for sad reading.

Twelve jobs have been lost at Isothane Ltd in Accrington in my constituency, which I have been told may have a further impact, with job losses in Dukinfield in Manchester. There have been job cuts at Viscount Insulation in Blackburn and Castleford. There have been 85 job losses at Home Insulation Services in Preston, and 600 jobs went this summer at Domestic & General Insulation as a direct result of the Government’s policy changes. Many smaller companies have also laid off workers whom they had previously hired after the Government talked up the demand that would be created by the ECO and green deal schemes. I am afraid those job losses will not be the last. The majority of people in the UK would rather know that the levies are supporting a growing green economy and creating long-term financial and environmental savings, rather than simply being handed back to the energy companies without cast-iron guarantees that they will be passed on fully and without exception.

Guy Opperman: Before the hon. Gentleman concludes his speech, I will give him a slightly contrary view. In my constituency in Northumberland, which has similar properties—old stone buildings—the expansion of the energy sector is something that I welcome and applaud. Organisations such as the Centre for Green Energy and the multitude of biomass and other green and diversification suppliers are showing that there is a future for that type of energy.

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Graham Jones: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comment, but he cannot deny that job losses have occurred due to the changes. Changes bring uncertainty, and I am sure we all agree that there should be less change and more consistency, because that will lead to more jobs in the sector. If we chop and change our energy efficiency policy, we will find that companies are reticent about entering the market because they are unsure about the future. Certainty is the bedrock of business, as I am sure he would agree.

I will conclude by asking the Minister a number of questions. Does she recognise the job losses that have directly resulted from rolling back the ECO? How many jobs does she estimate have been lost nationally? What does she see for the future of this important industry? The Government predicted that there would be 35,000 people working in the sector by 2015-16. Does she still seriously expect that to happen? What future plans does she have for areas with a prevalence of hard-to-treat walls and cavities, such as mine in Haslingden and Hyndburn, and clearly those in Hexham, which will no longer be economical under the changes to the ECO scheme? It seems obvious to many people that hard-to-treat, cold and damp properties are in most need. Why has that not been reflected and prioritised in Government policy?

Finally, has the Minister investigated where the remaining ECO money is being spent? The green deal home improvement fund opened in June and shut five or six weeks later in mid-July. Where has that money been spent? My constituents did not get an opportunity to apply for that money, and it included measures such as solid wall insulation. What happened to that money, and where was it spent? What proportion of that fund, the ECO and other schemes was spent on properties that are most in need?

4.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Amber Rudd): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.

This debate comes at the start of big energy saving week, a joint campaign between the Department of Energy and Climate Change, Citizens Advice and the Energy Saving Trust that will highlight the support available to help people keep warm this winter. It was good to see so many parliamentary colleagues at yesterday’s launch. During the last big energy saving week, 300,000 consumers received help and advice through events, by phone or online. This year we and our partners want to make big energy saving week even bigger than last year.

The independent review of fuel poverty enabled us more fully to understand the problem and to measure fuel poverty effectively. That has helped us to put in place policies that can target assistance at those most in need, which the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) spoke about earlier. We already have strong policies working on the ground, such as the ECO, the warm home discount scheme and the big energy saving network, but we recognise that the most vulnerable may still need extra help.

To highlight the Government’s commitment to making a real and lasting difference on fuel poverty, we have tabled draft regulations to create a new fuel poverty target in law. We want to ensure that as many fuel-poor

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homes as reasonably practicable achieve a minimum energy efficiency standard of band C by 2030. We have also consulted to help us to prepare for a new fuel poverty strategy.

Graham Jones: I welcome the Minister’s comments, but I asked a fundamental question. How does she anticipate that constituencies such as mine in Hyndburn, which have a considerable mass of such fuel-poor people and hard-to-treat and uninsulated properties, will be addressed in the next five and a half years?

Amber Rudd: I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman wants me to get straight to the point and address his key questions. I have a few minutes, and I would like an opportunity to set out what the Government are doing.

