“We don’t leave the house and I need help.”

A local reverend contacted me about a parishioner who had been sanctioned. She told me:

“He was living on one bowl of porridge a day and glasses of water to stave off the hunger. He sold his TV and most of his valuables. He’s a very gentle man who cannot understand how this has happened to him.”

I was contacted by a woman who took a cleaning job for 25 hours a week in Warrington, involving two buses, a train journey and a four-mile bike ride simply to get to work. It was a minimum-wage job and the travel alone came to £45 a week. When money was missing from the first pay packet—a common experience for many families who work in that industry—she was hit with rent arrears and threatened with eviction. She said:

“We only have £3 a week after our bills are paid meaning we can’t afford any shopping or gas once again.”

People are trying, but their Government quite simply are not on their side. When they ask for help, they are sanctioned. Nothing is done to stamp out the scourge of exploitative zero-hours contracts. There is no action on low pay; the Minister’s own Department accounts for more than half of the directly employed or contracted Government workers who earn less than £7.65 an hour. What could be more symbolic than the fact that her own Department has one of the worst records in Whitehall on paying the living wage? This crisis is of the Government’s own making.

We know what the real problem is: the lack of good, sustainable jobs that command decent pay. But because the Government have absolutely no answers to that problem they hit people hardest. Instead of tackling underemployment, they hit the underemployed. Instead of tackling low pay, they hit the low paid. They pick off those people who are least able to complain and while doing so they haemorrhage money on contracts to the private sector that do little to get people into work but create the living hell that my constituents have written to me about.

We are storing up so many problems for the future. The situation is pushing more and more people in my community into debt, and one of the biggest causes of that debt is the bedroom tax, which affects 4,500 households

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in my constituency alone. Rent arrears have gone through the roof and the vast majority are caused by one factor only-that callous, ineffective policy. Those families have never been in debt before in their lives. And it is not simply the same households—more and more people are being affected as their circumstances change, including 817 new families in my borough last year. There is quite simply nowhere for them to move to. In towns such as Wigan we built family-sized properties on purpose, because that was what people wanted and needed. We move people into those properties and then hit them with the bedroom tax and tell them to move, but there is nowhere for them to move to.

Many of those families have survived the past few years by claiming discretionary housing payments—in my constituency, the number is over 3,000. But that is senseless. We are burning money—we spent £412,000 on that in the last year alone. So what do the Government do? Instead of reversing a cruel and vicious policy that is ripping people out of their communities and pushing them into debt, they announced on Friday that they are slashing the money for discretionary housing payments by a quarter. Not that long ago, additional money for discretionary housing payments was being announced—with loud fanfare—and was aimed at disabled people and foster carers. I am really interested to hear from the Minister what assessment she has made of the potential impact of the cut on the 14,000 children who are waiting for a foster home or on people with disabilities.

The bedroom tax is senseless. It does not work. The DWP’s own analysis has shown that between May and December 2013 just 22,000 of the 500,000 households affected by the bedroom tax had downsized. It has done nothing to reduce private sector rents, either. The DWP’s figures show that rents have gone down by 76p a week, but the rent shortfall is over £6. The problem does not hit landlords; 89% of the cuts to housing benefit have hit tenants, and just 11% have hit landlords.

What is worse, on top of all that, is that many families—12,000 in Wigan—now have to pay council tax who did not have to do so before. As a result, arrears have gone up in my borough by 91%. To give hon. Members an illustration of the human cost of that, only last week my office staff were on the phone trying to stop bailiffs entering the home of an elderly couple who had got into difficulties with their rent and were desperately frightened.

The impact of all this can be seen right across my high street. Where there used to be shops, charity shops, small cafés and small businesses we now have loan sharks—people who lend at extortionate rates to those too desperate to go anywhere else. Loan sharks used to be seen as a blight on our society, but now it seems the Government are their best agent, stimulating demand and creating business for them. The signs are visible.

I will tell the Minister about the reality. It is not, as Baroness Jenkin said, that poor people do not know how to cook, but that poor people cannot afford the gas or electricity to do so. Many of my poorest constituents are on pre-payment meters. They get charged more and are cut off even if they have young kids. Once they get their benefits back they have to repay the debt before they can get the meter back on. My local reverend said:

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“One family we found had no gas or electricity over the Christmas period. I put £20 on their gas card and they got only £8 of gas because it took the rest in fines and arrears.”

Margot James: I want to put on the record the context of the quote that the hon. Lady attributed to Baroness Jenkin. She said it as a comment on society as a whole, because she felt that cooking skills had been lost from one generation to the next—that was the context in which she made that remark. The hon. Lady may know that Baroness Jenkin does a huge amount of work on poverty reduction.

Lisa Nandy: At the very least, Baroness Jenkin took an interest in the issue, which is more than I can say for the Prime Minister or most of his Front-Bench colleagues. But I would say that that remark came in the context of a stream of remarks made by different Government members and Back Benchers from the hon. Lady’s own party that are hugely offensive to people who are stuck in the position I have described and are trying their best, only to find that the Government are not doing the same.

The head teacher of a school in the same area as the family whose £20 gas card was immediately eaten up by debt got in touch with me to say that the school is now having to use the pupil premium to employ learning mentors not to support children in the classroom but to go to family homes to try to sort out problems with vermin, lack of electricity and all the other things those families are not able to deal with themselves, or to find the families food or refer them to food banks. The former Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), said in 2013 that those families were

“not best able to manage their finances.” —[Official Report, 9 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 681.]

That beggars belief. He was the Government Minister responsible for child welfare at the time; the fact that he even thinks that those families have finances to manage absolutely beggars belief.

The reality is that children and young people have been among the hardest hit. Barnardo’s got in touch with me when it saw I had secured this debate to tell me that increasingly it sees numbers of families in its projects who are reliant on food banks because their income is not keeping pace with the cost of living. What a waste that is. I know Barnardo’s really well. I used to work for the Children’s Society and worked closely with Barnardo’s on some of its projects for young people across the country. Barnardo’s unlocks the talent of children and young people, and helps them to develop, thrive and use their energies, passion and commitment in their local communities. Instead, in 2015, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, it is diverting its resources to simply feeding and clothing our children.

Barnardo’s told me that the sanctions regime had had a particular impact on young people, especially care leavers, young homeless teenagers and teenage parents—arguably, those young people to whom, as a society, we owe the biggest responsibility. That is especially the case for young people leaving care: we are their corporate parent and hold responsibility for them. Homeless Link told me that 58% of young people seeking help because of sanctions have a mental health problem or other

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problem. Nationally, 42% of all sanctions relating to JSA affect 18 to 24-year-olds, including over 1,000 young people in my town.

That generation’s wages have fallen by 10% since this Government came to power. Those young people have lost the education maintenance allowance and the future jobs fund. They have seen tuition fees hiked to £9,000 a year and a record 1 million are out of work, yet their Prime Minister has the nerve to tell them that they should be “earning or learning” or they will lose their benefits. How can they? That is my question.

Barnardo’s told me about a young mum who was sanctioned for six weeks because she was attending a school appointment about her child’s behaviour. After she turned to a loan shark, her children, who were desperate to help, went shoplifting to feed the family. Do Ministers have any idea of the desperation that their policies are causing? A local police officer said to me that

“we used to find kids nicking stuff to sell but nowadays it’s more likely to be bread.”

Police forces in Lancaster, Cleveland, Northumbria and my own area of Greater Manchester have said that food and grocery thefts are on the rise. The local chamber of commerce said

“this crisis has been…caused by excessive debt.”

To echo the words of UNICEF:

“It is no accident…It’s possible to make better choices than we’ve made.”

Under the previous Government the number of children in poverty fell by 1.1 million—I know that because I was working with children and young people in the voluntary sector at the time. It also fell, as Ministers are fond of telling us, by 300,000 in the first year of this Government, but please let us not pretend that we do not understand that those figures lag two years behind Government actions.

There is no longer any twisting the facts. Child poverty is widely predicted to rise by 2020 on relative and absolute measures—it does not matter that the Government have made all of us poorer, because poverty is still on the rise. The latest estimates show an increase of half a million children living in relative poverty under this Government and 800,000 more in absolute poverty. None of the figures takes into account rising housing costs. It is not just the lack of material means, but the gnawing anxiety that goes with waking up every day, not having enough food to eat and not knowing what will happen and what the future holds. If Government policy does not change course, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that child poverty will have doubled between 2010 and 2020. The Welfare Benefits Up-rating Act 2013 alone could push 200,000 more children into poverty.

Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): I very much appreciate the list of anecdotes that the hon. Lady has given about people who have fallen on really hard times. There is a need for Government to act in certain ways, but surely she must understand that some responsibility lies at the door of the previous Government who caused the 7% drop in GDP and the massive deficit that the Government are trying to correct. Unfortunately, because of their mistakes, tough decisions have to be taken, but I am yet to hear anything from her about how more money can be made available from some sort of magic money tree somewhere that would allow her to reverse the decisions that the Government have taken.

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Lisa Nandy: That would carry more weight if the Government had managed to do anything like balance the books in the past few years, but the economic stupidity of this sort of policy is clear. In constituencies such as mine, when money is taken out of the pockets of the poorest, they will not spend in local shops and businesses. We have seen exactly what happens in that case: shops and businesses lose trade, then staff, and the vicious cycle continues. It sounds like the hon. Gentleman has just offered the best possible defence of trying to balance the books off the backs of the poorest.

There is an alternative. Germany, Poland, Canada and Australia have all seen child poverty fall in the past four years. The UK is one of only four countries where there has been an unprecedented increase in material deprivation among children. The truth is that those are political choices. I will also say to the hon. Gentleman that we were all present for the 2012 Budget, which had devastating effects in communities such as mine. That Budget, which slashed tax credits and benefits in real terms for people who were in or out of work—some of the poorest people in the country—also handed a tax cut worth nearly £2,000 a week to people who earn more than £1 million a year. Those are political choices and to pretend otherwise is to deny the facts.

Chris Heaton-Harris: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way a second time. I guess there will always be a difference in politics between the two sides in this debate—I think that 1% of people paying 30% of income tax is actually quite a good deal for 99% of people, but let us put that to one side. What alternative is she offering? How will she pay for any of the reverses in policy that she is asking for? There has been no suggestion at all. Every time that the Opposition find an imaginary pot of money, whether it be from stopping tax avoidance in some scheme or whatever, they spend it 12 or 13 times. Give us one single way in which the Opposition will find money to spend on these schemes, please.

