Westminster Hall

Tuesday 6th December 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

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Tuesday 6 December 2022
[James Gray in the Chair]

Sustainable Energy Generation: Burning Trees

Tuesday 6th December 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

00:00
James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair)
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We will start the debate in a moment. However, as I think Members know, there will shortly be a fire alarm test or something to that effect. When that occurs, I will simply suspend the sitting, and we will then take the instructions of the Doorkeepers and process out into Westminster Hall proper.

I adjure everyone to get back into the Grand Committee Room as soon as we are allowed to do so by the authorities so that we can resume the debate, because there will be no injury time at the end of the debate and therefore we will have to pack, I think, 12 or 13 speakers into the hour or perhaps hour and a quarter that will be left to us.

That said, we have now gone 45 seconds beyond the time at which I was told the fire alarm would occur, so the Doorkeepers might like to advise us. Perhaps the fire alarm is not happening. In that case, I call Selaine Saxby to move the motion.

09:31
Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the sustainability of burning trees for energy generation.

It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for finding time for this important debate.

In my mind, today’s debate is about changing scientific understanding as we decarbonise our energy supply. The burning of wood as a renewable energy source has been adopted by the UK and the EU as a sustainable option to replace coal. In the UK, we subsidise the use of biomass to generate energy by £1 billion. However, in recent years, scientists and industry have raised serious concerns about the actual benefit of burning wood for energy. I secured this debate so that we can have a discussion about how taxpayers’ money is being spent and whether, at this time of global energy disruption, we are investing in the best forms of energy generation for our planet and for our energy security.

Biomass became prominent when coal-fired power stations were converted into biomass power stations. That was subsidised to aid the phase-out of coal and originated at a time when biomass was cheaper than renewables such as wind and solar and had perceived additional benefits, such as providing consistent, reliable power. Now, however, Drax is the UK’s biggest single-point source of carbon dioxide emissions. Because of the technology installed, the power station must run predominantly on wood pellets and has only limited capacity for non-woody biomass such as energy crops and organic waste.

The whole lifecycle emissions of CO2 per kWh are 41 grams for solar, 11 to 12 grams for wind and 948 grams for coal. For forest biomass, they are 1,079 grams. That is far from the assumed carbon-neutral outcome. The UK produces roughly 12% of its energy from biomass and 3% from coal. The UK’s carbon emissions have not dropped at the same rate as our reduction of coal would indicate. The reality is that more carbon is being put into our atmosphere currently than when we were burning coal.

The difference between the idea that burning wood for energy is renewable and the reality comes from two misrepresentations. Both come about from the wrong approach to the accounting for the carbon output. The emissions from cutting down trees are attributed to the land-use sector rather than the energy-generation sector. As we import the majority of our wood pellets, we are exporting our carbon emissions. Although that may look good, it does not achieve anything, as we all share our atmosphere and the effects that carbon emissions cause.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change allows such zero-rating of emissions based on the idea that every tree will be replanted and its replacement will harness the same level of carbon as its predecessor; unfortunately, that has proven not to be the case. Many studies have shown that the carbon payback times for forest biomass are decades or centuries away, depending on the type of forest cut down to produce the wood pellets.

We are entering a crunch point in our work to limit the effects of climate change, with tipping points in the melting of sea and glacial ice, sea-level rises, ocean acidification, permafrost melt and the Amazon biome. We do not have the time to wait decades or centuries for the carbon to be reabsorbed and sequestered; nor does such an approach fit in with the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.

Trees only grow in their carbon-storing potential as they age. There is a very minimal decline in their efficiency as they photosynthesise and store CO2 from the atmosphere, but that decline is far outweighed by their sheer size and capacity. A study carried out by 38 researchers across 15 countries measured 400 species across six continents. It found that 97% of trees grew more quickly as they aged and absorbed more carbon year on year. If a tree’s diameter grows 10 times as large, it will undergo a hundredfold increase in leaf mass and an increase in leaf area of between fiftyfold and a hundredfold.

Our forests are still the largest remover of carbon, and one study found that, across forests of all ages and types around the world, half the carbon is stored in the largest 1% of trees when measured by diameter. As trees age, they also store more carbon in the soil, so we are looking at not just our canopy but the carbon stored in the earth itself, much as we need to consider our peatlands and the blue carbon stored in the seabed.

The other issue with the accounting of emissions from the burning of biomass for energy is the carbon associated with the supply chain for sourcing the wood pellets required. The industry sources wood pellets from North America, eastern Europe, the Baltics and, historically, Russia. Covid and the war in Ukraine have significantly disrupted supply chains and put more pressure on available forests. Drax sources most of its wood pellets from North America. A BBC “Panorama” documentary has cast doubt on the claim that it just uses waste wood and has suggested that primary forests are harvested and timber- quality wood burned as biomass.

The Dogwood Alliance in Mississippi has been tracking the logging of forests in the south-eastern United States and the conversion of whole trees into wood pellets. The south-east is one of the most biodiverse areas of the United States, and another downside to the burning of wood for energy is the fact that such older and more mature forests are home to a greater diversity of flora and fauna. The wood pellets are shipped to the United Kingdom on enormous vessels that are in transit for 21 days. Drax receives 17 wood pellet deliveries a day, and the plant operates 24 hours a day, six days a week. The energy required to transport the pellets adds to their lifecycle emissions and uses up the very fossil fuels the pellets are supposed to replace.

This is not an attempt to discredit one company; it is about us better understanding what is going on in the name of renewable fuels and asking that a more rigorous analysis of the carbon cost of this form of power production be fully conducted—at one level, it makes sense because trees grow back—before we assume that we really are moving to a lower-carbon-generating fuel supply and that any subsidy that supports that reflects the true carbon cost of what is supposed to be carbon neutral.

I want to raise concerns about the industry’s efforts to store more carbon in an attempt to deliver negative emissions and remove carbon from the atmosphere. Although that is a laudable goal, and the bioenergy with carbon capture and storage—BECCS—system is included in the United Kingdom’s net zero pathway, it is important to note that it is based on the flawed accounting that calls burning biomass carbon neutral. It involves a number of risks and barriers.

BECCS is the process of capturing and permanently storing underground the carbon emitted by biomass energy generation. The carbon capture rate is not 100%. Research from Chatham House indicates that it is about 76%, and energy needs to be expended to maximise capture. The options are to maximise power generation or to maximise carbon dioxide capture.

The process would also be incredibly expensive—power stations are seeking new subsidies to develop BECCS, and it is projected that it would require £31.7 billion over 25 years, which is equivalent to £500 per person in the United Kingdom—and incredibly land hungry. It would require an area roughly 1.5 times the size of Wales to grow enough bioenergy crops to meet BECCS demand. That is 17% of the United Kingdom’s arable land.

Recently, global events have shown how important a reliable food supply is, and the United Kingdom must not reduce its domestic production of quality produce. There is already the challenge of finding the right balance of land for farming, living, energy production and industry, so using such a large percentage of our land for a form of expensive and unsustainable energy generation would be the wrong approach.

The Climate Change Committee has called on the Government to support domestic biomass supply to meet expected carbon-removal requirements for the industry; however, is that the answer? The United Kingdom is about to face a severe shortage of wood and is one of the least densely forested countries in Europe, at only 13% of land area. The idea that rather than using that wood in industry we should burn it flies in the face of the basics of reducing emissions. At the heart of what we are aiming to do is reducing our use of virgin products, reusing where possible and recycling where not, and looking at using such products for energy generation only once they have become waste.

When we log forests for wood products, the carbon remains sequestered for however long those products last—possibly decades or longer. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the wood panel industry. The industry is a UK success story, with gross value added in excess of £850 million per annum and an ability to meet 65% of the UK demand for wood panel products. It supports approximately 7,500 jobs across the UK and has an average salary of £36,000, which is significantly above the UK average. The industry has made great strides in supporting our net zero by 2050 targets and has had some success with efficient and carbon-negative processes.

The wood panel manufacturing sector uses more than 25% of the 11 million tonnes of wood delivered from UK forestry every year. The rise of the wood fuel sector, which itself consumes about 25% of the UK annual wood basket because it is subsidised, has distorted the market and created shortages in domestic supply. Manufacturing operations rely on the sustainable supply of wood materials such as forest roundwood and thinnings, sawmill products, and recycled wood, supplies of which are increasingly restricted, given the fact that the UK will reach peak wood availability in the early 2030s, followed by a forecast sustained drop soon after. We need to plant more trees, especially if we carry on relying on biomass for our energy generation.

The closure of the renewable heat incentive scheme to new entrants in 2021 was a welcome decision. Now is the time to transition to future support schemes that most strategically target taxpayers’ money and ensure a level playing field for all wood users. Will the Minister ensure that when the biomass strategy is released it does not contain a new tariff-based incentivisation scheme similar to the renewable heat incentive? Will he also clarify whether biomass is supported by the contract for difference subsidies? In 2020, the Government announced that they would exclude coal-to-biomass conversion projects from future rounds, starting with allocation round 4.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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Does the hon. Lady agree that it is extraordinary that the biomass industry is asking for a combined CfD that would combine biomass production and carbon capture and storage?

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby
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I agree that that is part of the confusion in the entire strategy; we need urgent clarification. In AR4, dedicated biomass with combined heat and power were eligible to compete, although no contracts were awarded. The announcement of AR5, which starts in March 2023, has not come with any clarity on whether biomass will be eligible for that round.

The Government have done great work as we transition to net zero by 2050, but further investment in biomass is clearly the wrong strategy. It not only continues to contribute carbon to our atmosphere when we can now invest in significantly cleaner energy, but takes away from flourishing British businesses and exports our problems overseas. When the biomass strategy is released, I hope that the mounting evidence will be considered and that we can continue to increase investment in more sustainable energy sources rather than pursuing this path.

James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair)
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I am advised that the fire alarm that may have to occur does not affect Westminster Hall, and our debate can therefore continue as planned.

09:43
Charlotte Nichols Portrait Charlotte Nichols (Warrington North) (Lab)
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I am glad to be here with you in the Chair, Mr Gray, and I commend the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing this important debate.

