3.21 pm

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope, and to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst).

In Peterborough we do not have a problem to the same degree as my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) do—a problem that they have eloquently described. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow on giving us the opportunity to debate an important issue that causes great problems for community cohesion in the east of England. Both my hon. Friends are wonderfully energetic champions of their constituencies, and the issues are important.

I am rather shocked at the conduct of the Essex police and crime commissioner. I am one step removed from him, because he is not the PCC for my area. He has come dangerously close to invoking issues of parliamentary privilege. It is not for him to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow what it is proper and right for him to bring up on his constituents’ behalf. Perhaps one of those constituents might want to write to Mr Speaker, to alert him to the issue. For the avoidance of doubt, loyal Conservatives in Essex will no doubt be mindful of the issue when the PCC seeks re-adoption as the allegedly Conservative candidate in the next elections for the post. It is not acceptable to speak in the way he did.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 309WH

I have known my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow for perhaps 20 years. He is a moderate, erudite and thoughtful gentleman and not in the business of alienating or stigmatising any of his constituents—or, if he does, only the ones who break the law. That is as it should be. It is as well to make the point, again, that we just need fairness and equity between the travelling and settled communities. To come back to the point astutely raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden, the simple issue is that if I break into the garden of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow by forcing the lock, and I occupy it, that is not a civil trespass matter but potentially a criminal act. My constituents cannot understand it when Travellers—a small minority, admittedly—damage property to get on to communal land in my constituency and the police say it is not a police matter, because it is their word against everyone else’s, the witnesses are unreliable, and it is too much trouble to investigate.

What do we want? Do we want people to have faith and trust in and respect for the law—their local police officers as well as senior ones and the police and crime commissioner—or do we want to open the door to vigilantism? That is what will happen. Not that long ago, in the Welland estate in my constituency, there was an illegal incursion by Travellers. It was ended when one of the caravans was set on fire by the settled community. We do not want that to happen. It put people in danger, and it is obviously bad when people set each other’s homes on fire. However, if the police are not respectful of the settled community’s legitimate concerns about the issue, it is much more likely that such a thing will happen.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock described the huge amount of waste in her constituency, and there is a film on YouTube—unfortunately it is a badge of ignominy for my constituency—that someone made a few years ago about Norwood lane in Paston, which was allegedly the most fly-tipped piece of road in England and was adjacent to the permanent Norwood lane Traveller site.

While I am on the topic, perhaps I may make the point for the benefit of any Peterborough city council officers who are watching—I am sure they are—that, public-spirited and willing to put my shoulder to the grindstone as I am, I find it odd that all five Traveller encampments in the Peterborough city council unitary authority area are in my constituency, and none are in the constituency of North West Cambridgeshire, which consists of nine other wards. I must have upset someone. The three new emergency stopping spaces are in my constituency, as are the Oxney road and Norwood lane permanent sites. Let us have fairness and equity in the allocation of sites within local authorities, whether Essex or Peterborough.

Every summer we have a problem, although not to the extent revealed by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow; we have historically had difficulties with illegal Traveller encampments. Admittedly they were in south rather than north Cambridgeshire; nevertheless we get them in Peterborough, particularly in Werrington, but also in Parnwell, and in Fletton, which is in the constituency of North West Cambridgeshire.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 310WH

People were so concerned in Werrington that the neighbourhood council invited the police and crime commissioner, Sir Graham Bright, to come and listen to the complaints. They were real, significant complaints and were not just about mess. Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but seeing people urinating and defecating against the fence of William Law Church of England primary school in Werrington is sickening and unacceptable to parents, governors, teachers and pupils at the school. Nevertheless it was not just the waste and antisocial behaviour that they complained of, but behaviour such as going into the district shopping centre, the Werrington centre, and threatening people; and going into licensed premises in the area and taking them over, challenging the criminal justice system to do something about it. That happened two Christmases ago. Cambridgeshire police were called, and they came three and a half hours later, after a small group of Travellers threatened people with violence if they made a fuss. They effectively took over the pub, which I will not name, for obvious reasons.

We run the risk of the police having their authority undermined, because the public will say they do not treat people fairly. It irritates me something chronic to see a statement, written by a senior police officer in Cambridgeshire constabulary, that begins with the human rights of the Travellers—not the mess, crime, threats and antisocial behaviour, or any of the things I have mentioned, but the human rights of the travelling community. What Alice in Wonderland weird world have we stumbled into —what Kafkaesque world of political correctness—where a priority in a public statement from publicly funded people, whose work is paid for by the taxes of decent, honest people in Peterborough and beyond, is the human rights of people who transgress, threaten and break the law? It is unacceptable.

The law is in place to deal with these problems. Sections 61 and 62 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 allow the police to direct trespassers to leave a site that they have occupied, and to remove property and vehicles. Sections 62A to 62E allow them to move such trespassers on the basis that there are alternative sites.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow referred to the alternative sites in Peterborough. In fairness—I am a fair-minded person—the jury is still out on whether those sites will be used, but early indications are that they are not being as well used as they should be.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock: this is about buck-passing. The police say, “It’s the fault of the local authority,” the local authority says, “We’ve been advised by the police,” and then the police say, “Well, we’ve made reference to the ACPO guidelines.” Everyone is passing the buck and the decent, honest, tax-paying person who does the right thing is left frustrated and angry. That is why people are alienated from politics and politicians. The people are the ones in charge—they pay their taxes, do the right thing and send us to Parliament—but they do not feel that their voice is being heard. I say to the police, and to the police and crime commissioners in particular: get a plan in place. Not every criminal activity is the same and every area is different, but get a strategy in place and listen to people.

My hon. Friends are lucky, because we rarely see our Cambridgeshire police and crime commissioner. In Peterborough, he has an outreach worker; we feel like a special social services case. This pre-eminent city in

26 Nov 2014 : Column 311WH

north Cambridgeshire of 187,000 people has an outreach worker. If Sir Graham Bright is watching, I tell him that we would love to see him, and not necessarily his outreach worker, to talk about these issues.

Incidentally, I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow: our police and crime commissioner said, “Well, it’s not on my radar; it’s not something that I get many complaints about.” That was after he had been to a meeting and listened to a publican say that he was threatened, there was criminal activity, people were angry and so on. The police need to do more, there needs to be proper co-ordination and I agree that court proceedings need to be looked at again. The Government have done a good job. They issued new guidelines in August 2013 on this issue and the Minister, for whom I have a great deal of respect, issued an important written ministerial statement in February.

May I make a plea specifically on emergency stopping places? My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden said that Chelmsford was looking at that. That must be marked by proper openness and transparency. There is a lot of fear among the settled community. I hosted a meeting in April 2010, before the general election, in a village called Eye in my constituency, to the east of Peterborough, and 700 people came to it. It was ostensibly about housing developments, but there was a bit at the end about Travellers, and that attracted quite a bit of interest. There must be transparency. The problem in Peterborough is that although I was advised by the chief executive in March 2013 that there would be a decision on our emergency stopping places by June 2013, it was only in September 2014 that proposals were put out to public consultation. That took the city council 18 months. This is a sensitive and difficult area, but local authorities must move more quickly.

Adrian Chapman, the assistant director of communities and targeted services, is an excellent officer and, in fairness, I have had good support from the chief executive, Gillian Beasley, but what really disturbed me about that process was that it involved a closed, secret working party of councillors who had all signed a confidentiality agreement. That should really set alarm bells ringing. We were not allowed to know the workings, methodology or scoring system that that group was using for the parcels of land that the local authority was looking at, and I still do not know the basis on which it chose its sites: two in the Dogsthorpe ward and one in the East ward, all in my constituency.

