That brings me to an additional point—that of the costs that will be saved by the proposal to close Hartlepool. I understand that the consultation is being driven primarily

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by a desire to reduce costs. The Minister has said on many occasions that the courts estate costs around half a billion pounds a year, and that he wants to drive that down, but I question whether the closure of Hartlepool magistrates court will reduce costs at all.

There is a real lack of transparency on this matter. Hartlepool magistrates court and county court have operating costs of about £345,000 a year. The Minister has never been able to explain to me how savings will be made. I would imagine that a large proportion of those costs will be staff expenditure. Eight members of staff work at the magistrates court and seven full-time members work at Hartlepool county court. If there is going to be redundancy, which I imagine is the only way forward although it is still difficult to find out why, those are job losses that Hartlepool can ill afford.

It was announced last week that unemployment in Hartlepool increased in February, to 2,747 claimants. Although unemployment in the UK fell in the past year by 11%, the jobless rate in my constituency actually rose in the past 12 months, by 11.8%. Hartlepool is now the 11th worst-affected constituency in the entire country for unemployment. At a rate of 6.5%, it is over two and a half times the national rate. We simply cannot afford any more job losses, especially those that have been initiated by the Government.

Another reservation is about the building in which Hartlepool magistrates court and county court operate. It is not freehold. The Government cannot realise any value by selling off the building. The consultation document states that the Government want:

“To maximise the capital receipts from surplus estate for reinvestment in HM Courts & Tribunals Service”.

That aim will not be met by closing Hartlepool down. It is a leasehold property with a significant number of years still to run. The building is owned by Hartlepool Borough Council. I asked the Minister this before, and I have never received an answer so I will ask him again: how much will it cost to break the lease? Is the Minister considering whole-of-government efficiencies rather than taking a silo-based approach in terms of what he has to achieve for his individual Ministry? Does he not think that he is transferring financial pressures from his own Department on to hard-pressed local government?

I mentioned in the September debate that the criteria by which the courts would be closed seem opaque. On 9 September 2015 I tabled a parliamentary question about the cost-per-case across magistrates courts in England and Wales, including those in Hartlepool and Teesside. That seemed to me to be a reasonable metric with which to evaluate relative efficiencies across different operating units—it is what business does all the time. But the answer I received from the Minister stated:

“The information is not available centrally and could only be provided at disproportionate cost.”

If that metric is not being used, what is? How can relative performance and effectiveness across the estate be evaluated in a consistent manner? I contend strongly that I do not think the closure of Hartlepool magistrates court will save the Government any money.

However, my central concern, which has been raised by several hon. Members throughout today’s debate, is that my constituents will be inconvenienced in their access to local justice. The consultation document “Proposal

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on the provision of court and tribunal services in the North East region” said of Hartlepool that,

“there are excellent road, rail and bus links.”

The person who wrote that has never been to my part of the world. It is absolutely ludicrous to suggest that. Public transport in Teesside is appalling. Somebody from Hartlepool required to be at Teesside magistrates court for an early morning hearing and without access to a car would struggle to make it. The proportion of Hartlepool residents who have access to a car is 41%—more or less half the UK average of 81%. Victims, understandably, need a period of calm before having the stress of giving evidence, and they will be inconvenienced. I asked the Minister in September and I will ask him again: is this what the Government really want—to make justice and access to justice more stressful and inconvenient for innocent victims? Justice is not served by making victims travel longer distances.

The consultation document itself concedes that, at the present time, 99% of those accessing Hartlepool magistrates court can be there by public transport within 60 minutes. After the closure, scheduled to take place in January 2017, 91% will take between one and two hours. That fails directly the Government’s intention of ensuring that people would not have to face longer journeys, and it is one of the key reasons why the Law Society is opposed to the closures of the courts in Hartlepool.

Finally, I want to raise another point on Government policy, taking an holistic view of law and order and security. Police staff and officers at Cleveland police fell from 2,628 in March 2010 to 1,634 in September 2015—almost 38%. Total crime reported to Cleveland police in the past year has gone up by 22%, and in Hartlepool, offences of the type on which cases would be seen by the magistrates have risen sharply. Year on year, violence without injury has gone up by 46.7% in the Hartlepool area; non-domestic theft has risen by 10.9%, shoplifting by 19.5% and personal robbery has gone up in the past year by 63.6%.

That will put enormous strain on the whole judicial system. I ask the Minister again to reconsider the proposed closure of Hartlepool magistrates court, in keeping with the holistic view of good local law and order. Please think again. Please think about the representations made by me, my constituents and the Law Society, and ensure that Hartlepool magistrates court and county court can remain open.

2.10 pm

Holly Lynch (Halifax) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for her hard work in securing this important debate today.

Halifax is unusual in that two courts are closing in my constituency as part of the changes. Both Calderdale magistrates court and Halifax county court and family court, currently in two different buildings, will be closed and the majority of the workload transferred to Bradford. Anyone who has seen the recent BBC series “Happy Valley”, which is set in my constituency, may be forgiven for thinking that there is surely enough criminal activity in Halifax to keep two courts busy processing criminals around the clock, perhaps even with enough demand to open a Crown court, owing to the severity and frequency

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of the criminal activity that takes place there. I am pleased and relieved to inform hon. Members that “Happy Valley”, albeit thoroughly gripping television, is not an accurate portrayal of law and order across Calderdale.

Back in the real world, and perhaps unlike other constituencies, we were prepared to work with the Government on the closure of one of our courts. We recognised that efficiency savings could be made, and in a move predominantly led by the local magistrates bench—I thank them for their detailed analysis and work on the proposals— we actively campaigned for a merging of the courts in a way that would deliver a cost saving to the Government while maintaining access to local justice. However, the announcement last month—delivered in a written statement, as a number of my colleagues have pointed out, on the last day before a recess—that both courts would close revealed that the Government’s ambition for savings would not accommodate this proposal.

Like most MPs, fighting injustice is largely what motivates me to do this job, and I would argue that British values and our standing in the world are entwined with our fair and accessible justice system, which has paved the way for so many others around the world. We never know when we might be a victim of crime or witness a crime. We live in hope that we never have a family breakdown so serious that we require guidance from the family courts. Injustice takes many forms and the two courts in my patch play an essential role, not only in righting wrongs, but in resolving all manner of often difficult and sensitive disputes.

The arguments about access to justice and the merits of this have been well rehearsed over the course of the consultation and throughout the debate, so I will focus on challenges to the Government, which I hope the Minister will recognise in his winding-up remarks. The closure of 86 courts and tribunals has been packaged not as closures at all but as a means of facilitating a justice revolution, driven by technology that will make justice more accessible than ever before.

The Government have committed to spend £700 million over five years to modernise and fully digitise the courts. However, a written question to the Minister tabled on 7 December and answered on 29 February revealed that £1.35 million was spent on delivering the digitisation programme in courts whose closure has subsequently been announced. Although the response outlined that the vast majority of this expenditure was in reusable hardware assets which could be reallocated to other sites, representatives from the courts in Halifax tell me that thousands of pounds will have been wasted in costs associated with the installation and custom cabling in buildings soon to be closed. Is the £700 million figure quoted a new fund that will mitigate the access gap created by the court closures, or does this figure include moneys already spent as part of the digitisation programme in courts that we now know will be closed?

To echo the sentiments expressed in the Chamber, I was grateful for the opportunity to meet the Minister in person to present the case for merging the courts, and I know that he met separately representatives from the magistrates bench in Calderdale. It was not clear to me what services the Government would provide in the roll-out of this technological revolution in justice, and

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what responsibilities might fall to local authorities and even law firms working privately to bridge the access gap.

Our local authorities are cash-strapped, particularly in Calderdale where the devastating Boxing day floods, combined with other pressures, have placed an unprecedented burden on the budget, and I would be concerned if the Government were expecting local authorities to play a role in part-financing some of the changes that might be required. I would be even more concerned if the Government were expecting the private sector to step in and introduce the technology required to mitigate the closure of the courts, in a way which will inevitably introduce a postcode lottery to accessing justice. We have heard from colleagues about challenges linked to mobile coverage and broadband cover, which would inevitably contribute to the postcode lottery. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify what role he expects local authorities and the private sector to play in the digitisation process.

I want to outline the impact that the closures will have on the local economy, as other Members have identified. The two courts in Halifax are located at the top end of the town centre and are surrounded by a number of law firms in what could be described as the legal quarter. Like Wakefield, we have a post office due for closure in the same part of town. Back in October, I sent a letter to the Secretary of State signed by 13 representatives of law firms which, by no coincidence, are situated in close proximity to the courts. Those law firms, paying rates, employing highly educated professionals and paying good wages in my constituency, are now considering their futures in Halifax. Several are considering following the workload to Bradford and although I accept that there will still be clients in Halifax, will there be enough to keep all those jobs there? I reiterate once more that there is not as much work for lawyers in Halifax as “Happy Valley” might suggest.

With the court buildings empty, the potential for a number of surrounding offices to be empty as a result would not be at all healthy for that area of the town centre and would place quite a burden on the local authority in terms of regeneration. Ultimately, like many of my colleagues across the Chamber, I am worried about how this will impact on those who are regular attenders at the courts. Far from those being exclusively repeat offenders, staff from social housing provider Pennine and representatives of the local authority—Calderdale council, Calderdale women’s centre, police officers and youth offending services—are just some of the predominantly public services and charity organisations which stand to be inconvenienced by the closures. Let us be clear. When I say “inconvenienced”, that means extended journey times, and therefore more costly journeys, and potentially extended periods out of the office dealing with court appearances or formalities. Inconvenience is a cost, and when we are dealing with public services, it is a cost ultimately picked up by the taxpayer.

I am looking for assurances from the Minister that the justice revolution is real and deliverable in the appropriate timeframe, and that the funding is available. I am looking for clarity on what wastage there has already been in delivering the digitisation programme. I want to know that consideration will be given to assisting

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local authorities in managing the closure of the courts and any resulting impact that this will have on town centres and on the businesses that relies on their proximity to the courts. Finally, I seek an assurance that the Department for Justice is genuinely delivering a cost saving to the taxpayer with these closures, not just a saving to the Department—that it has not just passed some of the cost to local authorities, some to the Home Office and some to social housing providers and charities, and that the Department’s ambition to achieve savings has not compromised what is sensible and practical in our world-renowned justice system.

2.18 pm

Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab): I thank the Backbench Business Committee for providing time for this debate. In particular, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for securing it and opening the debate so skilfully and eloquently. We share a concern about Lambeth county court, which covers many of our constituents.

The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) spoke about how busy his court was in Bromley, and showed how busy he was by receiving a call here. Lambeth court, too, is busy. When I appeared at the court—as a witness, I hasten to add—to speak for leaseholders against Southwark council, that morning alone there were about 22 individual cases involving residents and the council. It is an incredibly busy court, which is why local legal professionals approached me and other Members about the Government’s assessment of how the court was being used. Their concerns related to both the time that that assessment took place and the consideration of preparation for cases.

When this topic was discussed in Westminster Hall, these issues were not answered fully. It would be useful if the Minister could confirm whether alternative facilities have the capacity to provide the necessary preparation time and space. It is deeply unfortunate that in a debate about justice, the Government have not provided sufficient evidence to justify their course of action.

One aspect that has not been discussed today concerns law students. London South Bank University approached me to ask whether the Government are even considering assessing the impact on law students, the additional costs they will incur and the additional travel they will have to undertake to attend cases. Can the Minister tell us whether such an assessment will be conducted?

The issue of travel has been raised many times. The Government figure showing that 97% of people affected can be at a different court within an hour has been significantly challenged by Resolution and by Members today. That figure is not for travel from home, and it would be much more useful if the Government could provide an assessment of average journey times from home to court. I hope the Minister will commit today to provide such an assessment.

The 97% figure is also undermined in communities such as mine. In the borough of Southwark, only 50% of households actually own a car. The policy of controlled parking zones also affects many residents. People are therefore either unable to own a car or have only limited access to one.