I do not agree with much that the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), says, but I could not have put it better than him when he stated that importing US-made wood pellets to be burned for energy is “not sustainable” and “doesn’t make sense”. Rather than talk about biomass, I would rather call it what it is: burning imported forests. It is increasingly clear that this method is expensive, causes pollution and encourages deforestation. At a time when we are waiting for the Government’s delayed consultation on the technical screening criteria that underpin which technologies will be classified as green under the UK taxonomy—and, indeed, for a biomass strategy—it is important that we state clearly that biomass is not a green option at all.

Drax power station is the single largest source of CO2 emissions in the UK. Its entire justification is that the pollutants it releases are matched by equivalent plant and tree regrowth. Some biomass options, such as burning chicken manure, can swiftly be classed as carbon neutral because they would have swiftly decayed anyway, but replenishing burned trees and forests takes many years—even decades. The operating assumption that the trees are replaced as they are destroyed is a false accounting trick. In effect, it greenwashes a destructive and polluting process that will take us dangerously past the ecological tipping point.

Drax burns 27 million trees a year. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy plans to burn 120 million trees a year by 2050. That is far more than the amount of chicken waste that will be burned and will take much longer to replace. By comparison, the New Forest has 46 million trees; that shows the scale of the importation the process requires. It will add to the carbon cost before the wood is even burned. The wood itself is especially harmful: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that burning wood creates 18% more CO2 than burning coal.

We increasingly recognise the damage that centuries of deforestation have done to our planet, environment and biodiversity. The Government’s net zero strategy envisages a bioenergy with carbon capture and storage technology that depends both on burned trees regrowing immediately and on the carbon released being captured from Drax’s chimneys. If both were possible, accountants could tally these as negative emissions, but the calculations do not adequately weigh the costs of deforestation and transport or the opportunity cost of other energy alternatives. It is foolish to lean on an energy source that depends on the mass importation of raw materials from thousands of miles away, especially when doing so is likely to drive up the commodity price of the wood involved.

One of the dangers of investing in such technology is that it may spur other countries to follow suit, which will mean even more rapid deforestation. Biomass is already the most expensive renewable power source, and Drax has received £6 billion in renewable subsidies. Analysis by the climate and energy think-tank Ember found that retrofitting Drax so that it can capture and store the carbon burned would cost the UK taxpayer an estimated £32 billion—more than the cost of building the Sizewell C nuclear reactor. As an unashamed champion of the nuclear sector, and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on nuclear energy, I would far rather see investment in nuclear, which is a greener, more reliable technology of the future.

Our energy and environmental needs are great, while our resources are limited. Rather than relying on a monopoly supplier of this polluting and expensive technology, we should promote reforestation, not just replenishment, and invest in truly green energy sources such as nuclear, hydrogen and other renewables. Will the Minister commit to ending the double bookkeeping of the carbon savings of biomass? Will he confirm that if the numbers do not add up, biomass will not be part of the green taxonomy and Drax’s contract will not be renewed?

09:47
Peter Bottomley Portrait Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) and the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols). I will not repeat what they have said; in fact, I will not say very much, because a meeting of the Ecclesiastical Committee means that I must ask people to forgive me for not staying for the winding-up speeches.

First, my key point is that we have had a great transition and need to go on making that transition. I have a list of 34 former power stations in London alone, nearly all of which were powered by coal or oil. We have found other ways of generating our electricity.

Secondly, from when I started to ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for a meeting about Drax and the absurd way in which it was regarded as acceptable renewable power generation, it took nearly a year before we had an informal meeting, part of which was quoted by the hon. Member for Warrington North.

I hope the Government will pay attention. The Minister will have to say whatever the Minister has to say. Ministers sometimes come to meetings like this with a short bat, if I can put it that way, and they may not be able to announce future policy. However, the practice must be that we do not bring in the 27 million trees a year that have been cited and that we find ways to generate carbon-free renewable electricity, rather than electricity that requires subsidies that are currently too high and will be even higher in future.

09:49
Barry Gardiner Portrait Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to join in the debate, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for introducing it. I feel for her: about a decade ago I was in exactly the same position as a Back Bencher trying to tell my Front Bench team that they were mistaken in going down the biomass road. I think the Government are at the point where they will listen; indeed, I hope that is the case because, if they do not, it will make a mockery of all that we are doing on not only climate change but biodiversity.

I say that in the week that COP15—the Convention on Biological Diversity—is due to meet in Montreal. That is significant because the Drax power station is consuming whole trees from primary forests in British Columbia, in Canada. The Canadian Government should look at that carefully because we are talking not just about the case—ably made by the hon. Member for North Devon and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols)—for looking at what this practice is doing to increase emissions and at whether it can be sustainable in terms of the lifecycle of the trees, but about what it is doing to the wider environment and biodiversity. That is what is so terrifying.

The hon. Member for North Devon was right to speak about our inability to keep on using land in this way to feed a power station such as Drax. She spoke of an area 1.5 times the size of Wales; the figure I have is three times the size of Wales. Whatever it is, it is clear that this biomass cannot be sourced domestically, if this is to go on. More than that, it cannot be utilised because of the water resource required to produce the pellets for Drax.

The Department has been asked what the natural absorption rate of the emitted carbon would be if we replenish those lost resources—that is, if we replace those trees to absorb the emitted carbon. It gave an answer—it was, “We do not hold this information.” Well, other people have calculated it, and it is 190 years. We have seven years left until 2030, when the whole world must be on a declining pathway of emissions, and 27 years until 2050, when we have to achieve net zero. So the timescale—even accepting the principle that this is only about carbon emissions and that this is a cycle—is just too long.

The Government will no doubt talk about how CCS can be married up with BECCS. They will say that if we can capture those carbon emissions, that will make it all right. However, only 44% of emissions released at the Boundary Dam project in Canada were captured. The Government have not been prepared to say that they would hold Drax to what Ember, at least, has said should be the target—95% of emissions captured.

I want to focus on some of the key lies being told by Drax. I say that advisedly, because I have been to Drax and debated many times with its scientists. Over the years, I have tried to listen carefully to what they have said, and I have given them the benefit of the doubt on occasions. We need to transition away from biomass; I do not think we can simply stop it, and I am not saying that the contract should immediately be cut, but it is certainly not right for the Government to provide the £31 billion of additional subsidies entailed by what is now proposed over the lifetime of the project.

Drax says that its responsible sourcing policy means that it avoids damage or disturbance to primary and old-growth forest. That is not true, and the “Panorama” programme ably exposed the fact that it is not true. Drax said that many of the trees it had cut down had died and that logging would reduce the risk of wildfires, which shows just how little it knows about biodiversity, because many forests, particularly on the western seaboard of North America, require fire as a stimulant to the germination process. However, the fire spreads quickly; it does not kill the tree, but it does bring about new growth.

The trees on the entire area covered by the second Drax logging licence have now been cut down. It is simply not the case, as the company said, that the forests have been transferred to other logging licences. It said it does not hold those licences anymore. Again, that was a lie. “Panorama” checked that claim by going to the Government of British Colombia, who confirmed that Drax does still hold those licences. I understand how things progress, and I have no doubt that the company was set up to try to do good. We all thought at that stage that this was really going to be a sustainable way of tackling climate change, but Drax has got further and further into a reality that is now simply leading it to lie to the public. It is time that the Government distanced themselves from that lie.

The company says it uses some logs to make wood pellets, but it claims that it uses only ones that are small, twisted or rotten. I do not know whether Members have ever seen the process of gathering and taking logs from a forest. The idea that somebody is checking whether they are small, twisted or rotten and that only those are taken back to the power station is complete nonsense. However, when the logs get there, they can be sorted, and surveys at the pelletisation destinations show that only 11% of logs delivered to plants in the last year were classified as twisted, rotten or of the lowest quality, and could be used.

I am sorry the Government are now considering a further proposal from Drax. I really hope—not only for climate change purposes, but because of the wider biodiversity impact—that they will think very long and very hard, take notice of what the hon. Member for North Devon and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North have said today, and just say no. We have to transition away from burning trees. It is a damaging way of using forests, and it cannot be sustained.

James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair)
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We have 30 minutes until the winding-up speeches and there are six Back-Bench speakers, so taking five minutes each would be a courtesy to each other.

09:58
Pauline Latham Portrait Mrs Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing this important debate, and all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed so far. This is a crucial issue, and the timing of the debate could not be better. The Government intend to publish their biomass strategy shortly, and I am glad we have the opportunity to make our views known to the Minister in the hope of influencing the soon-to-be-published strategy.

In February, I published an article highlighting the problems with biomass, and I will set out the two key points from it. The first reason why we should avoid continued reliance on biomass relates to the financial and economic sustainability of biomass energy production, which Members have talked about. The current energy crisis, coupled with the climate crisis, means that we need to transition to renewable energy as quickly and cheaply as possible. In the context of rising bills, every pound of taxpayers’ money that goes into subsidising energy production must have the maximum effect. When wind and solar power technology were still prohibitively expensive, we were led to believe that biomass was the answer to all our problems—a carbon-neutral solution that was comparatively cheap. However, things have turned out rather differently: currently, we are subsiding biomass energy prices to the tune of £1 billion a year.

Offshore wind power, on the other hand, has been decreasing in price substantially. Since the 2014 contracts for difference auction, the strike price of offshore wind has come down from £155 per MWh to just £37.35 per MWh in 2022. Biomass, meanwhile, remains at over £90 per MWh, and there is no expectation that its price will fall in the years to come; indeed, adding carbon capture and storage to biomass technology will drive the price even higher—never mind the transportation costs. It was not the wrong economic decision in 2014 to favour biomass and to subsidise that technology—it was the best-value renewable option then. However, it would certainly be the wrong decision in 2022, because of the extraordinary improvements that there have been in wind power technology. From a financial perspective, the Government cannot justify subsidising biomass with public money when that money could instead be used to increase the generation of offshore wind.