I will finish by making the point that this is something that causes people an enormous amount of upset and anger. It undermines the whole system of representative democracy and people’s faith and trust in the criminal justice system, and it makes people want to resort to vigilantism and violence to protect their homes. That is something that we should not turn a blind eye to, in any sense. We need to look at the ACPO guidelines, and we need more consistency from the police and local authorities. We may need a review of the guidelines from the Department for Communities and Local Government, and perhaps a new ministerial statement.

I was pleased to hear that the Secretary of State for Justice will visit Harlow. He may wish to have input into court proceedings, and we need to look again at the Irish experience of intentional trespass. This is an issue not of nimbyism or parochialism, but of the faith and trust that ordinary people—I hate that term, but I can

26 Nov 2014 : Column 312WH

think of no other—have in the system. It is our duty and responsibility to listen to decent, law-abiding taxpayers who do the right thing and take the appropriate action.

3.36 pm

Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing the debate and on approaching this difficult issue in such a measured way. Other Members did that as well: the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) made a powerful case on behalf of her constituents about criminal activity around illegal encampments being adequately addressed, as did the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson). I am interested in what he said about the fact that transit sites do not appear to be working. I want to hear more about that.

The right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) got to the nub of some of the problem in identifying areas where we might want to improve planning for site provision, but I congratulate him mostly for raising cricket, because I am sure that we all support that. I hope that he will persuade the Minister to introduce a statutory instrument to ensure that cricket is protected in all circumstances, because we all want that.

My contention is that we will continue to have problems with illegal encampments unless we properly plan for the needs of the Traveller community, which includes provision of short-term plots. If we do not do that, all the problems of antisocial behaviour that have been so eloquently rehearsed this afternoon will continue to increase.

I agree with the hon. Members for Harlow and for Thurrock in their valid criticisms of their police and crime commissioner. Indeed, I recommend that they should probably get rid of their police and crime commissioner, just as we should get rid of them all. This is a serious issue and we need a much better system of public accountability for the police.

When we last debated this issue in February, I asked a number of questions about the Government’s approach to planning policy as it affects Gypsies and Travellers. The Minister might want so say more about how policing will be addressed, but I am really concerned that the Government’s approach to planning for Traveller sites, as exemplified in their consultation paper, might make things worse. Some things seem quite sensible. We all think that it is sensible to try to put in place stronger policies that prevent Traveller sites from emerging in sites of special scientific interest or areas of outstanding natural beauty. Generally, however, the approach seems to involve doing what is necessary to prevent enough Traveller sites from being brought forward, and I am really concerned about that.

The Minister will know that the most controversial of the new proposals is to amend the definition of a Traveller for planning-related purposes, to specifically exclude those who no longer

“have a mobile or transitory lifestyle”.

That is problematic, because many people in the Traveller community have settled or wish to settle and their needs should be taken into account. However, there are also people in the Traveller community who are no longer

26 Nov 2014 : Column 313WH

mobile, because they are frail and elderly, and it would be terrible if their needs were not taken into consideration in assessing the number of sites that might be needed in a particular area. I am keen to hear what the Minister has to say about that issue. It is unfortunate that the Government seem to be interpreting identity for the Traveller community, when that is clearly something that the Traveller community needs to do itself.

It is hard to see where the Government are going with ensuring that enough sites are brought forward, so I hope the Minister will think carefully about the consequences of his proposals. I want to know what he will do to ensure that proper policies are in place, particularly those of local authorities.

I met representatives of the Traveller community recently and they pointed out that there is already an acute shortage of sites. In fact, that shortage was highlighted as long ago as 2010, when it was said that it would take about 27 years to meet the five-year pitch requirements, based on local authorities’ progress at that time, and things have got worse in recent years.

This shortage leads to a situation where as many as 20% of Gypsies and Travellers living in caravans are legally classified as homeless. We know about the impact of homelessness on people, especially children, in their health, educational attainment and general well-being, but it seems that punitive measures are making it more difficult for Travellers to get authorisation for their sites and that harsher punishments are being introduced.

I will stop for a moment to tell Government Members that I know that they all think that I am putting the needs of the Traveller community before those of the settled community. I am not doing that, but my concern is that if we do not try to achieve a better balance between the needs of the two communities and if we do not involve the settled community in meaningful discussions about where Traveller sites should be located and for how long—whether they should be short-term or longer-term—the problems will not go away. They might go from Peterborough into the next constituency, but all that would do is shunt the problems around, and as policy makers, we must ensure that we are not doing that.

Jackie Doyle-Price: I agree with the point that the hon. Lady is making, but should local authorities not only enforce against unauthorised sites but become more involved with the Traveller community to identify where tolerated sights might be able to emerge, because the situation at the site in Buckles lane in my constituency —after 14 years with no proper authorisation—just is not on?

Roberta Blackman-Woods: The hon. Lady is making a valid point. I was just about to come on to local authorities. I want to ask the Minister what he is doing to ensure that they work collaboratively and that all the relevant local stakeholders are involved in developing effective strategies; we cannot have strategies that just sit in a document somewhere in the town or county hall.

I need to hear from the Minister what he will do to ensure that local authorities make adequate provision for Travellers, that such provision is adequately policed and reviewed and that the services and infrastructure to support those sites are in place. I also need to hear what

26 Nov 2014 : Column 314WH

funding mechanisms he will use to ensure that we have sites that work properly and achieve a reasonable balance between the needs of the resident community and the Traveller community, while respecting both cultures.

3.44 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing the debate, which gives us a chance to highlight some of the issues that are being faced, particularly, as the title of the debate shows, in the east of England. Such debates are important—this one is a really good example—because they give a chance for Members to shine a light of transparency on what is going on in their local community.

I appreciate that many of the issues raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) and for Harlow, and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), are about some of the agencies, including local authorities, or about giving a message, very clearly and publicly, to the police and crime commissioner. I have no doubt that PCCs will pick up that message, not only because they are watching Parliament TV, but because the debate has attracted the attention of our excellent “Look East” BBC team, whom I can see in the Gallery. That sort of transparency shows why such debates are important.

I am somewhat disappointed by the comments of the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods), who speaks for the Opposition, because she clearly has not taken the time to examine some of the issues affecting the east of England. Had she done so, she might have understood a bit more about the problems that I saw in Harlow when I visited with my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow. I understood and saw for myself just how badly let down the people of Harlow have been by the Labour-run council there, and I will come to that point in a moment. I have also seen some of the issues in Thurrock, and I know from my background how the previous Government let down the people of Basildon by not supporting the council there in its issues with Travellers for so many years—those issues were finally sorted out only in the past couple of years.

We are concerned about unauthorised Traveller encampments and the effect they have on local communities. We recognise the deep concern among communities in Harlow and elsewhere, and the demand for urgent action. It is clearly unacceptable that communities should suffer the level of distress and expense caused by the unauthorised camps that we have repeatedly seen in Harlow and elsewhere. As I say, I visited Harlow to see what was happening. I was troubled by what I saw and heard—not only by the comments of the residents, but particularly the comments of the Labour council, which, to be blunt, misled both me and my hon. Friend. I wrote to him to clarify the truth of the situation and will touch on that in a moment.

I must stress that this is a problem caused by a small minority of Travellers, but their actions harm the general relations between the Traveller community and the wider settled community, which is not fair on both communities.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 315WH

Nationally, the number of caravans on unauthorised encampments has been falling, but I understand that that is of little comfort to communities such as those in Harlow and Thurrock that have had to endure the level of unauthorised camps we have seen in the past year or so. I will seek urgent discussions with my ministerial colleagues in both the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice—I know that the Justice Secretary is visiting Harlow this week—to consider what more can be done.

I will explore with my colleagues what might be hindering some local agencies from using the powers that are available to them. Hon. Members have made the point that there are already substantial powers available to allow for swift action to stop unauthorised encampments, but they are not yet being fully used by either the local authorities or the police.