Lisa Nandy: I will give the hon. Gentleman not one, but several. First, put money back into the pockets of the poorest, because they will spend that money and the economy will grow. That means stamping out things such as zero-hours contracts that exploit people in the ways that I described. Secondly, raise the minimum wage, which will give people greater security in their homes—jobs that pay the rent and cover travel costs.

Chris Heaton-Harris: That is all money out and no money in.

Lisa Nandy: That is not money out. I will explain this to the hon. Gentleman, because he obviously needs to understand but does not at present. In this country we are unique in having major structural problems in our economy, which means that poverty is higher than in most other countries even before tax and spending decisions are taken into account.

First, it is the Government’s failure not to tackle root causes such as low pay and zero-hours contracts that causes the level of poverty to be so high in the first place. Secondly, because we then need to spend so much money in income transfers to compensate for that, unfair decisions are made that benefit richer people at the expense of poorer people, which compounds the

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problem. That is why we have had the explosion of food banks in recent years and why, 30 years after the miners’ strike where the community in my constituency had to come together to feed and clothe our children, because of this Government we are having to do that once more.

I will tell the hon. Gentleman this as well: people are not just being caused distress, anguish and despair, but having their health and safety put at risk. On Monday, a paediatrician, Dr Colin Michie, spoke out about the increase in malnutrition-related hospital admissions in children aged under 16. Hospital admissions for malnutrition doubled between 2008 and 2012 and last year 6,520 people—a seven-year high—were admitted to hospital because of that. The Faculty of Public Health’s John Middleton said that food-related ill health was getting worse

“through extreme poverty and the use of food banks”.

People cannot afford good quality food, so malnutrition, rickets and other manifestations of extreme poor diet are becoming apparent. It is almost inconceivable that in this country in 2015 we are seeing the return of Victorian diseases. Hospital admissions for scurvy have doubled under this Government since 2010.

Mr Spencer: I wonder whether the hon. Lady could help us by giving a definition of the types of food that she means. Products such as potatoes and fresh carrots are actually the cheapest sources of food available.

Lisa Nandy: I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman went down to a local food bank in his constituency and explained to his constituents that they should be buying carrots and potatoes, they would thank him for that in May. That is the sort of attitude to people whose poverty has been caused by the Government that does his party so much harm, and deservedly so.

I will say this to the hon. Gentleman: food prices have increased by 12% in the past few years, but wages have fallen by 7.6%. Those are the facts and that is why families do not have enough to feed and clothe their children. The British Red Cross is more used to working in countries torn apart by war, famine and disaster, yet, because of the Government’s actions, a couple of years ago it had to launch an emergency appeal to feed and clothe our children.

It was Nelson Mandela who said:

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”,

yet here we are, forcing parents to drag ill two-year-olds across town on buses. Children have to grow up in cold, damp conditions without gas, electricity and enough to eat. Children are admitted to hospital because of hunger. Schools, vicars and charities are stepping in to help and finding themselves overwhelmed. If that is the measure of our soul as a country, what sort of society have we become under the Government?

The truth is that it could be so different. I tried to explain that to the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) a moment ago, but I will try again—perhaps he will understand. We have got one of the highest child poverty rates in Europe—second only to Ireland—because of factors such as low pay and that is before anything is done through the state to try to tackle that. Once

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decisions on tax and welfare such as those that the Government have made are taken into account, child poverty goes through the roof.

The IFS shows that tax and benefit changes made by the coalition have hit the poor and families with young children hardest and reduced household incomes by £1,127 a year. Professor John Hills from the London School of Economics said it was true that the very rich, with incomes of more than £100,000, had lost out more than the average, but, when viewed as a proportion of their income, it was the poorest—those who could least afford it—who had lost the most.

It is the abject failure to tackle the root causes of these problems—low pay, under-employment and insecure work—as well as tax and benefit decisions that hit the poor hardest that is pushing more and more children into poverty. I say this to the Minister: even those flagship measures that are held up—usually by the Liberal Democrats, who are not here today—as ways of tackling poverty, such as raising the personal tax allowance, do little for the lowest paid. Many of those people do not pay tax anyway, so those measures do not help them at all. Others keep just 15p in every extra pound, because in-work benefits such as housing benefit get withdrawn.

The director of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland has said:

“All the EU countries with much lower child poverty rates than us use income transfers for poverty prevention. If they can do so much better for their children, then so can we.”

The legacy this Government are set to leave is one of rising child poverty and Budgets that have made the poor much poorer and many wealthy people wealthier still. As a country, we used to know about these things. The previous Government got more lone parents back into work. Like many other countries, we used the tax and benefit system to give families a basic income. Under this Government, however, real spending per child on early education, child care and Sure Start fell by a quarter in just three years. If the Government do not want to use the tax and benefit system to tackle child poverty, they could tackle the root causes. They could learn from Denmark or Slovenia—countries where child poverty is already relatively low, so the state has to do less heavy lifting through the tax and welfare system.

It is typical of this Government that, instead of seeking to deal with the causes, they attack the symptoms: they attack the people, not the problems. Instead of tackling child poverty, they get tough on children in poverty—and not just children, but those who try to help them. The Work and Pensions Secretary accused the Trussell Trust of publicity-seeking and scaremongering for daring to tell the public how many people it was having to feed in 21st-century Britain. The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 gags charities and campaigners and prevents them from speaking out, but it does nothing to tackle the problems in the lobbying industry and in politics. Special advisers threaten charities. The Justice Secretary takes to the Daily Mail—that bastion of social justice—to attack charities as left-wing single-issue groups, and he restricts their right to challenge the Government’s appalling actions.

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That sums up exactly what this Government is all about: if you have a problem with unemployment, attack the unemployed; if you do not know what to do about immigration, attack immigrants. Bobby Kennedy once said:

“there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men…This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.”

That will be the Government’s legacy: an attempt to loosen the bonds that bind us, through indifference, inaction and slow decay.

Five years ago, Conservative Members talked about broken Britain. I used to think that was an analysis; now, five years on, I have come to realise that it was actually a manifesto. This is the broken Britain they talked about, and they created it. I say this to the Minister: in the end, this will not work. It started as an attack on just the poor, but it is pulling in more and more people, and it is tearing apart communities.

The situation was summed up for me by a woman of 60. She has never been in debt in her life, but she got into arrears after her daughter moved out and she was hit by the bedroom tax. She simply cannot afford the extra rent, so she is trying to move, but she has nowhere to move to, because there are no one-bedroom properties spare in my borough. My local reverend, Denise Hayes, told me, “She has all her friends and community here. She is someone we need on the estate. She is a good example for others.”

People can be in work or out of work—half the children living in poverty today are from working households. This is not about just the poor any more—it is about children, cancer patients and pensioners. Let me tell the Minister this though: the Government should be worried. New bonds of solidarity are forming, just as they did in the 1980s, when these things happened before. Those bonds are forming in communities such as mine, as more and more people are affected and more and more refuse to give in. They can see that what is happening is an attack not just on the poor, but on our basic decency as a society. Like me, they know that Britain can do so much better.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. I intend to call the Front Benchers no later than 3.40 pm. That gives us 25 minutes. If Members can keep their remarks to about six minutes, I will be able to call everyone.

3.15 pm

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) for calling the debate and for the passion with which she delivered her speech. Interestingly, in the 45 minutes she took to do so, she did not give us a single indication of what a future Labour Government might do to address some of the concerns she raised. She did not even look at how she might solve the challenges we face.

It seems fairly straightforward to me that the best way to solve an individual’s financial difficulties is to get them into work—to give them a job and let them earn their own money, so that they can provide for their

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family. That gives them not only the cash to improve their lives, but the self-esteem and quality of life they deserve. We should do that as a Government. If we do, we get a double whammy. If we take an individual out of the welfare system and they succeed in the workplace, more of the pie is left for those who are genuinely in difficulty and who need the support of the welfare state.

Let us look at what the Government have done over the past four and a half years. Some 1.7 million more people are in work. We have tried to get people out of the welfare system and into the workplace, so that they can improve their own lives.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): It is all well and good saying another 1.7 million people are in work, but what type of employment is it? Some of the statistics that have been published show that up to 1.4 million people are on zero-hours contracts, which, in effect, provide less than benefits.

Mr Spencer: Zero-hours contracts are not something that happened under this Government; they existed before we came to power. The Labour Government did nothing about them when they were in power.

I have met individuals in my constituency who have been offered a zero-hours contract. They took it up, went to work and became very successful. They were then offered a full-time career; they progressed through the management structure; and they are now earning a substantial salary. Zero-hours contracts can therefore sometimes be a gateway to a career.

The Government have to find a way to create such gateways, so that individuals can aspire to make their way through the system. One way of doing that is to create apprenticeships, and 2 million have been created under this Government. That is a way to give the next generation the skills they require to take up a career in the future.

Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): I missed all the heat about part-time working. Does my hon. Friend recognise the official statistics showing that 74% of the new jobs created under this Government have been full time? The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has shown that job satisfaction among those who are on zero-hours contracts is the same as for any other employee.

Mr Spencer: Absolutely. Those statistics stand on their own.

The second way to help people, once they have succeeded in getting a job, is to cut taxes for those at the bottom of the pay structure, so that they pay no tax at all. The Government have been very successful in lifting those people completely out of the tax system.

The hon. Member for Wigan mentioned the friction between wages and inflation. Following the enormous crash under the previous Government, it is fair to say there were some severe challenges in terms of how inflation was moving forward and the ability of the economy to recover. We are now in a position where, of course, inflation is below the rate of increase in wages, so we have turned that corner and we are going in the right direction.

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Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Why did the Conservative party support the Labour Government spending plans up to 2007, and never, as I recall, suggest that changes should be made to avoid a recession?

Mr Spencer: Of course, the Labour party now supports our funding pledges, so there is friction between what is being said about reversing some of our changes and other statements about supporting our spending regime. It will be interesting to hear the Labour Front-Bench justification of that.

In another life, I was a farmer, involved in food production and supply. Interestingly, the OECD says that 9.8% of people had difficulty affording food in 2006-07, but the figure had fallen to 8.1% in 2011-12. That shows we are going in the right direction. There will always be individuals who get themselves into difficult circumstances and where the system has frankly gone wrong. The hon. Member for Wigan raised several such cases and I have encountered some in my constituency office, when clearly the system has broken down and some incorrect decisions have been made. It is my job as a Member of Parliament to try to help people through the system and solve their ills, and we have succeeded on a number of occasions in helping individuals in difficult circumstances to work their way through the system to the right point.