We recognise that improving domestic energy efficiency helps consumers to control energy bills, thereby reducing fuel poverty. Of course, it also contributes to our challenging carbon reduction target, which is, by 2050, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to at least 80% below 1990 levels. To drive up domestic energy efficiency, we have put in place a long-term programme that reflects fundamental underlying challenges. Much of the easy energy-efficiency work has been done. Nearly all homes have at least some loft insulation, although many could benefit from a top-up, and most of the easiest cavity walls have been filled. We need to move away from a culture of unsustainable grant dependency to a different, market-based approach. Our long-term aim is for consumers to be motivated to improve their homes and to be ready to meet some of the costs, with real, effective help for the most vulnerable. That is good for all bill payers, as subsidy will go where it can have the most effect; and it is good for our economy, as innovative businesses will enter the market and develop better, cheaper products.

Guy Opperman: In private meetings and in meetings with my constituents, I have spoken to the Minister about oil companies having a 500-litre minimum limit for delivering to people who are off-grid. If the Department were to change that minimum delivery to a lower figure, it would have a massive impact on people who are particularly fuel-poor and off-grid. Could she please look at that and get back to me?

Amber Rudd: I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. He has raised the matter with me previously, and I will get back to him.

I do not want to try the patience of the hon. Member for Hyndburn, so let us move on to the ECO, which is the particular element of support that he has asked me to address. We have made changes to the ECO, and the vast majority of customers pay for the ECO as part of their energy bills. With bills rising, it was right to review the impact of the policies on household costs and to ensure that the benefit of the ECO is directed where it can make most impact. This much is clear: we have not reduced the element of the ECO aimed at helping low-income and vulnerable households. Approximately two thirds of the ECO that is currently collected goes to the fuel-poor, which, overall, is the same amount as was previously set, despite the reductions. The hon. Gentleman talks about the Government cutting the energy companies some slack, but we have felt obliged to cut taxpayers some slack. At the same time, we have ensured that the

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people who are most in fuel poverty, the vulnerable, are still being given the assistance that was pledged. Dedicated fuel poverty activity within the ECO stays at the original level of investment of £540 million a year reaching 230,000 households, and we have extended activity on the same scale to 2017.

We are also making the ECO easier and cheaper to deliver, and we have extended the carbon saving community part of the ECO to cover the bottom 25% of areas on the index of multiple deprivation, extending it to more households in low-income areas. That will not only help more hard-pressed families; crucially, for the first time, extending the obligation to the end of 2017 will give industry and other partners maximum certainty. The hon. Gentleman discussed business’s need for certainty. We have delivered that by extending the obligation to 2017.

Graham Jones: I appreciate that the Minister is giving way on her time. I generously admit that the carbon savings target for individual households was reduced, rendering the scheme worthless in that it could not actually be used, but how will the community target have an impact on district councils such as mine? It was essentially designed around local authorities, but small district councils such as mine are cash-strapped, and the shire does nothing. How can local district councils such as mine help community schemes meet the community target? It is not happening.

Amber Rudd: I urge the hon. Gentleman’s council to consider what it can do within the current ECO arrangements, which as I said have been extended for the next two years.

Turning to the green deal home improvement fund, which I also urge his council to consider, he is absolutely right. The green deal home improvement fund opened in June and was closed at the end of July, such was the take-up. It was more popular than any of us had expected. We had always said that the pot of money available was limited and that once it was gone, it was gone, but we did not anticipate that demand would be so strong, and we have acknowledged that that was not ideal for householders, industry or local authorities such as the hon. Gentleman’s, which might have promoted the scheme to residents.

However, the good news is that we have sourced additional funds and will reopen the green deal home improvement fund next month. We are working closely with industry, local authority and other partners to get their views on how the first phase worked and their ideas on how we can improve the scheme.

Graham Jones: Can the Minister ensure that authorities such as mine that are deprived according to the index of multiple deprivation—our district council has challenges in trying to bid for the money quickly; they will inevitably be slow out of the blocks, because they do not have scale and size—are prioritised and given first dibs on the fund? That would be helpful in meeting some of the concerns that I have outlined.