The second reason why we should not support and encourage biomass over other renewable energy sources is that its renewable credentials are really very weak. Burning wood pellets actually releases 18% more CO2 than burning coal, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; we only consider it a renewable source because new, replacement trees can absorb that carbon dioxide. However, as has been said, it would take nearly 190 years for the CO2 released by burning trees to be absorbed. At the end of this month, we will have only 27 years left to meet the Government’s target of net zero by 2050, so creating CO2 emissions that will not be absorbed for two centuries should not count as progress towards net zero.

In theory, biomass is not ideal, although it was acceptable when it seemed cheaper than other renewable sources; in practice, it is far worse. The BBC’s “Panorama” exposed some of the practices at Drax’s biomass generation facilities, including that none of the wood burned is from the UK and that that one biomass power station burns the equivalent of half the New Forest every year—27 million trees. The use of farmland and natural habitats for biomass crops takes away from our efforts to restore nature and halt the decline of species by 2030. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that if bioenergy were produced domestically, biomass production would require 30% of UK agricultural land. We would have to replace the food that that land produces with more from abroad, at a time when we already have a problem with our food security.

It is clear that there are serious problems, as well as financial concerns, with biomass as an environmentally sustainable power source. There is no doubt that biomass was useful and important as part of the energy mix in the 2010s, but it is completely wrong now. I hope the Minister will confirm that the Government’s biomass strategy limits the role of biomass to a replacement for fossil fuels, not a competitor for renewable energy transition funding. That means reducing or stopping the subsidies for biomass and putting that money into continuing to support domestic forms of renewable energy production such as offshore wind.

10:04
Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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I congratulate the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on the very good way in which she introduced the debate and on bringing the debate to the Chamber.

Tackling climate change is the most important issue of our time. The IPCC notes that approximately 3.3 billion to 3.6 billion people live in contexts that are vulnerable to climate change. Between 1970 and 2019 the global surface temperature increased at a higher rate than in any period over the past 2,000 years. Since 1950, the global number of floods has increased by a factor of 15 and wildfires have increased by a factor of seven. This year alone, we have seen floods in Pakistan, drought and famine across east Africa and a heatwave in the UK.

There is still time to reduce the worst effects of climate change. The World Bank suggests that up to 260 million people could be forced to move within their countries by 2050, but immediate action could reduce that number by 80%. That urgency is why I cannot support the use of bioenergy. Bioenergy is not a renewable energy source. The low density of wood means that, when burned, it emits more CO2 per unit of electricity than coal. That CO2 can be offset only when new trees regrow, leading a large carbon debt to accrue over decades.

These timescales are much too long to meet urgent carbon budgets. We do not have the time for these emissions to be paid back. Time is not on our side when it comes to the climate disaster. The idea that bioenergy production can offset emissions is based on pure hope. If greenhouse gas removal techniques are not able to balance global carbon budgets, we risk an extra 0.7° to 1.4° of warming above our 1.5° target. That is the issue. We should not take that risk with people’s lives and the health of our planet.

Like fracking, bioenergy production can also be harmful to local communities. The company that runs Drax power station recently paid up to $3.2 million to settle air pollution claims against the wood pellet factories in the US. Residents in Gloster have spoken of their health declining since Drax began operations in the town in 2014. The health issues include breathing difficulties, dizzy spells, rashes, nosebleeds, occasional burning sensations and irritated eyes when standing outdoors.

Converting land to grow crops for bioenergy puts a massive strain on nature, soil and water. Energy crops can displace food production to other locations, putting forests and other natural systems at risk in other parts of the world. Meanwhile, intensive monoculture bioenergy crops rely on fertiliser and pesticide inputs, which harm soil health and nature.

Despite the clear issues presented, the Government continue to massively subsidise industrial-scale bioenergy. Drax receives more than £2 million a day in biomass subsidy, in spite of there being no obvious long-term climate benefit. Let us imagine the difference we could make if the Government put that money into true renewable energy and net zero adaptation. There are 5 GW of onshore wind currently awaiting planning approval, which could be fast-tracked to lower energy bills this winter alone. The UK could develop up to 11.5 GW of tidal stream by 2050, supporting over 14,000 jobs. Weak grid capacity is now the biggest issue holding back renewable energy development, yet the Government continue to stall plans to improve the grid.

Prioritising true renewable projects over bioenergy solutions is a no-brainer, as is the Government starting to subsidise oil and gas production through their windfall tax. I hope they will start to think straight and not force the people they are meant to serve to pick up the dire consequences of their policies.

10:08
Sally-Ann Hart Portrait Sally-Ann Hart (Hastings and Rye) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to speak under your chairship, Mr Grey. Burning trees for energy generation in the UK has been somewhat disguised as a sustainable and climate-friendly practice that will help us achieve our 2050 net zero goals. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on bringing this important matter forward for debate, because the sad reality is that the UK burns more wood in large-scale electricity production than any other country in the world, even though burning forest biomass actually emits more carbon than burning coal per unit of energy produced. Forests and ecosystems across the globe, including protected nature reserves, are being harmed by our demand for wood pellets. That is devastating for our planet and runs counter to our nature and biodiversity commitments.

As we are all aware and as many have mentioned, the recent BBC “Panorama” documentary on the sustainability of biomass power generation discovered that Drax, a UK-based company that apparently engages in renewable power generation, bought licences to cut down two areas of environmentally important forest in western Canada for wood pellets. That is a tragedy, as much of those forests is old growth and cannot be replaced. They store massive amounts of carbon and they have never been logged before. They are not regarded as a sustainable source for energy, and any replanted trees will almost certainly never capture as much carbon as the previous forest. Cutting down British Columbian rainforests is just as bad as what is happening in the Amazon. I know British Columbia very well; I have family there. The rainforest and the sea-to-sky highway are magnificent. It is the wildest environment possible, and it needs to stay that way.

The UK is Europe’s top subsidiser of biomass energy, giving over £1 billion a year to large biomass-burning power stations. Drax receives more biomass electricity subsidies from the UK than from any other country. That prompts the question: should the UK Government really be subsidising that, when we are supposed to be setting an example to the rest of the world in our fight against climate change?

Currently, the CO2 released from biomass energy is released into the atmosphere. In future, infrastructure may be added to power stations to capture and store the CO2, in a process known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. However, the level of BECCS set out in the net zero strategy could cost an estimated £78 billion by 2050. That is a staggering figure for a source of energy that is harmful to our planet, even with carbon capture technologies. There are clearly far cleaner, cheaper and sustainable sources of energy, such as wind and solar, that the Government should be using that money for instead.

It is clear that burning trees for energy generation in the UK is not economically sensible or environmentally friendly. However, I believe that in some circumstances burning wood is a sensible practice. Many people in my constituency burn logs for heating in open fires or wood-burning stoves. It is a vital form of heating for many, especially those in rural areas. Wood burners are cheaper to run than oil, gas and electricity, and can reduce a home’s heating costs by 10%. As long as the wood is not from primary woodland—as those trees are more efficient at sequestering carbon than newly planted trees—and the wood itself is unsuitable for wood products, I believe that wood-burning stoves are a viable option for homeowners, especially if they live off grid.

There is no doubt that we need to protect our forests, such as the ancient woodlands of Ladywell wood, Guestling wood and Brede High woods found in beautiful Hastings and Rye. However, coppicing is necessary. Coppiced wood can be used locally in rural areas to heat homes, as long as the logs are kiln-dried or hard wood. It is therefore vital that people who use log burners stick to the wood-burning stove regulations and use the right wood.

In the medium to long term, we need to move away from burning wood, especially for energy generation. Climate Minister Lord Goldsmith stated at COP26 that the UK has “real problems” with burning wood for electricity. Similarly, in August this year, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) was Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, he admitted that it makes no sense to import US pellets to burn, and that the Government have not fully investigated the sustainability of burning wood pellets.

We depend on forest and woodland for our survival, from the air we breathe to the wood we use. Besides providing habitats for animals and livelihoods for humans, forests offer watershed protection, prevent soil erosion and mitigate climate change. It is crucial that we protect our forests. We should not cut them down and allow them to disappear, no matter where in the world they are.

10:13
Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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I apologise for being about 30 seconds late to the debate. There are a number of reasons why I am interested in the topic. First, the cost of the renewable energy initiative in Northern Ireland was £25 million, yet it led to the collapse of the Executive, no Government for three years and a public inquiry that, in the end, did not come up with any negative recommendations. Yet here we are discussing the initiative as it applies in England—burning wood pellets at a subsidy of £1 billion per year. I ask myself why, if it led to the collapse of Government in Northern Ireland, a public inquiry and a long period of no Government, are we not jumping up and down at the cost of a £1 billion per year subsidy for an RHI scheme?

Secondly, I am keen on protecting the environment yet, as we have heard from speaker after speaker today, we have here a form of renewable energy that destroys the environment. It destroys woodland and the habitat of the animals, birds and flora that rely on that woodland. When we look back at a number of the renewable schemes that we have today, we will ask ourselves why we did not see their environmental impact. I know it is not the subject of our debate today, but if we look at the environmental damage done, for example, to provide windmills in Scotland, some 13 million trees have been torn down already to provide the sites and peatlands have been dug up and huge concrete bases and roads have been put in those upland areas, destroying many of the drainage systems there. In my own constituency, I noticed 3 metres of peat being taken off a hillside at a time when curlew and other birds will be nesting in those hillsides. Many people genuinely believe that we have to go down the road of having renewable energy, but, very often, the focus on it simply being renewable means that we ignore the environmental consequences of such energy provision.

The third reason that we should be concerned about such energy generation is the billions of pounds of subsidies that we have talked about. Who will eventually pay for the increased cost of electricity? It will be the consumer. At a time when we are talking about energy crises and the difficulties people are having in paying their energy bills, many of the schemes we are introducing are adding to the bills of households and industry for energy production. That is why the debate is important.

As many people have pointed out, there is an irony in that if we had produced a similar amount of electricity from coal at the Drax station, we would have had 18% less carbon emissions. Had we used gas, we would have had 50% less carbon emissions. This obsession with moving away from fossil fuels sometimes obscures the very fact that we are not actually achieving our goals.

Roger Gale Portrait Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con)
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One thing that does not seem to have been taken into account yet is the carbon cost of moving so-called renewable products across the world. Is it not an irony that we are shipping stuff across an ocean into the United Kingdom at a time when we are trying to control the use of domestic carbon products?