Debbie Abrahams: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Spencer: I will not give way any more, because other people want to speak.

I want the Government to continue to reduce the deficit, and to make sure that the economy continues to grow and that we generate more jobs and help people out of poverty through employment. I want them to continue to cut taxes at the lowest end, so that we can raise more people out of tax altogether. I want them to create more jobs and back businesses—particularly small businesses that create real-life careers for people. I want a continuation of the welfare cap, so that we can control immigration and make sure people in work are better off and so that people who decide to go into work and get a career and who can move forward aspire to overcome their difficulties. I want better schools, to make sure that the next generation have the education that will deliver them a future, make them ready for the workplace and enable them to take careers and move forward. The only way to solve the problem is to give people the aspiration and ability, so that they can aspire out of their difficulties.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. We have only 16 minutes left before the Front-Bench speeches. Four hon. Members want to speak, which means four minutes apiece. Perhaps I could have co-operation on that.

3.23 pm

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I shall try to adhere to that limit, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing the debate and making a powerful case about the impact of Government policies on her constituents. I am a wee bit disappointed that Members are so thin on the ground

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for this debate. Many folk living on very low incomes feel abandoned by politicians in the present context. Today’s turnout will not dispel those impressions.

Poverty, deprivation and exclusion take many forms, but living on a low income for any length of time has long-term consequences for individuals and society. The Government’s austerity measures have made things worse for folk who are already struggling. The cumulative impact of austerity in the six years to 2016 is estimated at about £6 billion in Scotland alone—three quarters of which has come from the pockets of women. That has had a disproportionate impact on families with children and people with disabilities and health problems.

Indeed, one of the Government’s flagship austerity measures, the bedroom tax, has fallen disproportionately on low-income disabled people. In Scotland 80% of the households affected were the home of a disabled person. I believe that the proportion is slightly lower in the rest of the UK, but it is still about two thirds of the people affected. In Scotland we mitigated the bedroom tax, but we could do so only by diverting resources from other policy areas—and it remains on the statute book. The people affected by the bedroom tax are, in many cases, the same people whose support will be reduced with the introduction of personal independence payments, and who face enormous barriers in getting access to the labour market. The cumulative effects are important, and are a key reason for the symptoms that we see in communities.

The key point that I want to make today is about child poverty. There is an overwhelming wealth of evidence that children who grow up in poverty experience poorer long-term outcomes than their wealthier counterparts, not just in educational attainment and career prospects, but because they are likely to have poorer health throughout their lives, and significantly lower life expectancy. After housing costs, just over one in five adults in the UK are living in poverty, but the proportion of children living in relative poverty is 27%. That is a scandal of missed opportunities, thwarted potential and long-term problems being stored up.

Child poverty was coming down in Scotland at twice the UK rate, but according to the Child Poverty Action Group it is now projected to rise to 100,000 children by 2020, almost entirely because of the effect on families of the Government’s austerity measures. Huge cuts to tax credits and the freeze in child benefit have eroded family incomes, with parents in low-paid work among those worst hit by the Government’s austerity programme. It is critical that we understand that the vast majority of children growing up in poverty have at least one parent in work. In-work poverty is the scourge of low-paid families. The reality is that a family in which both parents work full time in minimum-wage jobs, paying an average private sector rent, will be below the poverty line. For people in low-paid jobs, work is simply not a route out of poverty any more, and a full-time salary can fall far short of a decent income.

I see that in my constituency. Even though unemployment is only about 1%, there are large numbers of people in low-paid work, and consequently there are pockets of deprivation. In the past year or two, a number of food banks have sprung up, run by church volunteers who have recognised the increasing need in the community—need that is clearly linked to benefit changes and rising living costs, and which affects people who are in work as

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well as those who are not. In 2012 in Scotland only 14,000 people depended on food banks, and the vast majority of those had chronic alcohol and substance abuse problems. Now the figure is more than 70,000 people —a 400% increase. I pay tribute to the people in the churches who pick up the slack in the social safety net, but we should not be in this position in the 21st century. That is why tackling low pay needs to be a priority.

In Scotland, the areas of the public sector that are devolved responsibilities now all pay the living wage, but there are still thousands of people in other economic sectors earning wages that do not cover the basics. Many employers have become living wage employers, but there is still some way to go. We should not forget that many of the low-paid sectors are still those where jobs are predominantly done by women, such as cleaning, catering and food production. The concentration of women in part-time, low-paid and often insecure work compounds other social and economic inequalities.

Improved child care is also necessary to tackle child poverty and strengthen our economy. I have no doubt that the higher levels of women participating in the labour market in Scotland and the falls in child poverty were linked to the greater entitlement to child care introduced over recent years. I hear from parents in all income groups that the problem of getting affordable child care is the major barrier to the labour market; and for women it is also a barrier within the labour market to the jobs that they are qualified for. There is an economic problem of women taking jobs around which they can juggle their family life. That holds back the economy, and it holds back people in the work force. Sanctions have been mentioned in the debate, and evidence has emerged that they hit single parents in particular. The challenge is the same as it is for people in the workplace—it is extremely difficult to juggle child care with any other commitments if there is no one who can watch the kids while someone is tending to other responsibilities.

In a country as wealthy as ours, allowing children to grow up in poverty is an abdication of our responsibilities as citizens. The inequalities that we have allowed to become acceptable have a long-term impact that leaves us all impoverished. I think that voters understand that asking those on the lowest incomes to carry the can for past economic failures is a cowardly, wrong choice. The Government badly need to change their priorities.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. Hon. Members are now down to three minutes each.

3.29 pm

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): Across the House, it is accepted that employment is a good thing and that it helps people to improve their standard of living, but the problem is that it is not sufficient; it is a first step. The last few years, above all, have shown us that for very many people, it is only a preliminary step that still leaves many living in poverty. That is why we are seeing so many people who are in work having to claim housing benefit to meet their housing costs, which pushes up the overall housing benefit bill, and why so many people are still dependent on some form of help

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when they go into employment. The route out of the low-paid, low-hours economy is not as easy as is sometimes suggested. That is one aspect of where we are at the moment—yes, work is good, but it has not proved to be sufficient to get people out of poverty.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) mentioned issues relating to single parents. It is important to say that some measures that were helping single parents have been removed. The number of single parent specialist advisers in jobcentres, who knew the particular difficulties faced by women in that position—mainly women, but it could be men—has been reduced. There are very few such advisers. Others have reported that the flexibilities that used to exist for jobseeking and job finding have been removed or reduced, or people claim not to know about them. One of my constituents was asked, “Why can’t your mother come and help?” Her mother lives 300 miles away. She could not simply come and help while my constituent made herself available for what the jobcentre wanted, which was an evening job. The lone parent flexibilities mean that that should not happen, so again, that change appears to have happened in practice, and it is making it difficult for that particular group.

Yes, there are choices—there are always financial choices to be made. Constantly talking about raising the tax threshold is all very well, but three quarters of the gain from doing so went to earners in the top half of the income range. A lot of money has been paid out in that direction, and apparently the Conservative part of the Government—I am not sure about the other part—wants to increase that further, without telling us at all how it will be funded. The problem is that it may be funded by things we do not know about, such as a VAT increase. I notice that the Prime Minister, pressed on the matter week after week, does not say “No”—he talks about “no plans”. A VAT increase would affect those whose earnings are already under the tax threshold and who would gain nothing from any further increases in it.

Such people have lost tax credits and income in all sorts of ways. Some might seem small-scale, but family household income has gone down. There are people who have to leave work due to illness. Take a family, for example—a couple, perhaps, whose children have grown up. They may have two incomes, or one and a half incomes. If one person loses their job through ill health, their income is in that position slashed as they go on to benefit under rules introduced by this Government. After a year, some of those people are losing even their employment and support allowance, because they have a partner who is in work, although that partner may only be working part time. That loss of income, meaning that a one-and-a-half-income family becomes a family getting barely half a wage, is catastrophic for their well-being.

Many of those people had been moving towards what they hoped would be a slightly more comfortable retirement. A lot of them are older, because that is when ill health strikes—in people’s late 40s and 50s. Such people are now having, in effect, to eat up the savings that they had hoped to keep until their retirement. In my view, there are a whole lot of different ways in which people are being directly affected by this Government’s policies.

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3.34 pm

Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): I will be as quick as I can, Mr Crausby, and try to stick to your time limit. First, I welcome the debate, even though the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) made a number of political points—

Lisa Nandy: How does he know? He wasn’t here.

Mr Raab: I was here for the end of the hon. Lady’s speech—[Interruption.] I would be happy to take an intervention from her if she wants to make a point of substance, but we are very pressed for time.

Lisa Nandy: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Raab: Not at the moment—I said on a point of substance.

The key point is the systemic challenges that our economy faces. The fact is that our economy sank to 13th place from fourth place on the global competitiveness rankings, and has now climbed steadily but surely back up to 10th. That is the reason why we have job creation at a record high. If we really care about not just the economy but the most socially disfranchised, we have to care about the unemployed—the most vulnerable in our society.

Lisa Nandy: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Raab: I am not going to; I will make some progress. The hon. Lady spoke for a considerable amount of time and we are very pressed for time. Unemployment has fallen from 8% to 5.8%. Youth unemployment is down. Overall, there are 1.7 million more people in work. If we care about the most vulnerable in our society, that is the critical section of society.

Lisa Nandy: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Raab: I will—briefly.

Lisa Nandy: I was simply about to say to the hon. Gentleman that had he been here for my speech and not been 45 minutes late, he would have heard that many of the families whose stories I recounted for those who were present are actually in work, or were in work when those problems arose. A story that he missed was about one of my constituents who was sanctioned for three months for being four minutes late for an appointment. The hon. Gentleman was 45 minutes late for the debate, and he does not seem to have suffered any adverse repercussions at all.

Mr Raab: I was following the debate, but unfortunately I was in a Committee, and I did give advance warning to Mr Crausby.

The key point that the hon. Lady needs to address is that all the policies that the Labour party is coming up with will stifle job creation. I gently point out to her that in her constituency, according to the House of Commons Library, unemployment doubled between 2005 and 2010, but has fallen by 63% between 2010 and the present day. Frankly, those facts tell us everything we need to know. When it comes to income tax—[Interruption.] She might want to listen as well as speak, because this is a debate, and I have listened very carefully to what she was saying—[Interruption.]

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Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order.