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In looking at the issue on behalf of individual constituents, I looked at journey times for constituents in Rotherhithe. It would take some of them four hours to go from Rotherhithe to Putney if they needed to appear there, and that would include six different bus journeys. I hope we have a new Mayor in May who will freeze fares and introduce the one-hour ticket, but my constituents still face potentially higher costs. Those costs and the inconvenience involved in travelling will affect court attendance, and they could affect the number of cancelled cases and appeals. We have not seen a full assessment of those issues.

Nor have we seen a full assessment of the potential knock-on costs for the police, who are transporting witnesses further, or to the probation service and the Prison Service, which are transporting defendants further. I believe it was the Law Society that raised the case of jurors claiming higher costs for their car use and the cost of public transport. Assessments of those issues have not been made available to the level we would expect. We have also heard about the additional costs to councils’ housing and social services offices.

Instead of the Department providing the evidence base and undertaking assessments, huge assumptions have been made about the willingness of councils and police stations to make space available to provide the video link facilities that the Minister has mentioned previously. Where is the evidence base to show that those things will happen and that the equipment will be available and useable? My hon. Friends the Members for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) talked about rural access to broadband services, but the issue is equally relevant to Rotherhithe, where BT has not provided the capacity to meet local demand. It would be useful if the Government could indicate today that they will look at that issue.

Without the demonstrable capacity to deliver the justice we know is needed, it seems that the Ministry of Justice is rushing into these proposals and passing the buck to other parts of the public sector and to individuals—individuals who have experienced crime or misfortune, and who are now being served another layer of injustice.

I am certainly not opposed to the modernisation agenda, but without the full assessments and commitments I have outlined, it is a very risky agenda. It is vital that the Government provide those assessments before they push ahead with their agenda.

2.22 pm

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): May I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing the debate? The general tone has been that no one is opposed to change, and that is where I start from. Like any other public service, the justice system and the magistrates system need to change. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) said, the root cause of the proposals, whether we like it or not, is the attempt to save money and the small-state conservatism that the Chancellor of the Exchequer longs for. That has made the system throw up some very peculiar examples of injustice. We also have ludicrous situations such as the one the hon. Member for Torbay

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(Kevin Foster) mentioned, where substantial investment was made in a magistrates court a year or so ago, only for it to be written off now.

The hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) said the consultation was clearly flawed, and I agree. The assumption that was made was clearly that these courts would close and that people could travel to the courts that remained open. What was not taken into consideration was the people who do not have access to cars. In my constituency, people use the magistrates court in Consett, and they were told in the public consultation that took place in the north-east that if they had to travel to Peterlee court—as they will now have to—they could go by train. Well, that would be a very circuitous route, seeing as there is no train station in Peterlee. Even if someone took another form of public transport, they would have to set off at something like 7 o’clock in the morning to get there by 9.30, and that depends on public transport being available. That also fails to recognise the rural nature of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass). That has been the main flaw in the proposals.

Having spoken to the Minister, I recognise that he is committed to change, although he has a sword hanging over his head in terms of cutting costs. Like the hon. Member for High Peak, I made representations to the Minister—about the proposals for North Durham. My constituents will now have to travel to Peterlee magistrates court, which will take them more than two hours on public transport, if it is possible to use it. The constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham will find things even more difficult. I suggested to the Minister that it would make more sense for my constituents to travel to Newcastle or Gateshead—it would certainly be a lot quicker to get from Chester-le-Street, in my constituency, for example, to Gateshead or Newcastle magistrates court. I am also told by the local head of the Crown Prosecution Service that there is spare capacity in those two courts.

I wrote to the Minister on 25 February, and I was very disappointed this morning when I got his letter, which said that my proposal was not possible and that my constituents would still have to travel to Peterlee. That makes no sense whatever, when people can get from Chester-le-Street to Newcastle in 10 minutes on the train, as opposed to the nearly two hours it takes to get to Peterlee. I would therefore ask the Minister to look again at those proposals. I accept that the problem people have is that they will have to cross county boundaries, but my proposals will make things a lot easier for many of my constituents.

A number of Members have raised the fundamental problem with the cost-driven nature of the proposals. Access to justice is a serious issue for the magistrates service and for the dedicated individuals who give up their time to serve as magistrates. Justice is supposed to be dispensed locally, but that will not be the case in future, when people will have to travel long distances.

As I say, I am not opposed to new technology; indeed, having spent quite a lot of time recently in court—I have been doing a fellowship with the Industry and Parliament Trust—I have spoken to the professionals, and they are not opposed to change. However, one thing they keep telling me is that there is a shortage of cash in the system. If we are going to achieve the

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situation I think the Minister wants to, with local video conferencing and other buildings being used, some up-front money will have to be put into the system. Otherwise, we will just settle into a situation where the cuts have been made and we keep the courts we still have—and that will be it. That would be a mistake, because in terms of dispensing local justice—the hon. Member for Torbay raised this point and it is a good one—we need to look at what goes to magistrates courts. If we are talking simply about non-violent offences and people not being sentenced to prison, their cases can be dealt with in other settings, but the cash has to be there.

My experience of visiting the Court Service throughout the country over the last few weeks as part of my fellowship with the Industry and Parliament Trust has been that there is not the cash up front to do what would make sense to support the professionals and, more importantly, our constituents. Constituents will want access to justice not only if they have to go before a court, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield rightly argued—this is sometimes forgotten in the system—if they are a victim. They need to be able to see that justice is being done, and if obstacles are put in their way, such as those relating to access to travel to a magistrates court, that will be a problem for them.

I ask the Minister to take a step back before making any commitments. If he is going to implement the other proposals, which I think he genuinely wants to do, there needs to be a timetable. Will he look again at the proposals for North Durham? It makes no sense whatsoever for people to have to travel for two hours to Peterlee to access justice, when they can travel to Newcastle in 10 minutes. I do not think that the people who drew up this consultation looked at the local geography, and I think they assumed that everyone had access to a car. Not everyone in my rural constituency has access to a car, and public transport is intermittent. If that puts an obstacle in the way of them getting justice, I have to say that, in a modern and rich society such as ours, that is a scandal.

2.30 pm

Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab): May I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) for bringing this important matter before the House? I also thank every other Member who has spoken today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) spoke passionately about the closure of the magistrates and civil courts in Bridgend after thousands of pounds had been spent recently on the building. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) spoke of the Government’s many U-turns on justice policies, including the scrapping of two-tier contracts, costing the Ministry of Justice more than £400,000.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) told the House that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) is a black belt in martial arts. I am a fourth dan black belt in judo, but that is a story for another day.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) spoke of the very good facilities in magistrates courts and that their closure will not save money. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) spoke of the massive impact on her constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) noted that the consultation mentioned travel by train but that there is no train station in Peterlee. My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) raised an issue that has not been raised before, namely the impact of court closures on law students.

The hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) spoke about the closures in his area. The Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), brought his vast experience to the debate, and his mobile phone made an intervention at a crucial time. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) was disappointed about the closure of his local magistrates court and said that we needed a long-term plan. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) spoke of his campaign to keep the Stockport court open. There have also been many excellent interventions.

Everyone who has spoken has set out comprehensively and eloquently the issues at stake and the importance of access to local justice. Labour absolutely recognises that savings have to be made in these difficult economic times. Only this week, we heard the Chancellor say how he has failed to meet his own economic targets, which he set, and that further savings therefore needed to be found. We disagree profoundly, however, as to how those savings should and could be made, and we vehemently argue that across-the-board cuts to vital local services are unfair and, indeed, unjust.

The latest court closures, which affect a fifth of the court estate, come on top of ongoing cuts in the sector. If they are not implemented fairly, they will lead increasingly to the creation of a two-tier justice system and seriously hamper access to justice, particularly for the most vulnerable in our society.

The current proposals are based on a flawed consultation process, and a flawed process begets flawed results. Indeed, the Minister apologised for those many errors. However, that does call into question the basis for the 86 listed courts that are currently being considered for closure.

The announcement on those potential closures was made on the last day before the February recess, making today’s debate all the more important in order to ensure proper parliamentary scrutiny. One of the criteria for the court closures consultation was court utilisation, which on the face of it seems a reasonable criterion. However, we must also bear in mind that fewer hearings are taking place because of broader cuts in this sector; cuts to legal aid and increased court fees mean that fewer people have recourse to justice, which is not the right result. There is also a shortage of staff and judges. Since 2010, the Courts and Tribunals Service has been cut by 5,000 staff, and it is set to lose a further 5,000 to 6,000 by 2020.

The Public and Commercial Services Union, whose members include those working in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, the Crown Prosecution Service and the private sector delivered guard service, has stated:

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“High utilisation rates can only be achieved by listing several lengthy contested matters in the same court on the basis that they will not all be effective. If all the hearings are effective and one or more cases have to be delayed it adds distress and inconvenience for the parties and witnesses involved.

Lack of available court time for listing cases, often due to a shortage of staff, causes cases to be adjourned for long periods. Many courts already struggle to list family multi-day cases due to both lack of court rooms and lack of staff. This often means cancelling trial courts. A reduction in the available court rooms will lead to further delay.”

The PCS report on the court closures consultation finds that the figures used overestimate the maximum amount of time for which the court can be used. For example, it notes that, according to Government assessments, North Avon magistrates court has a maximum utilisation of 1,240 days, whereas staff working there put the figure at 992 days.

In many instances, as hon. Members have said today, the travel times resulting from many of the court closures will cause unacceptable inconvenience for their constituents. The Government contend that most people will still be able to reach court within a one-hour car journey. It has been said on a number of occasions, most recently by the Law Society, that the methodology used to calculate travel times was not transparent or independently verified. The travel times given in the consultation paper represent the “best case scenario”.

I know from my own experience that, since Neath magistrates court closed in May 2014, my constituents have had to travel to Swansea, denying them access to local justice in their own community. Constituents, magistrates and local solicitors working in the area suggest the closure of the local court has had a negative impact locally. Several areas of my constituency are far removed from the courts that they are now expected to use in Swansea. Public transport options are severely limited and operate infrequently. Their travel times far exceed the so-called one-hour travel time limit, and it is possible that opposing sides, victims, witnesses and perpetrators, will sit on the same bus or train.

The Neath civil and family court is on the list of proposed closures. That will mean that my constituents will have to travel to Port Talbot, joining people who will have been moved from the Bridgend civil and family court, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend mentioned. I have visited the court in Port Talbot and question whether that centre can bear the increased workflow and whether the facilities will be sufficient for their purposes. Moreover, the journey from Glynneath to Port Talbot takes one hour and 35 minutes, with one bus change, and that from Banwen to Port Talbot takes one hour and 44 minutes, with a change of bus and added walking time on either side, without allowing for heavy traffic problems.

Those on low incomes often have to choose between buying necessities or the cost of travel to court, causing hardship at what is already a stressful time. The closures have caused great inconvenience to many people in Neath who may find themselves victims of spurious allegations or charged unnecessarily. Victims of domestic abuse, for example, will have to travel further to seek emergency protection at a critical time, when any delays could lead directly to further and serious harm.

In addition to affecting those of our constituents who are forced to travel further afield, the closures will mean redundancies and lost jobs, and I know that, in many constituencies such as mine across the UK, every

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job is much needed. Even if jobs are retained, the additional travelling times will mean higher costs for staff to travel to work. It will have a particular impact on staff with caring responsibilities and staff with disabilities. The consultation did not adequately address that aspect of the closures.

The court closures will have broader implications. In Neath, now that the magistrates court is closed, the police are forced to travel all the way to Swansea to get warrants, which uses up valuable time that could be spent on the beat. I am sure that that is the case in many other areas, and those issues should be addressed in the light of future closures. I have spoken to many who work in and alongside our justice system, and I hear time and again of a perfect storm of pressure on our courts and tribunal system.

An increase in litigants in person means more time and follow-up work for the courts. At the same time, cuts have been made to the number of administrators and clerks in the Court Service. Now we are looking at a raft of court closures. The consequences are frustrating for users and for those who work in the courts. Increased waiting time outside courts and uncertainty about when cases will be heard are particularly problematic for those who are reliant on public transport, for parties who are distressed—that includes vulnerable people—and for those who have young children waiting with them.