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is another of the ironies in this debate that is being ignored. We ignore the fact that we are taking a forest from one country and bringing it over to burn it in our country, and we are paying the cost of that. I will conclude at this point, but I hope that today generates a wider debate on the whole use of renewable energy.

10:18
Derek Thomas Portrait Derek Thomas (St Ives) (Con)
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I commend my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for securing this important debate. How we create energy is a hot topic, if you will excuse the pun, Mr Gray. It is vital that Parliament, Government and the broader public hear our concern about burning trees to generate energy.

The Government’s own figure put annual bioenergy emissions at 47 million tonnes of CO2, which is 10% of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. That is four times greater than those from coal, as the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) has just said. The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the wider debate on how we balance the needs to protect the environment and biodiversity and for energy to keep us warm and feed us. It is a really big debate that we do not have time for today but it must be had.

I want to focus my remarks on where the best home for carbon is. Some people rightly emphasise that keeping it in the ground is the best place. They want it permanently kept in unused fossil fuels. I would accept this if the alternative were more destructive. Many of us here believe that the best place for carbon is in trees. They not only store existing carbon, but capture more. We and our constituents cannot believe the argument that says that burning those trees and releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere makes sense. I did not know a great amount about this subject until very recently, but what I have looked at over the last few weeks and what has been said today makes me realise how ludicrous and harmful that argument is. We must find a way to put an end to it.

I would like to speak about a specific store of carbon, where carbon is turned into timber for construction for uses such as building frames and furniture. These are long-term uses for carbon. By making building frames out of timber, we reduce the need for cement and steel, which are both highly carbon-intensive. The problem is that burning trees for energy increasingly takes wood away from use in construction, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon made clear.

Two months ago, the BBC’s “Panorama” reported on the quality of wood being used by Drax in its pellet-making plants in Canada. It found that only 11% was grade 6 or grade Z—the diseased rotten wood that Drax’s PR machine says it uses for pellets. The rest was not waste wood. It could have been used for timber, making things out of chipboard, oriented strand board or other essential sheet building material that stores carbon for the long term. The Telegraph reports that the Government’s current plans for bioenergy would need to burn the equivalent of 120 million trees a year by 2050. We have heard that the entire New Forest has only 46 million trees, so that is the equivalent of burning the entire New Forest every five months. No wonder we import all our wood, but what if other countries did the same?

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) noted a couple of years ago, we all live under the same sky. Forests destroyed in Canada for burning in UK power stations have a big impact for all of humanity. Given that so much useful wood is being burned by power stations such as Drax today, what would be the situation if global demand for wood pellets grew by 3,000%, as forecast by Chatham House? If there is not enough waste wood today, better and better grades of wood will inevitably go up in smoke in our power stations. Inevitably, that will drive up the price of timber, forcing builders to use cement and steel.

There is another important point. We talked about the use of wood in building. I came from the construction trade before I entered this place, but in recent years I have learned that the people who produce the panels and sheet material also find a way to use pretty much all their waste wood. There is a real debate about how we use trees, where we use them and what we should be focusing on for carbon capture.

Bioenergy threatens to devour huge quantities of wood needed for construction, land needed for farming and water needed for drinking. It is robbing land needed for human homes as well as habitat for countless species. Bioenergy is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is a monster, as we have heard this morning. Those who gave it birth 20 years ago might have had good motives, but today we must pass its death sentence. It is doing our planet and climate no good whatsoever. We must not forget that it cost UK taxpayers £1.2 billion in 2021 alone to subsidise bioenergy production.

10:24
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for setting the scene so well. I welcome the debate on the potential issues of burning trees. The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) took a balanced approach to the debate, and I support what she said.

We have to look at the issues from both sides. There are some out there, including many constituents of mine, who use log burners and wood as their primary source of heat. I have an obligation as their Member of Parliament to support those people living in rural areas. On the other hand, there are those who use gas and oil for their primary form of heat but also have log burners purely for the effect. We must have that discussion, as it ultimately impacts on our future and the environment.

Today, I tabled early-day motion 668 on National Tree Week. I am sure that Members who have gathered for the debate will be eager to add their names to it. Let me pose a question. If a farmer or someone like that has a wood burner, and a tree falls over in a storm, do they let it lie? No, they do not; I would not, anyway. I would make sure that it was used, and used in the wood burners of my constituents.

I have often said before that as a farmer—I declare an interest—I am very aware of the importance of our environment and our local agriculture. Indeed, I planted some trees, probably about 20 years ago, on a rocky patch of land subject to flooding. It was not incredibly productive agriculturally, so I planted 3,500 trees. Many farmers do that, as they have been more inclined to understand the benefits it creates.

As I stated earlier, some people use log burners solely to heat their homes, and allowances must be made for that. It might not be the most sustainable way of heating one’s home, but for some elderly people and those who live in rural communities, it is simply all they have known. Who of us in this room cannot be encouraged by the warmth of a real fire, from wood or coal? Let us be honest. If someone cannot see the benefit of it, there is something seriously wrong. That is all I am going to say.

Many shops in my constituency still sell logs; there is a major demand for them. Other households will also use a log burner to heat up their main room in the evenings, as opposed to turning the heating on to heat the whole house. There is a practicality to the process that we must be very aware of.

We have seen the benefits that planting trees brings to our nation. Trees help to purify the air, lower air temperature, sustain wildlife and improve soil quality. Some would argue that going to all of the bother of planting thousands of trees just to cut them down and burn them is a waste of resources, but we have made many commitments to COP26 and COP27 and it is about doing whatever we can to ensure that energy is provided in a sustainable way.

The Woodland Trust, which I have a good working relationship with, has been in contact with me. It made me aware of the damaging effect that biomass energy—the energy that we get from plants and animals—has on our environment, which the hon. Member for North Devon mentioned in her introduction. It stated that its view on forest bioenergy is that, given its often ignored high emissions intensity, its combustion is likely to increase overall carbon emissions, despite the real policy to reduce them by 2050.

I am coming to the end, Mr Gray, but I want briefly to mention that nuclear energy has also become a greater part of the conversation around energy sustainability in recent years. When we hear about nuclear, we often think of Chernobyl and the devastations that it can cause, but we must also think of figures such as the fact that state nuclear energy provided 52% of America’s carbon-free electricity in 2020, making it the largest domestic source of clean energy. We should not write off and ignore nuclear power.

To conclude, this will very much be an ongoing conversation. I respect and understand the benefits of growing trees and using alternative sources, but we must also allow consideration to be given to those who do use logs and log burners as their primary source of heating. We cannot ignore them.

10:28
John McNally Portrait John Mc Nally (Falkirk) (SNP)
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As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) for her role in securing today’s debate on the sustainability of burning trees for energy.

It is good to see the climate Minister ready to explain the Government case. He is now some three months into the job, and I hope that he will explain to us, and to the public watching this debate, the remarks made by the former Secretary of State for Energy, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), that have been mentioned and quoted by others. In August, after three years at BEIS, the right hon. Member said that the burning of imported wood in our power stations,

“doesn’t make any sense to me.”

He further said it “is not sustainable”, and that BEIS was close to saying that the burning of wood for energy

“isn’t working, this doesn’t help carbon emission reduction and so we should end it”

Those are damning words.

The former Secretary of State is not the only Minister to be troubled by the burning of millions of trees in our power stations. A year ago, Lord Goldsmith conceded that there were “real problems” with ensuring the sustainability of the trees being chopped down around the world. It was for that reason that, in January, the Climate Change Committee told Parliament that the “vast majority” of trees should be home grown, not imported on diesel-belching freighters from across the Atlantic. The question is, how many of the 27 million trees burnt by the Drax power station last year were actually home grown? It was not the vast majority; it was not even a tiny fraction. It was zero. Let us be clear that the Government do not seem to agree with the Government on the burning of trees at Drax.

What is actually going wrong, because properly run bioenergy has the capacity to make a real difference to carbon emissions? Why has Westminster made such a complete mess that Ministers are at war with one another? The fundamental problem is that it has become abundantly clear to academics, journalists and even Ministers that Drax is not burning genuine wood waste but trees with many other uses which, as Members have mentioned, include furniture and material for the construction industry, which lock the carbon away. Drax claims that it is only burning forest residues and for years Westminster has simply been lazily allowing it to mark its own homework.

However, over the past year, reality has intruded. The Daily Telegraph has reported that forests in eastern Europe are being clear-cut for Drax; in the USA, CBS News has reported clear-cutting there; and two months ago, as has been said by many others, the BBC’s “Panorama” programme found even worse behaviour in Canada, as Drax was caught chopping down primary forests. Such ecosystems take centuries to create, but they are being destroyed by Drax within hours.

I urge Members to dwell on that statement for just a second, and dwell on the huge loss in biodiversity. Chopping down primary forests is how species become extinct. Drax claims that it is not destroying primary forests, yet “Panorama” said in its broadcast:

“That is a lie.”

It is an extraordinary situation: the BBC’s flagship news programme has accused the Government’s biggest energy provider of telling a fundamental lie. I note that Drax has not sued “Panorama” for libel—not to my knowledge, anyway—and given that Drax does not think that the courts will believe it, why should Parliament believe Drax?

It is clear how quickly trust in Drax is evaporating in this House. Over the last year, 84 MPs have signed letters to Ministers about Drax, calling this situation a scandal. Furthermore, Drax is just not trusted by the financial markets. I hope that the Minister has a contingency plan in place. However, if the likely failure of Drax is a problem, that problem is not to be feared as much as Drax’s possible success, because if other countries were to buy into the Drax model and copy us by burning trees in our power stations, the environmental disaster that the Drax model is already causing would simply become a catastrophe, as other Members have mentioned. Chatham House forecasts that there could be 30 times the current demand for wood pellets. There is already a shortfall of 400 million trees near the wood pellet plants in the USA. Imagine what happens when forests are stripped at 30 times the current rate—and that is just the forests.