Mr Raab: If someone is earning between £10,000 and £15,000 under this Government, they are paying 54% less tax than they were under the last Government. If someone is a millionaire—we get lots of jibes on the Government side of the House about that—they are paying 14% more. When do we ever hear that referred to?

A lot of people have talked about poverty. If we look at the inequality Gini coefficient, we see that on elderly poverty, fuel poverty, the number of people not in education, employment or training, and child poverty—on every single statistical benchmark—the level of poverty or inequality is lower now than what the last Government left behind. Where is a little bit of honesty about that?

When it comes to affordable homes, the average annual rate of the creation of affordable homes is 50% higher under this Government than the last Government. The hon. Lady might have mentioned that in her speech. What about inflation, which eats away at incomes?

Debbie Abrahams: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Raab: I will not, because I have very limited time before we come to the wind-ups, and we have heard a huge amount from the Opposition side. It is important to hear the counter-arguments to puncture some of the myths that the Labour party is putting around—[Interruption.]

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. Mr Raab did give notice that he would be late. If I am going to call Mr Lavery as well, Members are going to have to give Mr Raab the opportunity to speak.

Mr Raab: Thank you, Mr Crausby, I appreciate that.

Inflation is the other key indicator. It was at 3.4% in May 2010, but it is now down to 0.5%. That is not unalloyed good news—it is tough for savers—but it is incredibly relevant to dealing with cost of living issues, which I believe the hon. Member for Wigan cares strongly about. There is still much to do, but if we care about things such as energy prices, we should not be backing reckless interventions in the energy market that will just create spikes in retail prices. We should be investing in nuclear and shale—but was it five or six nuclear plants that were closed down under the last Government? Labour is going slow on fracking as well. Again, if we are serious about long-term issues relating to poverty in this country, those are the things we should be dealing with. If we care about food prices, we should welcome the competitive supermarket price wars that we have been seeing recently. We should be concerned about the £400 that the common agricultural policy adds to the average annual family food bill, but when do we ever hear from Labour MPs about that? We should be looking for freer trade and reform of the EU.

In conclusion, I welcome the debate, but it is important to shed some light, not merely some heat, on this contentious issue, which afflicts the most vulnerable in our society. The hon. Lady can shake her head all she likes, but the fact is that on almost every official indicator and almost every policy lever, this Government have done better than the previous Government. Not only is the economy doing better, but life is fairer for most

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people in terms of the things that Government can reasonably control. Those are the facts, like them or not.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): I did say that I would call the Front Benchers at 3.40 pm. It has now turned 3.40 pm, but I am going to give Ian Lavery one minute. If he goes past it, I will interrupt him.

3.40 pm

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): Thank you for your extreme flexibility, Mr Crausby.

We live in a different world here in Westminster. People in the rest of the country live in a broken society. Children are suffering because of poverty. Disabled people are suffering because of poverty and the introduction of the bedroom tax. Mentally ill people are suffering greatly because of the situation in this country. Single parents are being singled out because of the situation that the Government have imposed on them. Old people are suffering because of poverty; many of them are huddling together because they cannot even afford to put money in the electricity meter or food on the table.

We live in a broken society. Poverty is preventable. Poverty is a political choice. It brings shame on the Government and on politicians to allow poverty to continue as we are experiencing it here in food bank Britain. People in work cannot afford to put food on the table—

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order.

3.41 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): What a delight it is to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Crausby.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), who has secured an important debate. She made a passionate speech, in which she described eloquently the impact of poverty on her constituents. Because she has given us so many concrete stories about real people, I will give an overview and talk about the national picture. However, I remind the Minister that this is the second time in the space of a month that she has been asked about sanctions. We asked her to do a number of things about sanctions during a debate in the north-east, and to check what was going on. When she winds up the debate, I would like to know whether she has done those things.

During the previous Parliament, I was privileged to be the Minister who took the Child Poverty Act 2010 through Parliament. Because of the complexity of measuring child poverty, we had four measures: relative poverty, absolute poverty, persistent poverty, and combined low income and material deprivation. The Bill was passed with all-party agreement, and everybody agreed that we wanted to make progress on all those fronts. What has been the record? The record of the Labour Government between 1997 and 2010 was a reduction of 1.8 million in the number of children in absolute poverty. The record under this Government, according to the DWP’s own statistics, which the Minister published last summer—I hope that she is listening to this—is that the number of children living in absolute poverty has gone up by half a million.

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The next measure is relative poverty. Between 1997 and 2010, the number of children living in relative poverty fell by 1.3 million. The number fell by 200,000 between 2009 and 2013, but the Institute for Fiscal Studies forecasts an increase of 400,000 by the time of the election in May. Government Members have to ask themselves why absolute poverty has increased and relative poverty has reduced. What is going on here? The explanation is this. The median income in this country has dropped by 8% under this Government, whereas the income of those in the poorest decile has dropped by 5%, so everybody is poorer; it is just that those at the bottom are not quite as much poorer as are those in the middle. The hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) can shake his head, but those are the figures that the Government published only in July, and the Government should think about that.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Labour’s crash.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. A Parliamentary Private Secretary should be seen and not heard, Mr Elphicke.

Helen Goodman: The response that we have had from Ministers and Tory Members today is precisely what the Archbishop of Canterbury describes in the book “On Rock or Sand?” as “wilful blindness”. If we are wilfully blind to the real problems in this country, we will not be able to deal with them. That is the major problem. The Government are responsible for a large number of the measures that have pushed the poorest further down.

What are we going to do instead? My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) pointed out that in-work poverty is now exploding as well. That point is also made in an excellent book by Julia Unwin, which I recommend to all hon. Members. In-work poverty is the new feature of poverty. It is caused by rising prices, a cost of living crisis and falling incomes. The Government will continue on that exploitative path, which will, in fact, increase the benefits bill by £9 billion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) pointed out this morning. However, this morning the Secretary of State was bragging about something that Barnardo’s has complained to me about, namely the taking of £50 billion from the children of this country during this Parliament.

Hon. Members have asked, “What would Labour do?” I will tell them what Labour will do. The first thing that Labour will do is to abolish the bedroom tax.

Chris Heaton-Harris: Paid for by?

Helen Goodman: Paid for by taxing the hedge funds, as was discussed during Prime Minister’s questions only this lunchtime, when the Prime Minister refused to do that. [Interruption.]

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order.

Helen Goodman: The bedroom tax bill of £3,800 over the next Parliament will be visited on the poorest people. Two thirds of those who pay the bedroom tax are disabled. If a Tory-led Government are re-elected, those people will face having to pay another £3,800. That is why the first thing that a Labour Government will do, if we are elected, is to abolish the bedroom tax.

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We will also increase the minimum wage. We will tackle the zero-hours culture. We will tax bankers’ bonuses in order to get young people into work. We will sort out the energy market. We will do something about rents. We will take steps to improve child care, so that lone mums and other mums can get out to work and support their families. We will build more houses, which will help to bring down housing costs and provide more jobs. It is a comprehensive picture, and it is a real choice for the British people.

3.48 pm

The Minister for Employment (Esther McVey): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. This is an incredibly important debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) for securing it. I begin by putting what I have heard today in context. Every story that has been brought here is important, and it is important that we listen to them, but let us look at the independent figures on inequality, which show us what is happening. Income inequality is lower now than it was at the election. There are 600,000 fewer people in relative poverty than at the election. Why do I use relative poverty? There are various measures, but relative poverty is Labour’s preferred measure against which it set its targets. Labour said that it would halve relative poverty by 2010, but it missed that target. [Interruption.]

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. Ms Nandy, you have had your opportunity to speak. Let us listen to others who want to speak.

Esther McVey: There are also 300,000 fewer children living in relative poverty.

Helen Goodman: Will the Minister give way?

Esther McVey: I will not give way for a while, because I would like to put these figures on the record.

The top 1% of income tax payers will contribute nearly 30% of this year’s income tax bill. We talk about the richest helping most to get us out of the financial situation in which we found ourselves after Labour left office, and that is what is happening. The top 20% of income tax payers are paying 80% of the bill, which is key. We also have 390,000 fewer children living in workless households, and in-work poverty has fallen by 300,000. In fact, in-work poverty rose 20% between 1998 and 2008.

Debbie Abrahams: Will the Minister give way?

Esther McVey: I will not give way for the moment.

It is also key to know that 1.75 million more people are in work. When my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) talked about what sorts of jobs those people are doing, he was right to say that, since the election, three quarters of them are full-time jobs. In fact, in the last year 80% are full-time jobs. What sorts of jobs are they? The vast majority, 75%, are skilled, managerial and professional. If we want to look at the figures from the other point of view, we could say that, at the election, 600,000 more people were in relative poverty and there were 670,000 more workless

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households. We could say that there were 300,000 more children and 200,000 more pensioners in relative poverty. We could also say that there were 50,000 more households in which no member had ever worked. That is what we were picking up. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) pointed out—I hope this is a point of consensus for all of us—there had been a financial crash and the GDP of the whole country had shrunk by 7%. The truth of the matter is that everybody had to bear the brunt of the crash that we had from the Labour party, but we have ensured—





Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. Please allow the Minister to respond.

Esther McVey: We have ensured that the richest are paying the most. We are ensuring that the richest people are now paying more than they ever paid under Labour. The hon. Member for Wigan talked about working for Barnardo’s, and I congratulate her because I am a child of Barnardo’s. When we talk about poverty and how we take people out of poverty, the key building blocks have to be education and employment, and the Government are creating those key building blocks.

When we look at this, what have we done? We have brought record rates of women into work. We are increasing and supporting lone parents into work. We have put £2.5 billion into the troubled families initiative, and we have put the same amount into the pupil premium. We have ensured that 3 million people are out of tax altogether and that 26 million people have had their tax reduced. We have increased the minimum wage to £6.50 an hour, which is the first real increase since 2008—a 3% increase—and which benefits more than 1 million people. People in full-time work on the national minimum wage are getting an extra £355 a year. All those things are key, and we are doing them.

Debbie Abrahams: Would the Minister like to comment on her point about the reduction in inequality? The OECD’s report before Christmas and the International Monetary Fund’s report from a similar time show that inequality has actually increased. In fact, we have the worst rate of inequality in 30 years. The reports show that inequality is harming growth and that the trickle-down economics to which the Government are absolutely committed does not work. It actually stifles growth and hurts human beings.