Lack of availability of court time leads to delays in proceedings. For example, at Edmonton county court, a transfer of tenancy application in a domestic abuse and financial remedies case, which should normally last half a day, waited seven and a half months for listing for the final hearing. With larger volumes of cases at fewer court centres, the buildings come under pressure. It is not unusual for advocates to have to discuss highly confidential and sometimes highly distressing matters sitting on the floor of a corridor or in a stairwell because conference rooms are full. Let us not forget the impact on jurors, who were not included in the list of affected groups in the impact assessment.

On many occasions in this House, we have heard how the wonders of technology will transform the judicial service and make the need for proximity to court buildings a thing of the past. I am not one to stand in the way of progress, but we simply have not had, to date, a sufficient—or indeed any—explanation of how a judicial system fit for the 21st century and beyond will function. We have simply been told by the Minister about the use of video conferencing. It is quite possible that the most vulnerable in society, who are most in need of support—those who do not own a car and are reliant on public transport to travel to court—do not have reliable, secure and private internet access. Many of my constituents in Neath, like those of so many of the hon. Members we have heard from today, simply do not own a computer or smartphone. They have no internet access at home, and our local libraries seem to be closing because of local authority cuts. We need a real explanation of how that practice will work. How will vulnerable victims and witnesses be kept safe and secure during online or remote proceedings? Giving evidence can be a traumatic experience, and proper support needs to considered. We are also due a proper explanation of the costs involved.

I recently met staff from the personal support unit, who provide advice and guidance for court users and help to translate the specific language and procedures in

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the court service into lay terms. Staff at the unit said that it is far more about in-person support, compassion and sympathy. At a difficult time when they feel vulnerable, victims and accused need reassurance and guidance most of all, and those cannot be provided via teleconference.

The Government’s case for the closures is underpinned by untested digital processes. According to the PCS union, the national roll-out of several digital products has been delayed because they were not fit for purpose.

Valerie Vaz: Does my hon. Friend agree that the IT system is a failure? How could the Minister possibly assert that it is a good replacement for the reductions in the court estate?

Christina Rees: My hon. Friend makes an important point.

I want to refer to the e-form that was used to calculate individuals’ financial assets in divorce cases. A fault in that online form caused a lot of trouble. It was corrected by the Minister, but e-forms were involved in almost 36,000 cases during the affected period. The Minister regretted the error and said that application to vary or set aside would not attract fees, but those involved would not be able to access legal advice on those complex issues through legal aid.

The client and cost management system is due to come into compulsory use from 1 April 2016. Over the past two weeks Resolution, the family law group, said that many legal aid firms cannot access the system, or that they get thrown out when they submit the form. The system is not fit for purpose, and its introduction should be delayed.

An online court has been proposed for claims of up to £25,000. Individuals would have no access to legal advice for such claims, even though they might be up against big organisations with their own legal teams. That would be a major disadvantage. The proposal needs to be rigorously tested, piloted and evaluated.

What happens in the event of technological failures or unreliable technology? Those would, undoubtedly, further delay proceedings rather than expediting them, which would add to the stress of victims and witnesses. The Law Society acknowledges the aim of increasing the use of technology, but it recommended during the consultation process that it would be prudent to modernise courts with new technology, assess how that is working and then consider savings, rather than the other way around. I wholeheartedly agree.

I welcome the Government’s desire to harness technology positively and efficiently, but we need to hear much more about the plans. Surely, the systems should be tested and piloted before many of the slated closures go ahead. Perhaps the Minister will take the opportunity to explain in more detail what his thinking is and how the system will work for those who wish or need to access justice. Once again, I must stress that it should not, and cannot, lead to the creation of haves and have-nots.

Finally, I wish to highlight the last round of closures and talk about the use of buildings after the closures. Many of the courts that are slated to close, or were recently closed, have better facilities than the alternatives

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that people will be forced to travel to. I have raised questions about the proceeds of sale of those buildings, and about the ongoing costs of their maintenance and upkeep in the event that they are not sold or used for other community purposes. Such buildings tend to be prominently and conveniently located in town centres. If they are left to fall into rack and ruin, they can have a negative effect on a town centre.

The Ministry of Justice is still paying to secure and maintain 15 of the courts that were closed in 2010, and they are costing the taxpayer more than £40,000 a month to secure and maintain. The most expensive upkeep is for the former magistrates court in Alton, which costs almost £10,000 a month. The facilities that existed in Alton have not been replicated at the court that received the work. In some instances, the buildings are not suitable for any use other than as a court.

In conclusion, it is an unavoidable fact that savings in the court system need to be identified, as colleagues have said. One of the central tenets of our common law system is the local delivery of local justice, with access to justice for all. Any court closures must absolutely minimise the negative impact on access to justice for all our citizens.

2.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): I congratulate the hon. Members for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on giving colleagues the opportunity to debate this very important issue one more time. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken. I will try to mention them as best I can in the few minutes available. May I also take this opportunity to welcome the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) on her first outing at the Dispatch Box? I look forward to debating with her in the weeks and months ahead.

I am keenly aware that hon. Members hold strong views about the importance of courts in their constituencies and about the impact that their closure may have on the delivery of justice. That has been made abundantly clear today, as it has in numerous parliamentary debates and questions, as well as at the many meetings I have had with hon. Members and in the correspondence—I have written letters to them in response—in which they have engaged.

I very much understand the sincerity of those concerns. I hope that hon. Members will appreciate that the decision to close a court is not one that I take lightly, but it is a decision that I am prepared to make when it is necessary to do so to support essential reform of our courts and tribunals system and to bring it up to modern-day standards. We need to create a modern and flexible Courts and Tribunals Service that is fit for the 21st century.

Court staff and the judiciary work hard, but they face challenges in delivering an efficient service when the infrastructure that supports the administration of the courts and tribunals is inefficient and disjointed. Some of the technology that supports services is decades old, and few of the services we offer can be accessed online. We continue to use paper forms, and when court users need to make a payment, we often accept only cash or cheques. We need urgently to modernise

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the way the courts and tribunals operate to reduce inefficiencies, and to open up new ways for the public to access justice.

The Government are supporting this reform with very significant investment. Investment of £700 million over the next four years will transform the experience of everyone who comes into contact with courts and tribunals. We will provide new services and deliver better, more joined-up ways of working across the justice system. These reforms will increase access to justice by making it swifter, easier to use and more efficient.

I appreciate that some hon. Members have concerns about the consultation exercise we conducted. I have apologised at the Dispatch Box for errors that have occurred in some of the individual courts concerned. However, I assure the House that, although there have been some inaccuracies, the final decisions were taken on the basis of correct information and after consideration of all the well over 2,100 submissions that were made.

Mr Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way, particularly as I was unable owing to other parliamentary business to be in the Chamber for much of the debate, for which I apologise. I do not like having to intervene in this way on so kindly a Minister. Frankly, however, the closures, particularly for Chichester, are not a policy, but a negation of a policy. Everyone understands the need for financial stringency, but no economic rationale for these closures has been provided, despite repeated requests. Until such a rationale is provided, people will continue to be deeply concerned about the closures. Chichester’s court use is above the national average, and the travel times analysis is seriously flawed. Is the Minister now prepared at least to reconsider the closures, for which no economic case at all has been provided?

Mr Vara: I hope that I will get some injury time in view of that intervention, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): In view of that speech, you may have some injury time.

Mr Vara: I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

My right hon. Friend speaks with passion. He and I have corresponded much, and we have met on many occasions. In fact, it is fair to say that I dreaded entering the Tea Room when I knew he was there, because I knew he would come and speak to me about his court. I think he will agree that I have tried to give him the best information I can, but on the final conclusion he wants, we will have to agree to disagree.

The Government have listened carefully, which is why, in addition to the five court buildings we have retained, we have modified our initial plans for a further 22 sites. The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood will be mindful of that, because the court work that was initially going to be transferred to a court at Wandsworth, 6 miles away from Lambeth, will now be transferred to one at Camberwell Green, just 2 miles away. That was a consequence of our meeting and engagement with the local community.

In eight of the 22 sites where changes have been made, we will not close the court until suitable local alternative provision is in place. Work is under way to determine the specific provision to be provided at each

24 Mar 2016 : Column 1830

of those locations, and to evaluate a number of options for holding hearings away from traditional court buildings. I expect further testing to take place over the coming months.

Neil Coyle: Will the Minister clarify whether what he has just said is accurate? He seems to indicate that all the cases that were to be heard in Putney instead of Lambeth county court will now be held in Camberwell, but that is not the impression delivered previously. How much of the £700 million budget being made available will go to police or council facilities to ensure that a video link is possible?

Mr Vara: This four-year reform programme is worth more than £700 million, and the intention is to ensure that we have one of the best justice systems in the world. I will not give the hon. Gentleman details now about the precise minutiae and breakdown of a four-year programme involving so much money.

Neil Coyle: You do not know it.

Mr Vara: The hon. Gentleman chunters away from a sedentary position, but if he had a little experience of business, he would know that in a four-year programme with such a huge sum of money involved, the figures might not be as precise as he would like them to be at the initial stage.

An important aspect of testing and evaluation will be to ensure that any hearings held outside a traditional court offer appropriate levels of security for members of the public, the judiciary, and court staff. Travel time was mentioned by a number of people, and there must be a fundamental recognition that far fewer people will have to travel to courts in the first place. We intend to use modern technology, and video conferencing facilities are already available. The hon. Member for Neath asked whether those have been tested in any way, but we already have such facilities—for example, there is a community centre in Wales that is used to give evidence.

We already have alternative places to use as courts, and employment tribunal cases have been conducted on oil rigs in the North sea. Only yesterday, a lawyer colleague of ours who joined the House after the election last year told me about probation cases that she had been involved in that were held in public houses.

Mr Kevan Jones: I note what the Minister is saying about new technology and I do not disagree with him, but will he look again at my North Durham constituency, because it is nonsense when people can travel to Gateshead or Newcastle in 10 or 15 minutes, as opposed to travelling to Peterlee? I have raised the issue previously with the Minister and asked him to reconsider, because it makes no sense whatsoever.

Mr Vara: There comes a point when we have to start taking decisions and agree to disagree. This whole programme started before last year’s summer recess, and we had a lengthy consultation period. I have had numerous debates and met more people in the House than I can remember. There has been a huge dialogue, but there must be some recognition that we have listened and made changes in a huge number of cases. That may not be the case in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but I am afraid we must agree to disagree.

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My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) raised concerns about the effectiveness of the administration process that will see this programme through. I will be keeping a sharp eye on proceedings, and if he has any concerns with his local area, I will be more than happy to try to arrange a meeting with senior people at local level, so that he has the comfort he wants.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) spoke of the wonderful work that magistrates do in our courts. I can only echo those comments and say that many magistrates recognise the need for reform.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) spoke about the very useful work of the Justice Committee and brought his own expertise to the House. He also questioned the reliability of the IT projects we will be undertaking. I emphasise that we are taking a staged approach. We will not be putting all our eggs in one basket and we are bringing in expert advice from outside to assist us.

Robert Neill: Will the Minister also deal with the question I raised about what happened to the 10 courts closed under the previous programme that remain unsold? If he does not have that information to hand today, will he at least write and place it in the Library?

Mr Vara: What I can say is that the 10 has now been reduced to nine, and there are offers in place for some of the remaining courts. Others have had genuine difficulties because of joint occupation with other parties. We hope to transfer the remaining courts to the Homes and Communities Agency, which is dealt with by the Department for Communities and Local Government.

The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) spoke about her personal experience. I was sorry, as I am sure were other colleagues, to hear about the assault that had taken place on her. I very much take on board the points she makes about domestic violence. I emphasise that we are improving the system by which witnesses and victims give evidence. At the moment, they have to go to court and go through a terrifying experience. With a video conferencing facility, they can go to a place that is closer to their home and in much more pleasant surroundings, rather than the awesome and austere environment of a court.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) for his comments confirming that this has been a genuine consultation. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) made a very powerful speech, raising an important point about digital infrastructure. I take on board what he says. We will certainly be making sure that the infrastructure is in place to support the court reform programme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) spoke about low-level offences, such as TV licence offences. He sought assurances that perhaps they could be dealt with in courts that are closer. Our thinking is that such low-level offences can probably be dealt with online where people plead guilty, which is the majority of cases.