Amber Rudd: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that suggestion. We are keen to get the green deal home improvement fund absolutely right. I will take his suggestion back to my officials. We are getting a lot of contributions

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on how to ensure that the new green deal home improvement fund is correctly launched in order to get the maximum benefit for communities, particularly the most vulnerable communities, who have been suffering.

I hope that we can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the green deal home improvement fund will be an additional source that his council can access to help the people who need help, particularly with solid wall insulation, as he said. I recommend that his council contact my Department to find out more about a previous fund called the green deal communities fund. His council might be interested in finding out about its best practice. It had particular success in going street by street, door to door and working with community leaders to build trust among householders so they could use the fund.

I wanted to take a few minutes to comment on the private rented sector; I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has a particular interest in that area.

Graham Jones indicated assent.

Amber Rudd: That is good. We want to support and encourage landlords to make improvements to their properties and empower tenants to request them. That is why, on 22 July 2014, we launched our consultation on energy efficiency regulations for the private rented sector. As a result of our proposals, from April 2016, private tenants will have a right to request consent for energy efficiency measures, which may not be unreasonably refused by the landlord. From April 2018, private rented properties will need to achieve a minimum energy efficiency standard before being let to tenants, except where certain exemptions apply.

Graham Jones: I am grateful to the Minister; she is being very helpful. I point out to her for the record—she may or may not wish to comment—that I sat on the Energy Bill Committee in 2011 when that proposal was introduced. I voted against it, because I thought that the dates should be brought forward to 2011 from 2018. For seven years, people in the private rented sector have had to suffer. The Government are not doing this today; it was in the 2011 Energy Bill. I wanted that to be a matter of public record.

Amber Rudd: I think I can accept that as cautious support for the proposals, although they are less timely than the hon. Gentleman would like. He may rest assured that my Department is committed to delivering them, and we will use our best endeavours to do so.

I point out that although the hon. Gentleman’s constituents may be able to access the green deal home improvement fund, green deal finance is also available and is now picking up. It is also an important element for the private rented sector, where the electricity bill payer is normally the tenant, who contributes towards the cost of improvements through savings on their electricity bill. Tenants will benefit from a warm, healthier home while landlords will gain improvements to their property. The ECO and incentives announced as part of the autumn statement 2013 provide additional funding support for landlords to make improvements. Landlords took advantage of both the green deal cash back and home improvement funds, and nearly 115,000 households in the private rented sector have benefited from the ECO measures so far.

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I point out to the hon. Gentleman that with the arrival of smart meters, which are now being rolled out, constituents will hopefully be able to control their use of energy and heating more effectively and efficiently. We are also making good progress on encouraging the take-up of local renewables. The number of installations, mainly of solar photovoltaic panels under the feed-in tariffs, now totals more than 590,000. The domestic renewable heat incentive was launched in March this year, and 10,000 homes are already being rewarded for switching to biomass, ground or air source heat pumps and solar thermal technologies.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate and agree that although he has certain frustrations that the ECO is not reaching some in his community, this Department is leading many other initiatives to assist everybody, including his constituents, to have warmer homes for less. It is an ambitious long-term programme. We are making progress and learning what works best. The scale of the funds that we have made available shows our determination to improve homes, reduce bills and fuel poverty and meet our carbon reduction commitments.

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BT Openreach

4.27 pm

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): I hope I will get three minutes extra, as we are starting ahead of the clock.

Mr Gary Streeter (in the Chair): You will.

Simon Hart: I applied for this debate about three months ago and rather forgot that I had made the application. It only popped up in the system in the last 10 days, and quite a lot has changed since then. None the less, some of the fundamental points that I hope to raise are as important now as they were then.

First, to be positive, UK broadband roll-out—I will touch briefly on Wales, too—is a very positive story. A significant number of businesses and households are benefiting from it, and the link between economic regeneration and good-quality broadband is not disputed. However, importantly, 9.5 million UK adults lack the basic skills required to get online, and more than half of British businesses do not have an online presence to sell goods and services. That is an important underlying feature that the country and the coalition Government must address.