Esther McVey: I never recognise where the hon. Lady gets her figures. I have given the independent facts, which are correct. The only thing I will say is that here is a party that delivered the biggest financial crash in living memory. This is the party that said there would be 1 million more unemployed people now, but we are near to having 2 million more people in employment. [Interruption.] Labour Members would do better to listen for a change, rather than charging forward with things that really are not true. It is sometimes worth listening, rather than talking, especially when the Labour party delivered such a disaster for the UK, which we are all now having to cope and deal with. It is worth remembering that, because of our long-term economic plan, we are the fastest-growing developed nation. The UK has delivered more jobs than the rest of Europe added together. Those are the facts.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton read out a list of facts about the constituency of the hon. Member for Wigan. He talked about the unemployment figures and the claimant count rising by 100% between 2005 and 2010, but let us look at what is happening in Wigan now: the employment rate is up by 7.9 percentage points; the claimant count is down by 49%; the long-term claimant count is down by 44%; the youth claimant count is down by 70%; and the long-term youth claimant count—[Interruption.]

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. The Minister must be allowed to respond.

Esther McVey: The long-term youth claimant count is down 80% on the year. In fact, youth unemployment across the country has had its biggest fall in living memory. More than 170,000 more young people now have jobs. Those are just the facts. In the north-west region, the number of workless households is down by 41,000 since 2010, which is a decrease of 1.7%.

Last week, the local paper in Wigan stated that the number of apprenticeship vacancies in Wigan has hit a record high. There has been a 72% increase in the number of apprenticeship vacancies in Wigan posted online, and the paper said:

“An upsurge in firms willing to take on apprentices has been credited with bringing about a dramatic fall in young people not in employment”.

Lisa Nandy: One reason why we have managed to get young people into apprenticeships is because the council has taken exactly the opposite approach to the Government. The council pays the living wage, has stamped out zero-hours contracts and has created apprenticeships. If everything is going so well across the country, why does the Minister think that the incidence of scurvy and the number of hospital admissions for malnutrition have exploded under her Government?

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Esther McVey: The numbers I have given are for private enterprise. Equally, I do not know what the answer was when the hon. Lady stood up to explain why there was a 100% increase in the claimant count between 2005 and 2010, but our claimant count has come down. The increase in malnutrition is a debate for another time.

Helen Goodman: It is not a debate for another time.

Esther McVey: I think it is. Many people who have gone to hospital with malnutrition have actually put on weight, which is down to a poor diet. That is a much bigger debate for another time. What we can talk about is what is happening, how we are getting people into work and how worklessness is falling in the constituency of the hon. Member for Wigan. [Interruption.] Obviously she does not want to listen to these answers because they do not play to the things she was talking about. Equally, her local paper celebrated that Wigan has received the pupil premium award. A headmaster said:

“We couldn’t be more pleased to win the award”.

The award is key to helping young people to go forward.

I listened to the hon. Lady’s stories about sanctions, and I would like to know about the specific instances. I replied to a letter the other week—I hear that she has sent me another, to which I will be writing back in due course—but if she gave me the names of the people, rather than keeping them anonymous, I could find out what happened at the jobcentre. If someone wanted to go to a funeral, it would be good cause. Somebody with learning difficulties is a vulnerable person and has good cause. There is a booklet that the hon. Lady can download from the website that outlines the guidance, which is substantial. It is a heavy document that says how people will be given good cause. Equally, there have always been sanctions in the benefit system. This is nothing new—

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. I am pleased to say that we will now move on to the next debate.

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Broadband (Tech City)

4 pm

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I have come to this Chamber with a very important issue. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published a report yesterday on access to superfast broadband. In large parts of the UK, fewer than 50% of households can access superfast broadband, and it is clear that some rural areas are being left behind.

Although 90% of London households are able to access superfast broadband, many Londoners are left out. Surely central London should have 100% coverage by now. We should certainly expect Tech City—or Old Street roundabout, as we used to call it—to have full coverage.

I am not the first MP to raise this issue. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) raised it in a debate on superfast broadband in September. He referred to Tech City, which borders his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who is here this afternoon, also raised this issue at Prime Minister’s questions and at business questions.

Tech City is home to a large number of new and innovative businesses—film companies, public relations companies, property companies and pollsters—which all need fast and reliable internet access and download and upload speeds. We might assume that BT is able to provide that infrastructure, and that it and other providers can offer high-speed connections to all those companies, but they are not doing so.

The Prime Minister has been bigging up Tech City for a long time. In November 2010, he said:

“British Telecom has agreed to bring forward the roll-out of superfast broadband in the area, so you have some of the fastest internet speeds in the whole of Europe…we can help make East London one of the world’s great technology centres and sow the seeds for sustainable growth throughout the economy.”

A Tech City business without a high-speed broadband connection is like a city without a road going to it, or a port without a river or seafront. Superfast broadband is vital infrastructure. It is like a fourth utility; it is Tech City’s lifeblood. I was therefore very concerned when 38 businesses from Tech City signed a petition, which was sent to me in May, complaining about the slow, unreliable broadband in the area. I took a sample case to BT, assuming that I would be assured that the problem would be ironed out without delay, and that my constituent would get the service he needed. I was shocked and surprised when BT said that although other users in the area have high-speed broadband, it was not commercially viable for it to connect up my constituent to the green cabinet outside his premises.

I raised the case with the Mayor, and I am still waiting for a complete response. I know that he cares about the issue but, as my Nan used to say, warm words butter no parsnips. I would be happy to work with the Mayor on this issue, because we simply have to do something about it.

Recently, I was contacted by other businesses in EC1 and EC2 that had exactly the same complaint. I went to see a company called Proudfoot TV—a small company

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that makes short films, which have to be very good quality, and which it uploads and sends around the world. It recently uploaded a two-and-a-half minute film to send to Ford. I have been asking people to guess how long it took to upload that film all day. Extraordinarily, it took nine hours.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the big problems is that advertised download speeds are an average, and that they do not take into account the important problem of uploading? That is also a problem for Shoreditch companies, because it slows down their businesses. We need to change the way that speeds are advertised.

Emily Thornberry: Absolutely. Tech City should be exporting, and if a two-and-a-half minute film cannot be exported without taking nine hours to upload, it should not be called Tech City.

Tech City serves not only the UK. Companies in my constituency have clients throughout the world, who expect those companies to have fast, reliable connections. Mr Proudfoot told me that although his business has evolved in the past 10 years, his connectivity has not improved in line with his work. He said that to send a high-quality sound file to Covent Garden, it is quicker to put it on a USB stick and cycle it round. Perhaps giving the USB stick to an owl, like Harry Potter, or sending it by carrier pigeon or even a raven, as they do in “Game of Thrones”, would be equally effective. He said that some of his employees get better broadband speeds on their domestic home connections than they do in the heart of Tech City.

Meg Hillier: I am sure that my hon. Friend will be interested to know that the editor of Tech City News, Alex Wood, each week produces a video rounding up the news in Tech City. The connection is so slow that he cannot upload the video from Old street; it has to be sent to his home address to be uploaded. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a national disgrace?

Emily Thornberry: It speaks for itself. I understand that things are difficult in central London; we have historical, narrow streets that are already full with all sorts of wires. It may well be easier to introduce superfast broadband in Bromley than in central London, but we need it in central London, and it should be a priority.

I visited another small enterprise, a company called YouthSight, whose broadband is so slow and unreliable that its 17 young employees struggle with everyday tasks such as research and communication. The company has complained on numerous occasions, and it has been visited by lots of BT engineers, but it has seen no improvement. It has a copper line, so it must put up with the speed of copper—plod, plod, plod. It is not in the Outer Hebrides; it is a two-minute walk from Old Street roundabout. The fact that the centre of London—the City and its fringes—has less access to superfast broadband than the suburbs seems contrary to common sense.

If BT remains intransigent and refuses to supply superfast broadband to that business, its only option is to buy a dedicated leased line, which can cost £5,000 for the connection and £400 per month, and there may be provisions locking it into the contract. That is not good

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enough. Why should small businesses in one street have to pay those huge costs when businesses in the next street get superfast broadband at a reasonable cost?

Meg Hillier: I thank my hon. Friend for her generosity in giving way. There are alternative forms of technology, but there are barriers to them. We can do two things to help. First, companies should be forced to share their infrastructure—to be fair, BT and Openreach do that in many cases. Secondly, we should change planning regulations to require landlords to ensure that their buildings have the capacity for certain technologies.

Emily Thornberry: I agree, although there are problems even with that approach, which I will come on to. If someone is willing to pay for a leased line, there is no guarantee that they will get it when they want it. Another company, also a few yards from Old Street roundabout, moved in two months ago. The previous occupants had a leased line, and that company applied to have it switched over in November. When I visited it last Friday, its staff were using mobile phones and were waiting for the leased line to be connected.

What must be done? My hon. Friend has made some proposals, and I have a suggestion. When British Telecom was privatised—it used to belong to all of us—it was given infrastructure, such as cables and cabinets, and it still has an effective monopoly. It should accept responsibility for installing superfast broadband to all existing cabinets in Tech City, and arguably across the UK. Aiming for 95% connectivity by 2017 is not ambitious enough.

I understand that London has particular problems. There are some cabinets missing, and there are some places where street cabinets cannot be installed. Some street cabinets have been taken out because they interfere with burglar alarms. I know that this is a historical city, but it must move into the 21st century. As my hon. Friend said, there are other options, such as connecting hubs inside buildings. It is not beyond the wit of man or BT to overcome those difficulties.

BT says that the Government should give it more help, that the state funding available to rural areas should also be available to cities, and that the European Union rules on state funding should be changed to allow that to happen. However, where Tech City is concerned, we need to look hard at BT’s arguments. Is it necessary for state aid to subsidise BT? After all, Openreach generates £5 billion of revenue each year.

I understand that BT has data indicating the areas where only copper lines are available. It is essential that that information is made publicly available, and I urge the Minister to ensure that BT makes it available, because frankly, if BT cannot change those copper lines to superfast broadband, it should get out of the way and let its competitors do so instead, but they need that information first.

Of course, in Tech City there are fibre cables to exchanges, but there is still no guarantee that individual small businesses can have an affordable high-speed connection. There are streets with fibre going down the middle, yet it is not connected to all the buildings on that street. That is an extraordinary situation. If we think about Victorian times, when sewers were built, can we imagine a sewer being built down the middle of the street and the company or organisation putting in that sewer refusing to connect up the buildings on that

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street to the sewer? If that would have been ridiculous in Victorian times, it is even more ridiculous now, is it not? Why are we going backwards, not forwards?

