I have had lots of emails, and some 2,300 people have signed a petition in 10 days. Tomorrow evening, I will be holding a meeting with Southern rail. Southern rail managers are coming down to Shoreham where constituents

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can see them at first hand and get the answers to why we have a shoddy service and why they have this ridiculous idea, in the interests of enhanced passenger experience, to do away with those station ticket offices and replace them with station hosts. Station hosts are there to tell people why the ticket machine is not working, and to deal with the trains coming into the station, and with maintenance and security. If people are lucky, hosts will have some time to advise them on how to buy their ticket.

Finally, there is the issue of the continued closure of the underpass at Shoreham station where, just last week, a 20-year old man was fatally hit by a train. We need to do more to be much more responsive to public need.

2.55 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is also a pleasure to address the railways Minister, who I know is genuinely committed to our railways and is a railway enthusiast. With her in place, I hope we will solve some problems.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing the debate, but I should say something first about my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am chair of the ASLEF group of MPs. ASLEF, as hon. Members know, is the union for train drivers. In their defence, in my experience, drivers are unfailing in their politeness and very helpful in keeping passengers informed when things go wrong. Things go wrong quite often, but that is not their fault.

I have travelled on the Luton to London line every day of my working life since 1969—some 47 years—so I have quite a bit of experience. Govia, despite having newer and longer trains available, is probably the worst operator during all my years of travelling. It does not appear to appreciate the number of staff it needs to operate a train service effectively, and I receive regular complaints from my constituents, especially those using Leagrave station in my constituency. The current customer satisfaction rating shows that fewer than three out of four passengers are satisfied with the service, and that is among the lowest of all the franchises.

Govia is currently proposing to close ticket offices, which is just the latest attempt to cut costs and drive up profits. In my view, a public service should reinvest surpluses and not simply distribute them to shareholders. I am grateful to one of my constituents for making some helpful comments on the changes proposed to Leagrave station. She said that the proposals are “clearly cost-cutting” and will be “detrimental to passenger service.” Some 947,000 passengers use Leagrave every year, which is slightly under 1 million, but there are not enough ticket machines for the current demand and there are no proposals to increase the number. Some are out of date and do not accept current credit or debit cards. Not all types of tickets are available and sometimes faults say that even some basic tickets are “not available.”

I detest machines and much prefer purchasing my ticket from a person. I am very fortunate that I use Luton station, which has a well-staffed booking office with some helpful and charming booking staff. I am not alone in buying my ticket every day—30% of people buy tickets from ticket offices every day and they should

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be available to all. Not all passengers can use a machine because of disabilities or medical reasons. Govia has a legal duty to ensure equality of access, particularly for people with visual impairments, dyslexia or learning difficulties—I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties, so I am aware of those problems—and mental health difficulties.

When the ticket office is open at Leagrave, my constituent says that there are nearly always queues, presumably because people prefer not to use a machine, or because they have a query or their ticket is not available from the machines, and they get a better service from a person. I do not know the responsibilities of the hosts proposed by Govia but, presumably, they will also be staffing barriers and dealing with other issues for passengers, or even issuing penalties, which is time consuming in itself.

There are two entrances to Leagrave station so Leagrave will have two “hosts”. How does Govia intend to comply with health and safety requirements if only one person is on duty and not behind a glass screen? What passed for a waiting room at Leagrave, at one entrance only, was recently converted for barriers only, so I am not sure where the hosts are supposed to operate from. Shelter on the platforms is also minimal.

I use the internet infrequently, but my constituent tells me that the Govia Thameslink website is “totally inadequate” for obtaining accurate information or booking tickets reliably. I am told that not all types of ticket are available on the website and that railcard options are not integrated into ordinary purchases. Govia has not supplied sufficient information to enable people to respond meaningfully to the consultation. Govia says that

“some ticket offices issue less than 12 tickets per hour”,

but there is no way of comparing that figure with other stations or other times of the day. I have tabled an early-day motion on the subject and urge the Minister to review Govia’s franchise with the view to taking it within her Department.

Finally, on punctuality, if I have to get to a meeting in Westminster on time, I go for an earlier train than normal just in case the train is late, as the trains so often are—not missing meetings, and indeed votes, at Westminster is important to Members of Parliament. There are other things that are not Govia’s fault, one of which is sometimes the state of the track. Between St Pancras and the Elstree and Borehamwood tunnel, the track in some places is not good. Almost every day one hears the stops being hit as we go over rough bits of track. Network Rail has something to answer for, too.

3.1 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing this debate. I agree with every word he said. The performance of the franchise simply is not good enough. It is a matter of deep regret and enormous frustration that Members have had to come back to this Chamber again to raise concerns about its performance. The figures speak for themselves. In 2011, 78% of Southern passengers were satisfied with train punctuality and reliability. In spring 2015 the figure had fallen to just over half, 56%, and in the autumn it had risen to 65%—fewer than two thirds of passengers were satisfied. Last year, Southern was effectively voted by passengers the worst franchise in the country.

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That is unacceptable when, one year ago, thanks to the Minister’s sterling efforts, the industry gathered together and agreed a performance improvement plan for the franchise that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham said, set a benchmark for performance that was already far lower than that in the rest of the industry. What do we see one year later? In the past three months, the franchise has consistently fallen below the standard set by its own benchmark, which was already low. That is simply not acceptable. Indeed, in the original performance improvement plan, the industry said:

“You will notice real improvements from now onwards in the punctuality and reliability of our trains.”

That promise has been broken. It will evince nothing more than a hollow laugh from passengers, who are absolutely fed up. Day after day we hear the franchise’s excuses on its trains, including a shortage of rolling stock. What happened to the rolling stock? How can a train be missed? Why are there inadequate amounts of rolling stock? Another excuse is that drivers are not available. That is not necessarily because, as has been pointed out to me, drivers are failing to turn up, but simply because an inadequate number of drivers are employed by the company. An airline would not run things like that, so why should we accept it from the rail industry?

Where is the accountability for this lamentable performance? Who is being held accountable, and how, for the complete failure to deliver by the franchise’s own standards and the promises that it made? The franchise said a year ago that it would deliver improvements, and those improvements have not been delivered. What penalty will be exacted against it? Have senior managers been held accountable in any way? Have they had their pay frozen or their salaries cut? I hope there have been no performance-related bonuses. There could not possibly have been because the performance has been so bad. Perhaps there should be performance-related penalties. Where is there accountability in the system that will drive better performance? The public are fairly asking those questions.

When the franchise was first awarded in May 2014— I am sorry to have to remind the Minister of this—the Department for Transport’s press notice said:

“Demanding contractual obligations on the operator will deliver cleaner and more spacious trains and improve passenger satisfaction. Tough new benchmarks for performance, train and station cleanliness and customer service information have also been agreed.”

The impression that was created was that the service would get better; it has got worse. Where is the accountability? How will this service be held to account?

None of us has any complaint about how the Minister has approached the issue—far from it. She has arraigned the companies concerned in front of Members and required the companies to meet us to account for themselves. She drove the introduction of the performance improvement plan, and she has done her level best to insist on greater performance, but we cannot find ourselves arriving in this Chamber in one year’s time having experienced the same level of delays and lack of passenger satisfaction as we have now. The service simply must improve. If it will not improve rapidly, we have to consider more radical action to address the problem. The lack of performance is undermining faith in the entire policy of engaging the private sector to deliver public services. In that respect, it is very damaging to the Government and

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to the reputation of the whole industry. It is simply not good enough, it must improve and there must be accountability on the part of the franchisee to deliver better performance.

3.6 pm

Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing this debate. There is almost nothing in what has been said with which I do not wholeheartedly agree.

Listening to my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), I recognise the trap that the Minister is in. In one of the meetings that she arranged for us to be briefed by her director of franchising, it was made perfectly clear that the option exists to remove the franchise from Govia, but colleagues will recall his extremely strong advice that placing the management of this railway back in the hands of the Department for Transport and the public sector is almost certainly against the interests of our constituents. There are limitations on the levers available to the Minister to improve the performance of both Govia and Network Rail. Of course, in the terms of the franchise, she inherited the fare income and is paying a management fee to Govia for running the service, which I hope is an area in which her imagination and energy can begin to address the fundamental issue of unfairness for our constituents. They are getting a rotten service, and they are being inadequately served and inadequately advised about the service they are getting. As my right hon. Friend said, who is accountable? We have to work hard to try to address the issue of perceived unfairness.

The Minister knows that I feel that particularly strongly because the part of the network that I represent catches the full trains and the highest fares per mile into London—being just outside the London area, my constituents pay £1,000 a year more than for the equivalent ticket just inside zone 6. That is why I am particularly attracted to the suggestion that my hon. Friends the Members for Horsham and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) made about electronic ticketing. I strongly invite the Minister to go beyond her commitment to reducing the delay repayment threshold from 30 to 15 minutes and to use her energy and imagination to get tucked into electronic ticketing. I do not see why, in this day and age, we cannot hold out to our constituents a fair system that automatically adjusts for services that do not happen, for services that are late and for the number of services that people take, and that reflects their experience on the trains. Even simply the prospect of introducing such a system would begin to win back the trust of those who use the service, as they would know there will at least be fairness at the end of the line.

I note the remarks of Transport Focus in its latest letter to me on 28 January 2016:

“We are calling for the industry to restore trust, especially among commuters, with credible promises, backed by sustained, improved performance....A fare reduction for badly affected passengers would also help.”

That is within my hon. Friend’s gift to a degree, although I recognise the financial pressure that the Department remains under, as does the rest of the Government.

On Gatwick, I want to reinforce a point made by my hon. Friends about the ticket offices. This has been raised with me by constituents using Merstham and

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Reigate stations. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who said that if people have to stand out the front and explain why the machine is not working, that will not help much either.

Finally, if anyone thinks for a moment that this is an appropriate line on which to support Gatwick with a second runway, they need their head examining. On Gatwick’s own numbers, there will be a 69% growth in predicted traffic if we go from one to two runways in 2040, which will actually mean a massive increase in the use of the railway for Gatwick passengers. It is totally unsustainable as an option, and I hope the rail Minister will make the position very clear in the assessment of the options.

3.11 pm

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am in complete agreement with all the hon. and right hon. Friends and Members who have spoken so far.

I want to start by mentioning some positives. In the previous Parliament, I was very grateful when Three Bridges station received £26 million in upgrade funding. I am proud of the fact that the new Southern area control centre, a state-of-the-art facility, is based at Three Bridges rail yard. In this Parliament, I have been grateful for the fact that the new Thameslink train care facility is located also at Three Bridges rail yard. It was good to see the Transport Secretary there last year for its opening. It is a very impressive facility indeed and will go a long way to helping to service the longer and more state-of-the-art Thameslink trains that are coming along, we hope, later this year and I am sure will improve the customer experience.

As smart ticketing has been mentioned, I want to welcome the extension of the Oyster zone to Gatwick airport. Like my hon. Friends the Members for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) and for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), I would like to see smart metering throughout the network. It is a much more efficient way of running services and also an aid in terms of refunds. The issue of refunds, as hon. and right hon. Friends have mentioned, needs to be better addressed.

However, I also recognise what the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) said about the importance of there still being a human presence at ticket offices. It is extremely important. He is a very distinguished chair of the all-party group on dyslexia, and what he said about disability access was absolutely right as well. My constituents have been telling me about what they believe is the folly of ticket office closures. Of course we can have a more efficient system, and there will be some stations where ticket offices, perhaps with new technology, are a thing of the past, but at the moment it is not appropriate to go forward with such a programme.