I appreciate that responsibility is devolved in Wales; none the less, it depends on UK taxpayers to the tune of £250 million or thereabouts. I will touch on three things that are important to the UK Government, rather than the Welsh Government, as a consequence: first, the take-up of broadband once it is installed; secondly, the issue of isolated rural communities, which has been raised many times in this Chamber and elsewhere; and, thirdly, Openreach response to customer concerns. That final point is the one on which I suspect there has been significant improvement during the past few months, but there are still concerns across the country—not just in Wales—about it.

On take-up, it is a worry to me that in Wales we are averaging about 17%; the figure went up a little bit to 19% in August in certain areas, but it has dropped back to 17% overall since then. Anglesey is doing rather better, at 25%. However, if we compare Wales with Cornwall, South Yorkshire and Northern Ireland, where the average take-up figure is nearly 30%, we appear to be underperforming. I have described the situation as being a bit like investing millions of pounds in High Speed 2, and then having no passengers using the service. To the tune of almost £490 each, UK taxpayers—including Welsh taxpayers—are creating this fantastic piece of infrastructure, yet use of it is not being properly taken up. We need to address that, for the reasons I gave earlier.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. We used to have debates about the extent to which broadband could be rolled out in our rural communities; there were figures of 96% and 97%. However, like him I fear that the debate is now about take-up. Where does he think the responsibility to promote take-up lies? Should it be with our National Assembly Government, with the Minister’s Department or with BT? I ask because, as he said, one way or another we are not getting the message across, are we?

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Simon Hart: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. It seems to me that once the infrastructure is in place, it is unclear who is responsible for persuading, cajoling or seducing people into using it. It was mentioned to me this morning by employees of Openreach that take-up is reliant, to a great extent, on local authority enthusiasm and energy. However, that does not seem to be a strategy; it seems to be just an aspiration. I would suggest—I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to this point—that this is a UK-wide problem. Broadband is a very expensive infrastructure project, so it is a UK Government responsibility to ensure that everybody knows that the service has been upgraded, or whatever expression one wants to use, in their area, and knows how to go about accessing it at a sensible and reasonable price. However, that does not appear to be the case at the moment. Most MPs seem to have a fairly full postbag when it comes to broadband-related issues, and yet the figures I have given show that a relatively small number of people are aware of, and therefore signing up to, the new provision.

The second issue I want to raise is isolated rural communities. We always talk about the 4%—those people who fall outside the 96% aspiration—and what the future holds for them. My question to the Minister is this: what are the UK Government’s proposals as far as those people are concerned? The Welsh Government have already given an indication that there will be some kind of mop-up scheme at the end of all this activity, which will possibly rely on wireless or satellite. However, the time scale is unclear; the method of installation, if that is the right word, is a little unclear; and it is certainly unclear what the cost would be to UK taxpayers.

Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I wonder whether he is in the same position in Wales as I am in England; I am trying to get from BT a map that shows clearly the 4% of people who are not in the system, so that one can try to deal with the situation and ask why they are not in the system. The little bits of information that we glean seem to indicate that there is no rationale in terms of isolated communities. I can cite a place called Glasson Dock; BT tells me that it is not in the system, yet it is in no way isolated. In fact, it is a very large community just on the outskirts of Lancaster.

Simon Hart: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. There are various online methods through which one can find out when one’s community is likely to be connected, but of course there is an irony there, because part of the problem is that not all of these communities have an online capability, thanks to the problems that we are discussing, so it might not be as easy as it seems to gather that information.