We also need to think about the carbon that is emitted as we burn trees. Drax is by far the biggest emitter of carbon in the UK. That is not surprising, because the IPCC says that burning wood creates 18% more carbon than burning coal—it is even worse than coal. However, of the CO2 produced by burning those 27 million trees, how much was recorded on our national carbon accounts? Zero. Nothing. That is because the Government pretend that all the trees immediately grow back, absorbing the same amount of carbon. That is a fiction, which undermines confidence in the Government’s claim to be reducing emissions. Scientists estimate that where felled trees are replanted, the amount of time it takes for the carbon that has gone up the chimney to be reabsorbed is between 44 and 104 years. We have only 27 years until 2050. Furthermore, the BBC’s “Panorama” disclosed that an official Canadian document showed that only 11% of Drax’s wood was genuine waste that had no other proper use.

What will happen if other countries were to copy our tree-burning behaviour, creating a 30-fold increase in demand for wood pellets? The quality of wood being used for pellets would go up and up, which would push up timber prices and the price of land. The EU’s top think-tank, the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council—or EASAC—forecasts that 482 million hectares of land would be needed, which is an area bigger than India. The competition for land between the wood pellet industry and farming would make food price inflation even worse as a consequence. The global biomass industry would be just as thirsty for water. The IPCC says that the demand for water could push the planetary boundaries for freshwater use. Yorkshire Water already has enough problems supplying the region around Drax.

Last year, 500 scientists signed a letter denouncing the burning of trees for energy. Those who believe that the practice is worsening climate change rather than helping in the battle against it now range from Greta Thunberg to the financial rating agency Standard and Poor’s. We had better take heed.

What can be done? First, the Government need to put Drax’s wood-burning boilers at the top of their list of the next high-carbon power stations to mothball. Improvements in grid connectivity, storage technology and the growth of renewables will combine to give us the opportunity to end our dependence on high-carbon Drax. Secondly, as the right hon. Member for Spelthorne said in August, other technologies are advancing far faster and we should invest in them. Thirdly, when the Government’s paper on biomass comes out, there will be no hiding. The media now know that over the last 10 years BEIS has forced consumers to pay £6 billion of so-called renewable subsidies for energy, which the then Secretary of State said is simply “not sustainable”.

The Drax tax is politically unsustainable. There will definitely be no patience for gifting Drax another £31 billion for the pipedream of BECCS. The UK Government’s experiment with burning trees has failed and has turned BEIS not into a global leader, but a global pariah because it destroys forests, is pouring untold amounts of carbon into the skies and pretends that it is emitting nothing.

10:36
Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
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I have listened very carefully to the debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing it.

Overall, we have had a thoughtful debate about the difficult issues facing UK energy production, including what sources it is right or wrong to use, subsidies that might be put in place, and arrangements for the production of comparatively low-carbon energy that could provide power more cheaply and efficiently, as well as, most importantly, on a lower carbon basis.

As the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) mentioned, undoubtedly a while ago biomass was thought to be a simple proposition for power production that was fine in terms of the overall carbon cycle: it uses trees that grow again, thus balancing the CO2 put into the atmosphere through burning. Actually, the same is true of gas power, for example, only carbon has been sequestered in the ground over many millions of years and now we are putting it back into the atmosphere. It is all about cycles and the carbon replacement period, which is an important initial point to consider. The debate has moved on considerably, because people are thinking carefully about what those cycles mean for carbon replacement.

We need to question if it is ever right to use thermal means to produce power. We currently have 200 biomass generators in the UK, producing 88% of UK power. In addition, whether or not we regard burning wood waste and other materials for power as unacceptable, we have 54 energy and waste plants across the country that produce some power, half of which produce a lot of heat that can be used for district heating purposes. They ought to come into the carbon balance equation that we are trying to achieve.

We have heard today an incontrovertible point: taking whole trees, burning them for power and transporting the product of those trees across large parts of the world is clearly not the best use for them. That is particularly the case if those whole trees have not been grown in farmed or managed forests but in primeval ones, where they have captured carbon for many centuries, and are being clear felled and used to fill a hole in energy production.

Barry Gardiner Portrait Barry Gardiner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Would my hon. Friend also accept the distinction that a managed forest for production timber and biomass has nowhere near the biodiversity that there is in the primary forests that we have been talking about? It is a matter that we cannot look at simply in terms of carbon emissions; we have to look at it in terms of wider sustainability and the biodiversity of species.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Yes, indeed, we need to take careful account of the points my hon. Friend has made about wider biodiversity issues. However, we have sources of material—starting with the idea of managed forests, under certain circumstances, or energy crops, under other circumstances—that are much shorter in their use and carbon sequestration, such as miscanthus and short-rotation coppicing of willow. Those can be produced with a very short time of burning and resequestration. However, as my hon. Friend has said, there may be other environmental consequences attached to the practice.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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Is it not the outcome of today’s debate that burning wood or biomass is neither low in carbon nor a renewable source of energy—so why are we still subsiding the industry?

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
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That was the case I was trying to pick apart. Is it right that we should ever burn anything for power? If we burn some things for power, what are the circumstances under which we burn them and what are the constraints we have to put on their burning? One of the issues is just how much we pay for that burning. If there are better uses for the subsidies we might put towards that burning, then we should undertake those instead. We need to be very mean in terms of the resource we put into subsidies so that we get the best outcome for those subsidies.

We cannot draw an overall conclusion today about the wide issue of what is waste, whether it is appropriate to burn it under any circumstances and how we manage that waste stream. Clearly, with whole forests—even if they are managed—the production of timber that goes into houses and buildings is a much better way of sequestering carbon from that timber than burning it. Waste material, on the other hand, does not have the same uses, although the hon. Member for North Devon mentioned the wood panelling industry, where there are certain uses for roundwood and other timber that can sequester carbon in a better way than burning it. However, we still have the issue of whether there is a role at all for biomass burning and waste burning in future.

We have also had a discussion about CCS, on the back of burning wood, residual material and waste. That applies to energy from waste just as it does to biomass use. Of course, the Climate Change Committee is quite keen on BECCS. The idea is that the whole process can become net negative as far as contributions to net zero are concerned, and we are producing a net negative contribution to the overall carbon balance, providing that CCS works well and sequesters as much carbon as it is supposed to.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
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This is being put forward as another way of trying to deal with the unfortunate consequences of the CO2 emissions from the Drax station. First, carbon capture and storage is expensive. Secondly, it would use about a third of the power that is produced to capture the gas.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Whitehead
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

This underpins just how wide this debate really is and what we need to think about: for example, is CCS a reasonable way to go forward in sequestering emissions over the long period and how much is that going to cost overall in subsidies? My conclusion is that, yes, there is a role for biomass and for energy from waste, with the proper constraints and the proper circumstances under which we provide that power. It has a role, but not a large role. On the other hand, we need every source of low and lowish carbon energy that we can get at the moment, so we need it to make a contribution, but not a large one, to our overall power arrangements.

I look forward to the rather delayed biomass strategy that the Government are about to publish, which perhaps will give us a much better understanding of these issues as they combine together. I hope the Minister will give us a foretaste of what that biomass strategy will look like so that we can move this debate forward.

10:47
Graham Stuart Portrait The Minister for Energy and Climate (Graham Stuart)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on securing the debate and thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their participation.

My first reflection, having heard the tenor of the debate and the contributions so far, is that I have a bit of an uphill struggle to the persuade people in Westminster Hall of my case. It was noticeable in the contribution of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), given in his classically well-informed but downbeat style, that the position of His Majesty’s Opposition is to support the use of biomass. They think it does have a role, although the hon. Gentleman caveated that by saying that it was “not a large” contribution, which in the overall scheme of our energy use perhaps leaves a lot of unanswered questions. However, I welcome the fact that he said that.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon raised important questions about biomass sustainability. I welcome the opportunity to clarify both the type of material and the stringent requirements we have in place to ensure that we support the sustainable use of this valuable resource. Using sustainable biomass in energy generation in the UK’s power sector has helped to reduce the use of fossil fuels. In 2021, biomass made up 12.9% of total electricity generation and the flexible generation provided by biomass technologies helps to support and stabilise the grid. It is not comparable with renewables, which by their very nature are not dispatchable and available as and when they are required—unlike biomass.

The use of wood pellets for bioenergy production has attracted a lot of interest and it is right that operations are closely scrutinised. However, there are claims against wood pellet use for bioenergy from forests that misrepresent on-the-ground forestry practices. That is short-sighted and ignores the environmental and social benefits of sustainable forest practices and the role that forest-derived biomass plays in supporting them.

Policy decisions need to be based on facts and rigorous evidence gathering, not on inaccuracies and misconceptions. The use of biomass from sustainably managed forests in well supported by evidence and experts such as the International Energy Agency, which is the global authority on energy, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which I would have thought that Members present would regard as being particularly well placed to make judgments on the balances that need to be struck in coming up with policy, yet the tenor of today’s debate is to dismiss these global experts and the different organisations that have looked at this issue extensively and come to the conclusion that the use of biomass is sustainable and right.

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I will make a little more progress, if I may.

It is important to remember that wood used for bioenergy is not high-quality and high-value timber. Although it has been said repeatedly in the debate that wood used for bioenergy diverts material away from other uses, the opposite is true. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), who comes from the construction industry, the value of timber for other uses is much higher than the value of timber used for waste, so there is no economic rationale for using it.

Wood pellets and Drax purchases do not compete, because they do not offer the same financial return. The idea—it has obviously been seeded, taken root and taken off, because I hear it again and again—that people are, in a sinister way, diverting excellent wood from uses for which they would get paid a lot more money to a use for which they get paid a lot less has spread, and it has become a conspiracy. In fact, bioenergy use does the opposite: it supports sustainable forestry. It supports the very forests that can supply wood panelling and construction material. We can ensure that it is part and parcel of delivering a stronger forestry industry around the world, and that we can have more wooden-constructed homes, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives suggested we should have.

Barry Gardiner Portrait Barry Gardiner
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I am sorry to interrupt the Minister in his rhetorical flow, but does he accept that two of the licences that Drax has utilised in British Colombia were for areas of primary forest that have been destroyed? Those areas—in one case, more than one square mile of primary forest—have been clear-felled, and Drax has denied it.