A lot of investment has benefited my constituency in recent years, but the experience, as the hon. Member for Luton North said, has been unacceptable. I commute daily to Westminster. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have now allowed myself an extra hour to get into this place, which is ridiculous. I should be able to rely on the train

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timetable with a degree of certainty. When I stand, all too often at peak times, with my fellow commuter constituents from Three Bridges, the level of service and the slowness of the services is simply not acceptable. Little things might seem quite minor, such as a train coming in from Brighton on the way into London and the announcement on the train or at the station that the train is going in the opposite direction, which occurs too often. The vast majority of people who get on that train every morning know that yet again a mistake has been made, but for a visitor to this country coming into Gatwick airport, for example, that could be a major problem. Also, it does huge reputational damage to the railways. People can be seen rolling their eyes and saying, “They’ve messed up again.” Indeed they have. Such a poor level of service really cannot be tolerated.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham on securing this debate. I very much hope that it will be another effort that will encourage better service delivery as we go forward. I add my voice in thanking the rail Minister for all the effort she has put in over recent months.

3.16 pm

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing this debate.

It is disappointing that we are having this debate, because the Government have a proud record on investment in rail services, particularly in Thameslink. In the previous Parliament, a £6.5 billion investment programme was secured. This was welcomed by many of my constituents who use the line, alighting at Mill Hill Broadway and Hendon. As part of the programme, the station at Farringdon has been rebuilt, a new station has been constructed at Blackfriars bridge and redevelopment is currently taking place at London Bridge, so the benefits for passengers from my constituency are set to continue. The Thameslink line will have its own dedicated track from Bedford to Brighton, which will ensure that trains are not delayed at London Bridge. It will allow for more trains, and new, longer rolling stock will create much needed extra capacity.

Within my constituency, there is a new ticket office at Mill Hill Broadway station. I successfully sought the abolition of cash machine charges at the station, saving passengers £1.80 per transaction. That was welcomed by my constituents, and I was very pleased to have been able to contribute as the local MP. However, I want further improvements at Mill Hill Broadway, including a lift installed, so that the elderly and disabled, people with suitcases, and parents with children and buggies will be able to access the station more easily. That project is progressing through a consortium of stakeholders, and I hope to be able to inform my constituents of further progress soon.

However, it is the Thameslink line itself—both the train operating company and Network Rail—that gives my constituents most cause for concern. Like other Members have said, I receive emails from constituents pretty much on a daily basis outlining their experiences. I received one yesterday from a constituent who said:

“The line has further deteriorated in the last 6-9 months. The reliability issues with rolling stock, signals, rails has been further exacerbated by shortages of driver/crews.”

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However, what is really damaging customer satisfaction is the apparent unwillingness of GTR to do anything to alleviate the pain and suffering of my constituents.

GTR continues to put four-car trains on the slow part of the line in rush hours. When there is a service interruption, it refuses to stop the fast trains at intervening stations, such as Mill Hill Broadway, which is equipped for 12-car trains. This is an experience echoed by other Members. The fast trains pass through, often half full, and passengers can be expected to wait up to an hour before a slow train is provided. This is totally unacceptable on what is a metro service where people have to get to and from work in central London. Half-empty trains not stopping at overcrowded stations in the event of a service breakdown is, at best, frustrating and annoying. I have asked Govia if it can exert more flexibility in such circumstances and, although I accept that the train company and Network Rail have to bear in mind the knock-on effect on other service timetables, I share my constituents’ belief that Govia demonstrates an unwillingness to vary its operating procedures in the interests of customer services.

I understand that the other morning a 12-car fast train was stopped at a signal in Mill Hill Broadway station, but the driver would not open the doors, even though his train was half full and there were hundreds of people waiting for a train standing on the station. I believe that GTR’s customer service statistics, low as they are, are about to get a whole lot worse as passenger feelings rise at its apparent contempt for people who have to travel on the line.

One of my constituents commented that the

“train arrived on time (no problem on the line) and was so full between 5-10 people per door couldn’t get on. Overcrowded doesn’t begin to describe it. Running 4 or 5 (all stations) trains per hour at rush hour is hopeless. I tried to board but just couldn’t squeeze on.”

Another said:

“In the carriages seats seem designed for children—facing seats are intimately close. The passageway is not wide enough for a passenger leaving to squeeze past a standing passenger without squashing them.”

Yet another said:

“In the evenings—when operating on schedule—there are 3 or 4 all stations trains per hour and some are only 4 (not 8) carriages. Another wait and squeeze.”

I have received many such emails, and it is frankly embarrassing, when we have the new franchise and new opportunities for rolling stock are coming forward, that we appear to be let down by the train operating company and, indeed, Network Rail. Network Rail is a cause of some of the problems, but that is not being effectively communicated to my constituents and others.

I concur with comments that have been made about ticket offices. Many of my residents who are elderly or who have problems getting access to the ticket machines would find the removal of ticket offices a great burden. I will conclude by mentioning that I am a former chairman of the all-party group on Thameslink, but had to resign when I was made a Parliamentary Private Secretary. I suggest that we resurrect the group with the Members here today.

3.21 pm

Nusrat Ghani (Wealden) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing the debate, and agree about being rather tired of seeing each other’s faces in these circumstances—so sorry.

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Despite all the recent talk and excuses, my constituents across Wealden, who commute on the misery line previously known as the Uckfield line, still have to put up with delays, timetable changes, short-formed trains, extended engineering works, overcrowding, unsatisfactory compensation processes, nonsensical bus replacements, poor communication and—the latest nail in the coffin—potential ticket office closures. I want to take this opportunity to ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to join me in writing to the Transport Committee. I first wrote to the Committee in July asking for an inquiry into the performance of Southern. I wrote again six months later, in January, asking it to consider an inquiry again, because of the constant and continued failure of the service. We need proper answers and accountability. I do not believe that GTR and Network Rail understand the impact of the disruption on individual passengers—but also on their families, jobs, and the rural economy in places such as Wealden.

Chris Philp (Croydon South) (Con): I completely agree with my hon. Friend and will certainly sign her letter. The service is shocking. Does she agree that if it does not improve within a reasonable time, we should look at the franchise itself?

Nusrat Ghani: I wholeheartedly agree. I want to describe the events on the network in an average week, which Southern itself later admitted in an email was “particularly disruptive for passengers”—for which I read “failing to deliver a service”. Southern cited

“a series of incidents affecting the service each day.”

For that, I read “complete and utter management failure”. We had signalling failures at Norwood, Bognor and London Bridge, a power supply failure at Littlehaven, a major signalling failure at Purley, a train at Coulsdon with door problems, a Horsham-bound service with power issues, a broken-down train at Clapham Junction and, once again, crew shortages. All of that has a knock-on effect on the Uckfield line. Southern has failed on its own baseline public performance measure. I would like to know how the management is being held to account and what the penalties are.

Last year, Southern decided to publish a fantasy timetable—a bit like a fantasy football team, I believe, because it had no bearing on the experiences of the passengers on the line. On 5 January, a rail replacement bus service missed a connection at Crowborough and the train that London commuters had to get instead terminated at Oxted. There were so many passengers waiting that people struggled to disembark from the terminated train because there was literally no room on the platform. Figures from the Office of Rail Regulation just last week showed that the number of stops skipped by Govia has increased to 6,732 and that as many as 200 people are regularly turfed out at Crowborough so that the train going up to London can be on time.

The situation is not just dire; it is unsafe. My constituent Alistair, from Crowborough, wrote last week that

“if a serious incident took place, it would be physically impossible to move to a neighbouring carriage, such is the level of overcrowding in Standard Class.”

We all get regular correspondence on the issue, and the local radio station for Uckfield has a more or less regular slot on constituents’ frustrations with travelling on the Uckfield line. I had to share with my constituents,

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after a recent summit meeting with GTR executives, the appalling news that the horizon for improvements was to be pushed back again by six months, to 18 months. Wealden would like to know when this journey from hell will end, and I hope that hon. and right hon. Members will join me in calling on the Transport Committee to enter the fray.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Last, but certainly not least, I call Huw Merriman.

3.25 pm

Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): Thank you, Mr Hollobone; you are very kind. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing the debate and opening it with such gusto. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for alerting his Sussex colleagues to the opportunity to attend the debate this afternoon.

I feel that I have earned a testimonial for this subject, having used Southern services to commute from my home in east Sussex to London for the past 10 years. As a member of the Transport Committee, I have a passion for the rail industry and regard it as one of the great success stories of recent years. Since 1997 passenger numbers have doubled and we now have the fastest growing network in Europe. I welcome the Government’s commitment, with £39 billion of capital investment, to making the railways even better.

The Southern and Govia franchise is undoubtedly an immense operation. As we were told last year, 175,000 people travel on it every day. As many passengers go through Southern’s stations as go through Heathrow. London Bridge station is the subject of immense development, and the track is being untangled and lines extended, while trains still run above the building site. Track work south of Croydon has not had any investment since the 1930s. The challenge is simultaneously to upgrade our ageing infrastructure and to allow passengers to continue to travel. That challenge has not been successfully met at all times and commuters have faced considerable disruption as a result.

I have shared the frustration and anger that my constituents feel when they are unable to get to see their child’s play at school or get to pick-up on time, and when they are forced to stand uncomfortably in cramped conditions for long periods. In saying that there is an urgent need for performance to improve on Southern’s lines, I am not saying anything that has not already been said by Network Rail, Southern or the rail Minister, who has been a constant champion for my constituents, and without whom things would be much worse.

I have some specific asks for my constituents. Rightly there has been much focus on the London commuter lines, but I also have a coastal line, which runs from Brighton through to Ashford using diesel trains. It is vital as it connects Bexhill to London Victoria. The public performance measure on this line is currently a poor 65%. Even when services are running to time, it currently takes approximately two hours to make that journey. A similar distance, from London to Milton Keynes, can be travelled in just over 30 minutes. My constituency

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neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd)—the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change—and I are campaigning to extend High Speed 1 from Ashford down to Hastings and Bexhill. That would reduce the Bexhill to London journey time to 78 minutes and unlock the economic growth that we need locally if we are to become self-reliant with respect to business rates.

We very much hope that Network Rail will build on the Government’s commitment to deliver that line and include electrification in the next control period. Until such time, we are looking for Southern to take advantage of new technology to expand the carriages from the present two-car train. We understand that there is a lack of diesel rolling stock, but we also believe that there is now technology that allows mobile batteries to be put under trains, which would allow some excess electric stock to be added to the diesel stock until proper electrification occurs. Passengers are suffering from over-cramped conditions, so rather than taking what should be a scenic route along the coast to get to work or school, or to enjoy recreation, they are using their cars instead. All that this new technology needs is a delivery order. We hope that Southern and the Department for Transport will work together to permit an order to be made.

My second ask is to get better transparency to show how much of the money generated by Southern goes back into its rail network. This franchise is required to pay all its fares to the Department for Transport. With passenger growth being such a success and with 23% of all UK rail traffic operating on this franchise, the receipts have been coming in. In England, the Government subsidy on rail is £1.88 per passenger journey; in Wales it is £9.18. As it is our constituents who suffer the consequences of overcrowding that rail growth has delivered, it would be more tolerable for them to know how much their lines will receive in order to deliver a more comfortable and reliable journey.

My final ask is for an update on the continuous liaison that Network Rail and Southern undertake to avoid or mitigate infrastructure failure.

Crispin Blunt: On my hon. Friend’s point about subsidy, my understanding is that this particular line is a negative subsidy area, meaning that it subsidises other passengers in England. The figure that he should be quoting is a negative one, which obviously adds to the frustration and unfairness that all our constituents feel.

Huw Merriman: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The figure I gave was for England as a whole, but his intervention encapsulates the point that our constituents have felt the pain caused by rail growth and it would be good to see them get the upside from future investment. It is also important that our constituents can see these data, so that they can believe that better times are around the corner.