In defence of Openreach, I must say that the situation is a little clearer than it was, and I can only urge my hon. Friend to do what a lot of us seem to end up doing, which is pestering the company until such time as it says what is going on, just to get us off its back. Nevertheless, it seems to me that for reasons that are not entirely clear—they may be competition reasons, or just technical reasons—it is sometimes difficult to acquire the information that we need. There is a financial consequence to that, because companies need to know how, and indeed whether, they can invest in growing and sustaining their

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business, and it is very difficult for them to do so if there is no clear indication as to when they might reap the benefits of this fantastic new resource.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): There are two ways that Openreach can help, in relation to my hon. Friend’s first two points. The first way is through data. Openreach has a large amount of data on who is taking up broadband services, which at the moment it does not release. It is really important that Openreach considers whether it can release more data. The second way is through this new concept called fibre to the node, which Openreach has held on to for some months now, and which we really need to get rolled out, because it is the key to accessing many of the very rural communities that he and I represent.

Simon Hart: I am grateful, too, for that intervention. I have to say that I had not heard that expression until lunchtime today; I vaguely understood it when it was mentioned then, but now I completely understand it. Coming from a rugby nation, however, I think that the only thing I can do is pass the ball sharply to the left to the Minister, because ultimately decisions about that concept are for the UK Government, or at least that concept is an opportunity for the UK Government to deal with the problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) and—I have to say—plenty of other hon. Members have raised.

I will illustrate the point about isolated rural communities. The Country Land and Business Association is just one of many organisations that have helpfully made contributions to this debate, and it estimates that about 100,000 businesses with a combined turnover of up to £60 billion are affected by the lack of broadband, including many farmers, who of course have no option these days but to submit many of their Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs-related obligations and VAT returns online. It is an irony that in certain parts of my constituency farmers have to go to McDonald’s to access the free wi-fi there, in order to fulfil their legal obligations. I cannot believe the Government are enthusiastic about that reality.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Will he note that when those farmers go to McDonald’s, which often gets a very bad press, they can be reassured by the fact that it has a very good supply chain, using British-sourced beef and produce?

Simon Hart: I am casting an eye in the direction of the Chair, who will very possibly rule me out of order; I am almost surprised that he did not rule the hon. Gentleman’s intervention out of order. However, I agree with every word he said—I say that before I am admonished.

Thirdly and finally, I will discuss the Openreach response to customer concerns. I know that this is a controversial area; that it is very easy for people such as MPs to come up with a long stream of examples that are probably the exception rather than the rule; and that we only ever hear of the things that go wrong, rather than the many occasions on which things go right. However, there is a pattern—it has improved, but there is none the less a pattern—among constituents of mine that suggests Openreach has some way to go to reassure

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its customers that it has sorted the problem of addressing customer concerns, and that it is their servant, rather than their master.

I will highlight two examples of customer concerns, and I hope that the House will indulge me while I read from my notes. The first example is of three customers on the same line who were waiting for work to be done, including work to replace a repeatedly broken line that needed to be buried underground. After waiting for more than 12 months, the customers were told in the spring that work could not be carried out until the autumn, because the farmer across whose land the line was to be buried would not allow Openreach to do so until the crop on that land had been removed. In fact, the farmer in question was actually one of the three customers affected, and that was simply not the case; the land was a grass field, and he was happy for the work to be carried out as soon as possible.

That example shows a little more than just a lack of communication, or some kind of mistake in the system; it appeared to my constituent, who was a customer of the company, that the company was almost deliberately trying to push him to one side. The fact that the work took so long and in the end required him to seek what I suppose is the ultimate sanction—of going to his MP—is an indication of the distance that we still have to go to restore customers’ confidence in the company.

My second and last example is of a customer waiting for work to be done who was told that it was necessary for the council to approve the use of traffic lights on a road in order for the work to be carried out, and that a request for their use had been submitted. Fortunately, the customer’s brother worked for the relevant department in the council and knew that, first, no such request had been submitted and, secondly, there was no such requirement for traffic lights. Once this was highlighted to BT, the work was carried out and no traffic lights were used.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Those examples, from places 200 miles away from my constituency, are identical to issues faced in mine. I have heard about Openreach blaming a local authority for failure to act, yet the local authority says that Openreach has not contacted it. I am concerned, because Openreach has said that it needs to work with local authorities to get broadband use higher, but if it is blaming local authorities with no justification, surely that will not build a positive relationship.