We should not allow this situation to drift. We have to change our attitude. This is infrastructure. Superfast broadband is not some sort of lifestyle choice for these businesses; it is their lifeblood. It is absolutely right for the Government and the Mayor of London to big up Tech City around the world and encourage it to do well, but if it is not given its absolute essence—its lifeblood—it will not thrive. There are many of these businesses, and I have met many of the youngsters involved with them. They are forward-thinking, innovative, great entrepreneurs and bright kids who will do well, but they are being held back by a company that is simply milking them, and it is about time that it stopped doing so.

Tech City cannot be built simply on hyperbole. The Mayor and the Prime Minister can continue to travel the world and tell everyone that London is a 21st-century city, but let us make sure that they lean on BT to give Tech City the tools it needs to get on with the job. We cannot make Tech City one of the world’s great technology centres and sow the seeds of sustainable growth, as the Prime Minister has said, when it takes nine hours to upload a 2.5 minute film. Tech City should not be relying on “Game of Thrones” ravens.

4.11 pm

The Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy (Mr Edward Vaizey): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) for securing this debate and for allowing me time to draw attention to the Government’s work in extending broadband.

During the last four and a half—almost five—years, we have very much moved forward in terms of broadband delivery. Superfast broadband is now available to 78% of UK premises; it was available to just 45% in 2010. In the UK, we have the highest superfast broadband coverage among EU5 countries. The average broadband speed in the UK has more than quadrupled. Superfast broadband take-up in the UK is the highest among the EU5 countries. So we have made a great deal of progress. However, I know that the issue of urban broadband continues to concern some of our colleagues, in particular issues around Tech City, because with Tech City’s prominence in the debate about how we continue to attract and grow technology companies, its connectivity sometimes gains national prominence.

When we started down this road, our focus was very much on rural areas, because we knew that the main providers and carriers of superfast broadband—Virgin and BT—were unlikely to go to many of them without some form of subsidy. I am pleased to say that that programme is well under way. We will shortly reach the halfway stage and we are well on the way to reaching our target of 90% superfast broadband by the end of this year.

Roll-out in urban areas is more problematic than in rural areas. To begin with, for example, it is not possible to get state aid to subsidise broadband roll-out in urban areas. The European Commission takes the view that the market is sufficiently competitive in urban areas not to need subsidy. However, that does not get away from

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the fact that there will be pockets in urban areas that some carriers do not believe are commercially viable to cover, and those areas could potentially get left behind.

Emily Thornberry: I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on what might be the problem. I hear what he says about there being competition, but the situation can be quite difficult. For example, if one street has only copper lines and the rival companies do not know that, whereas BT does, would it not be right for BT to be forced to hand over such information so that its competitors can compete and can go up and down the street, asking how many businesses need superfast broadband but do not have individual lines going into them? Then Virgin, or whoever it is, can say, “Right. We will invest in putting in our own fibre optics in that street and connect it up, because if BT won’t do it we’ll do it instead.” However, without such information, it is very difficult. We know that BT has that information, and yet it is sitting on it and not sharing it. It is in the Minister’s power to ensure that that information is disclosed.

Mr Vaizey: I am happy to correspond with the hon. Lady on that matter, because it is important that I fully understand the point she is trying to make. In the speech I am making this afternoon, I will try to address that point as well as I can, and if I have got things wrong we can correspond or indeed have a meeting about this issue, along with the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who has been very vocal about this subject, and indeed my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), who was referred to in the hon. Lady’s speech.

BT’s copper network is managed by Openreach, which is part of BT, and it is open to competition—what is known as local loop unbundling. That means that other operators, such as TalkTalk and Sky, can make a retail offer to residential customers and indeed to businesses that want to use, as it were, a consumer service. That has helped us to drive down the price of broadband. Indeed, those other operators are able to put their own electronics into cabinets.

Emily Thornberry: I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way again. May I raise another issue with him? BT is not sufficiently transparent in relation to its policy for small and medium-sized enterprises. Some of my constituents have told me that if they ring BT on one day and speak to one person, they are told one thing, but then they ring the next day and speak to somebody else, and are told something else, or told, “Oh, we’ve got to refer it to x, y and z.” So, there is not sufficient transparency for these SMEs to understand how they can get this vital utility into their business at a price that is affordable and competitive.

Mr Vaizey: As I was saying, my understanding is that these sectors are separate parts of BT’s business. So, a residential customer who wants a BT line will get a BT line, but that line will also be open to BT’s competitors, such as TalkTalk and Sky, to run their service across that line. The business market is different, and BT is under no obligation to share its commercially sensitive data about which business customers it has and which

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business customers it is targeting. BT is a private company; it is not a national company. It is not running a not-for-profit service; it competes vigorously with other business providers. It is important to stress that in most areas there is a very vibrant business market, with a lot of different suppliers supplying it, whether that is in central London, Manchester or elsewhere.

Because we could not get state aid directly to subsidise the build-up of fibre, we wanted to support individual businesses to get the connections they needed. So we have made available, for example in London, connection vouchers, which would allow a business such as Proudfoot TV to apply for a voucher and to have the connection charge met by that voucher. In London, 2,500 businesses have taken advantage of that scheme. The other interesting thing we learned from that exercise was that the total number of potential suppliers—bearing in mind that the service was available in 22 cities—ran to something like 500 or 600 companies.

I hear a lot of criticism about BT in debates such as this one, and I sometimes feel that I am BT’s spokesman in the House of Commons because I am constantly having to defend it, either on customer service or on the grounds of competition, but it is interesting to note that where money, and a good margin, can be made, there is a competitive market. So, if someone is in the centre of a city such as London, with a lot of SMEs, they will find a lot of suppliers willing to build up networks and supply that marketplace. However, if someone is in a village in a very rural area, the only game in town tends to be BT. That is the problem we are addressing.

Meg Hillier rose—

Emily Thornberry rose—

Mr Vaizey: I will give way to the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch.

Meg Hillier: There is hot competition to challenge the Minister on that.

I thank the Minister for his comments, and for the move to reduce the cost of Openreach prices to some of the competitor companies. I say that because one of the issues is the overall cost of superfast broadband, both for businesses and residents. Would he, along with the Department for Communities and Local Government, look into this issue about changing planning, for wayleaves—to gain access across property—and to allow other technologies to be installed on or in buildings, because currently the planning rules make it harder for competitive technologies to enter the market?

Mr Vaizey: I am certainly happy to look at the planning regulations. Through the Infrastructure Bill, we were proposing some changes to the electronic communications code, mainly to help those erecting mobile masts. We withdrew those amendments when it became clear that there was some concern over whether mobile operators could use them to go on to each other’s masts and make changes. We will consult and are keen to make those kind of amendments. We would certainly look at any other planning changes that could make life easier for anyone who wants to build a mobile network, a fibre network, or something between the two.

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While I am talking about mobile, it is important to remember that in most urban areas, and in particular in central London, the roll-out of 4G is continuing apace. We have the fastest take-up and roll-out of 4G of pretty much any country in the world. It is important, however, to stress the difference between the business market and the residential market. When you or I are at home, Mr Crausby, we will want a connection of 2 to 3 megabits and probably of 7 to 8 megabits, and with that connection, we would want do the normal things that one would expect, such as watching something on iPlayer or sending a document back to our office by e-mail. We would not necessarily, however, be uploading a very data-heavy two-and-a-half minute film. If a business has at its core the transmission of huge packets of data, one would expect it to be prepared to invest in the kind of business lines that are legion in London. An ethernet line is available in St John street in Islington. Virgin Media is in that street. It would cost that business perhaps £200 to £300 a month, once it had the connection established, to run it.

Another key point is that although we have some of the lowest broadband speeds anywhere in the world—the lowest compared with the EU5 and the USA—it will not astonish the Chamber to learn that the faster the speed, the higher the cost. Sometimes, my hon. Friends and colleagues say to me, “I have just been in such and such a country. You know what? The bloke I was staying with had a 1 gig connection. It was amazing. They could download a film in two minutes. It was incredible.” They never bother to ask that bloke how much he is paying for that 1 gig connection. If someone wants a 1 gig connection, they will pay more than if they want a 1 meg connection.

Emily Thornberry: The Minister has spoken about vouchers. I am sure the vouchers have been of some assistance to those businesses that have applied for them. The vouchers, I believe, are for £3,000, but to get a dedicated line costs £5,000. It then costs £400 a month and the business has to sign up to a contract that could last for many years. Those costs are a huge outlay for a small business just starting up and trying to establish itself in Tech City, exporting videos, music videos, adverts and all the sorts of things that are made in Tech City.

When I left Proudfoot TV, I bumped into a couple of BT engineers and said, “Are you going to give them some broadband? What are you up to?” They started to explain to me that they were putting in a dedicated line to a building two doors down. For Proudfoot TV to have a line put in, it would have to pay as if there had not been a line before and would have to start all over again. It would go to box 17, I believe, which is the problem in that particular area. It seems to be nonsense, when businesses have such a lot to be doing, to be unable to get such a basic utility without having to go through all these hoops and climb over all these hurdles.

Mr Vaizey: We are getting to the crux of the matter. Fundamentally, this debate is not about whether broadband is available, but whether businesses that use a huge amount of data should get a cheap broadband service. My contention is that, first, broadband is available and, secondly, it is a highly competitive marketplace. I will, however, highlight some of the changes.

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The hon. Lady is quite right; there may be an established business with 10 or 20 employees that understands the need to invest in a leased line, because it is moving large amounts of data. A start-up business with one, two or three people may, however, find those kinds of costs prohibitive in the early stages. Is the market competitive enough to give them the kind of broadband speeds they need to get going? The championing, if I can put it that way, of this issue by the hon. Members for Hackney South and Shoreditch and for Islington South and Finsbury and by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster on at least three occasions in the House has led to progress, so they should take pride in that. It is a good reminder to us all that it is sometimes worth raising these issues in the House, even if we sometimes think that no one is listening. Virgin Media Business is working closely with the Tech City team and is offering businesses a 50 meg symmetrical service for around £200 a month and a 100 meg symmetrical service for £249 a month. You may still say, Mr Crausby, that that is too much money, but it slightly takes the heat off BT, as it illustrates what a competitor that would dearly love to take all of BT’s business has to charge to make a return.