The rail Minister has championed the cause that I have just outlined, and I am grateful for the manner in which she has sought to bring these organisations together. However, the recent ice on the lines issue appeared to suggest a breakdown of communication between Network Rail and our rail operators on 12 February. It would be helpful for Network Rail to deliver a post-mortem for that day to show that lessons have been learned to reduce the impact of major one-off incidents.

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In conclusion, I recognise the challenges that Southern faces. Some of them are a result of the huge Government investment in engineering and station redevelopment work. However, the constituents in Sussex must receive the better travelling environment that their forbearance deserves.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): All nine Back-Bench speeches were within the five-minute time limit, which is an example that any good train operator would want to follow.

3.31 pm

Stewart Malcolm McDonald (Glasgow South) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

Right hon. and hon. Members will be correct in thinking that nobody has contacted me about this issue. [Laughter.] Actually, that is not true. The only people who have contacted me about it are in this room, and they did so because I am a member of the Transport Committee.

When I was asked to sum up for the Scottish National party on this issue, aside from thinking, “Be still this beating heart”, I had a look through our party’s conference minutes over decades and decades, and I could find no policy on the performance of Govia Thameslink, so I will not take up too much time today.

My predecessor as the Member for Glasgow South, Tom Harris, who is a former rail Minister and a transport enthusiast, once told me that the current rail Minister has the best job in Government. However, having listened to all these complaints about this service today, I am yet to be convinced that that is the case.

I invite all Members who have taken part in this debate to come to my constituency to see the fantastic Cathcart circle, which is much loved, not only by Mr Harris but by another of my predecessors, Sir Teddy Taylor, who I understand opened Cathcart station when it was refurbished.

The final thing I will do today is congratulate the hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on raising this issue. I have heard much about the problems with this line since I became a Member of Parliament. He has championed his constituents’ interests, as indeed have all Members who have spoken today.

I will end by doing something I never thought I would do, which is thanking Tony Blair for the fact that the railways are devolved in Scotland.

3.33 pm

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): It is indeed an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing this important debate, and I also congratulate hon. Members from all parties on articulating their case so well. This railway line has been described as the “misery line” and “the line from hell”, and given hon. Members’ accounts of it one can readily understand why.

The question of railway performance and effective working relationships between railway operators and Network Rail is very much the order of the day. Indeed, this very day we will digest the long-awaited Shaw report

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into the future of Network Rail. I must confess that my journeys into London from 250 miles away sound a lot more efficient and comfortable than the journeys endured by hon. Members from all parties in the House. It has been said that what Network Rail needs are the right people with the right plan. Hopefully they will start to emerge, but then it is about the delivery of what passengers want, as opposed to ripping things up and starting again. We await the recommendations of the Shaw report with great interest.

Today, however, we are dealing with the current very sorry state of affairs on the biggest franchise that has ever been let, which is the combined Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern, or TSGN, franchise. It covers an enormous territory, centring as it does on our ever-growing capital city, and ranging from King’s Lynn in the far north-east—it is all relative, if that is the “far north-east” for this franchise—to Milton Keynes in the north-west, to Southampton and Portsmouth in the south-west, through to Horsham and to Hastings and Maidstone in the south-east. It takes in the connections to Gatwick airport and, ultimately, converges on central London and some of our very busiest mainline stations, including London Bridge, which has been the focus of such significant complaints in recent times.

I will get straight to it and say that this was undoubtedly an ambitious franchise when it was let in 2014. Although I do not wish to diminish by one jot the considerable concerns that Members have, a very significant amount of disruption was always going to be involved with such a major project. One of the major concerns that have arisen—I hope that the Minister will address it—is the extent to which there has been sufficient honesty with the travelling public about the correctly predicted diminution in the standards of service for the duration of the works, and whether that assessment has been made and properly communicated to passengers. We have heard of people being, on the face of it, deliberately misled.

There has to be a degree of accuracy and honesty about what is achievable. Failing to highlight adequately the difficulties that such major undertakings present, and not communicating all of that to the travelling public, serves only to increase dissatisfaction and dash high hopes and expectations. In addition, given the performance issues that have arisen since the franchise was let, questions arise about whether those performance issues ought to have been better identified before the start of the franchise. I therefore ask the Minister to set out what measures are being taken to address those matters and to say what lessons can be learned, especially in the context of the equally ambitious plans for Waterloo station and Euston, which are a consequence of our decision to proceed with High Speed 2. In short, we do not want to see a repeat of the difficulties encountered at London Bridge at other major rail hubs.

I say the franchise was rightly ambitious, because at its heart was a major infrastructure scheme to vastly improve capacity and performance. To that end, London Bridge is undergoing a major reconstruction and transformation, and I believe that work is expected to be completed by 2018. Among many other things, those works will facilitate 12-car Thameslink trains and a new station concourse to improve passenger circulation, which is currently very badly disrupted.

The network is characterised by increased passenger numbers and overcrowding, and significant safety concerns have been outlined, which should alarm us all.

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However, the outfall in addressing these issues cannot be underestimated. TSGN’s ability to get trains running to timetable is not good. The percentage of franchise trains arriving at their destination on time stands at 81.7%, compared with the industry average of 89.3%. While that is an improvement from 76% and 79% in the previous two years, it still means that nearly one in every five trains do not arrive on time. Judging from the accounts of hon. Members today, it sounds as if those late trains can be clustered together in much higher ratios.

The “right time performance measure” measures arrival time against trains arriving early or within 59 seconds of schedule. Network Rail says that it is not an entirely reliable measure, but in any event it currently tells the sorry story of a compliance rate of only 52.6%, against the industry average of 64.8%. That means that nearly half of TSGN trains do not arrive within 59 seconds of schedule. Given the experiences that have been outlined today, that proportion of late trains may be significantly more than 59 seconds out of its schedule. Similarly, the record on cancellations and significant lateness is 5.3%, against an industry average of 3%. That is a poor reflection, and that feeds through into customer satisfaction.

It is perhaps no surprise that the common factor in the low passenger satisfaction rates in the three bottom-ranked operators—Thameslink, Southern and Southeastern —is the shared line into London Bridge. It seems that passenger flows in and around London Bridge station may not have been correctly predicted. Does the Minister agree with that observation? Can any lessons be learned on the modelling of such matters? Will she comment on the specific measures that might be taken to improve the flow of passengers, given the establishment of the rail reparation fund for TSGN passengers? That was set up in December 2015 and is worth £4.1 million.

In August 2015 serious weaknesses were found by the regulator in the data used to settle new timetables. Network Rail was found to have overestimated the impact of those timetable changes on performance. It seems that there has been insufficient communication between Network Rail and the operators to accurately identify just what impact the new timetables would have. Will the Minister consider whether and how that process might have been better managed and look into additional mitigating measures that could be taken to ameliorate the adverse impacts? There have been issues surrounding the numbers of train drivers, and we have heard that it is not simply that people are failing to turn up—insufficient numbers have been recruited. There is an issue about platform availability during the major works. Will she comment on that?

Efforts are being made to address to some degree the concerns expressed this afternoon, but I look forward to securing some assurances from the Minister that steps will be taken as a matter of urgency to improve the passenger experience in the franchise ahead of what will, I hope, be an entirely happier story come the completion of the works and the introduction of new services in 2018.

A point was made about the sanctions that might be applied to the operator if it fails to abide by the terms of the franchise. Will the Minister give some assurance that, notwithstanding the change to the structure of

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Directly Operated Railways, the Department for Transport retains the capability to step in through that office in the event of chronic failure?

Kelvin Hopkins: Of course, when the east coast main line was returned to the public sector for five years, it made a surplus of something like £1 billion for the Treasury, and during that time it ran a very good service.

Andy McDonald: My hon. Friend makes a good point. While that was an excellent turnaround from a pretty dire situation, if this particular franchise is, as Members have outlined, so poor that it demands intervention, my concern is that we should still retain the capacity to do that. Given the recent changes to the DOR—it is no longer in the same form—I am concerned that it would not assist at all. Will the Minister address that point?

Will the Minister also address the pertinent issue of electronic ticketing? Members have correctly identified and highlighted the benefits that could be secured from an intelligent roll-out of electronic ticketing. Those benefits relate to access not only to fair fares, but to refunds. I understand that although several tens of millions of pounds was spent trying to progress that agenda, it has come to a shuddering halt and has simply been handed over to the operators.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Claire Perry) indicated dissent.

Andy McDonald: The Minister disagrees. I am enquiring, so perhaps she can enlighten and correct me. A number of Members have clearly made that reasonable demand on electronic ticketing, and it seems eminently sensible. We want to know what happened to that investment and how it will be progressed.

Finally, I was heartened to hear many Members from across the territory express, on behalf of their constituents, the need for proper staffing levels to be maintained in our railway stations. Many people spoke about difficulties in accessing ticket machines and computer systems. Often that was beyond their capabilities, whether because of information technology illiteracy, learning difficulties or other issues. That strong message came from Members’ contributions today. Will the Minister comment on how we can secure those reassurances that all members of the travelling public need? They need to see that human interface, and sadly it is clearly lacking in the operation of the franchise.

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): If the Minister is kind enough to conclude her remarks no later than 3.57, that will allow Mr Quin three minutes to sum up before I put the motion to the House.

3.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Claire Perry): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. You are always a fount of rail-related humour. I join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing a very important debate, which we must not shy away from continuing. Members have been very kind about what my Department and I are doing, but we are simply reflecting the concerns of Members and the constituents they serve. It is imperative that we sort

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the issue out. As the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) said, with many more investment projects to happen, we have to learn lessons and ensure that this level of disruption does not happen again.

There was very little that I disagree with in what was said today. We know that performance on this part of the network in the franchise—it carries almost a quarter of all rail passengers every day—is simply not good enough, whether in punctuality, reliability, customer satisfaction or the way people feel they are being treated. A lot of points have been raised today, and I will try to address as many as possible in my closing remarks, but if I do not get to everyone’s, please be assured that I have instructed my officials to take notes and to write specifically in response. It is important, on Budget day no less, to have so many hon. and right hon. Members prepared to come to Westminster Hall to make passionate and compelling cases. We need to keep working collectively on this issue.

I will step through the three root causes of problems on the lines, which I think Members know, and then I will talk a little about what is changing and where more needs to be done. The first root cause—my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) made the point compellingly—is that there is a very big improvement project going on with Thameslink and what that entails and the London Bridge reconstruction. It is not just London Bridge, though; Blackfriars is a beautiful station and a wonderful addition to our landscape, and it opened almost without fanfare. We will be unpicking the north-south lines through London and under the Thames so that the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham will be able to take a direct train straight through to Peterborough or points in between and access other train journeys. Moreover, they will be able to do so on a brand new fleet of trains, which will start to roll out in the next few months.

I was delighted to welcome the first of the new fleet of Gatwick Express trains. They are purpose-built for people travelling to and from the airport. The first is in operation, and the others will be up and running by the summer. That is tangible evidence of improvement. It is a big package of untangling lines that have not been touched properly in many years, putting in new stations, driving new train paths and providing customers with a much better travelling environment. That is a prize worth having. When London Bridge is open, all the platforms are returned to full capacity and we have many more trains with the ability to take many more passengers, some of the immediate issues will undoubtedly be solved.

Tim Loughton: The Minister mentioned Gatwick Express. I saw the brand new trains, which are fitted with wi-fi. I gather that she is in negotiations with Govia Thameslink Railway about upgrading existing rolling stock with wi-fi so that at least our commuting constituents stuck on trains going nowhere can get on with some work while they are delayed. Will she ensure that that happens as a matter of urgency?

Claire Perry: I am happy to confirm again that I have committed to roll out free wi-fi in all classes of train travel across England by 2018. Trains coming on to the franchises will be fitted with wi-fi as a matter of course, and trains that are already running will be retrofitted.