The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd gave a very powerful speech, raising concerns about access to justice. I assure her that we are very mindful of rural

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areas and want to make sure we get this right. My constituency has a rural element to it, so I know where she is coming from.

Liz Saville Roberts: The Minister mentioned alternative arrangements for eight courts. Can he provide more detail on that?

Mr Vara: The hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not provide detail on the provisions for eight separate courts at the Dispatch Box now, as time is pressing. I am happy to write to her later in more detail and I will certainly do that.

The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), a very good friend of mine, made a passionate speech. He wanted an assurance that justice would not become more stressful. As I said in relation to the comments made by the hon. Member for Wakefield, we hope the experience will be a lot better for people. We hope they will not have to travel as far and that modern technology will assist them in giving evidence in a closer and more convenient location.

The hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) made a heartfelt speech, in which she referred to technology. I assure her we will deal with the £700 million in a very careful way and make sure we get it right.

The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) raised concerns, in particular in relation to his local court. He has been passionate in defending his local court, but the consultation received only three responses about it from his local community. I give him credit for wanting to keep the court open, but the fact that there were three responses speaks for itself. I am pleased that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) welcomed the need for reform, and I take on board what he said, but we will have to agree to disagree, as I said.

In conclusion, I thank all hon. Members, particularly the two who secured this debate. This is a major undertaking by the MOJ, and we will do our best to ensure we have a fit-for-purpose justice system. Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish you, hon. Members, the Clerks and, most importantly, all the people who ensure that this place continues to operate, especially the security services, a happy Easter.

3.5 pm

Helen Hayes: I thank every Member who has contributed to this debate. The level of concern about the decision to close 86 courts and tribunals is clear.

We have heard from across the Chamber concerns about the physical accessibility of courts as a consequence of the closures and about serious problems with the assumptions about the use of digital technology, especially in areas with poor broadband. Several hon. Members spoke about sensible and creative alternative proposals that were more responsive to local geography and demographics but which were rejected. We also heard about the overreliance on travel by private car and the flawed travel-time data underpinning the decision and about the interrelationship with other public sector cuts. How can police stations provide video links, when in my area so many have closed that the remaining ones are bursting at the seams? We have heard about many hidden impacts from the decision, including on the micro-economy of town and city centres.

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I brought this debate before the House because I was concerned that the decision to close 86 courts and tribunals without a coherent, joined-up plan for ensuring access to justice would impact most on the most vulnerable victims, witnesses and defendants, would bring additional costs to several other areas of the public sector and would have a serious impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of our justice system. I am grateful to the Minister for his response, but I urge him to rethink these proposals and come back to the House with a comprehensive plan that addresses the many concerns raised.

Question put and agreed to,


That this House acknowledges the need for some underused courts and tribunals to close; notes the detrimental effect that too many court closures will have on access to justice for vulnerable families and individuals particularly in rural areas where public transport is less reliable; further notes with concern the effect these closures will have on the experienced and dedicated staff working in the 86 courts and tribunals; and calls on the Government to acknowledge the concerns of staff, magistrates and third sector organisations who highlighted numerous flaws in the consultation document, to think again on some of these closures and acknowledge the importance of access to local justice.

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Easter Adjournment

3.7 pm

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered matters to be raised before the forthcoming adjournment.

I am introducing this debate on behalf of the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, who sends his apologies; he has been called away on urgent constituency business.

First, may I put on the record the sad death today of Johan Cruyff, one of the most brilliant footballers I have had the pleasure of watching and one who will be ever remembered for the Cruyff turn?

This is the time of the festival of Purim, which, as Jewish Members will know, commemorates the delivery of the Jewish people from the Persian Haman, who attempted the first genocide against the Jews but failed. This week was also the anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, where he inflicted the holocaust on the Jewish population and the world. We will forever remember those evil atrocities in Germany.

On a brighter note, today is the second day of the festival of Holi, the festival of colours, when we commemorate Lord Krishna dancing, playing and throwing colours around, and the delivery of Prahlad from the fire and from his wicked aunt Holika. I wish Hindus, Sikhs and Jains everywhere a very happy Holi. If I may, I will recite the key words spoken during Holi: “Bura na mano”.

I will now talk about some of the issues I want to raise in the debate. The Government have done a lot of work, but there is much more to do. Locally, I come back to the absolute requirement for a lift to be installed at Stanmore station. I hope that the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is a Stanmore resident, will concur on this desperate need. This has been going on for more than 10 years. Residents face the north face of the Eiger when they arrive home at Stanmore station in having to climb 39 steep steps—[Interruption.] Yes, it is “the 39 steps”! Transport for London calls this step-free access. This has been going on ever since the former Mayor of London deleted the lift from the budget. I trust that whoever is elected Mayor of London on 5 May will deliver for us a lift at Stanmore, which is desperately needed.

Equally, Stanmore faces another challenge in that Hertfordshire County Council wishes to cancel its subsidy for the 142 and 207 bus routes, yet these services are a key requirement for people travelling between Watford, Brent Cross and elsewhere. I trust that Hertfordshire County Council will see the justice of allowing a subsidy to enable its residents to travel to these areas, which is vital. Without that, key bus services to Watford will be dramatically reduced.

In the Budget we heard the welcome announcement that Crossrail 2 is getting the go-ahead. I trust that Crossrail 2 will listen to the key business case that we have put for an extension to Harrow and Wealdstone station as part of the massive Crossrail 2 redevelopment, which is welcomed across London.

I shall continue to agitate on the redevelopment of the Royal National Orthopaedic hospital in Stanmore. This is a brilliant hospital whose medical professionals perform such brilliant work in ridiculously and outrageously bad conditions.

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Mims Davies (Eastleigh) (Con): Does my hon. Friend know that Stanmore’s Radio Brockley won the hospital station of the year award? It is a fantastic place, where I started out on my career in journalism, and it indeed needs a lot of support.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): That is great news, but could not the hon. Lady have saved that point for her speech? I am bothered about time at the moment.

Bob Blackman: I shall take your admonishment, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I want to give everyone equal time.

Bob Blackman: Absolutely.

We are on the cusp of the hospital’s redevelopment. We require the trust development authority to sign off the business case, and work will start on the orthopaedic hospital immediately, with the demolition of existing buildings, the building of a brand-new hospital, with a private hospital alongside it, and the creation of 300 new homes, which are desperately needed in Harrow. This is clearly being held up by NHS bureaucracy. The Chancellor granted the money back in 2010, yet we still await the start of the project.

On housing, my Harrow constituency has seen some 400 new starts, while there have been 560 new home completions in the last year alone, bringing new homes for my constituents. I am delighted that in the autumn spending review, the amount of money spent on housing is being more than doubled, which is something we should applaud.

Locally, we have heard some good news about schools. Park High School, St Bernadette’s, Canons High School and the Krishna Avanti school will all receive additional funding for massive improvements—almost complete rebuilding in some cases. There is also the Aylward school, which is in desperate need of new facilities. We have also had the go-ahead, thanks to this Government’s enlightened view, of Hujjat Primary School, which will be the first Muslim state-aided school, certainly in my constituency, and I strongly support it. Avanti House School will be the first state-aided Hindu school for secondary-aged children in the country. This is something of which we can be proud. It is being delivered in our multicultural society, and we are providing parents with the choice of education that they want for their children.

There is bad news, however. Harrow council has introduced the garden tax as part of its savings proposals. It is charging the princely sum of £75 for the service of collecting garden waste, and collecting it only once every three weeks. That is the highest charge in London. It is a scandal, because it is a monopoly service. So far, virtually no one has registered to use the service, but it is due to start on 1 April. What an appropriate date on which to launch such a foolish scheme. At the same time, fly-tipping and littering is a disaster. In Harrow, we are seeing fly-tipping all over the place.

Mike Freer (Finchley and Golders Green) (Con): Shocking.

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Bob Blackman: It is indeed shocking. The council should get its act together and clean up Harrow for the benefit of everyone—although its failure to do so would make it even easier for the incoming Conservative administration of 2018 to deliver.

There is, however, some further good news, which concerns Bentley Priory Museum. Bentley Priory is the site from which RAF Fighter Command delivered victory in the second world war, at the Battle of Britain. The Chancellor has given us £1 million for an education centre on the site, so that children and young people—and those who are not so young—can come and see for themselves what happened during the Battle of Britain, and how close we came to defeat. The fact that the few delivered victory for us is a tremendous thing, and we must ensure that people, young and old, understand and remember how close it was.

An issue that I have raised in the House on numerous occasions is the plight of the disabled when it comes to securing blue badges for parking in Harrow. Every day I learn that someone who is clearly disabled, and unable to walk any reasonable distance, has been prevented from obtaining a disabled parking permit. That strikes me as outrageous, and as a problem that we must overcome.

I want to make just one or two more points before I sit down and give the floor to others.

Mike Freer: Hear, hear.

Bob Blackman: I am more used to barracking from the other side. However, my hon. Friend is the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary.

During the Budget debate, I raised the plight of the Equitable Life policyholders. It is to the eternal credit of the Chancellor and his team that we honoured our election promise in 2010, and delivered a scheme to compensate the victims of that scandal. However, there are still some very vulnerable people—the pre-1992 trapped annuitants—who have received only a small fraction of the money that is due to them in comparison with the loss that they suffered. I believe that we owe a debt of honour to those people, and that we should honour that debt by delivering 100% compensation to them.

Moreover, nearly a million people in other categories have not received full compensation, and I believe that they are also owed a debt of honour. We need to ensure that more money is provided so that those people can lead a proper life in retirement, because they had saved for their retirement and, through no fault of their own but as a result of a scandal, were then deprived of a reasonable income. The all-party parliamentary group for justice for equitable life policyholders now has more than 200 members, and we will continue to battle until such time as the Chancellor sees fit to let us have some more money for those people who are due compensation.

Another all-party parliamentary group of which I am a member, the all-party parliamentary group on primary care and public health, recently released a key report about the signposting of people in the NHS. Far too often, people who are ill arrive in accident and emergency departments when they should be seeing someone in the primary care sector, such as a GP or a nurse. We must do more to ensure that that happens.

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I want to raise another health-related matter, namely stopping smoking. I warmly welcome the Chancellor’s decision to continue to increase the tobacco tax by 2% above inflation, with a 3% increase in the rate for hand-rolling tobacco. That is a good move, and it should continue. However, I think we should go further. Given that the Chancellor has now talked about a sugar tax to drive behaviour, let us have a tobacco tax to do the same. By increasing the tax on tobacco by just 1p per cigarette, we would deliver £500 million a year that could be invested in smoking cessation services.

This year, I had the honour of paying my first visit to India. My visit to Jammu and Kashmir cemented my view that that country, and above all the people of Jammu and Kashmir, should be reunited as part of India. They should have the right to be integrated, and the Pakistani forces should leave Pakistani-occupied Kashmir. I also had the opportunity to visit the world cultural festival. We talk about the brilliant work that was done at the Olympics, but I saw at first hand the festival’s 165,000 participants dancing and performing. Nearly 2.5 million people attended. We talk about the grand schemes that we organise, but just imagine what it would be like to put a festival like that together.

Melanie Onn (Great Grimsby) (Lab): It sounds like the Hull city of culture.

Bob Blackman: It was indeed deeply cultural.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish you and all the staff of the House a very happy Easter. I trust that you will have a chance to take a break. I just want to mention one more thing that I am concerned about. On Easter eggs now, we never see the word “Easter”. They are just chocolate eggs. The “Easter” has been taken away. It is time that we restored the “Easter” to Easter eggs.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. I must now introduce a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

3.21 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): It is a huge pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who is a great champion of the ethnic minority communities. He has managed to mention every festival that has occurred in every community, and he has even spoken Hindi in the House. I am surprised that it has taken him so long to get to India, knowing his huge friendship with the Hindu and Indian communities. I agree with what he said about Stanmore station, although it is actually quite good for me, as someone with type 2 diabetes, to climb those 39 steps at the end of every day.