As I have said, local authorities and the police have a range of strong powers that can be used. Where they are used promptly, we believe that they are sufficient. However, the Government are open to representations about how enforcement can be improved. As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough rightly said, in August 2013 we sent all council leaders updated guidance to set out the powers they have. It told councils that they can consider working with the local police and landowners to secure sites and identify vulnerable sites; that they should prepare their paperwork in advance, so that they are ready when they know things are likely to happen; and that they should develop a clear notification and decision-making process. We also reminded them of the general ability, and need, to act swiftly.

Councils and landowners can obtain a possession order to remove trespassers from land. They can apply to the courts for pre-emptive injunctions, which prevent unauthorised camping in a defined geographical area. In addition, we have lifted the previous Administration’s restrictions on the use of temporary stop notices, giving councils more freedom to take early and decisive action against unauthorised sites and encampments. Councils can issue such a notice on both private and public sector land.

Local authorities and the police can use the strong powers available in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, as my hon. Friends outlined. Under section 77, a local authority can direct people residing in vehicles to leave land occupied without the consent of the landowner. If the trespassers do not leave when directed to do so, or if they return to that land within three months, they are committing an offence.

The police have powers under section 61 to direct trespassers from land when requested by a public or private landowner, and when the trespassers have caused criminal damage. That goes directly to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden —he is right about a criminal offence in that regard. They may also use those powers when trespassers have engaged in abusive or intimidating behaviour, or if six or more vehicles are trespassing on the land. We have seen that situation elsewhere. I have seen that happen in Harlow as well as in Thurrock. If the trespassers do not leave when directed to do so, or if they return to the land within three months, they are committing an offence.

The strongest police powers under section 62A can be used where vacant authorised Traveller pitches are available in the local authority area. If, after being directed from land, the Travellers return to the district as trespassers

26 Nov 2014 : Column 316WH

within three months, they are committing an offence. That is where Harlow council has let down residents and has misled my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow, as we clarified after our meeting. I am sure he will remember that, when we visited Harlow, the council said it was trying to take advantage and bid for the pot

of Homes and Communities Agency money—Government money—provided to get sites back into use, and it outlined to me the number of sites it had available. Under questioning, we eventually got the council to admit that one of the sites had not been in use for some years. It said it was looking to bring it back into use and had bid for Government money to do so. I was therefore somewhat surprised when I returned to the Department and found out that it had made no such bid, as I outlined to my hon. Friend. Harlow council should be more honest with people and straight about what it is doing. It should stand up and fight for the people of Harlow in the way that my hon. Friend is so admirably and passionately doing, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock is doing for her constituency.

I note the concern and confusion about the powers available to local authorities, the police and other agencies. We will look again at our summary of powers document to ensure it is crystal clear to the agencies and, more importantly, to the public, who can also help to hold the agencies to account.

Local authorities should be addressing their Traveller communities’ site needs through the local plan-making process. I am sure the hon. Member for City of Durham is aware of how the local plan process works. It is there for local authorities to do just that. However, a lack of locally available pitches is not an excuse for unauthorised encampments and antisocial behaviour, and should not in itself stop councils or the police taking action.

Mr Stewart Jackson: There is also a question of consistency. If someone is found to be committing a criminal offence on the property of a registered social landlord such as a housing association, they can probably be evicted. How many times has that happened on a fixed Traveller pitch, when someone, or a family, is engaging in criminal activity? How often are they evicted? I am not sure there is equality in that regard. That needs to be clarified by Government regulation or guidance.

Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend makes a strong point. We will feed through some issues he and other hon. Friends have raised to colleagues in the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.

I shall touch briefly on what we have done to ensure that planning for site provision works more effectively and, importantly, as hon. Members have rightly said, fairly. We removed the top-down regional strategies and plans that caused so much resentment. Our planning policy for Traveller sites puts the provision of sites into the hands of local councils. They have to consult local communities as well as ensure they are protecting the green-belt land and our great countryside.

Local authorities have to identify a suitable five-year supply of Traveller sites to meet their objectively assessed needs in line with national planning policy, so it is very much in their hands. I know the hon. Member for City of Durham did not realise this—I am sure she will read the national planning policy framework soon—but it is

26 Nov 2014 : Column 317WH

in the hands of local authorities, as part of working out what their needs are, to assess what is right and appropriate for them locally.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: Will the Minister give way?

Brandon Lewis: No, I am just going to finish this point.

We are supporting this process with site provision, funding and financial incentives. We set aside £60 million Traveller pitch funding—the programme is looking to deliver 625 new and 369 refurbished pitches by 2015. There will also be funding for new Traveller pitches through the 2015 to 2018 affordable homes programme. Perhaps Harlow council will do the right thing and look again at that—it claimed it had done so, but clearly had not.

We have become somewhat concerned about the right balance being struck between the need to increase site provision, the interests of the settled community and the protection of the green belt and other sensitive areas. We are considering responses to our consultation, which closed on 23 November. The hon. Lady asked about that. I am sure she will appreciate that we are considering those responses.

The proposals aim to ensure fairness in the planning system while strengthening protections for the green belt and the countryside, and to address the negative effects of unauthorised occupation of land. That is why we propose that Travellers who have settled and permanently stopped travelling should be treated in the same way as any other member of the permanently settled community. Those with genuinely nomadic lifestyles should continue to be treated as Travellers in planning law. That will help to ensure that local authorities, in planning their authorised site provision, are meeting the needs of those who lead a nomadic lifestyle.

We also propose to make it clear in planning policy that intentional unauthorised occupation should be a material consideration that weighs against the granting of any permissions. All applicants should apply through a proper planning process before occupying land, as any other person should do.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 318WH

Finally, the Government believe it is unfair that a small number of authorities have to plan to meet the site needs of people who ignore planning rules and occupy large unauthorised sites. That discourages councils from taking early enforcement action. Under our proposals, there would be no assumption that local authorities that face that problem, and that are subject to planning constraints in their area, would have to plan to meet their site needs in full.

Unauthorised encampments are a serious local issue, and there are strong powers available to councils and the police to deal with them. Where those powers are used swiftly, we believe they are sufficient, but we are open to representations about how enforcement could be improved. Police and crime commissioners, who are themselves democratically accountable, are in place to hold chief constables to account for their policing decisions. I want the police and police and crime commissioners, and district and county councils, working together to take on and deal with the problem of unauthorised encampments, and to make use of the powers they have.

Roberta Blackman-Woods: I assure the Minister that the Opposition understand that it is the responsibility of local authorities to bring sites forward. However, perhaps he will say what his Government are doing to support local authorities in delivering enough sites, particularly to make up the backlog.

Brandon Lewis: If the hon. Lady reads Hansard, she will see that a few moments ago, I outlined the £60 million-odd we have put in for the extra Traveller encampments. I just wish that Labour-run Harlow had taken advantage of that and made a bid for it, as it told us it had—in fact, it had not done so.

It is important that those organisations work together, but I am worried that the community in Harlow has not benefited from it. I will seek urgent discussions with my ministerial colleagues to consider what more we can do. I look forward to working with colleagues who have spoken about how we ensure that our policy delivers, not just for the people of Harlow and the east of England, but right across our country.

3.57 pm

Sitting suspended.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 319WH

Roads in Sittingbourne and Sheppey

4.15 pm

Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con): May I say how delightful it is to see you in the Chair, Mr Chope? I believe that this is the first time that you have chaired a sitting that I have attended in the four and half years that I have been a Member of Parliament, so it is a delight.

This is the third time in two years that I have raised the issue of roads in my constituency. I make no apologies for that, because improving the road infrastructure in Sittingbourne and Sheppey is key to not only the future prosperity of my constituents, but the safety of many motorists.