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I hope constituents who are not stuck on trains for longer than their train times will also be able to do some productive work. Wi-fi is an important addition to the landscape.

We always knew it would be tough with London Bridge and Thameslink. Despite what some might say is long-term disruption on the line and fare changes, we have seen incredible amounts of growth on the railway. In fact, travel from Horsham, for example, is up 40% in the past 10 years, so more and more people are getting on trains right across the country. Frankly, successive Governments have neglected to invest in infrastructure. We have all ducked our collective responsibility to invest in trains to get people moving effectively and efficiently around the country. It is vital that we keep the investment programmes growing, because we are now seeing some of the problems associated with passenger growth on lines that have not been invested in.

Underlying all that is a problem that is a little more sinister: even when Thameslink is running—when all the trains are rolling, the system looks great and the stations are open—we still have persistent, daily failures of the infrastructure the trains are running over. Our constituents do not care whose fault it is, and nor should they—that is my job, or at least my Department’s—but around 60% of delays are the result of infrastructure failures such as points failing, signals failing or other things going wrong. That is intolerable. Not only is it intolerable on a daily basis, but the Thameslink programme, which will deliver 24 trains an hour through the centre of London, north to south, will not be able to operate unless those infrastructure problems are sorted out.

The focus for my Department has been working together with Network Rail and the operators, including Southeastern, but I am afraid there is no magic bullet. There is no one thing we can all do. It is about a relentless focus on the day-to-day details of running a railway; and ensuring that, in the morning, trains come out of the depot on time to the second, and that, if there is a problem, it is fixed in the minimum amount of time. People may ask, “Surely that’s just railway 101—why hasn’t it happened?” Of course, it has happened, but the problem is that, under both public and private ownership, the customers have not mattered enough.

Members might be surprised to hear that no measure of lost customer time has ever existed on our railways, other than briefly on the London underground. That is inexcusable. My hon. Friend the Member for Horsham made the valid point that it is the human cost of failure that is so hard, as well as the productivity loss of making millions of people late, day in, day out. We have a record programme of investment in transport infrastructure—it was added to in the Budget today, which I welcome—and it is being done to drive up the productivity of the country, but nobody has ever captured the productivity loss from not running the trains on time. Members will be pleased to hear that I am devoting considerable time to that. I want the volume of people being carried on that part of the railway to really count, so that when infrastructure programmes need to be sorted out, there is even more emphasis on sorting them out. We are absolutely committed to doing that collectively.

Many Members raised driver shortages, which is a historical problem for the franchise. It has been run on a shoestring, with the number of drivers about 6% or 7% below what was required. That sounds like a small

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difference, but, on a very busy railway, if one driver is not there to run one train, there is an infection of delay right across the network. On its current recruitment plans, which are the biggest in the country, GTR will reach the minimum level—the operational level—in August this year. We have asked it to go further than that by recruiting more so that there is resilience in the system, and it is on track to do that. That is vital.

Several Members made important points about ticketing offices and smart ticketing. A consultation on ticket office changes is going on. Nothing can happen without the Department’s say-so. The future of travel in this country is not orange bits of paper but digital ticketing information being delivered to us through whatever device we choose. In some cases, that might be a bar code printed out on a piece of paper, although as the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) said, many customers like to buy a ticket from a person, or at least have some interaction.

We have already invested more than £30 million in the south-east flexible ticketing programme, and there are tens of millions of pounds of further commitment to come. That money has been invested to ensure that the franchises, of which GTR is the flagship, can implement the technology, have the back office and gate their stations so that the Key card—the smart card system—can work. If the Key card system were working, there might be an argument for getting people out from behind ticket office counters and on to the front lines, but I will commit today to having a deep-dive conversation with my officials and the franchise so that we can get to grips with where it is on the roll-out of the Key card and how that relates to ticket office closing hours. If we are going to do smart ticketing, let us do it right.

Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing this debate. The Minister is right that the Budget debate is ongoing; I want to take this opportunity to say that we in Streatham welcome the green light being given to Crossrail 2, but we want it to come to Streatham.

On ticket offices, it is totally and utterly unacceptable that the three stations in my constituency affected by the franchise will be losing more than 13 staff. It is all well and good telling people to go to the machine, but the problem is that the machines are not giving people the best prices that they are entitled to.

Claire Perry: To be clear to the hon. Gentleman, the proposal is to do what Transport for London has done very successfully: train us all to use a reliable alternative system and then take people out and put them on the gate lines to help us. That is 21st century travel and I support it, and I hope he does too. I am afraid he will have to join the queue for lobbying on Crossrail locations.

Nick Herbert: In the two minutes my hon. Friend the Minister has remaining, will she say how the franchise is going to be held to account for its failure to deliver the performance expected?

Claire Perry: I was just about to address some of the specific questions. The franchise has been fined more than £2 million for cancellations and the short formations

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that it has put on the service. That money will be spent on passenger-facing benefits. I am very keen that the money that comes in—the hon. Member for Middlesbrough mentioned the £4.1 million of reparations—is spent to directly benefit customers on this line. Additional proposals on that will be forthcoming.

I was asked at what point we do something radically different. Do we take the franchise back? Do we change? The truth is that this is an exceptionally busy, very difficult franchise to run. In my view, nobody out there could do a better job than the current management team, but we have to ensure that there is a relentless focus on the customer. It is inexcusable that the wrong communications are given. It is inexcusable that delays happen or trains are going in the wrong direction. That is customer relationship management 101. We expect the private sector to deliver on that.

In closing, I will always happily welcome debates on this matter, because they strengthen the resolve of us all in getting to grips with some of the underlying problems of running a franchise in the busiest part of the country. Our debates are helping to inform wider changes throughout the industry, such as the relentless focus on customers. With this Government’s record level of investment in transport, we will have to have these conversations in future, whether about Euston or Manchester’s stations.

Jeremy Quin rose—

Mr Philip Hollobone (in the Chair): Order. If Mr Quin will allow me 30 seconds at the end, I will be able to put the motion to the House.

3.57 pm

Jeremy Quin: I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister’s remarks about a relentless focus on the customer. As my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) teased out, the lines we are discussing subsidise the rest of the national network. It is right that there should be a relentless focus on customers throughout the network, but the service on this franchise is particularly galling. When I mentioned to one of my hon. Friends that I had secured this debate, he said it was good because it would enable him to let off some steam on the grounds that he had simply run out of adjectives to describe to his constituents the performance of the franchise.

I am grateful to the Minister for saying that she will not shy away from more debates on this matter, although it is our sincere hope that this will be the last debate we need on it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) quoted the performance improvement plan of a year ago, which said:

“You will notice real improvements from now onwards”.

That is what we want to see, and I know that the Minister does too.

I recognise the huge increase in the number of passengers, and the huge increase in investment in the line to cope with it. We need that relentless focus on customers, and I welcome the fact that the Minister is looking into a measure of lost customer time and lost productivity. It is extraordinary that one has never existed. In my opening speech, I asked for Network Rail to be genuinely held to account for passengers’ experience. I welcome

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the fact that the Minister is clearly trying to achieve exactly that. I also welcome what she said about increasing driver numbers, but, as ever, as so many Members said, we want to see the outcomes, not the inputs, as she knows.

My hon. Friends the Members for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for Crawley (Henry Smith), along with the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), made eloquent points about ticket office closures, which I believe are wrong and hasty. The consultation process has been too short. I implore those responsible to think again.

I welcome what the Minister said about a deep dive with her officials on the subject of electronic ticketing, which was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). We need to work out what can be taken from electronic ticketing. Above all, we must make certain that there is accountability on the service. That was the Minister’s theme, and I am grateful to have heard it. I look forward to her continuing to pressure these companies in the months ahead.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

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Three-tier Education

[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

4 pm

Nigel Huddleston (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered three-tier education.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I would also like to express my gratitude to Mr Speaker for granting this debate.

I called for this debate because, since being elected last May, I have been contacted by many parents asking for my advice and guidance on the advantages and disadvantages of middle schools; by parents lobbying either for or against their local first school’s attempt to change its age range; and by teachers and headteachers of middle schools concerned about the long-term viability of their own schools, especially if feeder first schools are adding years. There is a lot of confusion about the value and long-term viability of the three-tier system.

I hope to use this debate, first, to raise those issues and to seek the Minister’s guidance on the Government’s position on whether a two-tier or three-tier system is best for our children. Secondly, if an area or individual school wishes to move away from a three-tier to a two-tier system, I seek guidance on how that can best be achieved and to confirm what processes and consultations are considered best practice, based on the experience of transitions elsewhere in the country. I should clarify that by “three-tier system”, I mean a system that contains first schools, middle schools and high schools, and by “two-tier system”, I mean one that contains primary and secondary schools.

By way of background, middle schools in the United Kingdom have had something of a chequered history. Until 1964, education authorities were required to provide for just primary and secondary schools, with a transfer at the age of 11. The Education Act 1964 changed that and made provision for schools to allow for different ages of transfer, which led to the creation of middle schools. Although the Government did not specifically encourage the introduction of middle schools, they did not discourage them either. The schools appeared in a variety of forms, as suited each authority. By 1981, more than 1,800 middle schools were open in nearly 50 local education authorities, from Devon to Northumberland. The patchy way in which the schools developed led to the variety of provision that exists today.

Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He is making an interesting speech. He mentioned 1964 and 1981. When I asked the House of Commons Library for background on this issue, it said that there is virtually nothing. Is he aware of the 1967 Plowden report? That was the one source that the Library found for me, and it is inconclusive. I congratulate him on clarifying this matter, as it is a mystery to us all.

Nigel Huddleston: I, too, reached out to the Library when researching for the debate. There is not a huge amount of information. The hon. Lady is right. One of the issues that we face is whether the three-tier or the two-tier system is better. The evidence is inconclusive, which is one of the reasons why I called for this debate.

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Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. He asked for examples. Purbeck in Dorset moved from a three-tier to a two-tier system 18 months to two years ago, and Broadstone in Poole is the one borough left in my constituency that still has middle schools. Elsewhere in Dorset, there are thriving middle schools. Indeed, pupils from Lockyer’s Middle School are coming to Parliament this coming week. Would he, like me, welcome guidance from the Minister about the support that can be given to those middle schools, and on whether there is a preferred model?

Nigel Huddleston: I could not agree more. Some middle schools are thriving—there are raving fans of middle schools up and down the country—but their long-term viability is in question. There is also the issue of transfers into secondary schools. Again, I hope the Minister can provide guidance on that.

The confusion that I mentioned earlier led to the development of all sorts of middle schools with different age ranges. There are currently six different types of middle schools based on age range alone. During the past two decades, there has been a clear move away from middle schools towards a two-tier system, and the number of middle schools has fallen from more than 1,800 in 1981 to under 200 in recent years. Today, there are not 50 but 17 education authorities that have middle schools, including my county of Worcestershire. The first middle schools in Worcestershire opened in 1969, and there are still 20 in the county. That is the third highest number of middle schools of any local education authority in the country; only Northumberland and Central Bedfordshire have more. There are 14 local authority maintained middle schools and six middle school academies in Worcestershire, including five in my constituency.

There is also a two-tier system of Catholic primary and secondary schools, which serve Droitwich, Evesham and Pershore. I should declare that my own children attend a local Catholic state school—St Marys in Evesham, which is a great school. It is a primary, rather than a first school, which feeds into a secondary school, so I am familiar with this system. I went through a two-tier system in Lincolnshire and attended a local primary school before going on to the local comprehensive. Although I am personally a product of a two-tier state system—a system that served me well—I am not biased one way or the other. Academic and other reports extol the virtues of both the two-tier and three-tier systems.