As the hon. Gentleman is here, may I also ask him to take up the issue of the traffic on Brockley Hill? We will not wait for the Minister’s response, but the traffic there is getting very fast. We miss having the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) as the leader of Barnet Council, because I know that if he had still been there, he would have sorted this out. I hope that he will have a word with the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) to see what can be done to reduce the traffic flow on that road.

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The hon. Member for Harrow East mentioned anniversaries and festivals. I have a very sad anniversary to report to the House. Saturday 26 March will mark the first anniversary of the conflict in Yemen. Of course, Yemen has been the subject of conflict for many years, but it is only recently that that conflict has turned into something of a civil war. The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) secured a debate on this subject only yesterday in Westminster Hall, and I commend him and others who have raised the matter in the House.

Since the start of the conflict a year ago, 8,800 civilians have been killed or injured and at this moment 3 million children are out of school. Access to medication in besieged areas such as Taiz has become virtually impossible. I am pleased to note that the UN-sponsored peace talks have been rescheduled for 18 April in Kuwait. The talks resumed some time ago before being adjourned. They can succeed only with the strong support of the United Kingdom Government, and I urge the Deputy Leader of the House to pass on the hope of all of us who care about Yemen that the Government will give their full support to what is happening there.

Yesterday, the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen, which I have the privilege of chairing, heard about the problems still occurring in the country from Médecins sans Frontières, Amnesty International, and several freelance journalists. The situation is a catastrophe, and it is important that we work hard to resolve the conflict. I commend the other members of the APPG who attended the meeting: the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond) and my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), both of whom were, like myself, born in Yemen, the hon. Members for Charnwood (Edward Argar), for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and Baroness Uddin. All of them took time out of their busy days to attend the meeting at which we heard these terrible updates.

The Budget has been the subject of controversy in the House, but I liked one particular aspect of it: the introduction of the sugar tax. Easter is not a good time to talk about not having too much sugar and not eating too many chocolates, but I congratulate the Chancellor on taking the brave decision to introduce the sugar tax, and the Public Health Minister, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), and the diabetes tsar Jonathan Valabhji on what they have done. We should not wait two years for the tax to be imposed; Government Departments can act swiftly now. Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, decided in February this year to impose his own 20% sugar tax across the NHS in England. The hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), before funding the lift that the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) wants so much, has imposed his own sugar tax in City Hall. We need to do this rapidly and we could even do it in the House. When we get to the counter in the Tea Room to pay for the bananas and apples that I am sure we all buy, do we have to be confronted by Club biscuits and Coca-Cola in the fridge? Let us make an effort to ensure that Members are not seduced by those who would rather allow us to have products full of sugar.

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This week, the Government announced their national diabetes prevention programme, on which 100,000 people will be offered places to prevent them from developing type 2 diabetes. I am extremely pleased that the east midlands has been selected and that one of the areas will be in my constituency of Leicester East. I am concerned, however, by the recent decision of the local health authority and the clinical commissioning group to move the DAFNE services from the Leicester Diabetes Centre to a private pharmaceutical company to ensure that type 2 diabetics get support. Such services ought to be provided by those who invented the schemes. DESMOND was invented in Leicester and has been rolled out across the country. The DAFNE scheme, which is specific to type 1 diabetes, is now under pressure. I will certainly be raising DAFNE and DESMOND when we get back after the recess. They are essential to ensure proper services for those of us who are diabetic and to those of us who want to ensure that diabetes is kept under control.

I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for mentioning the Tiffin cup when she spoke earlier today. The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) is one of its great champions. I think he has nominated somewhere every year since the cup has been in existence—I am sure for reasons involving low-fat food. I hope that Members will get their nominations in over the Easter holidays.

I echo what the hon. Member for Harrow East said about Johan Cruyff, who was a great footballer. I want to end by mentioning my football team and the momentous season of Leicester City football club, which has led the premier league since before Christmas. Leicester City is a bastion of multiculturalism. It is owned by a Thai, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. We have an Irish chief executive in Susan Whelan and an Italian manager in Claudio Ranieri. We also have players from all over the globe: Riyad Mahrez from Algeria, Kasper Schmeichel, who is the great Dane, Robert Huth from Germany, Ngolo Kante from France, Shinji Okazaki from Japan, Marcin Wasilewski from Poland, Jeff Schlupp of Ghana, Ulloa from Argentina, and our own Vardy and Morgan. We have lots of home-grown players, too.

It is marvellous to see a team like Leicester City, which I have supported for all the 29 years I have been a Member of Parliament, not far from your constituency in North East Derbyshire, Madam Deputy Speaker, breaking the monopoly of the big four. The sports agent Charlie Stillitano argued for a closed European champions system, saying that only the big four should be able to get to the Champions League every year. What Leicester City has shown, whatever the results at the end of the day—obviously, I hope we will go on to lift the premier league trophy—is the importance of having teams like Leicester being able to compete at the highest level, and indeed being at the head of the English premier league, the greatest football league in the world. With seven games left, we are five points ahead, and so I look forward to a very interesting two weeks. I hope that even for those whose team is Spurs or Arsenal and they want them to win the league—

Sir David Amess (Southend West) (Con): And West Ham.

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Keith Vaz: Or West Ham. I hope that these people make Leicester their second choice—it almost sounds like an election. If we win that trophy, it will be a huge boost for all those who feel that the dream can really be lived.

3.31 pm

Sir David Amess (Southend West) (Con): Before the House adjourns for the Easter recess, I wish to raise a number of points. If Take That were here, they would probably sing “It’s good to be back”, at least as far as the Easter Adjournment debate is concerned. Now, c2c was the happy line but it has returned to being the misery line, although I was delighted to hear from one of our Ministers this week that the Department for Transport will waive the clause in the franchise agreement that states that 95% of trains must stop at Barking, West Ham and Limehouse. That would be the first positive move towards restoration on the timetable changes that have upset so many people. I must say shame on National Express for writing to the chairman of the Conservative party complaining that I was representing my constituents—it has not heard the last from me and it has no chance now of getting the franchise for the Greater Anglia railway.

I have the privilege of being the chairman of the all-party group on fire safety & rescue. We had an excellent meeting this week and we would very much like the review of the guidance to building regulations, whose origins are in the last century, to bring about a change, and we want the relevant Minister to look very carefully at the regulations. We also had an excellent meeting with the Minister for Schools about sprinklers being installed when new schools are built. It is crazy that that arrangement has stopped since 2007, but I am very optimistic that he will change all that. The third issue I wish to raise, which hon. Members will be aware of, is the arrangements for police and crime commissioners under the Policing and Crime Bill. The all-party group remains concerned about the impact those might have on the ongoing arrangements for fire safety while building regulations remain under the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Like many other Members, I am absolutely, as the Kinks might have sung, tired of waiting for the Chilcot report. This has gone on and on and on, and the latest information is that its publication will be delayed until after the EU referendum. That is not good enough and the families deserve far better than that.

I had the privilege of introducing a ten-minute rule Bill on 27 January, the Driving Instructors (Registration) Bill, and I am delighted that it swiftly went through all its stages in the House of Commons. The amendments outlined in the Bill make it easier for instructors to leave the register without penalty and to re-register at a later date, without compromising the standards necessary to ensure safe and competent instruction. I am also delighted to tell the House that it is now going through the relevant stages in the House of Lords, and we hope to get Royal Assent in May. I say to colleagues that it is worth pioneering ten-minute rule Bills.

As most colleagues know, Southend will be the alternative city of culture in 2017, and we are very excited by that. Hull has decided to have four seasonal events, but Southend will be having an event every month. The Secretary of

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State for Culture, Media and Sport visited Southend recently, when he saw the wonderful work of Metal—we have the first digital exhibition in a local park. We have also seen the opening of our wonderful new library, The Forum, and had the opening of a branch of the National Jazz Archive, a project headed by the wonderful local jazz musician Digby Fairweather. I also attended wonderful concerts by Southend Vox, Southend Festival Chorus and the Southend Youth Orchestra. I urge all colleagues in the House to head to Southend next year and they will receive a royal welcome.

The Chairman of Ways and Means was the winner last year of the first responsible pet ownership competition. In fact, he had about a dozen pets there, including a parrot and a huge tortoise. The second event, which I hope that as many colleagues as possible will attend, will take place in July on the green by Victoria Tower. Pets should never be acquired as a fashion accessory, and breeders should do more to make buyers aware of the duty of care to their pets, including microchipping and neutering.

I had the honour of sponsoring salt awareness week, which sort of ties in with sugar. I was shocked to discover that many of our staple products, such as bread, cornflakes, tinned tomato soup and Cheddar cheese, contain high levels of salt. Under the Food Standards Agency and the Consensus Action on Salt and Health, the UK led the world in salt reduction and prevented unnecessary deaths. That excellent work now needs to be reinvigorated by the Department of Health, and we need to look again at setting up an independent agency to regulate the amount of salt that manufacturers add to their foods.

Recently, I met representatives from Safer Medicines, an independent group, which aims to change the way that medicines are tested, so that they are safer for patients. It is an absolutely excellent idea. It wishes to end the testing of medicines on animals not necessarily because of animal cruelty issues—although that is a very serious concern— but because animal testing cannot predict safe medicines for humans.

Let me turn now to meningitis. Recently, in my constituency, the head girl of a local school tragically died at the age of 17. I do not know how her family can cope with that tragedy. Vital work is being carried out by the Meningitis Research Foundation and Meningitis Now. I understand that 800,000 people recently signed a petition, calling for the meningitis B vaccine to be given to all children up to the age of 11, and there will be a debate on that in this place on 25 April.

Recently, I held two health summits in Southend, bringing together all the health providers. My feeling is that those providers are not necessarily working that well together. Certainly, senior management in one or two areas needs to do far better than it is doing at the moment. I hope that, from the health summits, the quality of patient care and the delivery of health services in Southend can improve. We need all local healthcare providers and the local authority to work more closely together on that work, as was shown by the Mid and South Essex Success Regime.

I raised the matter of fuel poverty this morning, and I did a 30 second appearance on “Panorama” this week. I piloted the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Bill through the House some 15 years ago, so it is a bit

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disappointing that fuel poverty has still not been eliminated. I urge Ministers to do everything they can to change that situation.

Like all Members, I have some wonderful local companies in my constituency. Planet Leasing, an independent vehicle brokerage company, has been trading for nearly 10 years and now employs 25 staff across four branches. I recently visited its newly refurbished offices, which is an indication of its confidence in future growth. The company has received an Employer of the Year award and an apprenticeship award for the work that it has done with local young people. I also attended the opening of a new office for Peglers Removals, a family business, and celebrated 40 years in business for the company, Just the Job. I am absolutely delighted that, in one popular measure in the Budget, the Government changed the business rate on small outlets. That will certainly make a huge difference to those firms.

Recently, I went with an all-party delegation to the Maldives, which was sponsored by the Government there, to see at first hand not what celebrities are telling us is going on in the Maldives, but what is actually happening. We went everywhere, including to the prison in which former President Nasheed is being held at the moment. The all-party group had a meeting yesterday, a report was published and I hope that the Government will look very carefully at its findings.

I am also the chairman of the all-party group for the Philippines and was able this week to meet a wonderful woman called Luz Bador, founder of the National Rural Women’s Coalition. She was instrumental in playing a key role in responding to the terrible disaster in the Philippines. The Government have done an excellent job on that and I urge full support for the world humanitarian summit coming up in Istanbul this May.

I am delighted that Chase High School, Westcliff High School for Girls and Eastwood Academy are getting lots of money.