As I mentioned in those previous speeches, the growth potential in Sittingbourne and Sheppey is enormous. With that growth will come jobs and prosperity. For instance, within the next 10 years, the Eurolink industrial estate in Sittingbourne could well grow to become the largest industrial park in southern England. The Kent science park, which is at the forefront of biotech and life sciences, is thriving and is keen to expand. Several large companies are based at Ridham in north Sittingbourne, including the Morrisons regional distribution centre and the largest paper mill in the country. A new logistics hub was also opened earlier this year by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill). A couple of weeks ago on Sheppey, Peel Ports unveiled its 20-year plan for Sheerness docks that will see a major expansion of activities. In addition, a planning application has now been submitted for the first stage in the regeneration of Sittingbourne town centre, to begin, I hope, early next year, and a new retail park is being developed at Neats Court in Queenborough.

Those are all positive indicators of a better future for my constituency, but their success will rely on several road improvements, including on the A249, one of the busiest A roads in the south-east, which is getting busier because of the large number of houses being built in my constituency. The A249 has several problem areas that I have mentioned in previous speeches, and I want to return quickly to five of them, the first of which is the Stockbury roundabout, which is located at junction 5 of the M2.

My right hon. Friend the Minister is aware of this problem, because he kindly arranged for his officials to visit my constituency recently to discuss the junction with me. Everybody recognises that we need major investment to provide a long-term solution to the daily congestion at the roundabout. Indeed, I would not be exaggerating if I said that solving that problem is the main key to unlocking the door for more commercial development in the area. With that in mind, I recently wrote to the Chancellor and urged him to consider improvements to the Stockbury roundabout when he is drawing up his next priority roads list. I would welcome any support that the Minister could give to ensure my request receives a sympathetic hearing.

Something also needs to be done about the increasingly busy Grovehurst roundabout, which services the regional distribution centre and the paper mill that I mentioned earlier. One solution would be to upgrade the current

26 Nov 2014 : Column 320WH

quite inadequate road that links Ridham to the A249 at the south side of the Sheppey crossing, which is another problem that I will address later.

The next pinch point is the Cowstead Corner roundabout on Sheppey, which is at the junction of the A249 and the A2500. The congestion is caused by traffic lights at the junction between the A2500 and Barton Hill road. Traffic often tails back on to the main A249 dual carriageway, which is an increasing danger to road safety in the area. The Barton Hill road junction is the responsibility of Kent highways authority, with which I am in constant communication, so I appreciate that it is not directly in the Minister’s purview. However, because of the safety implications for traffic on the A249, which is the responsibility of his Department, will he consider putting pressure on the highways authority to take urgent action to upgrade the Barton Hill road traffic lights in an effort to bring an end to the daily nightmare experienced by my constituents who use the A2500? Here, I should declare an interest: I am one of those frustrated motorists.

The fourth problem on the A249 is that the dual-carriageway section ends at the Queenborough road traffic lights, becoming a single carriageway along Brielle way. That is the route into Sheerness docks. I want to see the dualling extended about half a mile further down Brielle way and straight into the docks. I appreciate that we are unlikely to see such a development any time soon, but if the docks expand in the next 20 years, as promised by Peel Ports, the improvements are vital. I will continue to hammer down the stake that I first put in the ground in the Chamber two years ago.

Finally, I will talk about the Sheppey crossing, which is where the real danger to the safety of motorists kicks in. When the crossing was first built, concerns were expressed about its safety, not least by the then chief constable of Kent, Mike Fuller, and by me. It was pointed out that there is no hard shoulder on the bridge, no lighting, no emergency telephones, no permanent matrix signs and no closed circuit television cameras. In response, we were assured that the design of the bridge was perfectly safe.

In September last year, a multiple pile-up on the Sheppey crossing involved 150 vehicles, making it the largest pile-up in this country’s history. I visited the crash scene and it was like a war zone, with a number of seriously injured people, but miraculously and thankfully no one was killed. I asked for a review of safety on the bridge, but eventually the Highways Agency concluded that the design of the bridge was not a factor. That conclusion was based on a police report suggesting that the cause of the series of accidents was inappropriate driving in the prevailing conditions. The report, however, made it clear that the police had investigated only the individual crashes contributing to the total pile-up, but not whether the design of the bridge was a factor.

A few months ago a mother and her son, tragically, were killed when their car broke down on the Sheppey crossing. The police investigation into the accident is ongoing, so I will not say too much about the circumstances. Again, I called for a review of safety on the bridge, but the response of the Highways Agency is that it cannot comment on the accident, nor undertake a review of safety, until it receives from the police the report into the most recent tragedy. I appreciate that the Highways Agency cannot prejudge the causes of the accident, or

26 Nov 2014 : Column 321WH

say or do anything to prejudice any court case that might arise from it, but I do not understand why a review of safety cannot be undertaken as a result of last year’s series of crashes.

I am increasingly concerned about the length of time that the police investigation is taking and I am worried about what might happen while the Highways Agency waits for the report. That worry was brought into sharp relief by an e-mail that I received only on Friday from Eileen Nicol, who lives on Sheppey:

“I have had one of the most frightening experiences of my life this morning when the clutch on my car seized and I was stuck at the top of the bridge around 7.15 am on my way off the Island”—

it would have been dark at the time—

“I waited around 15/20 minutes before the police came to close the road before experiencing cars coming up behind me at great speed and I can tell you I was terrified that something would hit me.

Why is nothing being done to make this bridge safe? The police told me they think it is so dangerous if someone’s electrics go and they are in the dark. They would stand no chance. I felt so vulnerable and could only sit there whilst cars tore past me at great speed. Some came up so fast making decisions to move into the fast lane at the last moment.

Something must be done before there is another death. I would like to know if there are now plans to improve safety and can you please make this your priority as our MP.”

Eileen Nicol is right. Something must be done, and it must be done soon. My constituents and I have waited for more than a year for the Highways Agency to undertake a review of safety on the bridge. After the September 2013 pile-up, as a bare minimum I called for proper matrix warning signs on the bridge. I still think that we need those signs, but I am absolutely convinced that we now need to consider even more measures, such as using average-speed cameras to enforce the 70 mph speed limit, better CCTV monitoring of the bridge to spot breakdowns sooner and to enable the police to close the bridge quicker and the installation of emergency telephones and refuge bays, so that people do not have to stay in their cars if they break down.

Through you, Mr Chope, I would like to make the following plea to my right hon. Friend the Minister. My constituents and I have been very patient with the Highways Agency, but that patience is wearing thin. Please will he put pressure on the agency to undertake a safety review of the Sheppey crossing and to do so without any further delay?

4.25 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr John Hayes): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in the Westminster Hall Chamber, Mr Chope, and to respond to the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson). Can there be a more diligent representative of his constituents’ interests than my hon. Friend? He has illustrated his concern, diligence and eloquence again today. I congratulate him on securing the debate and on all those virtues. The subject is of great importance to him, and he has emphasised that it was not the first time he had drawn it to the attention of the House.

My hon. Friend highlighted the issue of congestion on the major roads in his area, and he needs to know that

26 Nov 2014 : Column 322WH

I acknowledge that concern and recognise its consequences. It is vital for us all to understand the connection between good transport links and economic success. We have announced increased levels of funding to deliver improvements all around the trunk road network, targeted at supporting economic growth. Our commitment to deliver a step change in future investment in transport infrastructure was made clear by the Chancellor in his statement of 26 June last year, in which he announced the conclusions of the 2013 spending review: £28 billion is to be spent on enhancing and maintaining local and national roads. That sum includes £10.7 billion for major national road projects and £4.9 billion for local major projects, as well as some £12 billion for maintenance, with nearly £6 billion for repairs to local roads and £6 billion for maintenance of strategic roads, including the resurfacing of no less than 80% of the network.