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I will write to the hon. Gentleman on that specific issue, as it is right that I give him a proper answer. On investigation, we do not find that the allegations that “Panorama” made are fundamentally sustained. The general process involves thinnings. Every managed forest has to be thinned in order to be sustainably managed, and thinnings sometimes include whole trees—that is the nature of forest management. If we do not do it, it does not have the desired effect. It is worth saying again to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon that young, vigorous stands grow and sequester carbon at maximum speed. As stands get older, the tree canopy closes and individual trees begin to die off from self-thinning and other causes. Very old forest stands can reach a carbon-neutral equilibrium, whereby trees die and decay at approximately the same rate as they grow back.

It is worth saying that before thinnings were used for bioenergy and turned into pellets, they were typically burned to get rid of them. The idea that the use of biomass is taking away fundamental primary forest, which is being cut down even though there are better uses for it, is false, but I will write to the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) about the specifics of that. It is always possible that there are exceptions, but Canada and the United States have really strong forest management and sustainability practices, regulations and laws. We have looked closely at the issue, and if they wish to keep this business going and manage the crops of these forests, they have every incentive to maintain them.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon that we could do with bringing in some experts, and I will hold a meeting. Let us have the scientists in and discuss some of this stuff—it would be an opportunity to talk about it further.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby
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I thank the Minister for giving way on this point, although I am very disappointed by the stance he is taking. Will he invite the 600 scientists who wrote to the Prime Minister earlier this week with their very detailed analysis? The professors with whom many of us in this room have spent much time understand that the science has evolved and that some of the information we used back in 2014 is no longer correct. We need to re-evaluate things; we cannot just get stuck on what we used to do in the past.

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We must not get stuck in the past, and we need to have a thorough and proper examination of the issues. That is why, as one small contribution to that, bringing in the Government experts and the people we are listening to would be a useful way to carry on with this and make sure that we are making the right judgments overall. The last thing we want to do is get this wrong. As successive Members have said, there is a substantial subsidy involved for a start, and we want to ensure that whatever we are doing is the most sustainable, both economically and environmentally, for the good of the country. It is well worth having that conversation.

Forest sites are harvested to produce fibre for multiple products, such as timber, plywood and oriented strand board, among others. Those industries invariably pay more for the fibre. Wood pellets for bioenergy make up only a small portion of a harvest—notwithstanding the talk of 27 million trees—and help to maximise the benefit of each harvest. It is, effectively, a harvest—an energy crop, and a by-product energy crop of the main product, which is timber produced for other uses.

Material that is not wanted by sawmills can be used when it does not have a suitable destination in the sourcing regions—for example, when there is a lack of local pulp and paper mills or other suitable industries. The destination of lower-quality material such as low-grade roundwood that is unsuitable for use in sawmills depends on the types of industry present around the sourcing area. If there is a pulp or paper mill nearby or a wood panel producer, material suitable for use in those industries is taken there, as those end users pay more for the fibre than wood pellet producers do. It is simply not economical for the harvester to sell those materials to the pellet mill if other, higher-paying industries are present.

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I give way, for the last time, I think.

Barry Gardiner Portrait Barry Gardiner
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister has been generous in giving way, and I appreciate that. Will he address an issue that many Members have raised, which is the payback period and the cycles not being short enough to achieve the emissions reductions in the timeframe that the climate will allow?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman, as so often, has put his finger on the central point. We cannot do this by looking at an individual tree. We look at the whole forest and different parts of it, which are of different ages. That forest is harvested in an ordered way. We need to look at the whole forest, and as long as there is replanting—that is precisely what the sustainability criteria are about, and those are applied in Canada, America and elsewhere—and the overall carbon sequestration is maintained, and indeed over time preferably increased, there are no emissions, effectively.

Let me return to the point source emissions at Drax and say that that is why we do not count them. As long as the overall picture is in balance—this is only a by-product of the energy crop and of the main use, which is for timber—we can see, straightforwardly, that it is right not to view that as having emissions. That is what the policies are in place to try to ensure.

I must allow two minutes for my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon, and I look forward to a further discussion of the matter. As has been said, I have been in the job for only a relatively short time, and, as Members can tell, I am seized of a certain view, but I am certainly interested—

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

So was a previous Minister.

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We have had those quotes, which might or might not have been accurate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) did then say that he fully supported Drax and the policy of the Government. He was not a junior Minister; he was Secretary of State, so if he had a different view he could have said so. I do not suppose he was too constrained.

Anyway, I look forward to further examination of the issue, but I should give the floor to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon.

10:58
Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank you, Mr Gray, for chairing the debate, and my colleagues for their contributions. I suspect we will return to the issue, and I would be happy to join the Minister in doing so.

As we move through the transition to net zero, it is vital that we understand that things are going to change, that the science has changed and that we are moving forward. When people first burned coal, they did not understand the damage they were doing to the planet, and I think the same is true for wood pellets. In 1959, plastic bags were invented to stop us cutting down trees to make paper bags, and we recognise now that that probably was not the right decision.

I hope that as the Minister reviews the matter and considers the release of his biomass strategy, he will find those same advisers who persuaded the former Secretary of State that importing trees to burn is not a sustainable practice in view of our intention to get to net zero by 2050. On the current path, we are simply not going to achieve that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the sustainability of burning trees for energy generation.

Blackpool Airport: Public Service Obligation Funding

Tuesday 6th December 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

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11:00
Mark Menzies Portrait Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered public service obligation funding and Blackpool Airport.

As always, it is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Blackpool airport has a long and proud history—from hosting the UK’s first official public flying meeting to playing its part in the war effort as RAF Squires Gate. During peacetime, the airport’s focus turned to private and commercial aviation. The arrival of low-cost air travel in the early 2000s saw the airport truly take off and resulted in a fivefold increase in passenger numbers, which peaked at more than 500,000 in the late noughties.

Changes in ownership and contractual issues with airlines triggered a period of decline. Passenger numbers halved from the peak of 500,000 in 2014, and that year saw the last commercial flights from the airport. Since then, I have fought to preserve the site’s viability for scheduled passenger flights, including by opposing development that would have left the airport with a shortened runway. The airport is now owned by Blackpool Council, which has brought much-needed stability and security. I share the ambition of the airport team to use the Government’s enterprise zone investment to make the most of the site. That includes exploring how scheduled passenger flights can return.

In June this year, I welcomed the then Prime Minister to Blackpool airport, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton). Prior to that, in March, I hosted a visit from the then Transport Secretary, who is now the Business Secretary. Most recently, the Northern Ireland Secretary visited the airport. On all three occasions, we highlighted the potential of Blackpool airport and discussed the possibility of kick-starting the revival of passenger flights. Nobody is expecting the immediate return of major airlines flying holidaymakers to the Costas, but there are opportunities to explore historic and important connections that will not only greatly benefit Blackpool but improve transport links between the regions of the United Kingdom.

Public service obligation routes are connections to which the Government provide substantial subsidies that open up routes that would otherwise not be commercially viable. Current UK Government rules dictate that PSO flights must be between London and a regional airport. That does not apply to devolved Governments, and Scotland has been particularly effective at using PSOs to support connections between the central belt, highlands and islands. I checked this morning and found that Blackpool airport is slightly more than an hour’s drive from Manchester and Liverpool airports, and therefore qualifies for PSO flights to London.

PSO flights would make it easier for people in Lancashire to travel for business, leisure or onward connections and would support the Government in delivering on the levelling-up promise to coastal communities, such as those I serve in Fylde. However, this must be about more than just improving access to London. The approach of focusing solely on London is out of tune with the Government’s commitment to levelling up and the future of our Union. Airports in London and the south-east have long struggled with runway capacity.

I want the PSO rules to change to allow a shift in emphasis to connecting our nations and regions. Indeed, that idea is supported by Sir Peter Hendy, who lists it among his recommendations in the Government’s Union connectivity review. As Sir Peter points out in the review, new regional PSO routes would likely be cost-neutral to the Treasury. This opportunity to boost regional growth, support levelling up and bolster links within the Union should not be missed.

Robert Courts Portrait Robert Courts (Witney) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is making extremely powerful points. The House will know that I was Aviation Minister until the summer, and I was lucky enough to visit his outstanding airport and meet the energetic team there. I can see how important it is to his area.

He mentioned a couple of points that also have national importance, particularly that of PSO policy connecting not just with London but between regions. PSOs traditionally rely on subsidy—

James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Order. Interventions must be brief.

Robert Courts Portrait Robert Courts
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg your pardon, Mr Gray. Has my hon. Friend considered the role that targeted air passenger duty relief—not a direct subsidy, but targeted APD relief —could play on routes that are non-operational or marginal?

Mark Menzies Portrait Mark Menzies
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the former Minister for his intervention; he brings some important material to the debate. I hope the Minister will consider that sort of targeted APD relief in his response. It opens up another way to support the recommencement of flights from Blackpool to airports around the United Kingdom, which is incredibly important.

I return to the point I was making. As Sir Peter points out in his review, new regional PSO routes would likely be cost-neutral to the Treasury. For example, Blackpool Airport has historic links to Northern Ireland, with a route to Belfast the last route to run commercially from the airport; it ended only because of contractual and licensing issues with the operation.

Blackpool has numerous advantages over alternatives in the north-west, being cheaper to operate from than Manchester and Liverpool. Given its proximity to the airport enterprise zone in my constituency and Blackpool town centre, there is a real possibility of desk-to-desk travel time of little over an hour and half for Anglo-Irish business. PSO routes to places such as Belfast and Londonderry could potentially be the first steps towards greater regional connectivity to places such as Scotland, and in particular the central belt, which has strong cultural and economic ties to Blackpool.

Scott Benton Portrait Scott Benton (Blackpool South) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend has set out a powerful case for reforming public service obligation routes. I am sure he would agree that the Government have a good record on regional aviation so far, not just with the cut to air passenger duty but with the measures in the 10-point aviation plan and the regional connectivity review. However, Blackpool Airport is owned and run by Labour-run Blackpool Council. Does my hon. Friend agree that the council must do far more to look for opportunities to develop the airport and regional flights?