I end by joining everyone, I presume, in celebrating the Queen’s 90th birthday next year. We had a president from 1997 to 2010—well, for 10 years anyway—and it was not a great success. The Queen is absolutely fantastic and I congratulate one of our colleagues whose idea it was, I think, to have the Clean for the Queen project. My local councillor, Meg Davidson, led a group in doing that last week. The Queen set an example to each and every one of us when she made that broadcast saying that however long her life was, she would do everything she could for our nation.

I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and everyone else a very happy Easter.

3.41 pm

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I thank the Backbench Business Committee for securing this debate, particularly the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). I am especially grateful that this is a general debate, if only because we did not hear at Christmas the canter around Southend West and elsewhere from the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), of whom I am reminded almost every week when I cross my constituency and pass the Croes Lan post office, run by his excellent cousin, Ms Janice Pocock. The hon. Gentleman spoke on many issues, but I am going to speak about just one, an issue of concern to me and to

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one particular constituent of mine, Mr Michael Affonso. It concerns his dealings with the UK Border Agency and my dealings, on his behalf, with the Home Office. It is a personal, unresolved story and I shall use my time to tell it.

Mr Affonso was born in Tanzania, has lived in this country for more than 30 years, is married to a British national and has had protracted concerns over the status of his citizenship, which are, as yet, not satisfactorily resolved. I believe there are other cases of British nationals with spouses from overseas who have been seeking British citizenship for many years and perhaps do not fit into the conventional mould of immigration cases.

Michael Affonso was born in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania in 1969. Not long after his birth, he was taken in by a lady who brought him up as her own child and he lived happily with her and her family for the first 15 years of his life in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. In 1984, his biological mother visited him, their relationship was rekindled and they came to Britain. She was married to a British citizen. Michael remembers his arrival in the UK and being questioned by Border Agency officials at the airport. He then moved to Kettering and was established with his biological mother’s family and with her new husband, though the adoption by his new stepfather seems never to have taken place.

Despite the challenges of moving to a new country he settled in, but around 1986 problems emerged in the family and through no fault of his own he was taken into care under Northamptonshire social services. He recalls telling the court at the time that he wanted to return to Tanzania to be with the lady he saw as his real mother, but the court said that as he had never been legally adopted he had to stay in the country of his biological mother—that is, this country—despite being removed from her care.

Michael then spend some time at a children’s home in Kettering and was subsequently sent to foster care. At the age of 18 he moved out and spent several years living independently, starting college, gaining an NVQ in painting and decorating, and living in that area for many years. Some years later, the lady who had brought him up in Tanzania moved to the UK and settled in Wales, where he moved, settling in the village of Llanwnnen in my constituency. By 2008 he had met his future wife Sîan, and they set up home together in Aberarth, also in the Ceredigion constituency.

The troubles arose when the couple decided to get married. As Michael had entered the UK from Tanzania as a minor, he held no official paperwork himself. He recalled a birth certificate and a Tanzanian passport, but while living in Kettering, many years before the move to Wales, a fire at his flat had destroyed any paperwork, including his passport. Sîan and Michael were unable to get married without proof of his nationality, and that is where I first became involved in his case.

We struggled to find any information from anywhere—any official documentation about Michael’s life. We made inquiries of Nottinghamshire social services to find out whether anything had been done, or not done, about citizenship under their care. We spoke to the Tanzanian embassy to inquire about his passport. We used various freedom of information requests, but kept hitting brick wall after brick wall. There is little, if any,

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information about Michael. There was an account of his being taken into care in Northamptonshire, but no information as to the date or where he was sent. That lack of information was subsequently acknowledged by the Home Office.

It seemed as if the couple’s aspiration for marriage would not be realised, but rules did mercifully change, with an EU ruling that made it against one’s human rights to be denied a marriage, so in October 2011 the couple were married. All seemed well. Life settled down in the village of Aberarth; the couple bought a home. Michael became heavily involved in our community—a very much valued member of the community, now an elected community councillor. Indeed he is, I would suggest, the identikit community activist.

Michael pursued a change of career and became manager of the British Red Cross shop, first in Cardigan, then in Aberaeron and then Carmarthen. At that point problems emerged as, not unreasonably, he started to get requests from the human resources department to prove his eligibility to work within the UK—something he had not come across in all the previous years. As a non-British citizen, he requires a biometric residency card. He contacted the Home Office and was told that he needed proof that he had resided in the UK with no lengthy times away. Of course, he had not been away because he had no passport, although for someone who was unaware of that stipulation it was very difficult to prove. However, we had some successes in finding some information in the health board in Northamptonshire and my local health board, the Hywel Dda health board, in Ceredigion, and Michael had been assiduous in keeping records—P45s and P60s.

Michael then set about the process of application for a no time limit application. The couple paid to go to a premium service centre, the nearest one being in Cardiff, on 5 November 2014, having spent £104 on the form and a further £400 for the privilege of a priority centre meeting. The couple really thought they were on the cusp of securing British citizenship for Michael. Despite the gathering of what documentation they had, including at long last a notice of care proceedings when he had been removed from his biological mother’s care, they were told that because he himself had no proof of entering the country, he was in fact an illegal immigrant. Mercifully, subsequent events meant that that accusation was retracted. Despite the fact that he had resided in the UK for more than 30 years, had paid his taxes and national insurance contributions and was a valued member of the community and was married to a British national, he faced that allegation.

The couple met with some sympathy from the UK Border Agency when they showed the UKBA copies of letters that I wrote on their behalf in 2009 on their wish to be married—proof that the couple had sought to resolve the issue. They were offered an alternative to the full naturalisation process: Michael would have to reapply for leave to remain every two and a half years—the next occasion being in 2017—at a cost of £500 each time, until he had 10 years’ worth of visas. After 10 years, in 2024, he might be entitled to apply for British citizenship. However, he would be unable to have any recourse to public funds, which was confirmed to me in a letter from the Minister for Immigration, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), in July 2015.

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This man has paid national insurance contributions and tax for 30 years. He has been entitled to jobseeker’s allowance in the past. He is now denied an automatic right to benefit unless special circumstances emerge. I have to say that Mr Affonso feels incredibly let down by this state of affairs and it has taken a serious toll on his health, compounded by the fact that despite being seriously ill and so unable to work, his biometric residency card states that he has no automatic recourse to public funds. The Home Office to date has been reluctant to look into this matter in great depth and seems intent on sticking by its original decision that Mr Affonso may have to wait until 2024 to achieve full citizenship.

Much of the debate on immigration these days is, not unreasonably, about people needing to come to this country. We have all worked on many such cases in our constituencies, but this case is different. It is about an injustice that has been perpetrated against someone who is already here and who, through no fault of his own, has faced many challenges. He came here as a minor, and the various agencies that were charged with his care did not address the issue of citizenship. He is a highly valued member of the community and now in adulthood he is trying to right a wrong, and aspires to do the right thing, but has faced a real problem in trying to trace his own identity.

The letter I had from the Immigration Minister last year said:

“I am sure you will understand that it is not possible”

to agree to indefinite leave to remain for somebody who does not hold the necessary documentation. The Minister refused to meet me to discuss the matter further. I understand what the Minister said and I think it represents a great injustice.

In this case the lack of documentation has not been the responsibility of my constituent, the aggrieved individual. I implore the Deputy Leader of the House, on my behalf and on behalf of Mr Affonso, to pursue this matter with the Home Office and to ask it to look again at this case, not just at the issue of the recourse to public funds in the case of illness, but at Mr Affonso’s right to remain in the United Kingdom.

3.51 pm

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who outlines a case typical of many that all of us face and typical of the bureaucratic complexities that we all have to deal with.

The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is no longer in his place, referred to Leicester City and the team’s good fortune this year. As someone who has always had a soft spot for Arsenal among the premier league teams, I am somewhat reluctant to praise Leicester, but as Arsenal is almost certainly not going to get the top spot, like most people I want to see Leicester triumph. That gives me an opportunity to talk about the triumphs of Grimsby Town. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) is nodding. Last Saturday the team secured a place at Wembley in the final of the FA Trophy, when yet again the players will march towards what were the twin towers. We hope for victory.

Grimsby Town—not that Members need reminding—play in Cleethorpes, which is in the headlines yet again. We have even more culture than Southend. We are the

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premier resort of the east coast. Cleethorpes pier has just been named as pier of the year. It is worth putting on record our congratulations to Bryan Huxford and his team at the pier, who have just carried out a multimillion-pound restoration, which has been a great addition to the resort. It secured some resources from the regional growth fund, so we have all made a contribution to the renewal of Cleethorpes pier. We can compare the recent multimillion-pound investment with the £8,000 that it cost to construct the pier, which opened in 1873.

The main part of my contribution is, yet again, about transport connections in northern Lincolnshire, highlighting a recent report produced jointly by the Department for Transport and Transport for the North. It is entitled “The Northern Powerhouse: One Agenda, One Economy, One North”. The problem is that it does not seem to refer to northern Lincolnshire.

I have been a great supporter of the northern powerhouse initiative. Ministers have repeatedly emphasised that northern Lincolnshire and the Humber estuary are very much a part of that. In particular, the Humber is referred to as the energy estuary and it is important to the economy. As we are reminded time and again, in order to maximise local economies, good transport connections are needed.

Devolution is fine, and I have been a great advocate of it—particularly the Greater Lincolnshire deal that has been secured recently—but the problem is that, although the Government have many ideals, they are reliant, as those ideals cascade through the system, on organisations such as Transport for the North, local authorities and health trusts, which may have slightly different priorities.

The foreword to the report, which is jointly signed by the Secretary of State for Transport and Richard Leese, the chairman of the Transport for the North partnership, states:

“Creating the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ of economic growth, driven by a flourishing private sector and supported by innovative local government requires us to harness and unify the people power of our city regions and the wider North…The North has many centres of excellence increasingly recognised on the global stage”.

The report goes on to list those, beginning with Liverpool and ending with the Tees Valley, but there is no mention of Lincolnshire.

When Sir David Higgins took up his post as chairman of HS2, he said that

“there is huge untapped potential for much more trade and commerce across the Pennines”

We hear repeatedly about trans-Pennine connections that emphasise the northern trans-Pennine route, but my constituency, in northern Lincolnshire, depends on the southern trans-Pennine route. We are served—on the whole, reasonably well—by TransPennine Express, although the word “express” is used loosely, I think, since it takes three and a half hours to get from Cleethorpes to Manchester. Covering the 50 miles from Cleethorpes to Doncaster—as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and I have to every week to get our connection to King’s Cross—takes one and a quarter hours, which, in 2016, is quite a long time.

The report says that transforming city-to-city rail connectivity east to west, as well as north to south, is one of the main aims of Government policy and of

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Transport for the North. However, to maximise that connectivity, we need much better rail connections. I have campaigned repeatedly for a direct service between Grimsby, Cleethorpes and London King’s Cross. An application to run such a service has been with the rail regulator for two years now, but—I talked of bureaucracy earlier—does it really take two years to assess whether it is viable? I realise that the problem facing the rail regulator is that open-access operators such as Alliance Rail, which made the application, have to show that they are creating new business, rather than taking business away from the main franchise holders, but I urge the rail regulator to come to a speedy conclusion. Even if it is negative, we can then move on and renew the campaign through a different route.

Road connections fare slightly better in the report, which acknowledges the importance of access to our ports. The port of Immingham is, measured by tonnage, the largest in the country, and 25% of rail freight starts or ends there. Yet, when it comes to road connections, we have struggled, in as much as the M180 ends about 20 or 25 miles from the port. We urgently need an upgrade of the A180 to motorway standards. We need to improve the road surface, which causes no end of problems. The A180 has one of those awful concrete surfaces, and it is possible to sit in the front rooms of people in villages two miles away and hear the constant rumble of vehicles on the road. I have been campaigning on that issue—indeed, my predecessor and her predecessor campaigned on it—and it really does need urgent attention.

The report refers, quite reasonably, to the upgrade of the A160, which provides new access to the port of Immingham, but I have to tell the House that that upgrade is almost complete—it will be completed by August or September—so this is hardly a vision for the future.

The report also states:

“Many rail journeys in the North—particularly east-west—are too slow and take far longer than journeys of equivalent distance elsewhere in the country”.