I will attempt to deal with all the issues raised by my hon. Friend, because they all matter, but if I do not have time, I hope that he will agree that I may write to him, responding formally. I will refer to and be informed by the material prepared for me by my civil servants, but I will not feel constrained by it, because I want to respond specifically to a number of the points my hon. Friend made, including the vivid account of the disturbing events that punctuated and added power to the last part of his contribution.

It might be useful if I say a little more about the approach that we are taking, as that is the mechanism by which we will look at issues on roads such as the A249 and the M2 in the vicinity of Sittingbourne and Sheppey, including improvements to junctions on the M2, such as at junction 5, the Stockbury roundabout. The Highways Agency will produce a uniform set of strategies for the entire network, including the M2, A249 and M20, as part of the “Kent corridors to M25” route strategy. The strategies will establish outline operational and investment priorities for all routes on the strategic road network for the period up to March 2021 —and, by the way, give an indication of priorities beyond that date.

Last autumn, local enterprise partnerships, local authorities and other interested groups were invited to contribute to discussions about the current and future performance of the strategic road network to help identify particular concerns and priorities in their area. The stage 1 evidence reports were published in April and are available on the Highways Agency website. If Members who prefer a more traditional form of communication would like me to let them have those reports on plain, ordinary, everyday paper, I am happy to do so.

The Highways Agency and the Department are using that evidence to identify priority locations for future investment in the strategic road network. My hon. Friend will appreciate that although I am not in a position to say anything further today about the specific proposals emerging from those preliminary studies, they are being studied by the Department in the lead up to the autumn statement and will help to inform our road investment strategy, about which we will say a good deal more, not in months or even weeks, but in the coming days.

What I can say today relates to specific issues raised by my hon. Friend. I will start with the A249 Grovehurst junction. The junction has been improved in recent times, as he knows; nevertheless I make a commitment to him

26 Nov 2014 : Column 323WH

that the Highways Agency will continue to work with the local council, developers and local communities to assess the situation and bring forward, as necessary, any further improvements. I invite him to be a contributor to that process; indeed, this debate has been a catalyst for that further consideration.

Although the A249 Brielle way operates satisfactorily at the moment, I agree that, as the docks are regenerated, all parties, led by the Highways Agency, will need to consider carefully what further improvements, if any, are required to ensure that economic growth can occur and that local communities have safe, reliable access to their homes, schools and jobs. Once again, I invite my hon. Friend to contribute to that discussion. If we need to do more, we will.

I turn now to the A2500—how does one express that? What is the common parlance?

Gordon Henderson: We mix it up. Sometimes we call it the twenty-five hundred; sometimes it is the two thousand five hundred. The reason it is sometimes called the twenty-five hundred is because the A250 comes off the A249 and that was the only name it could have.

Mr Hayes: My hon. Friend has prevented me from making an important semantic error. I am grateful for his advice in that respect. I understand that the Cowstead Corner junction must be proving a frustration for motorists. It is indeed for Kent county council, as the local transport authority, to look at the junction and take a view as to whether there are any short or longer-term measures that can be taken to improve its safety. Nevertheless, as a result of his overtures, I have asked the Highways Agency to liaise with the county on the matter.

It is widely recognised that the condition and efficiency of the local road network are essential to economic growth. By their very nature, practically all journeys start or finish on local roads, and such roads are relied upon by local residents and businesses alike. In those terms, all roads are local.

As my hon. Friend will know, local road funding in the guise of integrated transport block funding is available to local transport authorities in England outside London, for small transport improvement projects such as road safety schemes, junction improvements and cycling infrastructure. The funding allows local authorities to ensure that their transport networks are kept in good condition, enabling them to improve road safety and stimulate local economies by reducing congestion and improving safety. Between 2011-12 and 2014-15, Kent county council will have received £39.4 million through that funding route and will receive an additional £41 million between 2015-16 and 2020-21.

Highways maintenance block funding is also given to local transport authorities in England outside London to improve carriageways, pavements and so forth. The funding allows local authorities to ensure their highway networks are kept in good condition, to improve road safety and to stimulate local economic growth by reducing damage to vehicles and goods. Between 2011-12 and 2014-15, Kent county council will have received £120 million for highways maintenance. The 2013 spending review commits to providing just under £6 billion to local highway authorities over the next six-year period. That equates to £976 million per year and highlights the

26 Nov 2014 : Column 324WH

Government’s commitment to the country’s most valuable public asset and to ensuring that our local highways are fit for purpose.

My hon. Friend will know that in July this year, as part of the long-term economic plan that is yielding such benefit not only to our economy but to the well-being of our people, the Government announced a series of local growth deals with local enterprise partnerships across England. Almost 80% of the £64 million allocated to the South East LEP for 2015-16 will go to a range of transport projects, including £2.5 million for a Sittingbourne town centre regeneration scheme. I know that he has been at the heart of the work done on that project; indeed, I am not absolutely certain that it would have occurred without his diligence and his campaigning work with other local representatives in that part of Kent. The work we will do there will be informed by local understanding. It is vital that all agencies are sensitive to local concerns. I invite him to make any representations he sees fit, through me, to the relevant agencies.

I turn now to the Sheppey crossing, with which my hon. Friend dealt in the last part of his remarks. I completely understand why he is raising the matter of the Sheppey bridge. My sympathies and condolences go out to those involved in the fog-related incident in September 2013 and the fatalities in July 2014.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Highways Agency is taking those incidents very seriously indeed. It has assisted with both of the police investigations and with the current coroner’s investigation. As he made clear, it would be inappropriate to say too much more about the specifics of those events before the investigations have been completed—I know he would not want me to do that. I can tell this Chamber that the Highways Agency is conducting its own internal reviews and is examining options for various potential improvements. He has long called for those improvements, and did so again today. However, it would be wrong to prejudice the police or the coroner’s findings by making any proposals public at this time. As he is aware, the Highways Agency has agreed to meet him and other interested parties as soon as is possible to discuss concerns and ideas and take matters forward as appropriate.

I will go a little further, if I may, not withstanding my caveat. I listened closely to what my hon. Friend said. He ended his remarks by saying that something must be done, and it occurs to me that more indeed is needed. I do not want to prejudge the detail, but it seems to me that the status quo is not an option.

Perhaps I can just say this: my hon. Friend has spoken about safety on the bridge. The account of the pile-up in 2013, with which he is fully familiar, leads me to believe, as he does, that the events that his constituent endured could have led to a similar incident. I do not want to over-dramatise, but given what he has told us today it seems important that we act very promptly indeed once the investigations are complete. I give him the undertaking that when they are complete, within a very short time—I suggest within 14 days—we will convene a meeting, with which he should be involved, and that from that meeting, again within a short time, we will produce some preliminary proposals. Those proposals will then need to be considered in some detail for their feasibility and cost-effectiveness, and we will want to engage the wider community as well, but it does not

26 Nov 2014 : Column 325WH

seem to me to be unreasonable to introduce a degree of alacrity into the process, given the powerful case he has made.

I have been clear in this all-too-brief contribution to the House’s affairs today that the Government are committed to, and have set out plans for, large-scale investments to improve both local and strategic road networks. I would go further, and say that this Government are taking a more considered, strategic, long-term and wide-ranging view of those kinds of investments than any of our predecessors. We have put together a strategy, looked at the feasibility of delivering it and put the money in place to back it, putting an end to the annualised funding and the piecemeal and reactive policies that—I say this without unnecessary contumely—may have characterised earlier Administrations. Both the forthcoming road investment strategy and the local growth fund provide opportunities for local partners to ensure that future transport needs are identified and that they reflect what is required locally. Once again, my hon. Friend has shown that not only does he have an insight into these matters, but he is truly the people’s champion in Sittingbourne and Sheppey.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 326WH

Gleision Mine

4.40 pm

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab) It is a pleasure, Mr Chope, to serve under your chairmanship.