Since moving to and representing Worcestershire, I have met many raving fans of both the two-tier and the three-tier systems, and many parents express great affection for the middle schools in my constituency. Many went to middle schools themselves and are enjoying their own children’s experience at the very same schools. Many say that it was a more comfortable segue into secondary education, because it was less intimidating and more friendly than the otherwise potentially intimidating jump to a large secondary school with more than a thousand pupils. Most middle schools have just a few hundred pupils and benefit from nearly everyone—both pupils and teachers—knowing one another.

The National Middle Schools’ Forum said:

“Middle Schools occupy the formative central ground in the education process. They are uniquely placed with their opportunities

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for creative flexibility of organisation to meet the needs of pupils through a time of considerable and wide ranging intellectual, physical and emotional development.”

On results, it said:

“A distinctive and valuable feature of Middle Schools is that they span Key Stages Two and Three. This way of organising children’s education is unique in that the assessments at the end of Key Stage Two and the work which follows them all take place within one school, rather than at the point of transfer.”

That is another valid point.

Dr Huq: In an adjournment debate in 2009, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) stated that there is no clear link between a particular school organisational arrangement and educational attainment. It might be useful to note that in our quest to find the best model.

Nigel Huddleston: Again, I could not agree more. I seek additional guidance from the Minister. After all, one of the Department for Education’s responsibilities is to give guidance on the best options for our children’s educational outcomes. The academic and other research is confusing for Members of Parliament, including me and the hon. Lady, and also for parents.

I have talked about the advantages of middle schools, but some parents in my constituency told me that they are concerned that transferring schools during key stages can be disruptive. In particular, transferring as late as 13 to a high school leaves less time to make informed GCSE decisions. Other parents told me straightforwardly of the logistical challenges of having to drop their children of different ages off at two or three different schools that are often quite far apart. There are clearly many arguments for and against a three-tier system, and one’s personal experience comes into play. I would appreciate it if the Minister can clarify the Government’s current preference.

There is also discussion about transitions. The issue of whether a two or three-tier system is best has come up again recently in my constituency, specifically because of moves by some first schools to add a year 6. The first schools have perfectly rational reasons for wishing to expand and do that, but an inevitable, if unintended, consequence of such moves is to undermine the long-term viability of the middle schools, as their pupil head count will inevitably fall. I would therefore ask for the Minister’s guidance on the Government’s recommendations on how best to manage any transitionary process. If the head count at the remaining middle schools falls, they may seek to convert to a secondary school, so I would also seek the Minister’s guidance on how the Government will support such moves, both financially and otherwise.

In areas where some schools are maintained schools, controlled by the local authority, and others are more independent academies, that mix of statuses and processes can sometimes add to the confusion in the debate about adding years and converting. From talking to parliamentary colleagues, the consensus seems to be that an open debate, proper co-ordination between schools in and across pyramids, and good consultation, engaging parents and teachers from all impacted schools, are all key elements of any successful transition.

In Worcestershire, we are currently not having a full and open debate on the long-term viability of the two-tier system versus the three-tier system. Perhaps we

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should be, because I fear that more and more piecemeal changes may lead to some middle schools closing without us having a proper debate about whether that was intended.

I am aware that the Government publish advice and guidance for schools who wish to expand or change their age ranges, and that a full business case is required for significant changes, such as changing the age range of a school by three years or more. I understand that the processes are slightly different for academies versus maintained schools, and that the guidance for maintained schools is currently being reviewed. I am very interested to hear from the Minister what changes may be made as a result of that review. Given the Government’s announcement in today’s Budget of the academisation of all schools, I also suspect that further guidance may well be forthcoming.

As part of the review, however, I would respectfully ask the Minister to consider the protocols on consultations carefully, particularly when an area contains a mix of both academy and grant-maintained schools. I am keen that the wishes of parents of children in schools both directly and indirectly impacted by any changes are considered. At the end of the day, the wishes of local parents should play the key role in deciding on significant changes.

Michael Tomlinson: My hon. Friend is right to say that the role of parents should be key. Would it not also be helpful to have some independent evidence—not just subjective, but objective evidence—on which is the best system? In my previous intervention, I mentioned two schools, but I must mention two others, or they will feel left out: St Michael’s Middle School in Colehill and Allenbourn Middle School in Wimborne, both of which are excellent schools. One has been to visit Westminster and another, I know, wants to as well, but doubtless those parents would also want to see some objective, independent evidence on which is the preferred model.

Nigel Huddleston: I again thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has almost stolen my conclusion with the point he has made, which gave him an excellent opportunity to namedrop those schools.

At the end of the day, I wish to be very respectful to the views of people on both sides of this debate. My key ask of the Minister and the Government, however, is that they do everything they can to provide clear guidance and ensure that any unintended consequences during any transition—should a school or system decide to go from a three-tier to a two-tier system—are minimised. We all want to work together to ensure that all our children achieve the great education that they deserve and that parents could and should rightly expect.

4.13 pm

The Minister for Schools (Mr Nick Gibb): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing this debate on an issue that is clearly of concern to a large number of his constituents. To answer his question straight away, the Department and Ministers have no plans to remove the three-tier education system. Our clear position remains that the organisation of maintained schools is an issue for local authorities and for individual schools, but in close consultation with parents.

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Dr Huq: In the Budget just now, we heard about devolution. The Minister says there is a role for local authorities, but if I understood correctly, schools are going to become academies, which seems to contradict the principle of devolution. Perhaps he can help me understand this better.

Mr Gibb: Yes, of course. The announcement today in the Budget—we will be saying more about this tomorrow in the White Paper—is that all schools will become academies, or be in the process of becoming academies, by 2020. Until then, a large number of schools will still be maintained schools, and if the hon. Lady can be a little patient, I will come to the position regarding academies in a moment. None the less, we still need guidance about the position of three-tier systems when a number or some of those schools are maintained schools.

Where organisational change is proposed, we expect the local authority to agree with schools how any changes will be funded. The Department’s role is to hold schools accountable for the quality of education they provide and not to mandate any particular configuration of tiers. Supporting local authorities to create sufficient school places remains one of the Government’s top priorities. Local authorities are responsible for ensuring that there are enough school places for children in their area. We are spending £23 billion on school buildings in this Parliament to create 600,000 new school places— we created nearly 500,000 in the last Parliament—and we intend to open 500 new free schools and to address essential maintenance needs with that money. That delivers on our manifesto commitment to invest a further £7 billion to create new school places between 2015 and 2021.

Through the free schools programme, we are creating greater local choice by allowing existing schools and other groups to be able to establish new schools, in particular where additional high quality places are needed. Those include not only traditional primary and secondary schools, but 55 university technical colleges, 72 all-through schools and 25 16-19 free schools that are either open or in the pipeline.

The three-tier system—in which school provision is organised into lower, middle and upper schools rather than the primary and secondary model—has been established, as my hon. Friend said, in areas of the country such as Worcestershire for many years. The number of groups operating the three-tier system has reduced in recent times, mainly because local authorities have restructured their provision as need dictates. There are still, however, over 68,000 children currently being educated in middle schools in England.

The Secretary of State only has a role in decisions to change the age range of a school when that is proposed for an academy. She will only make such a decision at the request of an academy trust.

When a local authority decides to move from a three-tier to a two-tier structure, it is important that careful plans are in place to minimise any negative impact on the performance and viability of other schools in the area, which is something that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire expressed concern about. Local authorities proposing such a change must follow the established statutory process set out in schedule 3 of the School Organisation (Prescribed Alterations to

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Maintained Schools) (England) Regulations 2013. In practice, an authority-wide reorganisation often involves months of informal consultation and research before the formal statutory process is undertaken. That process ensures that such decisions are widely consulted on and the views of stakeholders and others are valued.

There are four separate stages of the statutory process. First, local authorities are required to publish their proposals in a local newspaper and at the school site. Secondly, a period of formal consultation has to take place for at least four weeks. Thirdly, a decision is usually made by the local authority. Only after those three steps have been taken can the proposal be implemented.

Michael Tomlinson: The Minister makes an important point, but for people who live close to the edges of boundaries between local authorities, the catchment areas can be different. I am thinking, in particular, of Dorset, the borders of Poole and Dorset County Council. Within the points that he has made, is there a duty on local education authorities to consult one another—neighbouring authorities—to ensure that there is a fair system for all pupils in an area?

Mr Gibb: The duty is to consult stakeholders, which will include parents. That includes parents who are likely to go beyond the local authority boundary to send their children to a school.

The consultation stage gives people who may be affected by the proposed change, including children, parents and teachers, a chance to express their views. The local authority is under a statutory duty to take into account all objections raised when reaching its final decision. In cases where objections have been raised, the local authority has a two-month window in which to make a final decision. If the process takes longer than two months, the schools adjudicator will take on the role of decision maker. I stress that changing the age range of local authority-maintained schools is a local decision. The Department nationally has no formal role in the process or the final decision. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire mentioned, we are reviewing our schools organisation guidance to local authorities and maintained schools, and we intend to publish that shortly.

Where an individual academy seeks to change its age range, the process is different, but it still maintains the requirement for effective consultation and adherence to

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the principles of public law. The relevant regional schools commissioner is the decision maker for applications from academy trusts. They will ensure that any local issues are identified and addressed before a decision can be made and will draw on the advice and knowledge of their headteacher board. The guidance to support that process requires academy trusts to discuss their proposals with the local authority to ensure that the proposed change is aligned with local pupil place plans and will not have a negative impact on education standards at the academy or at other local schools or colleges. If objections are raised locally about a proposed change, the regional schools commissioner will require the trust to provide a full business case, including details of the steps it has taken to address objections raised through consultation.

My hon. Friend asked whether the Department had any strategies in place to prevent issues arising from any transition to a two-tier system. The guidance requires that schools undergoing any reorganisation work together to ensure an appropriate, co-ordinated implementation and that decisions on any individual proposals will be made in that context.

I refer my hon. Friend to “Making significant changes to an existing academy”, the guidance that the Department published this month. The guidance says on page 9:

“Where proposals are likely to have a significant impact on other local provision a full business case will…be required…Where local provision is organised in three tiers and the aim is to move to two tier age range, the department expects schools to work together to ensure an appropriate co-ordinated implementation, and will only approve any individual proposal in that context.”

Unless the proposers can demonstrate that they have engaged in those kinds of co-ordination arrangements and that their proposals will not adversely impact maintained schools, other schools or parents in the area, the regional schools commissioner simply will not approve the proposal.

I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that the Department is not looking to remove the three-tier school system. The process for reorganisation and changing the age range of local authority maintained schools rests with local authorities, and for academies it rests with trusts and regional schools commissioners.

Question put and agreed to.

4.23 pm

Sitting suspended.

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West Highland Way

4.29 pm

Steven Paterson (Stirling) (SNP): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the contribution of the West Highland Way to the economy in Scotland.

I am extremely pleased to be able to bring this matter to the House today, so that we can consider the remarkable, positive impact of the West Highland Way economically and celebrate Scotland’s magnificent natural resources and the promotion of healthy lifestyles. I am sure that this debate will result in a great deal of cross-party consensus. I certainly hope we can consider what is necessary to continue maintaining, supporting and promoting the West Highland Way and to develop it as a resource for future generations.

I completed the West Highland Way in 2010, immediately after the general election of that year. If my Scottish National party colleagues cast their minds back to 2010 and the general election result we had, they might understand why I appreciated taking a bit of time off and going to Scotland’s unspoilt wilderness, far away from television, news, emails and mobile phones. It was an extremely appealing prospect. Perhaps hills and glens along the West Highland Way have been awash with ousted politicians from other parties in the past year. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of taking on and completing the West Highland Way, and I thoroughly recommend that hon. Members consider it when a break from the rigours of this place is required. It is a good way of recharging the batteries.