Simon Hart: My hon. Friend’s remarks probably reflect those of a number of hon. Members. I hope that the new regime at Openreach, which is highly focused on customer relations, realises that these are not necessarily isolated examples, that there is a bit of a pattern, and that it needs to treat them with the seriousness they deserve.

Of course, for customers there is that torturous process of trying to make a complaint to a machine of such magnitude that it is almost impossible ever to talk to the same person twice, or to get through the endless helplines, despite being reassured that “Your call is important to

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us”, and all that nonsense. People want action, and they want it quickly, not appeasement; yet the system seems to be geared against that.

To ensure greater openness in its provision of services, BT has added features to the “Expect Openreach” site, including a local network status checker to show information about incidents such as cable breaks, weather-related information and so on. However, the problem with isolated rural areas is that, with a lack of mobile phone coverage and poor broadband, it is almost impossible to check the “Expect Openreach” site to ascertain what caused damage to the process in the first place. There needs to be some reflection of the fact that the normal way that members of the public and customers can identify problems are not exactly open to people in more isolated areas.

I shall give the Minister a lengthy opportunity to answer two questions. I have secured a few Westminster Hall debates, and always optimistically finish by asking one, two or three questions. However, four and a half years in, no answers to those questions have been forthcoming. I hope and pray that the Minister will break that record. I am asking in the most helpful way that that I can.

First, will the Minister explain what the UK-wide strategy is for ensuring greater take-up, so that we can move our take-up figures in Wales from 17% to a much higher proportion? I hope that there will be a similar improvement across the whole UK. Secondly, will he set out the Government’s plans to deal with the 4%? What is the time scale and cost, and what is the expectation for the 4% of people who will fall behind the rest of the UK, unless we deal with their broadband demands in exactly the same way as we deal with everybody else’s?

4.43 pm

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): I am grateful for the chance to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing this important debate.

My hon. Friend asked two clear questions, but also pointed out that in four and half years in this place no Minister has ever answered his questions. I am a loyal Minister and I do not intend to break ranks with my colleagues. I will try to use the next 17 minutes to avoid, in any shape or form, answering my hon. Friend’s questions. If at any point it appears that I might stray towards an answer, I rely on my colleagues to intervene to prevent me from doing so. My hon. Friend needs to reach five years in this place without an answer, so that when the election hustings come he can say to his constituents, “In five years, no one has ever answered my questions.”

Of course, my hon. Friend will be re-elected, because he is a fantastic Member of Parliament. It is debates such as this one, in which he raises issues of concern to his constituents, that show why he is such a superb MP for his constituency.

Huw Irranca-Davies rose

Mr Vaizey: Before I give way, will the hon. Gentleman let the House—and the Minister answering his question—know what his current status is?

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Huw Irranca-Davies: I speak on a constituency matter. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire made a good speech, in which he talked about rurality. I would like the Minister to answer one question. Does he recognise that, in Wales particularly, rurality affects almost every constituency? My constituents, Darren Hughes, Haydn and Pat David, Gill Dowling and Justin Legg are in Pencoed and Heol y Cyw, which are only two miles from the M4, yet they have intermittent service disrupted by bad weather. However, when they approach BT Openreach they do not get satisfactory answers, let alone compensation. Does he agree that they need to receive good customer service and satisfaction?

Mr Vaizey: I am not clear what question the hon. Gentleman is asking me. Is he asking whether every constituency in Wales has an element of rurality? [Interruption.] I agree—I answered that question directly. Do I agree that his three constituents deserve the help of Openreach? I agree. I have ensured that key executives from Openreach are within 50 yards of the hon. Gentleman, to take up his constituency case the minute this debate finishes.

It has been a bit of a broadband day for me. I started in the television studios of “Rip Off Britain”, with the great Angela Rippon, Gloria Hunniford and Julia Somerville, talking about broadband speeds, where, to my absolute astonishment, a member of the team told me that they lived in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) and he was an excellent Member of Parliament, in tune with his constituents.