On Thursday 15 September 2011, seven men left their homes and commuted to work at the Gleision pit in my constituency. Having drunk their morning tea, they moved underground just after 9 o’clock to labour on the number two Rhondda seam. Wearing high-visibility jackets and safety gear, they expected to work until 5 o’clock and then return to their families. Instead, at 9.45 am, a small explosion that they detonated led to the release in a matter of seconds of 3,000 tonnes of water into a shaft hardly 4 feet high. The exact sequence of events is unknown, but the mine manager, Malcolm Fyfield, was close to the inrush. Astonishingly, he was able to survive the torrent of water and climb through the breach hole, finally to emerge bloodied, having struggled out of another entrance to the mine.

Further from the breach, David Wyatt heard the roar from the coming torrent and ran until he was able to jump on a conveyor belt, which carried him to the main mine entrance, the water chasing him through the passage. There, he alerted his colleague, Nigel Evans, and the emergency services were called. Daniel Powell, another collier in the mine, was also lucky to escape after running from the inrush. Those three were the only men to survive. Charles Breslin, Philip Hill, Garry Jenkins and David Powell were crushed by the terrifying raging force of the flood. With nearly a century of mining experience between them, those colliers had laboured in mines across the Swansea, Neath and Dulais valleys all their working lives. Charles Breslin had returned from retirement for a stint down Gleision to earn extra money to complete the family home he was building.

In the hours immediately after the explosion, teams from across Britain came to the fore as emergency services from Dinas, Cwmgwrach, Glynneath and even Yorkshire rushed to help in a frantic rescue operation and the subsequent investigation. Down the mountain in Rhos community centre, the families of the trapped men gathered with community leaders in a 36-hour vigil until the miners’ bodies were eventually recovered and gradually identified, and everyone began to come to terms with the trauma, and the families with their stunned grief. Today, over three years on, we are no closer to being told by any of the key agencies or the justice system why Charles, David, Philip and Garry died.

This is not an exercise in finding someone to blame. There was a trial and the manager and mine owners were acquitted of manslaughter and corporate manslaughter respectively. Mining is inherently dangerous, but neither I nor the families who were present during the long hours of that sad vigil in Rhos community centre have been given answers as to why the accident occurred by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Health and Safety Executive or indeed the trial at Swansea county court earlier this year. I am therefore left to make my own judgment after careful assessment of the trial evidence and other inquiries.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall. Can he say what happened at the inquest? Unfortunately,

26 Nov 2014 : Column 327WH

I have been involved with deaths in the mining industry all my life, and normally there is some indication from an inquest of how an individual died.

Mr Hain: My hon. Friend speaks with great authority as a former leader of the National Union of Mineworkers. The coroner’s inquest was convened and then adjourned, and has never been completed, which has left unanswered questions.

The Gleision tragedy was a chilling reminder of a death-strewn mining era long thought consigned to history, and of the fact that short-cut attitudes to health and safety can be fatal. It also revealed how erosion of the Mines Rescue Service could create greater tragedies in the future if we fail to address the formidable budget challenges that that key agency faces if it is to maintain its long and dedicated record on mining.

The first lesson is that employers must be responsible for their employees in a way that was obviously not the case at Gleision. Throughout its recent life, it seems there was illegal mining at Gleision, certainly in the decade prior to 2011. At the trial, Mr Justice Wyn Williams said that successive managers had read into health and safety regulations what suited their needs, failing to co-operate sufficiently with Her Majesty’s inspectorate of mines. Despite this, the mines inspectors confirmed that the mine plan from which the manager and the four men were working, even as they detonated that fatal blast, was accurate. The inspectors checked during the official investigation after the tragedy and found that, although Gleision had not been inspected in the 16 months prior to the accident—an attempt to do so had been foiled by bad weather—the survey conducted two months before in July 2011 by mines surveyor John Brosnan was up to date and sufficiently accurate.

Of course, the Management and Administration of Safety and Health at Mines Regulations 1993 made it incumbent on the mine manager or owner to inform the mines inspectorate of any major changes in working plans underground. The inspectorate relies on the mutual co-operation of the mine manager and mine owner to alert to changes in the faces that they seam, and it is more than likely that multiple Gleision managers before Malcolm Fyfield had failed to do that adequately and properly.

The entire legal framework of health and safety at work in Britain is sensibly based on a self-policing model, relying on companies and their executives to comply with and guarantee safety standards by keeping risk as low as reasonably practicable. It is clear to me that in the events leading up to the tragedy the regulations were not complied with. However, the most frustrating question, and the one that haunts us all, is: why were the four miners there facing death in the first place?

The day after the tragedy, having been escorted from Rhos community centre up the mountain to stand at the mine entrance amid rescue workers and police, the mines inspector showed me the same mine plan from which Fyfield and the men were working. It showed clearly that they were mining directly towards an area in the old mine workings marked “Old Central Workings and Underground Water”. I have the mine plan here. The mines inspector expressed his surprise at this, and there is still no explanation for why the decision to take that risk was made.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 328WH

The exact source of the water—whether it was in the area marked on the plan I saw, only a few metres from where the men fatefully detonated their explosion, or somewhere else nearby—was hotly disputed during the trial. The fact remains that the water was indeed there, exactly as marked on the mine plan, and that it killed them. Mines inspectors investigating the accident afterwards confirmed that its presence coincided with markings on the plan I saw. Indeed, they were able to see the high tide mark previously reached by the water that subsequently raged torrentially through the breach.

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing this sad debate to the Chamber today. Is it true that this is not a one-off, and that some of the regulations on water ingress into mines were developed because of tragedies such as this? There was one in the 1970s at Houghton Main in Yorkshire, when exactly the same discussions took place. That is one reason why the need to map out where water lay was built into the inspection regimes. That is why it is clear that plans should be checked regularly, and not just cast to one side.

Mr Hain: I agree with my hon. Friend. He also speaks with great authority as a former miner.

Mr Fyfield, who was the mines manager, is highly respected and experienced. He told the court that he went into the old workings to check for the presence of water marked on the plan and found none. Somehow, there was a catastrophic misjudgment. The water was indeed there, and it nearly killed him, just as it killed the four miners. Built into the regulations is a statutory procedure that could have prevented all this. A precautions against inrush scheme would surely have given the men an indication of the presence of the water. There can be no question but that it should have been implemented, because the Mines (Precautions Against Inrushes) Regulations 1979 demand that if miners are moving towards a suspected hazard, a PAI scheme be created.

These were all experienced miners, led by an expert and experienced mine manager, yet the Health and Safety Executive has not yet explained—neither has the trial evidence nor the verdict—why those crucial regulations were not followed. Whether motivated by cost-cutting, or simply the result of a cataclysmically mistaken judgment, the decision was taken to blast too close to the water, and four men died as a consequence, the manager only narrowly escaping, emerging so bloodied, severely injured and traumatised that he needed intensive hospital care to get back on his feet.

In 2011, the mines safety expert Dave Feickert claimed that it was possible to have a no-fatality mining industry in the UK, such was the strength of HSE regulations, yet at Gleision, those were ignored. In my view, that is the truth that should have been established by the trial and never was. Although the verdict is the verdict, it delivered neither justice nor accountability to the victims of the tragedy and their families. They have all been failed by the justice system and by the absence of a full coroner’s inquest. It was only through the immense efforts of the fantastic Mines Rescue Service, together with Walter Energy and the Unity mine, close to Gleision in the Neath valley, and which, unlike now, were fully operating at the time, that the bodies were recovered and the accident could be fully investigated.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 329WH

After the tragedy in 2011, in an open letter to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, I warned of three things. The first was that without proper review, the Mines Rescue Service would risk becoming so chronically underfunded that it would be unable to provide the stellar service to Britain’s mines that, following coal privatisation, it was set up to in 1996. Secondly, I warned that were the current funding arrangements to continue, the cost to British mining of the MRS would become prohibitive, unless it was subsidised by Government. Thirdly, I stated that both those factors would combine to reduce and diminish the vital mutually co-operative spirit that is at the heart of the Mines Rescue Service and the coal industry in Britain, irreparably changing them for the worse.