Scotland is proud to boast some of the most beautiful landscapes and most popular attractions on these isles, attracting millions of tourists from across the United Kingdom each year, as well as more travelling from North America, Europe and the rest of the world. Those visitors help to contribute to Scotland’s diverse and dynamic economy, directly and indirectly supporting jobs. Indeed, we celebrate the latest OECD figures that demonstrate strong growth in visitor numbers to Scotland.

The current VisitScotland campaign, entitled “Spirit of Scotland”, encourages all those enjoying the great tourist sector in Scotland to share their experiences on social media with the hashtag #ScotSpirit. I encourage everyone to do so. Tourism generates billions of pounds each year and is responsible for sustaining hundreds of thousands of jobs for the people of Scotland. Indeed, today’s debate falls at an important time in the calendar year: this week, from 11 to 18 March, is Scottish Tourism Week, which is being marked through a wide range of events across Scotland, engaging businesses within the tourism industry and celebrating the sector’s success.

At this juncture, it is worth reflecting on the history of the West Highland Way, before I look in some detail at its current contribution to Scotland’s economy and offer some thoughts on how we can develop it further in future. The West Highland Way opened officially in 1980, its route winding from the town centre of Milngavie in East Dunbartonshire to the ancient highland settlement of Fort William in the constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber.

The way was the brainchild of Tom Hunter, a keen walker and community volunteer, who I was saddened to hear passed away only last month. It is perhaps fitting that this House can today consider Tom’s legacy

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through this debate on the great path he created for our enjoyment. We owe Tom a great deal of thanks for creating this iconic and enduring resource.

The way boasts some of Scotland’s most impressive views, as it winds across the west highlands of Scotland through ancient roads and paths, over a distance of 96 miles. From its inauguration in 1980, the way quickly became a favourite for serious walkers and leisurely strollers alike. It has grown in popularity and renown since its inception, and, as well as becoming a favourite with the people who experience it, the way has picked up numerous awards celebrating its popularity. Most recently, it was voted one of the top 10 outdoor attractions in the world by National Geographic.

The numbers of people walking or cycling the way have grown substantially in the years since its inception, with around 35,000 people estimated to complete the entire route each year and more than 60,000 completing smaller sections of it. As part of its silver jubilee celebrations in 2005, the way was completed by a relay comprising 1,000 children and young people. On Saturday 18 June this year, the 32nd annual West Highland Way race will take place. Quite astoundingly, last year the course record was broken by Paul Giblin, who took an incredible time of 14 hours, 14 minutes and 44 seconds to complete the 96-mile course—he just beat some of my hon. Friends.

Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He has highlighted how fantastic the West Highland Way is. I have walked it a couple of times, although I took somewhat longer than 14 hours, I must say. He has illustrated how well used it is. Personally, I enjoyed the scenery, the signage, how welcoming everybody is and how businesses welcome walkers and tourists. The West Highland Way has spawned many imitation walks, including the River Ayr Way in my constituency, which is the only source-to-sea walk in Scotland. Unfortunately, in the neighbouring South Ayrshire Council area, a large section of the route is still on-road, rather than off-road, and many areas are shut, which means people have to divert. Does my hon. Friend agree that full signage and proper off-road routes are needed to make that walk more attractive?

Sir Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman chided one of his friends earlier for making long speeches. I have to say that he gets a prize for his long intervention.

Steven Paterson: I agree with the sentiments my hon. Friend has just expressed. In the interests of promoting health and wellbeing generally, these kinds of walk are fantastic. We should look at linking them up with others, to encourage this as a pastime and a hobby.

My constituency of Stirling is home to a large section of the West Highland Way—indeed, the most spectacular and beautiful section. Tourism is crucial to the livelihoods of many individuals and families in my constituency. In my maiden speech in the House of Commons, I said that I wanted to promote the tourist industry both locally and nationally. I look forward to meeting with industry stakeholders from many of these attractions in the coming months and years, fulfilling the role I have in this place, and I encourage my hon. Friends to consider spending some time over the summer recess in Stirling, to enjoy the wonderful tourist experience to be had there.

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Over recent months, my colleague Bruce Crawford— the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Stirling—representatives of Stirling Council and I have been pushing hard to increase and expand broadband coverage in the rural part of the constituency where the West Highland Way is, with some success. I am confident that that work will go on. I very much welcome the First Minister’s announcement on Saturday that superfast broadband for businesses will be completed in 100% of premises in Scotland. That is a fantastic promise and I look forward to working on it.

During my research for this debate, I spoke to various organisations to determine the actual reach of the West Highland Way in terms of its value to the Scottish economy. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park authority informed me that the impact on the rural economy along the route is most likely significantly underrated. Its conservative estimates are of a direct spend contributing £28 million to the Scottish economy. On top of that, there is additional indirect spending and an even greater economic impact through attracting people to Scotland to stay longer than the time they spend tackling the West Highland Way.

It is also worth noting that the national park authority’s estimates show that more than 2,000 jobs in the national park area depend directly on tourism, which in itself demonstrates the economic importance of the sector to areas such as the west of my constituency. The John Muir economic impact survey estimated that more than £12 million was contributed by walkers who complete the route, and millions more were contributed by the many thousands of visitors who enjoy walking smaller sections of the way.

The West Highland Way brings people to Scotland to experience one of the best walks in the world, but it also allows them to experience Scottish hospitality and some of our excellent local restaurants, hotels, B and Bs and pubs. Along the route, walkers will find many fine local businesses where they can relax after a hard day’s walking and enjoy some of Scotland’s celebrated food and drink. For example, the Oak Tree Inn in Balmaha on the shores of Loch Lomond is a family-owned business established in 1997, and I stayed there during my walk in 2010. It has 70 employees and numerous awards to its name—most recently, it was named Scotland’s best independent pub in 2015. The Oak Tree Inn is a fine example of a local business that benefits from the passing trade brought to it by the West Highland Way and is an important local employer within its small rural community. From my personal experience in 2010, other places such as the Beech Tree Inn in Dumgoyne and the Crianlarich Hotel offer fantastic pit stops along the route, although I managed to avoid the temptation to visit the Glengoyne distillery—excellent as its produce is.

I hope that, through this debate, we can focus minds at all levels of Government and throughout the various businesses and organisations with an interest on the further development of the West Highland Way as a resource for the people of Scotland and as a draw for tourism.

Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP): Does my hon. Friend agree that while the West Highland Way does not criss-cross the entire nation of Scotland,

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it has a profound impact on the social and economic wellbeing of our country? Given that the West Highland Way headquarters are based in my own constituency, in Balloch, I am sure he understands that the economic impact is far reaching, across the whole of Scotland.

Steven Paterson: I accept that, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his ingenuity in getting his own nearby constituency into the debate—well done indeed.

With the sentiment being to expand and develop the West Highland Way and sustain it for the future, I have a few ideas to put on the table for other Members’ consideration. First, I am pleased that control of air passenger duty is being devolved and that the Scottish Government are consulting on their plan to halve the rate and remove the tax altogether in time. It is a tourist tax, and we can really benefit from that policy. However, perhaps there are other measures to support the tourism industry, such as reducing the rate of VAT that accommodation providers have to pay. I appreciate that it is unsurprising that the businesses I have spoken to are in favour of the idea—what business would not like to pay less tax? However, there are serious arguments as to why the unique challenges faced by the tourism sector, and in particular accommodation providers, make a strong case for a targeted solution.

Accommodation providers tell me that they can be fully booked in the high season, but that the low demand in winter months makes for a hard time for them. Many businesses are basically hanging on in the winter months and, if any go under, the effects are felt much further than on that individual business. Some of our competitor countries in Europe support their tourism companies and accommodation providers in that way. One accommodation provider told me that a reduction in VAT from 20% to 15% would undoubtedly allow him to expand his business more rapidly and to employ more staff. By coincidence, however, we are debating this matter just hours after the Government’s Budget statement, so I will leave the issue of VAT rates there for today, but I hope we can consider it in the future.

In summing up, I have some questions for the Government. How do the UK Government contribute to efforts to promote the tourism industry in Scotland in general, and the West Highland Way in particular, in conjunction with the Scottish Government and other stakeholders? Is there an opportunity to do more? What links are being made with European institutions to encourage those tourism opportunities? Is there an opportunity for further marketing and promotion of the West Highland Way with the Scottish Government and other stakeholders, alongside the promotion of other walking routes and sport in general, as alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown)? Finally, may I extend an invitation to all right hon. and hon. colleagues to join me on a parliamentary delegation to walk the West Highland Way this summer? I will be taking names at the end of the debate.

4.41 pm

Brendan O'Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) on securing the debate. It not only celebrates one of the most scenic walking routes in the world, but recognises

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the economic importance of the West Highland Way to so many businesses and individuals in so many of our constituencies.

My hon. Friend has made an excellent and compelling case for the economic importance of the West Highland Way. I would argue that of equal importance is its social and cultural role, because for tens of thousands of young Scotsmen and women, particularly those from west-central Scotland and the industrial belt, discovering the west highlands was a transformational experience. When they discovered what was on their doorstep, it changed their lives entirely.

Two examples of people who experienced that are the renowned outdoorsman and adventurer Cameron McNeish and the actor David Hayman, with whom I had the pleasure of making my last ever television series for Scottish Television before coming to this place, which was about David following in the footsteps of that other great hillwalker and rambler, Tom Weir. Both Cameron and David were born and raised in Glasgow, but just one taste of the west highlands of Scotland and their lives were changed forever. They are not unique—far from it. Tens of thousands of urban-dwelling Scots have discovered a love of our outstanding natural environment since the West Highland Way was opened.

I, too, pay tribute to the late Tom Hunter, who, as my hon. Friend said, died only last month. He had the vision and tenacity to make the West Highland Way a reality, and his wonderful legacy will, I am sure, be a great comfort to his family.

I am fortunate to have walked the West Highland Way on a number of occasions, as has my hon. Friend. Despite following exactly the same path, each walk has been a vastly different experience from the one before. I have been washed away in May and burnt to a crisp in October. Equally, I have been burnt to a crisp in May and washed away in October—but braving the Scottish weather is part of the fun and adventure of the West Highland Way. It being Scotland, of course, we have no idea what weather will be coming over the mountains at us.

As I said, I have made the 96-mile trek a number of times but, as with most things in life, it is the first time we do something that we remember most fondly. Having been born in Glasgow in the 1960s and growing up in the 1970s, the West Highland Way was for my generation almost a rite of passage. I would love to think that it still is. It was something we had to do. We wanted to stand with our peer group and say, “I have done it.” I remember the first time I did it, and the circumstances will be familiar to many.

I ask people to picture the scene: the pub, the idea, the dismissal of the idea, the Guinness, the re-emergence of the idea, the Guinness, the solemn vow that we will all do it together, the announcement to everyone in earshot that this time next week we were doing the West Highland Way, the cheers, the slaps on the back, the good wishes and more Guinness. The following morning, the realisation of what I had agreed to and knowing that there was no way to back out—the fear!

Within a week, however, we were ready to go—I say “ready”, but only according to a very rough definition of the word. I had a borrowed tent, a sleeping bag, a rucksack that might have been waterproof when it came back from the desert campaign in 1945, a pair of

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Dunlop Green Flash sannies—for the benefit of


, some might call those plimsolls—a cagoule, a spare pair of Wrangler denims and, just in case a disco was happening when we reached Fort William, a clean shirt. Add to that half a dozen individually tinfoil-wrapped cheese rolls and a glass bottle of Irn-Bru, which was actually heavier than the tent, all packed into a Fine Fare bag, and we were ready to head off on our great adventure.