I went on to a meeting with the Federation of Small Businesses, which told me its concerns about broadband and its ambitions for the Government. Obviously, I was fresh from answering all the parliamentary questions last Thursday, where a lot of my colleagues raised their concerns. The Secretary of State was nowhere to be seen, because he was in India, so I had to answer every question.

I am pretty broadbanded out, but now is the time to turn that around and give the positive message. First, the broadband roll-out programme is going well. We have passed more than 1 million premises and we are now passing up to 50,000 a week. It has really gathered speed. We are working in all the 44 areas where we have contracts.

In Wales, a scheme of some £200 million—if BDUK, Welsh Government and European money is taken into account, and not even including BT money—will cover some 750,000 premises by spring 2015. We have already reached almost 250,000 premises in Wales with superfast broadband. Let us not forget that BT’s commercial roll-out has also achieved superfast broadband for some 600,000 premises. By spring 2015, some 1.3 million premises in Wales will benefit from superfast broadband, if ours and BT’s rural broadband programme are combined.

The programme is on track. I pay tribute to the leadership of BT—Mike Galvin and Bill Murphy—on its rural broadband programme and on its tireless, hard-working engineers, many of whom worked in difficult conditions during the floods last winter to maintain it, as hon. Members will recall. While not ever losing sight of those who feel that they are being left behind by this programme—I will turn to that in a moment—it is important to celebrate its achievements and the enormous impact it has had.

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I have decided to change my mind. This is a red letter day, because I am going to answer the two questions asked by my hon. Friend. What is the UK-wide strategy to promote greater take-up of broadband? He makes a good point. We are rolling out superfast broadband and it is important that people take it up. It is also important that people remember that superfast broadband is an engineering programme. We cannot wave a magic wand and deliver it overnight. We must also remember that there is a reason why this entire programme is not commercial and that, although we all see the benefits of superfast broadband, it is not necessarily taken up by everyone to whom it is available. That may be because people have decided that they do not need superfast broadband or because people are not aware that it is available in their area. We may be able to work with them to show them the benefits that superfast broadband would bring them.

In the very best cases, local authorities work hand in glove with BT and other providers to promote superfast broadband. One good example I can think of is Digital Durham, which from the beginning has had a take-up strategy embedded within it. Another good example is Cornwall, where there has been an ongoing project for several years. BT was originally contracted to reach 80%, but with the same money it is likely to reach 95% of the county. Cornwall has had digital take-up at its very heart with broadband roll-out.

There are two other issues that I hope will increase broadband take-up. First, working with BT, we are sharing data on how well take-up is going in particular areas. I opened the first broadband cabinet of our programme in North Yorkshire, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), and I am pleased to say that after my visit, take-up in that village soared to 60%. Clearly, although I am a pretty remarkable fellow, I cannot visit every single cabinet in the country, so that strategy has been ruled out. We are sharing the data on take-up by ward, so that we can identify areas where there is good take-up and areas where there is poor take-up to try to see whether any particular factors are behind that.

Julian Smith: I am pleased to hear that the pilot scheme is happening and that data are being shared. When I was at a presentation in North Yorkshire a few weeks ago, there was a still some reticence on the part of BT Openreach to release much of its data, so I urge the Minister to continue his campaign and to persuade it to share as much data as possible.

Mr Vaizey: We have made great progress with BT. Naturally, it is a commercial organisation, so sharing data with Government and more publicly is quite understandably an issue, because those data could be shared with commercial rivals. We have reached an agreement to share data by ward level on broadband, and that will begin to feed through.

Secondly, we have our SuperConnected Cities scheme, which offers business vouchers in 22 cities in the four nations of the United Kingdom. We have an advertising campaign promoting the take-up of those vouchers, and we have seen an uplift. We should therefore seriously consider whether a national campaign is needed to promote the benefits of superfast broadband. I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and

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South Pembrokeshire loud and clear when he said that he felt that responsibility ultimately rested with the Government to promote broadband and broadband take-up. While I have talked about the need for BT and others and local councils to work together, I understand that point. We will look seriously at the role the Government can play in increasing broadband take-up.