The coal industry has changed a great deal in the three subsequent years. Faced with increasing international competition and dwindling profit margins, more coal mines in the UK have had to shut down. The Mines Rescue Service has been forced to change its funding structure in order to carry on providing a service to British mines while not having its viability impinged on too badly. However, under new regulations, the few remaining mines in Britain will no longer be obliged to pay a levy to the Mines Rescue Service, and instead will have a commercial relationship with a suitable provider should a disaster occur.

The MRS has evolved to become a successfully run enterprise able to diversify and rely on fees from its other work. In 1996, the MRS levy on each mine was able to cover its core costs, but the relentless closure of British mines since means that the coal levy now accounts for only 11% of the Mines Rescue Service budget, and even that is predicted to drop to 7% next year. That clearly impacts on the capability of the MRS to carry out its vital mines emergency service. Indeed, I strongly suspect that the MRS centre at Dinas in the Rhondda valley may have to be closed and its facilities transferred perhaps to Mansfield in England, because there are no longer sufficient south Wales mines to fund it.

Since 1996, the MRS has not received a penny of support from the Government. In the heyday of British Coal, it had the resources to deliver a universal rescue service. Even after privatisation, mines paid the levy because it did not affect their profitability. Instead, a mutually co-operative understanding ensured that aid would come if an accident occurred in a mine. The MRS scheme covered the costs of funding when it was called into action, and additional costs fell to the mine or to nearby mines.

For three weeks after the accident, when the Gleision mine was investigated, the HSE became responsible for keeping the mine open because Gleision’s owners, MNS Mining Ltd, could not afford to do so. Under normal circumstances, the costs of investigation and rescue would be placed on the mining business in question. However, the finances of MNS were so precarious that that was simply not feasible. Such a scenario had never been encountered before by the Health and Safety Executive and the mines inspectorate, and they deserve a great deal of credit for ensuring that a full investigation was carried out despite experiencing budget cuts, yet they should not have been put in that position.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 330WH

Although the MRS has a team of core rescue specialists, it relies heavily on the mutual co-operation of other British mines, which provide their own men to aid the rescue effort, as well as equipment and resources. In 2011, as I said, those were provided by Walter Energy and Unity, two mining companies nearby in my constituency, and the unsung heroes of the disaster. However, the rescue effort was much more fragile than it appeared. The co-operative ethos, which is the foundation of the MRS, is based on a pooling of fiscal and technical resources in the event of an accident, and was built on the foundations provided by the Coal Board’s central fund, yet Gleision clearly exposed flaws in the mutual co-operation model that were not envisaged when the scheme was set up.

The financial costs of keeping the mine safely open to enable South Wales police and the HSE to investigate fell on the shoulders of the HSE together with Walter Energy and Unity, which were also sacrificing men and equipment to investigators, and this was a heavy burden. By Friday 16 September 2011, the day after the tragedy, Walter Energy alone had covered costs of £77,645 for the recovery and investigation, yet by December had still received no recompense. Last year, it laid off over 100 men, and the Aberpergwm pit has since been on care and maintenance, as has the Unity mine, both victims of the falling price of coal, yet they were both essential to the rescue effort.

As a result of all that, if there were ever to be a future Gleision-type accident, both a rescue and a full investigation might not be feasible. When I was the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in 2007-08, the HSE’s budget was £215 million. By last year, it had been cut by £50 million, or a quarter, to £165 million. Unless the Government provide more money for mines rescue and the HSE, accidents in mining will be more frequent, as self-policing health and safety and self-funding rescue and investigation services are no longer viable or fit for purpose.

I was one of the many community leaders who, over those long hours, observed the heroic and dedicated efforts of mines rescue workers, supported by highly professional police officers, other emergency workers and mines inspectors. I am full of praise for all of them. None of us knew at the time that there was never a chance of rescuing the men who died, but at least their bodies were recovered, in dark, dangerous and filthy conditions. The families of Philip, David, Garry and Charles have conducted themselves with dignity and deserve enormous praise from all. They do not seek vengeance and scapegoats, and nor do I; all they have asked for is justice, but they have still not received that.

In his letter of January 2012, the Secretary of State assured me that lessons would be learned from the Gleision accident. We await the impending report by the Health and Safety Executive, and I trust it will not be constrained by the trial verdict, because if it is, the inspectors will not be able to reveal their professional conclusions, which I strongly suspect broadly coincide with mine.

The day of 15 September 2011 would have been an unremarkable day in the history of the Swansea valley had proper health and safety practice been followed. We still have no answers as to why Garry, Charles, Philip and David died, why they were heading straight for the water that killed them, and why no precautions against inrush scheme was implemented. The Gleision tragedy should not have happened; that is what makes it not simply a terrible accident, but a shocking, terrible scandal.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 331WH

4.59 pm

The Minister for Disabled People (Mr Mark Harper): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) for securing the debate. It is very helpful to be able to debate such issues in the House with the hon. Members for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and for Blaydon (Mr Anderson), who are very experienced in these matters.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, it was a tragic accident on 15 September 2011 that resulted in the deaths of four miners: Charles Breslin, David Powell, Philip Hill and Garry Jenkins. I remember the events myself. My own constituency has a mining history. The last large pit closed in 1965, but there are a number of free miners who still work in small mines. As I said, I remember the events, and I can only imagine the heart-rending situation faced by the families. The right hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to them for all that they have gone through. It is obviously on their behalf that he raises these issues in the House.

I mention my constituency only because we will come on to talk about the changes to the regulations and the Mines Rescue Service. There are a number of small mines in my constituency. I have had the experience, thanks to an excellent constituent of mine, Rich Daniels, who is president of the free miners, of going down one of those mines and seeing how small mines operate. I have had the opportunity to talk to him about the health and safety challenges. My constituency has the same issues with the Mines Rescue Service and its viability, and putting in place alternative arrangements that would provide a safe and secure method of rescuing miners if a tragedy happened. I shall come on to that.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, the accident triggered a rescue operation of a type not seen before. There was immense commendation for all those who contributed to the efforts to save the miners. He was right to pay tribute to the emergency services, other mine operators and their staff, volunteer cave divers and many others. Tragically, it quickly became clear that the task was one of recovery rather than of rescue.

South Wales police assumed primacy from the outset, and the investigation was led by the police throughout, with technical and other support from the HSE mines inspectors and other individuals and organisations. The site investigation concluded when all reasonable lines of inquiry had been followed and closed. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, after the investigation concluded, the Crown Prosecution Service brought manslaughter charges against the mine manager and the mine owner. Those Members present will know that there was a three-month trial earlier this year. As the right hon. Gentleman said, it concluded when the jury delivered not guilty verdicts on both the mine manager and the corporate defendant—the mine owner. The decision of the court must be respected. Obviously, I cannot today—this would be inappropriate for a Minister—delve into and try to reopen the case.

However, I can say that, now the legal processes are concluded, the HSE is producing a report that will be published, and that will pull together in one place the details of the site investigation that it carried out and the lessons that can be learned for the future. I know that that is one of the things the right hon. Gentleman wants to ensure happens.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 332WH

Mr Hain: The Minister will have noticed that I said, because I am worried about this, that the HSE report will be constrained by the trial verdict. I am worried that the HSE report will not be able to be as open as perhaps, for all I know, the mines inspectorate would like to be about its views on what really happened. Will he do whatever he can to try to ensure that that barrier, if it is there, as I suspect, is taken away?