What an adventure it was—but, sadly, I can say no more, because a strict omertà is in place. Hon. Members will have to go and experience the adventure for themselves. What I can say is that for a young man who grew up in the east end of Glasgow, it was my window on the world. We could not afford to go on foreign holidays, but on the West Highland Way the world came to us.

The path takes us north along the side of Loch Lomond, through the Trossachs, over the bridge of Orchy, across the Rannoch moor, skirting round the majestic Buachaille Etive Mòr, through Glencoe and up the never more appropriately named Devil’s Staircase over to Kinlochleven, and then down into the final leg to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis.

Steven Paterson: My hon. Friend reminded me that after coming over the Devil’s Staircase and back down the other side—a big, long descent—at the bottom there in Kinlochleven was the tastiest pint of lager I have ever had. Perhaps he will be speaking about something similar.

Brendan O'Hara: I should be saying to my hon. Friend that my stupidity in drinking Guinness and agreeing to do the walk put me off alcohol forever—but, yes, I share a memory of the King’s House hotel in Kinlochleven, at the foot there.

On the way, one would meet so many different nationalities: Dutch, Germans, Swedes, Australians, Canadians, Americans and many more. As I said, it is where the world came to us. Believe me, the sense of achievement when sitting exhausted at Fort William bus station waiting for the bus back to Glasgow is something that I will never forget—but, for the record, sadly, there was no disco for my clean shirt.

I do not have a single unhappy memory of the West Highland Way, even though in the weeks that I was on it I was soaked to the skin, burned to a crisp and eaten alive by midgies, and I had blistered feet and the occasional hangover.

Martin Docherty-Hughes: My hon. Friend is telling us about the great pest known as the midge. Will he advise the House whether he used Skin So Soft or just drank whisky to get through it?

Brendan O'Hara: Probably the best advice that I can give is to use a potent mixture of both.

I remember lying in a tent with rain coming down like stair rods and only my hands poking out, trying to cook rice on a wee gas stove. If even eating half-cooked savoury rice in a nylon tent in the pitch dark in the middle of a monsoon does not register as a bad memory, that should give people an idea of what a wonderful experience it was.

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As I said, the West Highland Way was and, I sincerely hope, still is a rite of passage for young men and women, particularly those from west-central Scotland. I urge everyone to get out and discover what an incredible country we have and are lucky enough to live in. We should challenge ourselves to do the things that we did not think we could do, and to meet people of other nationalities and cultures whom we would otherwise never meet. Do it. It is on our doorstep. And with any luck, just like Cameron McNeish and David Hayman, you, too, will become addicted to it.

Sir Roger Gale (in the Chair): Mr Blackford, you have a hard act to follow, and I reckon that you have about five minutes to do it in.

4.49 pm

Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP): Thank you, Sir Roger, and it is a pleasure once again to serve under your chairmanship. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) for securing the debate.

Let us picture the scene: we have just walked for 96 miles from Milngavie right into the heart of Lochaber, which is situated in the most beautiful and awe-inspiring constituency in the country, Ross, Skye and Lochaber. We may have been tired, but we have been invigorated by the experience. We came through the splendour and awe-inspiring Glencoe and at our journey’s end, in Fort William, rises the impressive form of Ben Nevis. Having come this far, it is worth capping it off with an ascent of Scotland’s most majestic peak. As the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, I look forward with my hon. Friend to welcoming the parliamentary delegation and making sure that they complete that epic journey up Scotland’s highest mountain.

A walk on the West Highland Way is a fulfilling experience, and the journey’s end is Scotland’s outdoor capital: the great theatre of outdoor life that is Fort William and Lochaber. The West Highland Way is listed by National Geographic as the world’s great trail, and it is easy to understand why. The benefit to the tourist economy has been mentioned, but another is promotion of a healthy lifestyle, which is integral to the wellbeing of all our citizens. The west highlands are a place to enjoy, relax and walk in and to engage in many other activities, and that is an important part of the desire we all have to promote healthy living.

The many communities close to the West Highland Way are very much engaged with the route’s success. Just this week, young pupils from Kinlochleven High School were down in London representing Scotland in a UK competition with a project based on a litter campaign for the West Highland Way. Having won a Scotland-wide competition, the pupils were showcasing their initiative to encourage walkers to dispose of litter in bins, using apps and digital connectivity to get their message across.

The success of the West Highland Way has been the catalyst for the establishment of more long-distance routes. It is very much an industry that is being created out of the experiences of the West Highland Way. Today there are 28 long-distance routes across Scotland,

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known as Scotland’s great trails, and in total they provide 1,700 miles of managed paths. It really is possible to do as the Proclaimers say:

“I would walk 500 miles. And I would walk 500 more.”

According to an online survey and counter data information, the direct impact is that an estimated 39,500 walkers complete the whole route each year with a walker spend of as much as £6 million, rising to more than £11.5 million when we add in as many as 120,000 people who complete part of the walk. The respected John Muir Trust suggests that the impact provides a boost of more than £20 million to the highland economy. It is a challenge to arrive at a complete picture given the length of the walk and the size of the area, but it is clearly a considerable boost to the local economy in the west highlands. Although we still have an industrial economy, particularly in Fort William, tourism is very much an anchor for the overall success of the economy.

The west highlands are stunningly beautiful, but what really makes the place special is its people. I was interested to see that the official West Highland Way website even has a section called “Characters Gallery”. Perhaps I should say that it is the characters, more than anything else, that make the west highlands. I was interested that the first person mentioned in the section was described as Scotland’s most famous rogue. That is not my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), but Rob Roy MacGregor, who has been immortalised throughout the nation’s history for his cattle rustling and his feud against the Duke of Montrose. Perhaps that does sound like my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar.

Folk should come and experience the West Highland Way to enjoy the natural beauty of our landscape and to meet our current-day characters, but we need to do more to boost the tourist economy. Of the 28 EU member states, 25 have reduced tourism VAT. Only Denmark and Slovenia have higher rates than the UK. Another opportunity to address that was lost in today’s Budget. Will the Minister ask the Treasury to undertake a study of the matter and the potential beneficial effects on the tourist industry of a VAT reduction? Ireland brought down VAT on tourism from 13.5% to 9% in May 2011, initially as a temporary measure, but it has been sustained. A reduction in tourist VAT would help to grow the tourist economy and would be central to delivering jobs and growth in fragile economic areas, something that is particularly relevant in my rural constituency.

4.54 pm

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) on securing this debate. Many of the key and general points have been made, but I would like to offer a few reflections on the economic impact of the West Highland Way and, more generally, the benefits that walking brings to our economy and society. If time allows, I will offer a couple of personal reflections and experiences.

I echo the tributes to the late Tom Hunter and the important work that he and others did in establishing the route. It was officially created in October 1980, so it is just a bit younger than I am, as I was born in February 1980. The West Highland Way does not exist in a vacuum. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ross,

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Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) said, it is one of 28 national trails and it connects with a range of other designated walking routes. It is possible to walk from my constituency through the Kelvin walkway, following the route of the Clyde, the Kelvin and the Allander to Milngavie and then to Fort William and up the Great Glen Way to my original home town of Inverness. When looking at possible pub crawls, one can start with the great Lios Mor on Dumbarton Road, about which I have spoken in this Chamber before, and finish with all the hostelries that Inverness has to offer, but sadly not the Whitebridge Hotel on the south side of Loch Ness, where I am originally from, because the Great Glen Way goes up the north route. If anyone accepts the invitation to take in the West Highland Way from Ben Nevis all the way to Inverness, I would certainly recommend a visit and some refreshment there.

The economic benefit of outdoor tourism as a whole has been estimated at £2.6 billion. A range of industries and services benefit from camp sites to classy hotels, from wayside cafes to full-blown restaurants, and including the Glen Boyne distillery. I was interested to hear that the chair of the all-party group on Scotch whisky has been teetotal since his experience on the West Highland Way, but that may not be news to the Chamber.

Not only do the West Highland Way and the walking routes in general have an economic benefit to the communities they traverse, but that benefit is also felt in ancillary and support opportunities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber knows, Fort William is the outdoor capital, full of stores with walking and outdoor clothing and various equipment. The same sort of equipment can be purchased in Glasgow, contributing to the economy in my constituency and the wider area. The ancillary economic impact ripples out from one path to others.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) so eloquently described, very few people do the West Highland Way once and then stop walking as a form of recreation. If anything, they get the bug and do it again and again. They need not do it in only one direction; they can go backwards and forwards. I do not know whether walking from Fort William to Glasgow makes it the “Way Highland West”, but there are different opportunities and economic impacts.

That brings me to the importance of walking as a form of transport, exercise and recreation. I once worked for the Ramblers Association, and that experience brought home to me the huge importance of walking to address a range of challenges facing society. Half of all car trips in Scotland are under 5 km. If people had active travel options for those journeys, there would be a considerable benefit for society’s physical wellbeing and that would not only benefit people themselves, but save the health service money. It would be a preventative form of health care. Physical inactivity is estimated to kill seven people a day in Scotland—a statistic that shames us all.

Walking is an inexpensive and accessible form of recreation and a great social leveller, and it provides an opportunity not just to experience the outdoors in all its beauty and magnificence, but to meet and interact with all sorts of people from all over the world who might be walking the same route. To that end, I echo the calls for further support, especially a cut in tourism VAT.

I completed the West Highland Way in 2004. I was fundraising for a trip to Malawi. It is estimated that over £12 million has been generated for charitable causes

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by people undertaking the walk as a sponsored activity. It is a way to experience Scotland in the raw, not least when the weather really makes its presence felt. Certainly the stretch between Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy brought home to me, as the rain lashed down—it had no discernible impact on the highland cattle, but plenty on the walkers—how in some ways the landscape has barely changed; that we, as human beings, are passing through not only in the literal sense of taking the walk, but in the broader sweep of history; that our ancestors and their communities lived in those lands and had to put up with that kind of weather for many hundreds if not thousands of years, and certainly without the benefit of Gore-Tex or even a Fine Fare plastic bag. Perhaps nothing brings that home more than the train journey back, when days of strenuous exercise flash by. That in itself gives us a certain perspective and shows why it is important to cherish our landscape and access to the outdoors. There is an economic benefit from the West Highland Way, but it is important not just for the sake of that, but for the benefit to broader society and, we hope, future generations.

5 pm

John Nicolson (East Dunbartonshire) (SNP): I join my colleagues in thanking our hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) for calling this debate. Although my contribution comes towards the end of it, I would like to begin by talking about the start of the West Highland Way—both its origins as Scotland’s first long-distance walking route more than 35 years ago and the town of Milngavie in my constituency of East Dunbartonshire, which is the official beginning of the walk.

While walking on the slopes of Ben Lomond after the second world war, the creator of the West Highland Way, Tom Hunter, noted the building developments on the western shores of Loch Lomond and thought of ways to limit the same thing happening on the loch’s eastern shores. As we have heard, Tom was a keen walker himself, loved the outdoors and, together with his wife, Margaret, and their walking companions, decided to design a long-distance walking route from Glasgow to Fort William. The idea of this long-distance, signposted route was not universally supported at the time. It is hard to imagine that now, but there was significant opposition from landowners—quelle surprise, some might say—and the Countryside Commission. However, Tom persevered and the West Highland Way was officially opened on 6 October 1980.

As we have heard, Tom sadly passed away last month at the age of 90. My local paper, the Milngavie & Bearsden Herald, wrote that he was

“a modest man whose achievements were far from ordinary.”

It is evident from this debate that his legacy has benefited the Scottish economy, the Scottish environment and the Scottish people.

Of course, the West Highland Way is traditionally walked south to north. That not only helps to keep the scorching Scottish sun from one’s eyes, but allows walkers to enjoy their time in Milngavie. As many people will know, Milngavie marks the northernmost point of the Roman empire. Having conquered Gaul, Hispania and of course Anglia, the Romans were halted in their tracks by the douce charms of the locals and built the Antonine wall—some say to keep the locals out.