Guto Bebb: In relation to the data being made available on a ward-by-ward basis, is that a decision for the Welsh Government or the Department here in Westminster?

Mr Vaizey: The decision on getting those data was taken at the level of BT working with Broadband Delivery UK, and those data will come via BDUK. We will work with the Welsh Government, as we do on the whole broadband roll-out programme.

The second question that my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire asked was about how we will deal with the last 4%, and I will answer that question, too. It is a bit like a goal drought followed by a goal festival. It is clear that we cannot leave anyone behind in the broadband revolution. As I said, it is an engineering project and cannot be wished into existence overnight. Having seen the success of phase 1, which was to take us to 90%—I think it will actually go to 93% in Wales, if not further—we instituted phase 2, to take us from the 90% headline to the 95% headline. There was £500 million for phase 1, plus local council money and BT money. Phase 2 is an additional £250 million to take us to 95% nationwide. Phase 3, as it will effectively be called, will be to get to the last 5%. My hon. Friend talked about the last 4%, but we say that it is 5%, broadly speaking.

The last 5% are the most difficult homes to reach. They are the proverbial hockey stick on the graph, where the cost gets significantly higher, and we need to ensure that we get value for money. Under the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), we instituted a £10 million fund, where we invited different providers to provide pilots to test new technology for the most hard-to-reach areas. Those pilots are under way, and I think I am right in saying that we are evaluating their impact. The fund opened in March 2014 and we launched the pilots in June. One is in Wales and there are others in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Hampshire, Northumberland, Kent, north Lincolnshire, North Yorkshire, Devon and Somerset. The pilots have put their feasibility studies in to BDUK, and that will give us a good idea of what the best technology is to use—those who are critical of BT will be pleased to know that other companies are part of the pilots—and allow us to come up with a number that we can seek to fund the last 5%. That is an important point.

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The third question, which my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire did not ask, although I think it formed the bulk of his speech—the reason why he did not ask me is because, arguably, I am not directly responsible—was on the performance of Openreach on customer service. Again, I know that he has a good relationship with Openreach. He has met their senior executives on at least one occasion, and possibly today as well, to talk through his concerns and issues. It is right that every colleague can raise concerns on operational performance. On Openreach’s operational performance, I am pleased that it is in the process of hiring some 1,600 additional engineers. As an aside, I am particularly pleased that many of those engineers have come from our armed services. It is good to see people who have served their country having the opportunity for a career in a company such as BT. I meet the chief executive of Openreach regularly. He is conscious of the need to continue to improve Openreach’s customer service and to meet his targets. My hon. Friend’s concerns and those raised by many other colleagues have been heard by Openreach.

I return to the high-level points that I want to make. With this programme, we have one of the most successful Government-sponsored roll-out programmes anywhere in the world. In terms of speed and the cost to the consumer, we have some of the best broadband infrastructure anywhere in the world. It is certainly better broadband than the other big four countries of the European Union. We have a great story to tell. We are a nation that was an early adopter of e-commerce, so we know that our fellow citizens are adopting this technology.

We will not, however, lose sight of those who are frustrated and left behind. Broadband has caught up with us and has become essential and important, whether for leisure, because we all access the BBC iPlayer or the numerous other internet applications, or—as my hon. Friend alluded to—as part of business, whether it is a farmer wanting to interact with the Rural Payments Agency, a citizen wanting to interact with Government services or a small business person wanting to sell their products and services not just locally, but across the globe. We will continue to strain every sinew to ensure that we deliver world-class infrastructure across all four parts of the United Kingdom. I am grateful indeed to my hon. Friend for raising these important issues and I end with an apology for having broken his four-and-a-half year unbroken record of being stonewalled by Ministers by simply answering his questions as directly and comprehensively as I could.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.