Mr Harper: What the report can do is set out the results of the investigation. It can set out the facts that those who inspected with their professional judgment found in the mine. What it cannot do is rerun or revisit the questions that were investigated at the trial and the jury’s conclusion. I listened carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman said. I fear that he wants the HSE to be able in its report—I do not think it can do this—to answer questions about what was in the minds of the mine manager and those working there about the direction that they proceeded in. It simply cannot revisit those questions. My understanding is that those issues were dealt with at the trial. Evidence was put forward on both sides of the argument. The jury reached a verdict, and that is something that the HSE cannot reopen in its report and investigation.

Mr Hain: I am not asking for that. I am certainly not asking for the HSE to read the minds of those, including the mine manager, who were mining at the time. I am simply asking the Minister to try to create circumstances in which the mines inspectors, in the HSE report, can confirm that they suspect that the water, as I said in my speech, was where the mine plan said it was and that, therefore, a catastrophic misjudgment was made. For what reason and how, it would be impossible to speculate. I readily accept that, but the misjudgment was made none the less.

Mr Harper: What the inspectors will be able to do is set out the evidence they got from the site investigation. They cannot revisit questions that were dealt with at the trial.

Ian Lavery: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Harper: Let me just reply to the right hon. Gentleman, because it is his debate, and then of course I shall listen to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. The inspectors cannot rerun the trial and, in effect, re-answer the question that was dealt with at the trial and come up with either the same or a different answer. That is not possible. I listened to what the right hon. Gentleman said. I am sure the inspectors will endeavour to ensure that they go as far as they can in setting out the evidence—the facts that they found on the ground—but they may not be able to speculate about things they simply cannot know. They have to stick to what the evidence says.

Ian Lavery: There is a big difference between the individuals being charged with corporate manslaughter and being found guilty of an offence, and what my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) is referring to, which is basically the causation of the accident. The causation of the accident is something that can be investigated completely differently, but using the same evidence that has been used in court for a criminal investigation. It is common sense that that would be the case.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 333WH

Mr Harper: As I said, I have not seen the report and I do not know what it will say. The mines inspectorate will use its professional expertise to set out the evidence from the thorough site investigation that took place, but it cannot rerun the trial. For example, it is not disputed that the water was there at the time of the incident; what was disputed in court was whether the water was there all the time. The right hon. Member for Neath mentioned that there was a debate about the mine manager giving evidence that he had inspected the old workings. The HSE will not be able to settle questions that were dealt with at the trial and on which a conclusion could not be reached. That is all I am saying. It will endeavour, with the best of its professional judgment, to set out the evidence—what was found from the investigation. I have not seen the report and I do not know what it will say. It is in process.

My final point about the report is on timing. The report will be published in the new year—early in the new year, I hope—and, as I said, it will be published for everyone to see. I hope it will set out some lessons that can be learned from this tragedy.

Mr Anderson: I thank the Minister for giving way again —he has been very generous. The crux of why we are here today is that, if this was a one-off and had never happened before, we would probably feel a lot more comfortable, but as I said, it was not a one-off and had happened previously. My right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) mentioned the 1979 regulations that were supposed to address the issue. It is all right saying, “Let’s learn the lessons.” A lesson learned is no use unless it is then applied. Our worry—hopefully this can be tightened up in the report if the HSE decides to do that—is ensuring that things like this, as far as is humanly possible, do not happen again. If, as has been said, the gentleman went in, did the investigation and found that there was no water, that should have raised concerns, because where had the water gone? That should have been followed up. The worry that Opposition Members have is that such an incident could happen again through things just generally not being tight enough.

Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman makes a helpful point, because I was going to move on to the work that has been done to bring forward shortly new mine safety legislation that ensures clear duties on the operators of mines to manage the risks. That work was instigated independently of the Gleision accident, and it arose from the independent review of health and safety legislation by Professor Löfstedt, which reported in November 2011. We have taken into account what happened in the Gleision incident as we have developed the new law.

The current law governing safety in mines comprises more than 40 pieces of legislation, some of which date back as far as 1954. As the right hon. Gentleman has said, the coal industry is vastly different today. In addition to the huge changes in the coal sector, there has been a big shift in the wider health and safety framework, and the old mine safety legislation needs to be reviewed. The Health and Safety Executive has undertaken a review of that legislation over the past two years, and new mines regulations will be introduced in April next year. They will consolidate the key requirements for the control of risks that are, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, inherent in underground mining. That will

26 Nov 2014 : Column 334WH

include managing the risk of water inrushes, which was clearly the major issue at Gleision. Mine operators will remain legally bound to determine whether there is water around workings and to assess the risk of that water causing harm to mine workers.

The new regulations will place duties, for the first time, on the mine operator rather than, as at present, on the mine manager. They will also require the other principal risks in mining to be controlled. They will place clear and simple requirements on operators to ensure that adequate rescue arrangements are made. The current requirement for coal mines to belong to an approved scheme will not be carried forward. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that scheme, which was designed and introduced when there were 65 coal mines in operation, all of which contributed fees to fund the scheme and resources as part of their commitment to mutual assistance. There are now an insufficient number of mines to fund those arrangements. I looked into the matter in detail, not only now but as a result of experience in my constituency. Mine operators will be under a new duty to ensure that, if the rescue of workers is required in any foreseeable scenario, rescue arrangements will be available and workable. Coal mines will be required to make their own arrangements for rescue provision, tailored to the risks in each particular mine. Mine operators can use whatever third-party services may be appropriate to those risks. The HSE’s mines inspectors have a programme of interventions, between now and the entry into force of the new regulations, to check the arrangements that mines will have in place from April.

The current law is riddled with requirements to notify or otherwise seek the permission of the regulator before undertaking certain activities. It is not the regulator’s role to oversee day-to-day operations in such a way. Regulation of other major hazard industries successfully requires duty holders to demonstrate that their risk assessments and their control systems are in place and, importantly, robust, so that they can adequately manage risk to protect their employees and the wider community. The new regulations will take a similar approach in the mining sector. HSE inspectors are talking to mine operators and trade unions in the period leading up to the introduction of the new regulations to ensure that they are clear about how they will implement and comply with the regulations.

The new regulations will retain all the key controls over the hazards that are, as the Gleision tragedy and the right hon. Gentleman have reminded us, involved in mining, but they will deliver a modern, risk-based regime that will drive mine operators continuously to improve the management of the risks involved in mining. Tragedies such as the one he has powerfully described show us why we should never be complacent. We must try to prevent such incidents from happening again.

The hon. Member for Wansbeck raised the question of the inquests. My understanding is that they have not been restarted following the trial, and no formal notification has been made to the HSE that they have been closed. I will contact colleagues at the Ministry of Justice and make inquiries about the plan for those inquests—I will ask whether they will be restarted or formally concluded. I will write to the right hon. Member for Neath and, with his permission, to the two other hon. Members who are present, to set out the position.

26 Nov 2014 : Column 335WH

Mr Hain: I am very grateful to the Minister for offering to do that. Will he tell his colleagues at the Ministry of Justice that it is my strong view that the process should be resumed? There should be a full inquest.

Mr Harper: When I contact colleagues at the Ministry of Justice, I will put on record the fact that it is the strong view of the constituency MP that the inquests should be resumed. I am not familiar with the legal rules around the matter and I do not know what the position is, but I will contact colleagues in the Ministry of Justice. I will write to the right hon. Gentleman—and,

26 Nov 2014 : Column 336WH

because of their interest in the matter, to the other two hon. Members who are present—and set out the position. I hope that that is helpful and that it will go some way to meeting the concerns of the families who, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, have conducted themselves with great dignity throughout the process. I hope that offers some small measure of comfort, and I thank him for raising the matter in the Chamber today.

Question put and agreed to.

5.14 pm

Sitting adjourned.