Mark Menzies Portrait Mark Menzies
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend makes an important point, in that the airport is owned and run by the council. Much of that I welcome, because under the previous private ownership there was a danger of that asset being run into the ground and developed for non-airport-related purposes. That would have been of great concern to me. There is an opportunity now for the Government to work in conjunction with the council to raise the ambition of the airport owners—the council—to seek ways to stimulate and bring forward flights from the airport. I am sure my hon. Friend and I will work with all parties to try to secure that.

Teesside Airport is a possible destination and an inspiration for what a future Blackpool Airport might look like. I believe the PSOs can be a vital catalyst and a first step towards the return of flights from Blackpool, ultimately to continental Europe. Importantly, those opportunities may not be seen as contrary to environmental commitments. Just last week, easyJet and Rolls-Royce trialled the first jet engine powered by hydrogen, providing a glimpse of a lower-carbon future. Blackpool Airport has ambitions to be a leader in sustainable short-haul aviation, be that through electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft or innovation through new low-carbon fuels. The airport is keen to include electric charging and hydrogen fuelling infrastructure in its redevelopment plans.

Regional airports, such as Belfast and Londonderry, are within the range of the generation of electrical aircraft in development. Currently, the opportunity to introduce those on a commercial basis is very much on the horizon. As we look to a low-carbon future, Blackpool provides a fantastic opportunity to support and showcase the development of a clean, green short-haul flight technology.

Furthermore, as Lancashire continues to grow as a green energy hub, with its strategic location on Britain’s energy coast for wind and tidal power, and its position in the north-west nuclear arc, we can use the flights to connect other areas, leading to the technologies of the future. There are 41,000 workers in the energy and environment sector in Lancashire. Those industries have a significant footprint for Scotland and the north-east of England and will continue to grow in future decades. The Fylde coast is already training the next generation of engineers in those industries at the renowned Blackpool energy college which, incidentally, is located on the site of the former terminal building.

Beyond the Fylde and Blackpool, the airport’s location gives it great onward connections to Lancashire and the wider north-west, as it is just minutes from the M55. The south Fylde line stops several hundred metres away, giving quick access to Lytham St Annes and Kirkham in my constituency, as well as onwards to Blackpool and Preston, the latter providing connections on to local Lancashire services, the west coast main line, and the future High Speed 2.

Blackpool airport is a fantastic asset for Lancashire, with potential to support its manufacturing and energy sectors, as well as its fantastic tourism sector. Its closure to commercial flights remains a key issue locally, and residents the length and breadth of the Fylde coast continue to push for their return. The team at the airport have the drive and vision to get this off the ground. They are eager to make a success of the airport, embracing new low-carbon technologies and the opportunities that they present. An initial terminal building may not need to be large—just sufficient to get passengers checked in and safely on to their flights, as part of a longer-term vision to add further routes and investment to the airport’s infrastructure. We have seen that work elsewhere, and it can work again at Blackpool airport.

Levelling up, strengthening our Union and the drive for net zero are at the very heart of the Government’s mission. With a little help to get things off the ground, Blackpool airport can support all three objectives. All that is required are small tweaks to the rules surrounding PSOs, combined with relatively minor investments and alternative support, such as targeted relief on air passenger duty for routes from small regional airports—again, estimated to be cost-neutral to the Treasury. This is a good opportunity, and we should not pass it up. I know that the Minister will recognise that, and I hope that he will take the steps required to reinvigorate Blackpool airport.

11:09
Jesse Norman Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Jesse Norman)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a delight to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I am also delighted to respond to the very good speech and useful interventions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Fylde (Mark Menzies), for Witney (Robert Courts) and for Blackpool South (Scott Benton). I am a man with a family background in general aviation. Many years ago, I got a private pilot licence, and my uncle designed the Britten-Norman Islander. I do not know whether Members recall the moment in the James Bond film “Spectre” when the plane is flying along and gets its wings knocked off and goes skiing. That was a Britten-Norman Islander designed by my uncle, so we have a certain amount of traction in this field, and a certain sympathy for the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde.

Let me be clear that within the Department for Transport we recognise the importance of Blackpool airport to the region. We also recognise it as the centre of the Blackpool airport enterprise zone, set up as a hub for business, medevac, flying schools and general aviation. I note that this is the second debate that we have had this year on this topic, or a related topic. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South for his earlier debate, which I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Witney responded to very ably as the Minister. There is a certain circularity here, but there is also a sense of energy and purpose that all three of my hon. Friends have rightly brought to the issue. I thank them very much for what they have said.

As my hon. Friends have been at pains to emphasise, the UK enjoys what is in many ways a world-leading competitive commercial aviation sector, with airports and airlines operating and investing to attract passengers and respond to demand. Airports themselves have a key role to play as part of the sector. Where opportunities for growth exist, local partners can come together with the industry to develop the business case for new commercial flights. My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde rightly focused on the key goals of commercial development and sustainability of the airport, levelling up, and Union integration.

It is for airports, local authorities, local enterprise partnerships, local businesses and other stakeholders to try to come together to build the case for commercial flights and work with airline partners to create new connections for their communities. Airlines will ultimately determine the routes they operate based on their own assessment of commercial viability. As my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde said, it is notable that Blackpool has a proud history of innovation in this area as well as a historically thriving tourism industry. The airport was used as recently as 15 or so years ago—perhaps even less. We need to consider the question of the commercial development of the airport in the context of the wider processes of levelling up and regeneration.

As hon. Members will know, air travel is provided almost entirely by a competitive market. There is no bespoke funding or support from Government for new routes, but there is support for domestic connectivity. The 50% reduction in domestic air passenger duty was designed to provide that support. It was part of a package of air passenger duty reforms. There was a new reduced domestic band to support regional connectivity and a new ultra-long-haul band to align air passenger duty more closely with environmental objectives. That begins from April next year.

The question of a targeted APD is very interesting. I have no doubt, speaking as a former Treasury Minister in part, that the thought of a hypothecated or targeted APD will cause severe tremors and, dare I say, nervous palpitations within the Treasury—for many understandable and obvious reasons. As Ernie Bevin once said in a different context,

“Open up that Pandora’s box, you never know what Trojan horses will jump out.”

Robert Courts Portrait Robert Courts
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister makes a good point. The 50% APD cut was welcome, but my point is about what the Department calls open PSOs. Those are not a further Treasury subsidy, but simply the removal of APD on routes that are non-operational—where the Treasury is getting no revenue or marginal revenue. There is a business growth opportunity there. That is what I am asking him to push the Treasury on, though I appreciate it is not in his gift.

Jesse Norman Portrait Jesse Norman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That clarification is very helpful. There is a way of thinking with open PSOs that is not just tied to APD, but I will come back to the question of PSOs in general.

We have some support for administered connectivity through domestic APD. We are continuing to explore alternative routes and are seeing whether there are other ways to address this. In the context of PSOs, I will lay a slightly different emphasis from my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde. It is important to recognise that the PSO policy as it presently is set up is designed to support not new flight—that is the question being raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney—but routes that have previously been operated commercially or are now at risk of being lost.

The question of new routes is somewhat different. The routes that are funded at the moment, at least across the UK, are modest. There are three public service obligations: from Londonderry/Derry to Stansted, Newquay to London Gatwick, and Dundee to London City. An additional 17 PSOs connect the highlands and islands of Scotland, which are wholly within the borders of Scotland. The administration and funding of those, by agreement with the Department for Transport, is the responsibility of the Scottish Government.

We operate within a context of existing policy. To the point about the stance of the local authority, as raised by colleagues, it is important to say that my officials have so far received no requests from the local authority to discuss the need for any PSO routes from Blackpool airport—I will leave local colleagues to decide how they want to interpret that. Of course, if there was going to be PSO support, it would have to be initiated and agreed with the local authority, and the fact that we have heard nothing from them is not helpful to the cause being promoted.

As I say, PSOs are considered in the context of commercial services that either are at risk of being lost or have recently—generally speaking, within the past two years—been lost. The loss referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde goes outside that remit and therefore does not fit within the existing policy. If and when it did apply, which would undoubtedly be part of the same process as the consideration of any new routes in the future, which I will come on to shortly, it would be through a business case, warmly and widely agreed locally, in which the local authority would play a leading role. That is very important. Hon. Friends will be aware that levelling up works effectively only when everyone is lined up in the same way. When business, the local authority, local Members of Parliament and other key stakeholders are so lined up, it can be enormously effective and successful.

As a reminder to all, eligible routes should be ones in which there are historically no viable alternative modes of travel and where it is deemed and demonstrated to be vital to the social and economic development of the region.

It is important to say that if and when a PSO is granted under the current policy, there must then be a procurement exercise to find an airline, which, in turn, needs to be a full and open tender for selection. The subsidy provided is based on the airline’s operating losses on that route, which it must submit as part of a tender bid. It is a very context-dependent decision. Of course, those things would be independently assessed, as any new approach would have to decide how, where there had not been a prior existing commercial flight, a non-distortive method of subsidy and support could be provided.

Let me pick up a couple of points relating to the Union connectivity review that were rightly raised by colleagues. As hon. Members will recall, in November 2021, Sir Peter Hendy published an independent review designed to explore how improvements to transport connectivity between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England could boost not just economic growth but access to opportunities, everyday connection and social integration. The review identified the key importance of airports and air connectivity by providing connectivity both into London and in and between peripheral regions, which gets to the points raised by colleagues today.

As hon. Members might imagine, the Government are considering our response to the Union connectivity review, and my colleague Baroness Vere leads on the issue of aviation. Our response will be Department-wide, because it is a multimodal strategic review in nature. As part of that, we are exploring further opportunities to utilise PSOs in order to support regional connectivity and the levelling-up agenda.

My officials have already been actively considering how airport slots are allocated in the UK. Now that the UK has left the EU, there is an opportunity for the Government to legislate to improve the slots system to ensure it provides the connectivity that UK passengers need. That can be expected to have knock-on effects on economic growth around the country.