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These days, visitors can appreciate the town’s charms and history, relax in cafés and restaurants in Milngavie precinct and of course stock up on supplies before beginning their own adventure. It is an adventure, it has to be said, that many begin in some discomfort. The Romans may have instituted indoor water closets—“cludgie-orums”, as they were known locally in Latin— but the East Dunbartonshire Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative council has yet to catch up on Roman plumbing, refusing, despite an active local campaign, to provide a lavatory for the thousands who pass through the town without being able to pass, literally—not so much spending a penny, but council penny-pinching.

Patrick Grady: Hear, hear.

John Nicolson: I thank my hon. Friend very much. I recognise a fellow MP’s pain when I hear it.

The West Highland Way plays a significant role in Milngavie’s economy and those of other towns and villages along the route to Fort William. Some 39,500 walkers each year complete the route, along with many thousands of others who walk part of the trail. As we have heard, that generates £5.5 million of tourism revenue and directly supports approximately 200 businesses.

In a wider Scottish context, walking is clearly the most popular nature-based activity for UK residents holidaying in Scotland, with 47% of total UK visitor trips involving some form of walking activity. Studies have shown that long-distance route users are twice as likely to use accommodation, and spend twice as much on food and drink, as the average holidaymaker—although possibly not the average Member of Parliament from Scotland. That provides a huge financial contribution to the hotels, bed and breakfasts and shops in Milngavie and along the route. Many businesses simply would not exist without the West Highland Way. That includes the unique and innovative Travel-Lite, which for 21 years has transported the luggage of walkers from Milngavie to various points along the route for those who do not want to carry their own body weight in spare clothing and equipment.

Conveniently connected to Glasgow city centre through rail, bus and road links, Milngavie also prospers from day visitors who come to walk part of the route on weekends and during holidays. It is not uncommon for many visitors to walk just a wee bit of the route in the morning and to return in the afternoon, spending and contributing to the economy of the beautiful town that I am so fond of, Milngavie, in my constituency.

One of the key factors that led to the inclusion of specific routes in a recent review by Country Walking magazine of Britain’s 50 greatest walks was sufficient variety along a route to maintain interest. One of the most popular routes—possibly the most popular—is the West Highland Way. Within 30 minutes of starting the way, walkers will leave my constituency. They will be able to look out over Glasgow and Strathclyde and look forward to the castles, mountains and distilleries not far in the distance. They will be entering the countryside towards the highlands, having left the bustling city, with busy streets and planes overhead from Europe, North America and the middle east delivering the next cohort of walkers ready to tackle the way.

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There is a significant international dimension to the West Highland Way, because it attracts people from all over the world. It is estimated that the Scottish Government’s proposal to reduce air passenger duty will create nearly 4,000 jobs and add £1 billion to the Scottish economy by 2020. That would surely benefit the West Highland Way, among other places in Scotland. However, out of 28 European Union countries, only Denmark and Slovenia have higher VAT rates than the UK. As we have heard, the Republic of Ireland has significantly reduced VAT on tourism, and the Treasury must explore the possibility of reducing VAT to support tourism in Scotland.

We can all agree, I hope, that the West Highland Way is a national icon and its name is immediately recognisable worldwide as being Scottish. It harnesses some of Scotland’s greatest assets—our biggest city, our largest loch, the last remaining Roman wall north of the border and our tallest mountains—and it delivers significant benefits to our economy, environment and society. Its contribution, locally and nationally, is vast.

5.8 pm

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) and the other hon. Members on informative and colourful speeches. I thank them very much. I have certainly learnt a heck of a lot, and my appetite has been whetted, shall I say?

John Nicolson: Come with us!

Wayne David: I am sorely tempted and I may well take the hon. Gentleman up on that offer before too long.

Alan Brown: The hon. Gentleman says that his appetite has been whetted. Another memory has come back to me, and I will give him a tip: do not camp in the middle of Rannoch moor. There is no running water and only 2 million midges for company. That is a tip before he plans his walk on the West Highland Way.

Wayne David: I shall bear that information in mind. I thank the hon. Gentleman very much.

Tourism is clearly of fundamental importance to Scotland. I understand that tourism contributes some £4 billion to the Scottish economy annually. Some 200,000 people, in one way or another, are employed in the tourism industry, and many of those jobs are of benefit to Scotland in rural areas. One of the key and growing attractions is, as we have heard, the West Highland Way.

There is no doubt at all that there is an increasing realisation that walking is a good form of exercise. Dare I say that I was, believe it or not, one and a half stones heavier than I am now? That is mainly because I have lost some weight walking. I am well known in my constituency for walking with my fiancée and her dog, Alice, and we are keen to embark upon the Wales coast path, which goes around the whole coast of Wales. It is not as long and, perhaps, not as spectacular as the West Highland Way. Nevertheless, I am told that it is a route worth taking. After successfully doing that, I hope to go to Scotland and experience the joys of the West Highland Way as 39,500 other people do each year.

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The West Highland Way is one of the longest footpaths in the whole UK at some 96 miles, which is quite a trek by any standards, and I understand that it has had an interesting history. It opened in October 1980 and is increasingly well renowned throughout the UK. If this debate has done nothing else, it has certainly reinforced how important the West Highland Way is to Scotland and what a great tourist attraction it is for the rest of us who live in the UK.

Walking is of tremendous importance because it brings home to us not only the need for physical fitness, but a great appreciation of our countryside and culture. I take note of all the marvellous attractions that one can encounter en route, and I take on board the concern expressed about midges. I dare say that people have to take preparations to guard themselves against those midges. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the precautions are certainly worth while.

It was my great pleasure to be in Scotland a few weeks ago. I visited a number of distilleries and sampled—in small quantities, of course—the elixir that is produced in them. From personal experience, I can bear testimony to what a wonderful product Scotch whisky is. There has been a modest recognition of that today in the Budget.

Patrick Grady: As the hon. Gentleman is being so generous to the cause of Scotch whisky, it is only fair to recognise the impression that the Welsh whisky, Penderyn, has made on the palates of members of the all-party group on Scotch whisky.

Wayne David: That is very kind of the hon. Gentleman. I did not like to mention it myself but, of course, the Scotch Whisky Association has acknowledged the worth of that Welsh whisky and I hope that it will not be too long before it is recognised as one of the great drinks alongside the many great Scotch whiskies.

I mention Scotch whisky because it is a good way not only to extend and reinforce the British and Scottish economy, but to demonstrate what a unique place Scotland is and what tremendous opportunities there are in Scotland. I believe that the West Highland Way is an equal example, in a smaller sort of way and in a different way, of how Scotland can extend itself and show the world what a wonderful country it is. I would certainly like to reinforce my experience with Scotch whisky and visit Scotland again in the not-too-distant future, guarding against midges. Hopefully, my fiancée—I hope she will shortly be my wife—and I can enjoy the wonderful experience of the West Highland Way. I thank the Scottish National party Members very much indeed for bringing the matter to the attention of the House.

5.13 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Dr Thérèse Coffey): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) on securing today’s important debate on the contribution of the West Highland Way to the economy in Scotland. It is a long time since I holidayed in Arisaig—not too far away from the top end of the path—and beheld that magnificent scenery. More recently, I have enjoyed holidays in and around the Trossachs but I confess that I have not yet walked the West Highland Way, unlike the hon. Gentlemen who described their

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journeys. However, I assure them that, having prepared for the debate, looked at stuff on YouTube and heard other hon. Members’ contributions, the West Highland Way is now on my to-do list for a potential future visit. I must admit that I am not keen on the midges either, so I may have to rely somewhat on the picture painted by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), who gave us a tour that provoked such a wonderful vision.

The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) talked about Ben Nevis. Well, I would like to point out that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) has climbed it although, admittedly, when he got to the top, it was a bit of a white-out, so he was not able to see all the beautiful scenery of which hon. Members eloquently painted a picture.

Ian Blackford: One thing that I am very keen to point out to those who want to come and visit the most wonderful Lochaber part of my constituency is that we have all sorts of facilities for all people, depending on their aptitude and climbing ability. For some people, Ben Nevis is a little bit of a challenge to get up, but Aonach Mòr is next to it and there are gondolas to take people up there for those who would like to have a pleasant day out among the mountains of Scotland. We can cater for people in all sorts of ways so that they can enjoy the splendour of the mountains of the Lochaber area, and still enjoy the food and whisky when they come down in the evening.

Sir Roger Gale (in the Chair): We do not normally have commercial breaks during ministerial speeches, but it is an interesting idea.

Dr Coffey: I give way to the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown).

Alan Brown: I hope that this is not seen as a commercial. Once people have climbed Ben Nevis and finished the West Highland Way, something else that I can recommend from experience is taking the West Highland line from Fort William to Mallaig. It is fantastic scenery and one of the great railways of the world to complement one of the great walks of the world.

Dr Coffey: Sir Roger, as you say, it has been an elegant commercial break. It sounds as if we should have more debates on this matter.

Coming from a constituency such as mine—Suffolk Coastal—where tourism and outdoor leisure activities play such an important role in the everyday lives of people who work in businesses and tourism, I share the view of the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) that helping people to enjoy the natural environment in an easy, pleasant way is mutually beneficial for people’s health and wellbeing, and for the local economy. He was right to stress the benefits of walking more generally.

The debate is particularly timely as we celebrate Scottish tourism week. Scotland is revered around the world for its outstanding and varied scenery, so it should come as no surprise to learn that the country’s natural environment is increasingly being developed as a key tourism asset. In the case of the West Highland

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Way, I have seen a report from Scottish Natural Heritage that suggests that up to 30,000 people—we have heard about potentially more—complete the whole route each year and a further 60,000 people walk a part of it. Another report suggests that the West Highland Way generates an economic benefit of £7.5 million, although we have heard contributions suggesting that it is even greater than that.

The West Highland Way is 96 miles long, and stretches from Milngavie to Fort William, skirting the shores of Loch Lomond en route. It is managed by a partnership of councils and the national park authority for Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, and I pay tribute to them for keeping up this wonderful, great route. I also want to praise the groups of volunteers who help to keep the West Highland Way so special. The Conservation Volunteers from Stirling made improvements to the paths in December. There are volunteer rangers right along the trail and, of course, there are other voluntary groups such as the Lomond Mountain Rescue Team in Drymen, which is there to try to help people when they get into difficulty. Volunteers help with the many events that use the West Highland Way, whether it is raising money for charity or events such as the Caledonian Challenge, which is a particularly interesting use of the route that I expect will bring more people to the area and support the tourist economy.

More broadly, nature-based tourism makes a significant contribution to the wider Scottish tourism sector and economy. The main findings from a recent study by Scottish Natural Heritage indicates that nature-based tourism is worth £1.4 billion a year to Scotland’s economy. Some 9,000 full-time equivalent jobs are reliant on it and tourist spending on nature-based activities is worth nearly 40% of all tourism spending in Scotland. Furthermore, recent figures from VisitScotland show that more than 720,000 trips were made by residents of Great Britain to Scotland’s national parks, accounting for 6% of all Great British overnight trips in Scotland and a visitor expenditure of more £140 million.

On that note, tourism in Scotland is, by and large, a devolved matter for the Scottish Government. The hon. Member for Stirling referred to his hon. Friends in the Scottish Parliament and the work they have done to promote the West Highland Way. Tourism is vital to Scotland’s economy and showcases the country’s culture and heritage to the world. However, the UK Government are very interested in what happens in Scotland. In the 2014 autumn statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer recognised another Scottish natural icon when he announced £2 million of funding over four years for VisitBritain to promote Loch Ness and the surrounding area to international markets.