As I said earlier, a three-hour journey from Cleethorpes to Manchester cannot exactly be described as a trans-Pennine express.

May I urge my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House to pass on my comments to the appropriate Ministers? I look forward to a detailed response from them in due course.

4 pm

Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers).

I have tabled early-day motion 1235, praying that the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Regulations 2016, which affect frozen pensions, be annulled. To date, it is supported by 93 Members from eight parties represented in the House, including members of the governing party. It is a pity that the Government have yet to concede to a debate on the matter, and I wonder how many Members will need to sign that praying motion before they will do so.

The uprating regulations that deprive overseas pensioners of the uprating adjustment to their state pensions are

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being forced through this House without a proper and full debate. The decision to freeze pensions for a further year will come into effect in early April, when this House will be in recess. I believe that the House should have the opportunity to debate the matter, which not only leaves 550,000 UK pensioners facing hardship, but discourages many UK citizens living in the UK from returning to their country of origin, as many wish to do in their retirement. I should also like to add that the United Kingdom is the only country in the OECD that freezes pensions in this manner.

There is no consistency in how overseas British pensioners are treated. Due to historical bilateral deals, pensioners living in many countries, including the US, get an uprated pension. Those who live in the US Virgin Islands will get a UK pension at the full rate, but those living in the British Virgin Islands will have their pension frozen.

The Government argue that pensions are uprated for those living in countries where the UK has a social security agreement. The UK does not need an agreement with any country to pay a pension. Other countries do not pay a pensioner any extra money; it has nothing to do with them if a UK citizen receives a pension. How own earth can the Government substantiate that?

Let me give three examples of how pensioners are affected. Abhik Bonnerjee, now 73, moved from India to Glasgow in 1960. He worked in the UK for 38 years, in shipbuilding, steel manufacture and the food industry. He also owned an Indian restaurant for six years. Abhik returned to India in 1997 and reached the state pension retirement age in 2008, when it was paid at £87.30 a week. Having made all the required national insurance contributions, if Abhik were still in the UK today he would get £115.95—28% more. The decline in his real-term income has left Abhik concerned about losing his home. He now feels that he may have to move back to the United Kingdom.

Rita Young, who is 78, lives in Peterborough in the UK. She retired in 2002, aged 67, having enjoyed a long career in market research and as a community volunteer. Rita’s son moved to work in Australia some time ago and now has a family there. Since being widowed, Rita has wanted to join her son and grandchildren in Australia but has felt unable to do so because of the prospect of a frozen pension. As she gets older, Rita finds daily life increasingly difficult, especially as she does not have family around her. She is deeply saddened that she is not able to be with her family during the later stages of her life. It does not seem fair that the Government can stop uprating just because someone says, “I want to be with my family.”

Lastly, former college lecturer Anne Puckridge, now 91, lived and worked in the UK all her working life, paying mandatory national insurance contributions throughout that time. In 2002, aged 77, she finally retired and decided to move to Canada to be with her daughter and grandchildren, who had moved to Calgary. Fourteen years on, Anne, who served as an intelligence officer in the Women’s Royal Naval Service in the second world war, is struggling to live on a frozen pension of £75.20 a week. Anne now feels that she will be forced to move back to Britain because her pension will no longer cover day-to-day expenses, and she is increasingly reliant on her daughter to get by. That cannot be right or just. As she has said,

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“It’s the small things, and the injustice, that is really getting to me. I value my independence, but I can’t go on living on the breadline and I don’t want to inflict this on my family. As well as ever-increasing poverty, I feel a sense of stress and shame, which is affecting my health.”

We must also consider the implications of the upcoming EU referendum. There are 400,000 UK pensioners living in EU countries. The question of those additional people facing the potential freezing of their pensions is, in my opinion, a matter worthy of debate. We need some answers from the Government as to what would happen in the event of Brexit. Will those 400,000 pensioners also face the freezing of their pension? I hope when we return from recess that the House will have the opportunity to debate the matter fully, to give the Government the chance to reflect on this injustice. The Government ought to withdraw the measure and pay UK pensioners at home and abroad their due state pension, with the same uprating adjustment, in the interests of fairness and equality.

On that note, I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all in the House a happy Easter. I hope that our pensioners, wherever they live, will also have a happy Easter and that this injustice will ultimately be dealt with.

4.6 pm

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) and all others who have spoken. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for organising the debate, and I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and for Southend West (Sir David Amess) for their commitment to this institution; I am glad to see that it has been reinstated.

My thoughts and prayers as we approach Good Friday are with all those around the world—from Belgium to Turkey, from Syria to Jordan and Iraq, and in so many other places—who are suffering from mankind’s capacity for evil. At the same time, I believe, as a Christian, that evil will not triumph, as a result of the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday.

Earlier this month, colleagues on the Select Committee on International Development and I met in Abuja several hundred people from Borno state who had been driven from their homes by Boko Haram. They were in a makeshift camp, and they were being helped not by international organisations but by ordinary Nigerians, Christians and Muslims, working together. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) was there alongside me. A school had been set up, and there was a church. Those people were far from home, but they had hope that they could soon return to their homes in Borno.

Our visit to Nigeria also showed why our country’s commitment to international development is so important. Kano is a city of many millions, and it has a long and distinguished history, but it has suffered greatly in recent years from terrorism. Its people, though, are full of spirit, and the UK is right there with them, supporting schools, the training of midwives, economic development and the battle against neglected tropical diseases, malaria and many other ills. We met a group of girls and women and asked them how things were compared with a year ago. Spontaneously, they replied that things were much better, and they had real hope for the future.

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We visited a primary school—the largest in west Africa, with 13,000 students—and saw committed teachers teaching a strong curriculum that had been developed with the support of the United Kingdom. We also went to an Islamic school, which, with UK help, had started teaching maths, English, science and other subjects to girls and boys together. It was delightful to see that one of the songs chalked up on the blackboard for the children to learn was the “Hokey-Cokey”. In the midst of the serious matter of educating the next generation in Kano, there was time for play and song.

That brings me to the importance of play and sport in my constituency. Last weekend, the Stafford half marathon and fun run had more entrants than ever, and the number of people taking part in sport continues to rise. Stafford Town FC, under the dynamic chairmanship of Gordon Evans, has 31 teams and a waiting list. I have the honour of being involved in the club as honorary president. The club will soon start to install a 3G pitch, which will be a welcome improvement.

Elsewhere, we face a serious loss of sports facilities. The sale of the large Staffordshire University campus to an investor from China for education purposes means that the sports centre, which is used by thousands of my constituents every week, will close to the public this summer. Pitches may also be lost. We have written to the new investor and the university to urge that the sports centre and pitches be kept and continue to be made available to the public. I ask the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), who has responsibility for sport, for her support to ensure that that happens in this Olympic year.

Even more recently, we found out that the handing over of the Shugborough stately home and estate by the county council to the National Trust may mean the loss of cricket and football pitches, which are used by several teams from the villages of Haywood, Colwich and Milford and elsewhere. The National Trust wishes to return the field, which is a very small part of the estate, to 18th-century parkland. I am a member and a fan of the National Trust and I know that its stewardship of Shugborough will be in the estate’s best interests, but our heritage must be a living heritage. After all, the west coast main line passes right through the middle of the estate. It was constructed with the permission of the then Earl of Lichfield, who saw no problem in combining 18th-century Capability Brown parkland with 19th-century steam trains; it is now combined with 21st-century Pendolinos. I am sure that the estate workers played football and cricket, so why not let those sports, whose histories are considerably older than Shugborough’s, continue on the site? I urge the National Trust to think again.

When the Earl of Lichfield allowed the railway to pass through the Shugborough estate, he did so on one condition, which was that the railway should not be visible from his home. A cut-and-cover tunnel was therefore constructed, and it is still there today. The builders of the railway were wise and they acted on the concerns of local residents—in this case, the Earl of Lichfield. If railway builders in the 19th century could listen to him, I am sure that in these more democratic days they can listen to me and my constituents. HS2 passes through the villages of Great Haywood, Ingestre, Hopton, Martson and Yarlet. It does so because of the

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unnecessary lust for ultra-high speed and therefore the requirement for an arrow-straight route. If the route cannot be changed—I firmly believe there are alternatives that would easily meet the passenger forecasts—my constituents and I want considerably more tunnelling to protect them from the worst of the impact, as the Earl of Lichfield was so protected 200 years ago. Yet in the latest proposal, the one short tunnel proposed, in Hopton, has been removed. There is plenty of opportunity for tunnelling in the Stafford area, as is shown by the depth of the proposed cuttings. Our UK tunnelling expertise is world class, so I urge the Government to listen to us, as their predecessors listened to the Earl of Lichfield.

It is now almost a year and a half since Stafford hospital, now the County hospital, was brought together with the Royal Stoke hospital as part of the University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust. I want to pay tribute to all the staff who helped to make such a difficult transition as smooth as possible. It is a tribute to their dedication and professionalism that we have in Stafford a hospital that offers high standards of care.

For many months, the A&E department has been one of the best performing in the country. Until recently, it regularly achieved the four-hour target for 95% of patients. It is now under more pressure, as the numbers attending have risen to an annual rate of nearly 50,000. As many are now seen in 14 hours as were previously seen in 24 hours. That shows just how essential it is to maintain the consultant-led A&E at the County hospital. Let us not forget that one of the proposals in 2013, against which my constituents and I argued strongly, was to remove consultant-led A&E. Thank goodness that common sense prevailed. I still maintain, as does the Secretary of State for Health, that a return to 24/7 emergency opening has to come. I understand the constraints and safety concerns, but I welcome the fact that the refurbished A&E department will be capable of 24/7 opening, because I believe that that will be essential.

At that the same time, we lost our in-patient paediatrics and consultant-led maternity care. They have been replaced by an emergency children’s department and a stand-alone midwife-led maternity unit. Although there is great sadness at the loss of the larger services, my constituents who use the new units have been full of praise for the care that they and their children have received from the staff. I want to work with the trust gradually to build back up these services.

The investment in the County hospital, which has already taken place and will continue to take place, is welcome. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his support for that. We will have refurbished wards, operating theatres, dialysis and chemotherapy suites, A&E and the children’s emergency centre. The new MRI scanner—a first for Stafford—is already in operation, as is a state-of-the-art endoscopy unit. We will in effect have a new hospital in an old building, without the burden of a private finance initiative. I thank the Government for this investment, but buildings are nothing without people. As always, we must continue to put the care and safety of patients at the forefront, and I pay tribute to the staff for doing just that.

Businesses are thriving in Stafford with employment at a record high. General Electric and Alstom is building a factory on one of the two new business parks. Perkins

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Engines and Bostik continue to invest, and I am proud that JCB now has a strong presence in my constituency after its purchase of Broadcrown in Hixon. Mid-sized manufacturers such as Mec Com, Biomass, Landons, Rail-Ability, and many others, show that what would be called the Mittelstand in Germany is alive and well in Stafford. The digital economy is expanding, with companies such as eg solutions, risual, Connexica and iProspect recruiting almost continuously—so much so that a group now meets regularly to see how we can improve the digital economy in Stafford.

The advent of 1 and 16 Signal Regiments to MOD Stafford to join 22 Signal Regiment and the RAF’s tactical supply wing means that nearly 2,000 servicemen and women are now based in the town. They are already making a great contribution to life in Stafford, and they tell me that they appreciate the warm welcome.

Let me mention the road infrastructure in and around Stafford. We have seen improvements, such as the four lanes of the M6 from junctions 10A to 13, but we need the western access road and many other small and large improvements to the road network, to provide for the growth that Stafford is seeing. Finally, I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, a very happy Easter.

4.16 pm

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), whose sincerity in serving his constituents and his concern for the poorest across the globe, particularly in Africa, is unparalleled in this place.

I want to speak in support of the wonderful town of Middlewich in my constituency, and to champion its irrefutable claim for Government funding for a bypass—a bypass that has been 20 years in the waiting, and for which planning permission was first granted two decades ago. If traffic was pressured then, one hardly needs to imagine how much more pressured it is now. Travelling through Middlewich—not just at peak time—one can justifiably describe the congestion as chronic. It is the worst in my constituency by far.