Meg Hillier: I appreciate the Minister’s generosity in giving way once more. He suggested that the argument boils down just to cost, but let me be clear that there are still companies in Shoreditch that cannot easily get a physical connection. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury has told me that there are also such companies on her side of the roundabout. Alternative technologies would open up the market, make it more competitive and help drive down the price.

Mr Vaizey: Our speeches almost seem to be synergising. The next point I was going to make was that thanks to the campaigning of the hon. Lady and others, Virgin and BT have said that they will increase their footprint. Virgin will cover an additional 100,000 premises in east London and BT is aiming to cover an additional 400,000 premises in cities, with 250,000 of those in city centres and 100,000 of those in central London. UK Broadband is launching a superfast wireless broadband service across central London, including the Cities of London and Westminster. CityFibre and Hyperoptic are looking at delivering those kinds of services in other cities outside of London.

On planning, we are seeking to reduce red tape by introducing legislation to permit the installation of broadband, street cabinets and new overhead lines without prior approval from local planning authorities for five years. We also introduced changes to streamline the process to support the deployment of mobile infrastructure. Those are areas where we have made progress.

The City of London has talked about building its own network. Thanks to campaigning by the hon. Members for Hackney South and Shoreditch and for Islington South and Finsbury and my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster, we had a meeting with the City of London corporation and BT. BT is trialling “fibre to the basement” technology to try to overcome some of the technical obstacles in providing broadband for multi-dwellings. I am also pleased to say that the Mayor and the London Assembly are taking

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ownership of the issue. He has set up a connectivity advisory group, which has been formed to bring actors together to improve digital connectivity across London.

A great deal of progress has been made, but I sympathise with any business that is looking at the kind of costs that have been mentioned. Ofcom is due to launch a consultation on business-leased lines in spring that will report, we hope, in early 2016. It will look at competition on business-leased lines.

Emily Thornberry: Is the Minister aware that if one looks at the access to superfast broadband, London looks like a doughnut? It is much easier in outer London than in the centre, and a great deal of work is being done to expose that. I hope that he remains on top of that issue, because as the picture is established, it will become clear that Government intervention is necessary.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. I am about to suspend the sitting for a Division in the House. Is the Minister about to wind up?

Mr Vaizey: I simply wish to conclude by saying that I congratulate the hon. Lady on an excellent debate and note the points that she has made.

4.29 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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Radiotherapy Services (North East Hertfordshire)

4.42 pm

Sir Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con): This debate could not be better timed, because today is world cancer day, and the day on which we heard from the charity, Cancer Research UK, that although we are seeing better outcomes with cancer, more people are at risk. This is also an opportunity for me to ask for help for my constituents, who have to travel day after day, for many hours, to get their radiotherapy, which is tiring, dangerous, onerous and needs changing.

The situation that I am about to describe affects people not only in my constituency, but in Stevenage, North East Bedfordshire and Hitchin and Harpenden. I am glad to see my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) in the Chamber to support the campaign. I am also receiving great support from the public, patients and their families in seeking to ensure that radiotherapy treatment is available to cancer patients at the Lister in Stevenage, in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I pay tribute to his work in raising the issue so strongly.

I have asked questions in Parliament and have secured today’s debate. The Minister will, I know, listen to our case, and I hope that she will intercede for us with NHS England to break the logjam, so that we finally get the Lister hospital this facility, which it needs. The hospital recently opened a new cancer centre in conjunction with Macmillan Cancer Support, and radiotherapy would be an important addition. Furthermore, our local newspaper, The Comet, has long supported the cause.

Radiotherapy for people living in the Stevenage, Letchworth, Baldock and Hitchin area, and just over the border in Bedfordshire, at the moment takes place in Mount Vernon hospital in north London, in Hillingdon. It is a great hospital and the treatment is excellent but it is a difficult journey there, either by car or by the hospital bus service. That service takes all day—it collects patients at 7.30 am, delivering them back at 4 pm. Those long daily journeys are often needed for a three-week period, which is gruelling for patients and their families.

My constituents have described the visits as tiring and stressful. One young woman who is about to start treatment says:

“I am having to go for a three week stint at Mount Vernon, after my breast cancer op at Lister. I’ve been told by people in the same boat that it’s quite a stressful journey and the parking! Lister also has a small bus service pickup from your home at 7.30 back at 4ish! Daily. This is great but after all the patients go through it would be another stressful stage of getting well and to fight cancer.”

Another said:

“I had 39 Radiotherapy sessions for prostate cancer treatment at Mount Vernon Hospital. The treatment was excellent and was given by wonderful staff. Fortunately the transport was provided but this would have been saved if Lister had the appropriate facilities.”

One of the constituents of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire told me:

“I am pleased to see you raising the question of installing a radiotherapy unit in the Lister Hospital. This treatment is sorely needed in N. Herts as the travel and journey is particularly

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onerous for what can be very repetitive and tiring treatment to Mount Vernon in Middlesex…from Stotfold where I live. Myself and two neighbours have had need of this treatment in the past 12 months…the requirement generated from a single road so the need is certainly there.”

Alistair Burt (North East Bedfordshire) (Con): I have already apologised to both my hon. and learned Friend and the Minister that I am not able to stay to hear the Minister’s speech. I very much want to support my hon. and learned Friend. My constituent’s point is very pertinent. The A1 runs directly down from where that constituent was talking about to the Lister. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that that is a perfect example of how a facility closer to north-east Bedfordshire would make all the difference to relieving our constituents’ suffering?

Sir Oliver Heald: I totally agree with my right hon. Friend. There are many arguments for the change. One patient from east Hertfordshire, who is a constituent of mine, said:

“Being diagnosed with cancer is devastating for the person and the family and to discover that part of the treatment involves regular journeys to north London just adds to the stress that family is undergoing.”

Another aspect to consider is patients with children. One constituent wrote to me about her daughter, who is in her 30s and has three children. She needs radiotherapy at Mount Vernon and will have to find someone to travel with her and someone to look after her children on a daily basis for three weeks. Her mother says:

“This all adds to the stress of having to deal with cancer, especially at such a young age.”

She ends her letter to me:

“Here’s hoping we are successful in making someone see sense.”

Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con): I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend on securing this debate, which is important to my constituents in Stevenage. He and I have secured the support of the local newspaper, The Comet, and have run a petition over a number of years to improve radiotherapy access. We have dealt with thousands of people. There is no public transport available for them to get from Stevenage in north-east Hertfordshire to Hillingdon in London, so they are very much stuck with having to have private vehicles and people to support them.

Sir Oliver Heald: That is very much the nub of the issue: there is no alternative to the car or the bus, and the bus takes a day to take patients and bring them back.

The NHS is currently mapping the country to find areas where it takes more than 45 minutes by car to reach radiotherapy, in order to assess pressing need for new and satellite centres. My hon. Friend and I have been in contact with Kim Fell of NHS England about this issue. We have arranged to meet her, Ruth Derrett, who is the head of specialised services, Dr Adrian Crellin, who is the radiotherapy clinical reference group chair, and Pam Evans of the specialised commissioning team, because they think that the journey from our area takes less than 45 minutes.

We have been told that, as part of the review, the National Clinical Analysis and Specialised Applications Team has produced a map that shows the 45-minute

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position across our area. Apparently, the map shows that only a small proportion of the population of Stevenage travels more than 45 minutes for treatment, and questions have been asked about whether that would generate sufficient activity for the satellite service that we are asking for.

The methodology used is clearly flawed, so we are pressing on the 45 minute figure. Even if one ignores the heavy traffic congestion in our area—my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage and I have been campaigning for some years to widen the A1(M) between Stevenage and Welwyn because it is so congested, and we have recently got about £100 million for it—the AA, the RAC and everyone who does that journey all say that it takes longer than 45 minutes. The senior management at the trust that runs both hospitals, East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust, allows one hour 15 minutes each way for the journey. I have done the journey only once, and it took me two hours in the rush hour. I have offered to do the drive seven times at different times of the day using the three possible routes and to report the findings to NHS England. I am waiting to hear whether it considers that to be a satisfactory methodology. My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage and I have suggested that the key officials might like to come with us on the journey one morning at the same time as the bus, so that they can see the challenge to the 45 minute figure.

I am arguing that Mount Vernon hospital should put a satellite radiotherapy centre at the Lister hospital. We like the Mount Vernon hospital—the treatment there is excellent—so we would like it to use its staff and machines at the Lister. The machines that they use do need to be replaced from time to time, and there are currently eight of them. I am told that fairly soon an opportunity will arise when two need to be replaced. The new machines should be sited at the Lister hospital. That would leave six at Hillingdon and allow Mount Vernon to offer its expertise to an even wider area, thereby securing its position as a cancer centre. It would be able to offer services to a larger group in Bedfordshire, for example, than it currently can. That would benefit the status of Mount Vernon hospital as well as helping the patients.

The Lister hospital has recently benefited from the opening of the wonderful Macmillan cancer care centre on its site. Radiotherapy would greatly improve the support and care available to people in our area. Patients and their relatives strongly support the idea of the move, which has been described to me as “wonderful”. Another person wrote to me to say:

“It would be fabulous to have the device at Lister. It makes sense as we have just opened a great cancer chemotherapy unit”.

I hope that the Minister might intercede on our behalf with NHS England so that our case can be properly considered. The idea that it takes 45 minutes or less from our area to Mount Vernon must be reconsidered. It is time for a satellite radiotherapy centre at the Lister, but we need help to make it happen. I intend to present a petition to Parliament in March. We already have hundreds of signatures, and it can be downloaded from my website: www.oliverheald.com. I will present it on the Floor of the House. My right hon. and hon. Friends, our constituents and I feel strongly that it is time for the change to be made. It is time that those endless journeys, hour after hour, day after day, ended.

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4.53 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Jane Ellison): I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) on securing this debate on, as he pointed out, a very apt day: world cancer day. I am still getting used to the idea of the MPs’ road trip that he appears to be planning for himself, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland). I will come on to address the issue of access, but that certainly sounds like an offer that no one could refuse.

Stephen McPartland: NHS England has refused us on several occasions. We keep pushing, so we would be grateful if the Minister could persuade it to accept the offer to embark on our road trip.

Jane Ellison: I will certainly draw NHS England’s attention to the force with which the invitation was put in this debate.

Let me say a few words about the bigger picture on cancer before we go into the detail in the contribution by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire. The Government are committed to improving cancer outcomes and matching the best in Europe. As Members are aware, we do not match the best in Europe; we were certainly lagging behind some important countries when the Government came to office in 2010.

The 2011 strategy, which was backed by £750 million, set the ambition of saving an additional 5,000 lives a year. We believe that we are on track to save an additional 12,000 lives a year, far exceeding that ambition. Much of the focus has been on early diagnosis and awareness. Given the clear interest in cancer that Members have expressed by being here, I hope that they will join me in welcoming the announcement of NHS England’s cancer taskforce, which is charged with designing a new cancer strategy for the NHS to take us through to 2020.

I thought Members might be interested in the statistics for East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust over the last 12 months. Some 2,881 more patients with suspected cancers were seen than in 2010—a 49% increase. In addition, 239 more patients were treated for cancer than in 2009-10—an 11% increase. Local NHS staff, to whom I pay tribute, are therefore doing a good job of seeing more people.

Sir Oliver Heald: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way on that important point. About half of the patients require radiotherapy, so the numbers on that journey are getting higher and higher, and there surely comes a point when we can have our satellite.

Jane Ellison: Indeed, and I will address some of the issues my hon. and learned Friend raised, but let me say a quick word on radiotherapy more generally. The Government have set about improving these services. NHS England will be investing an additional £15 million in stereotactic ablative radiotherapy on top of the £6 million already committed. That will benefit about 750 patients a year. There is also a £23 million radiotherapy innovation fund, which has resulted in the doubling of intensity-modulated radiotherapy activity. In addition, we are

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investing £250 million in building two new proton beam therapy centres. A lot of investment is therefore being made in some very up-to-date and important technology.

Let me turn to local health matters. First, I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage, who are all known as doughty champions of their local health services. It is particularly good to see the latter, who champions health matters with great vigour in this place.

I am aware of the issues that have been raised. Regardless of the part of the country we live in, we would all expect patients to have ready access to radiotherapy services as part of patient care. Obviously, radiotherapy is a specialised service. It is commissioned directly by NHS England. Fortunately, it is not needed by the majority of NHS patients, but it is vital to those who do need it. The smaller number of patients involved means that the health service needs to think carefully about access—locating units to provide the maximum benefit closest to the highest possible number of people. I will go on to talk about the implications for expertise.

Such decisions are made locally, and are best made locally, by clinical leaders who have the full benefit of local knowledge. However, it is right, of course, to bring concerns to Parliament and to give Ministers a chance to understand what is happening in the local health economy, so that we are aware of the issues and can discuss them, where necessary. Decisions on where to locate specialist services need careful consideration. The issue is of particular note to those who represent more rural constituencies. Patients who live some distance from treatment centres—not only those providing radiotherapy—can, unfortunately, face repeated, long and tiring journeys. I realise that the seats of my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire are not necessarily rural, but those are factors in parts of our country. My hon. and learned Friend gave us examples of the anxieties that long, tiring journeys bring, alongside the already stressful situation of being treated for cancer.

Interest in where radiotherapy services are located is understandably heightened by the NHS England review of stereotactic radiotherapy and stereotactic radio surgery services, which is being undertaken at a national level. For the benefit of Members, let me explain that those services involve a type of external beam radiotherapy treatment currently commissioned by NHS England for the treatment of patients with a wide range of cranial cancers. That consultation closed recently, on 26 January, and as part of the review, NHS England found

“an unmet need in the provision of treatment, with services distributed unevenly across the country.”

The proposed changes to the way in which stereotactic radio surgery and radiotherapy services are commissioned in England was looked at in the public consultation. Proposals include consideration of the location of services provided in the interests of ensuring equity of access, and the results are being reviewed by NHS England.

My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that NHS England has also carried out a separate, high-level exercise to assess capacity and demand for external

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beam radiotherapy more generally at a national level to give it a sense of the national picture. A further phase of work is proposed to take place locally, as there will be some specific local issues of which commissioners and providers will need to take account. That process is due to begin in late March.

Accessibility is characterised by an assurance that all patients are offered the most appropriate and effective treatment for their cancer. The latest research suggests that about 40% of all cancer patients should receive radiotherapy, complementing earlier recommendations made by the National Radiotherapy Advisory Group that aim to boost cancer survival through increasing access to that therapy, delivered as part of a treatment with curative intent. The England average access rate was 33% in 2007, and 38.8% in the most recent figures, which demonstrates real progress. I know, however, that there is further to go, as my hon. and learned Friend made clear in his speech.

NHS England has told me that the radiotherapy clinical reference group, which supports it in commissioning radiotherapy, is of the view that all patients should be offered equitable access to specialist radiotherapy care and treatment. The clinical reference group plans to build on the assessment of radiotherapy demand and capacity for England by considering aspects such as innovative treatments, the stock of equipment and how needs differ across areas. That national overview will enable commissioners to ensure that the right services are in the right places to meet future demand, including innovative forms of radiotherapy. Such improvements might well mean that, in future, patients need fewer episodes of treatment, so the problem of repeated tiring journeys would at least be reduced. I think we would all welcome that.

Access to radiotherapy treatment locally is a matter for NHS England to lead on. The decisions on the introduction of satellite radiotherapy centres will need to involve the local providers—in this case, East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust—and NHS England as commissioners. As my hon. and learned Friend said, his closest radiotherapy services are the excellent services at the Mount Vernon hospital, and there are also services at Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge. NHS England will continue to review the need for additional radiotherapy facilities outside those centres, if such facilities would benefit sufficient numbers of patients, be economically viable and enhance the existing care pathways.

It is possible that, as a result of those discussions, it will be found that more radiotherapy services are needed, but the optimum location will be determined by a number of criteria, including the impact on nearby trusts and existing cancer pathways—in other words, in trying to balance out one lack of access, we would not want to cause a problem elsewhere. Such decisions need to be looked at in the round in the local health economy. However, my hon. and learned Friend made good points about access, and I will ensure that those are underlined.

I understand that in 2009-10 there was a capacity review of radiotherapy provision for the Mount Vernon cancer network. That concluded that although the capacity to meet future demand up to 2016 could be met by the current providers, increasing access to the north of the network was an objective that needed looking at. My hon. and learned Friend underlined that point.

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Sir Oliver Heald: It is remarkable that the county of Hertfordshire, which has 1.2 million people, does not have radiotherapy facilities at all. Does my hon. Friend agree that the urgency of the matter is changed by the fact that the whole county—or at least most of it—has to go all the way down to London? That is a rather old-fashioned approach. I do not know whether she is prepared to ensure that my remarks, and the support of my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), are relayed to NHS England.

Jane Ellison: I will certainly do that. I make a point of drawing the attention of the relevant clinical leaders to our debates, and to the strength of feeling expressed by Members on behalf of their constituents. I am of course happy to do that.

The siting of a satellite unit at either the Luton and Dunstable hospital or the Lister hospital in Stevenage was considered in the previous review, but given that the system already had sufficient capacity to meet future requirements, the report acknowledged that any satellite development would need to be planned as part of existing capacity, not additional capacity. In other words, services would have to transfer.

Any review should include an assessment of the best fit, to ensure that if a radiotherapy satellite service is a preferred solution, it is located in the right place. I understand all the points made about location and the county not having such a facility, but equally, looking purely at the geography and the county boundaries might not always lead one to completely the right conclusion. That point was, however, important and has been well underlined today. The unit has to be located in the right place, so that there is capacity, and so that the preferred location offers cost-effective treatment to a sufficiently large number of patients. That is the important point: the number of patients.

I understand, too, that my hon. and learned Friend is not talking about using old equipment, but looking at the location of new equipment. Furthermore, sometimes there is concern about involving what might be called the “penny packet” approach, scattering specialist services thinly to achieve better access. One of the challenges with that approach, however, is that while it can often make sense to people on the face of things—“Of course we want those services there”—there is always the caution about staff not getting the benefit of mutual support, and expertise in particular can become diluted. That approach might also make it sometimes more difficult to manage demand, as one unit might become overwhelmed while others are underworked.

Those factors need to be taken into account, and I underline the expertise one in particular. We all want our constituents to be seen by people who treat sufficient specialist health problems to be really expert in them. We want those experts to see enough patients to know what they are doing when they see something. Concentration of expertise is important in many areas of health and has been much focused on.

Sir Oliver Heald: I am suggesting a Mount Vernon operation—that it provides the service in the Lister. Mount Vernon would have two fewer machines, which

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we would have in the Lister. In that way, we hope that the expertise would be as good as it always has been, but people would not have to do the long journeys.

Jane Ellison: I completely understand that point. I expect local clinical leadership to understand the expertise and staffing available. All those factors will be taken in the round and looked at, because the work is specialist. I would expect the NHS to look at things such as his suggestion about the new machines at Mount Vernon. I will of course write, drawing attention to the particular concerns of my hon. and learned Friend and of my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage about access and the travel distances. They, however, would in turn expect the local NHS to look at issues such as the distribution of expertise to ensure that the continuity of expertise was available.

Stephen McPartland: I am grateful to the Minister, who is being generous in giving way. The local Lister hospital in Stevenage is part of the same trust as Mount Vernon. The chief executive and the cancer surgeons of the local hospital support the concept of a satellite radiotherapy unit, so the local NHS supports having such a unit in Stevenage, or nearby in Hertfordshire. The issue we have is with NHS England getting on and commissioning it. The problem is that we cannot understand how the NHS is getting travel times of 45 minutes.

Jane Ellison: I have certainly picked up from the debate the importance of the issue of travel times. I will make a particular point of drawing that to NHS England’s attention.

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It is always heartening to hear that colleagues are so engaged with their local health leaders as to be working together on such things. I am sure that that will all be fed into the process of making a decision. That will have to look at the implications for the whole cancer pathway, and all the other patients who receive services as part of the cancer network.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage are hoping to meet the local NHS, as they detailed. Again, it sounds as if all the right people will be at that meeting. I strongly encourage colleagues to continue such meetings. Such a high level of engagement with local clinical leaders can only be to the benefit of their constituents. They will want to get the best and safest services for their constituents.

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire, who was supported by other right hon. and hon. Friends, on the debate and on their interest in the issue, which they are championing on behalf of their constituents. It is great to hear that they have the local newspaper, The Comet, involved, because it is always good for local newspapers to be involved in health campaigns, drawing attention to and explaining the issues to their readership. It sounds like a real commitment to fighting cancer in their part of the country. I commend them. I will draw the debate to the attention of those who will be interested, including NHS England. I am happy to continue to liaise with Members, and to hear how they get on with their discussions and the eventual outcome of the local review.

Question put and agreed to.

5.11 pm

Sitting adjourned.