Middlewich has an exceptionally strong community spirit and a high level of volunteering among its residents, as demonstrated by a whole host of community events that take place throughout the year. The annual FAB —folk and boat—festival attracts up to 25,000 visitors in a week, almost doubling the town’s population. It is the largest event in the country that celebrates canals and their narrowboats, and the surrounding heritage, music and culture. That is just one of many grassroots events promoted by the Middlewich townspeople. Others include a festival to celebrate the town’s Roman heritage, an annual Oscars ceremony to celebrate local community champions, the Good Neighbours scheme, the classic car and bike show, the national town crier competition, a cider festival, the Scribe literary festival, heritage open days, and the nationally recognised Middlewich Clean Team of more than 200 residents, who are regularly out keeping the town tidy. I consider myself to be a privileged member of that team, and it was heart-warming to see the huge number of residents out recently to make the town of Middlewich “Clean for the Queen”.

Middlewich is an aspirational town, and St Michael’s church—a hub for community activity—is embarking on a £1.2 million regeneration scheme that will open it up for even greater community use. Community leaders

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across the town have recently concluded a new town branding scheme, and Middlewich High School is fortunate to have a visionary headmaster in Keith Simpson.

However, over recent decades, Middlewich has simply not received the investment that it deserves from wider authorities to enable it to realise its substantial untapped potential. There has been a huge amount of grassroots energy and commitment from local townspeople, and they deserve greater support. There is space for enterprise and development to grow in Middlewich, and it wants and would welcome such growth and development, including housing development. It is essential to have greater investment for Middlewich, and I have campaigned for that since my election in 2010. I am pleased to tell the House that Middlewich’s potential to make a substantial contribution to local and regional growth has now been recognised more widely. I am delighted that not only the townsfolk of Middlewich but Cheshire East Council and the local enterprise partnership now see Middlewich as a key town for development, with the potential for growth. That is important. The Government’s Transport for the North report, “Northern Transport Strategy” which was produced this month, states:

“It is important to ensure economic benefits are spread across the North to deliver the vision of a Northern Powerhouse…and development opportunities are better connected to contribute to and benefit from”

key towns. If the aspiration of the northern powerhouse is to be realised, it is essential that Middlewich receives greater investment, and that means the Middlewich eastern bypass.

If I may, I would like to unpack just why the bypass is so important. The Middlewich eastern bypass is a major highway scheme. It would support the building of more than 2,000 new homes in and around Middlewich, thereby making a considerable contribution to facilitating the much-needed completion of the Cheshire East local plan. It would be a boost to existing businesses, which employ 4,500 people in Middlewich, and, according to figures from Cheshire East, enable the creation of a further 6,500 new jobs. That is why it is so important for the Government to consider supporting this major highways scheme by allocating funding from the Government’s £475 million local majors funds. Local areas were invited by the Chancellor in his Budget statement last week to make further bids. I am recording a request now, on behalf of Middlewich, for funding from that fund, with the support of Cheshire East Council and the local LEP. The fund is for large local transport schemes, too big for the regular local growth fund. That applies to this bypass: it is a £30 million project. It is now a high priority for our principal authority and for our LEP.

In addition to helping to solve serious congestion issues locally, the bypass would also solve many regional transport problems. Cheshire East Council states that Middlewich is the worst pinch-point on the A54 corridor, which runs from the M6 across to Cheshire west. A bypass would help to relieve the pinch-point, and tackle a number of road safety issues in the town that have been a cause of great local concern for many years. If the bypass scheme involves, as I believe it should, local improvements, that would help to address and improve challenges along Lewin Street, Nantwich Road, the Newton Bank Gyratory and the junction of Leadsmith Street and St Michael’s Way. Those improvements are essential to protect pedestrian safety and to improve pedestrian access to the town centre.

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A bypass would provide better routes for heavy goods vehicles and a greatly improved link to the M6 Smart Motorway, which is now under construction. There is no point in making that very considerable investment to relieve congestion if vehicles find themselves stranded and stationary when they move off the M6 and on to the route to Middlewich. The route will also improve access to the HS2 Crewe hub when that opens. I am informed that the work required to develop the hub will involve considerable additional vehicular construction traffic. The construction of the bypass is essential if the region as a whole, not to mention Middlewich as a town, is not to be blighted by the HS2 construction traffic that will continue for very many years.

This week, the Minister for Housing and Planning, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) attended the international property conference in Cannes to launch the northern gateway development zone prospectus. It sets out very ambitious growth proposals for south-east Cheshire and north Staffordshire, arising from the Government’s decision to have a station at Crewe on the new HS2 line. These exciting proposals will deliver significant benefits to the local economy and have the potential to unlock major new growth and investment opportunities. These could deliver more than 100,000 new homes and 120,000 new jobs by 2040 by creating a growth zone at the gateway between the northern powerhouse and the midlands engine—the area is situated directly between the two.

Middlewich is an important focal point within the development area, but although the proposals are exciting and will deliver significant benefits to the economy, I understand from the LEP that the amount of traffic travelling through Middlewich, which already experiences high levels of congestion at peak times, could rise by up to 90%, if the plans are developed. The LEP is concerned, therefore, that its growth proposals will not be achieved unless the issue of congestion is addressed through investment in local infrastructure—and that means the Middlewich eastern bypass and improvements to local roads. I ask Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Transport to do some joined-up thinking and improve connectivity, not just for Middlewich but for the region, by funding the bypass.

4.26 pm

Mims Davies (Eastleigh) (Con): It is a pleasure to be called in this debate.

The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) mentioned the sugar tax, alongside the city’s wonderful football team. The issue of burning off energy from sugar is important. In my constituency, diabetes is a concern. Eastleigh has the second most diabetes-related amputations, and many of my residents are concerned about plans for two new fast-food outlets and a car showroom on the site of the old council buildings and courts area. I ask the local council to reconsider whether, given the need for new homes, this brownfield planning application so close to two secondary schools is sensible.

That said, Eastleigh is a fit area. In fact, this weekend saw the 32nd Eastleigh 10k. Sadly, a toe injury put paid to my running this year—[Laughter.] I do not joke. I ran last year; it was much warmer then. Some 2,800 runners took part—a record field—and I enjoyed giving out the medals to the littler people after their 2k.

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The women’s was a fast race. In fact, it was a women’s record, with Laura Whittle recording a time of 32 minutes, which is about how long it takes me to run a 5k at the moment. I was really impressed. The race was once again covered by the excellent

Eastleigh News


Steve and his team are local and loving it. They go to absolutely everything. They are a small gang of locally connected journalists who give the people of Eastleigh an opportunity to say what they feel, as was particularly the case with its coverage of the old council buildings.

It has been an extraordinary few months for the people of Eastleigh. After the election, we laid out our Conservative vision for the constituency, and I am enjoying holding the Liberal Democrat council and Ministers to account once again and making important points about local infrastructure. Our roads, like those of fellow MPs, are in dire need of investment. A focus on this is vital. Were Members to meet anyone from my constituency, they would hear about the never-ending traffic queues blighting the area. I am delighted to support the air pollution work in the House because areas such as Hamble lane and right outside the council buildings are places of air pollution concern. I will therefore be backing the air quality Bill.

We have heard about the local majors fund, which is very welcome in areas such as mine, where we have long been awaiting the Chickenhall link road. All MPs could probably argue over whose area has been waiting the longest for a bypass or link road, but we have been waiting 25-plus years for Chickenhall. Does anyone want to raise me? It was important, therefore, that that was mentioned in the Budget. It will unlock more prime land for economic growth, boost the area and continue the recent successes of Southampton airport. I was delighted to visit the airport this month in connection with the new route to Cork. It is just £29 from Southampton to Cork for a weekend; if anyone would like to join us, it is one of four new routes that Dave Lees and his team are bringing to the south coast. I am delighted to see this new road, alongside other manifesto promises, coming to fruition. We will see them delivered through this majority Conservative Government.

I made some local visits, including to Mount Industries earlier this week and to Aggregate Industries, at which we heard about the importance of jobs, infrastructure, dealing with air pollution and ensuring that we get the Conservative action we need. This will lead to more local jobs and better prosperity. Two different industries based around Chickenhall Lane mentioned the importance of the new road to them. Its inclusion in the Budget is a great boost to Eastleigh, and I am very proud to see this brought forward to the community, meeting our promise.

We have made progress, too, on the much needed Botley bypass, which has been in the pipeline since 1988. I am told that a planning application is imminent, and we have been working positively with the local enterprise partnership. I congratulate Botley parish council, which has done everything it can to get the diggers closer to the ground. I can tell Members that it has been a real local campaign, with the parish council and the local community doing something to make the Botley community better, alongside producing a local parish or neighbourhood plan. It is much needed when there are, frankly, none in my constituency. In 2012, the Daily

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reported that the Botley bypass would be shelved for another 20 years. I am thus delighted that, as a result of Conservatives working together with the LEP and Hampshire County Council, work on this site will soon commence. That just shows that when the people of Eastleigh vote blue, they get the investment, the roads—hopefully, two—and the jobs that the area needs.

We heard a lot in the Budget debate about the next generation, and jobs and prosperity are key to our young people being successful. I recently met at Eastleigh college during national apprenticeship week Ricky from KA Watts Plumbing; Paul from WH Rowe, a local aluminium foundry; Ashley from Gasworks, which carries out gas maintenance; and James from First Call Heating. The college is so successful at bringing forward so many apprenticeships. What we heard is that people are striving to work with some of the smaller businesses that are bringing forward really key apprenticeships, particularly in the foundry area.

One of the problems that blights our lives, even when it comes to delivering apprenticeships in Eastleigh, is good old health and safety rules. I take this opportunity to say that if we want to get our people work ready and give them the work experience, we must make sure that 16 and 17-year-olds get that opportunity to start out in a new career. The employers I met were very keen to see old apprentices given a new opportunity and the best chances.

Over the last few months, my constituency has seen some serious challenges. St Luke’s surgery in Botley is hugely important to the community, but is now in crisis. I thank the Minister for Community and Social Care, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for meeting me—we have another meeting coming up—to discuss how to help sort out the GP problem in my constituency. People in Botley are waiting up to eight weeks for a regular appointment, which is clearly not good enough. St Luke’s is understaffed and worried; it wants to provide a better service. Well resourced and well staffed local GPs are crucial parts of every community, and I am certainly fighting for St Luke’s.

I want to thank my hon. Friends and others for their support and help on International Women’s Day. We had a fantastic turnout of girls—73 of them—from across the country, who came to their Parliament for a day of events to raise awareness of inequality. It helped to motivate our youngsters to get campaigning. I was delighted to see what a diverse range of issues were raised.

Returning to more local issues, the lack of a local plan blights my local residents. I would like to thank the Stokes Residents Association in Bishopstoke, which is trying so hard to support the environment, keeping it rich and diverse and ensuring that there is no needless destruction, which is what happens when the brownfield sites in Eastleigh are ignored. It really is time for the Government to allow us to step in and impose plans in areas where legislation is not being used, in order to support residents’ ideas.

This will not be a quiet Easter for me. I shall be attending the Eastleigh Lions Club fashion show; I shall be visiting and helping Angela Coaches, which is hoping to find larger premises; I shall be visiting Solent TV; I shall be enjoying a meeting with the Eastleigh Borough Council race and equality forum; I shall be

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heading to Age Concern Eastleigh, and visiting carers at Voyage Care; I shall be touring the Swan shopping centre; and I shall be working with the Chandlers Ford women’s register. I shall also be holding surgeries in Bursledon and Eastleigh, where I will hear from residents who are concerned about local sewerage issues such as flooding, and the impact on local services of the lack of a local plan.

It has been a delight to take part in this important debate. I wish you, Mr Speaker, and the whole House a restful Easter, and I promise to get many more Eastleigh campaigns into my questions when I return.

Mr Speaker: I call Melanie Onn.