Regional airports play an important role in levelling up. It is important to recognise that that is not just about the foundation of the wider UK aviation sector; it is also about the business opportunities that can be directly generated as a result of the supply chains and other enterprise engagement. Members will recall that the Government published a strategy on the future of aviation, “Flightpath to the future”, which sets out a vision for the sector over the next 10 years. It includes not just connectivity, which we have discussed, but workforce, skills, innovation and decarbonisation.

We expect a naturally low-carbon approach to the regeneration of any new airports for all the reasons my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde set out. That is a potential source of advantage if it is properly handled. It is our goal that UK domestic flights should be net zero by 2040, and airport operations, which are an important potential ancillary contributor to carbon emissions, should be zero emission by 2040. We are providing significant support for that, not just for sustainable aviation fuels but for the commercialisation of those plants and other research and development co-investment —in particular, through the Aerospace Technology Institute. Alongside that, the levelling-up agenda, jet zero and net zero provide the context within which there can be diversification, a deepening and broadening, and a very significant boost to the activity conducted in and around airports.

I want to give my hon. Friend a moment to respond—

James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

No, you don’t. Not in a half-hour debate.

Jesse Norman Portrait Jesse Norman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

In any case, I will not abuse the privilege by speaking further. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde very much for his comments, and I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Witney and for Blackpool South for their interventions and the interest they have shown in this issue.

Question put and agreed to.

11:27
Sitting suspended.

Southeastern Railway Timetable Changes

Tuesday 6th December 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Carolyn Harris in the Chair]
14:30
Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Southeastern railway timetable changes.

It is genuinely a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris, for the first time, I think. We are here because on 4 August Southeastern sought and got the Government’s permission to cut rail services without consultation. It is cutting two trains from the morning peak in my constituency on the New Eltham and Mottingham line, and three from the Eltham and Kidbrooke line. On the Bexleyheath line, which services Eltham and Kidbrooke, it is cutting three trains out of 15—a 20% cut in the morning peak capacity of trains that go via London Bridge. It is a similar cut in New Eltham and Mottingham, where the number of trains will go from 18 down to 16, but there is the welcome addition of one single train that goes to New Eltham via Blackfriars. Given an average of 10-car trains, the cuts on the Bexleyheath line amount to 3,000 passengers at peak time who have to find spaces on the remaining trains. It is a similar situation on the New Eltham line.

Before the pandemic, we had PiXC—passengers in excess of capacity—on our lines. We campaigned previously for additional trains, particularly off peak, and were successful in getting them. Transport planners do not recognise that our part of south-east London is not served by the London underground and we rely very heavily on train services. The cuts take no account of that fact, nor of the fact that my constituency has a huge new development at Kidbrooke, which has had a considerable effect on the numbers of passengers getting on and off trains at Kidbrooke station.

According to the Office of Rail and Road, there were 890,000 passenger exits and entrances at Kidbrooke station in 2010. That had risen by more than 42% to 1.5 million by 2018. During the pandemic, as we would expect, the number of exits and entrances went down to 429,000 in 2020, but it is already back over 1 million at Kidbrooke station and it is continuing to rise. There were also increases at Eltham station, but on nowhere near the scale of the increases at Kidbrooke station because of that development.

The Kidbrooke development is approaching 7,000 homes, about half of which have been completed. Passenger entrances and exits had already increased by 640,000, as I said, but that was prior to the pandemic. Taking that as a guide, that means we will see a further 1.5 million entrances and exits at that station by the time all the properties are built. The proximity to the train station was used as justification by the developer Berkeley Homes, as well as by the Mayor of London and Transport for London, in respect of the development of 619 homes at Kidbrooke. Was that taken into consideration when the Government approved the cuts to train services?

Back in September 2017 we all thought we had cracked the problem of overcrowding. We all campaigned to get extra trains and longer trains on the line and the Government allowed Southeastern to do that—we were told that we got 68 extra carriages. The then managing director, David Statham, said:

“Longer trains will mean more seats, more space and more comfortable journeys…Southeastern has worked very closely with the Department for Transport and Govia Thameslink Railway to deliver this extra capacity for passengers.”

The press release went on to say that trains to Hayes, Bexleyheath, Woolwich, Sidcup, Bromley South and Grove Park would be lengthened. We were told we were going to get extra capacity, not less. Now we are told there is a need to rationalise services post covid.

A report on Southeastern published in July by the Office of Rail and Road shows that 2018-19 was its busiest year—but then, of course, the pandemic hit us. There were 183.2 million passenger journeys in 2018-19, but the number dropped to 40.2 million in 2019-20. In 2021-22, passenger journeys went up to 97.8 million, which is more than a 50% increase, and they are continuing to rise, so this is hardly the climate in which we should undertake cuts.

David Evennett Portrait Sir David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman is doing a really good job of explaining the figures. In the London Borough of Bexley, a lot of new apartments and houses are being built and there will be increased demand.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Absolutely. I do not think any account has been taken of the increased demand from the additional development in our part of London—certainly not the demand from the very big development at Kidbrooke. We are seeing considerable growth and no one can know where it will end.

We see a similar pattern in passenger kilometres. Again, the highest number was in 2018-19. That dropped massively in 2020-21, but more than doubled in 2021-22. For planned trains—the trains agreed with Southeastern and Network Rail the night before they run—2018-19 was the busiest year, with 654,389 trains. The number dropped to 527,855 in 2020-21, then still further in 2021-22 to 523,965—that is a 20% drop in planned trains. If we look at the performance figures—bear in mind that the Government’s rationale is that running fewer trains makes the trains more efficient—we do not see the huge improvement in performance that we would expect from running considerably fewer trains, so the Government’s argument that fewer is better is not borne out by the facts.

The rationale is the old chestnut that the all the trains crossing over west of Lewisham create too much congestion, which leads to knock-on effects and delays. That argument was rolled out several years ago when Southeastern wanted to take away the Victoria service from the Bexleyheath line. It was the same story: “It’s all those trains crossing over west of Lewisham.” Back then, I spoke to some rail experts about the problem and they told me that what Network Rail and Southeastern were saying was complete nonsense. There is not a problem with trains crossing over at that point unless there is bad maintenance and a lack of investment in the infrastructure.

We need to be clear about what is happening. In Transport questions recently, the Minister said to me:

“It is not just about taking down some costs; it is also about simplifying the line structure, so that at Lewisham, for example, there will not be as many trains crossing.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2022; Vol. 723, c. 436.]

First, this is about cost cutting—the Minister has made that clear. There is then this issue of too many trains crossing. It might be fine to say that to people who still have trains, but we are having trains cut. Obviously, our trains cannot cross if they do not exist, so actually what the Minister says is true: the service will improve because the trains are not there. If we follow that logic, we should perhaps just get rid of all the trains; that would solve the problems on our railway.

When I first asked questions about these cuts, I was told that cutting peak-time trains would reduce cancellations and delays. When I pressed further, I was told:

“The number of train services in the new timetable is broadly very similar to the current timetable on both of these routes.”

I pushed a bit further, because that answer denied that there are cuts on the Bexleyheath and Sidcup lines. The idea that the trains will run better becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because nobody can be criticised for a delayed train that does not exist. Given the logic of the solution that running a future railway should be based on cuts to services, I suspect we will be back here again listening to the Minister explain why we need to cut trains further because we still have a problem of poor maintenance and lack of investment in the infrastructure west of Lewisham.

First, the Government tried to avoid admitting they had approved the cuts without consultation; I was told that they would reduce cancellations, which is not what I had asked. Then, the Government said there would be a similar number of trains, when I had asked how many cuts there would be. It has been a shameful attempt by the Government to avoid their responsibility for approving cuts to our services. Admitting now that there are cuts is a welcome step, but that will make everyone else’s trains run on time while we have to endure cuts.

The new timetable has been imposed without listening to our constituents. It is too late to change that and the Government are determined to press ahead. What is the Minister going to do to monitor the situation so we do not go back to overcrowded trains and a poor service after the new timetable is introduced? That is what we endured before and I see nothing in the decision to cut our train services that is going to change it.

14:41
David Evennett Portrait Sir David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris; it is the first time for me as well. I am particularly pleased to see my personal and political friend, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) in his place to respond to the debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), from my neighbouring borough, on securing this important debate and thank him for doing so. He made a powerful case with the facts and figures on passenger numbers. That is very important and he has done a good job and a good service for us in south-east London by raising those figures.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise such an important issue on behalf of my constituents in Bexleyheath and Crayford. The decisions affect so much and so many people adversely. I am pleased to see present a number of colleagues from both the Conservative and Labour parties, singing from the same hymn sheet. It is important that these issues are considered to be cross-party. We are grateful to participate in the hon. Member for Eltham’s debate.

Bexley is not on either the London underground or Docklands light railway network. Although the Elizabeth line was originally proposed to run through Bexley and hopefully to Ebbsfleet, it now terminates at Abbey Wood in Greenwich, so there are limited viable alternatives to Southeastern rail services for the people of our area to use to get into central London. For example, although it is fewer than 15 miles from my home in Bexleyheath to Westminster, to travel exclusively by bus would probably take two hours, which is just not practical in any day-to-day commute. My constituents are therefore more reliant than most on rail services to travel to central London, whether to commute, to go to health meetings or for social reasons. For hospitals, work and pleasure, they use the railway and they use those services.

I know the hon. Member for Eltham is, like me, a regular commuter, as we often travel on the same train. As such, we know and appreciate constituents’ anger about the services that they pay for and share the view that Southeastern, having a monopoly, is failing its customers. However, rather than talk about the shocking service that we have suffered over many years, and which the hon. Gentleman and I have batted away regularly over the past five or six years at least, I shall focus today on the inconsiderate, unfair and damaging new timetable that Southeastern plans to implement later this month.

The new timetable affects all three of the lines that go through my constituency, as the Bexleyheath, Sidcup and Woolwich lines all go through Bexleyheath and Crayford. My constituency of Bexleyheath and Crayford is currently served badly by those services, and the changes will be a disaster because the service will suffer, as the hon. Member for Eltham said in his excellent speech.

The Bexleyheath line is served by Barnehurst and Bexleyheath stations in my constituency and by Welling station, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) but is used by a number of my constituents. The changes will mean that the line will no longer enjoy off-peak or weekend services to Charing Cross. The services running will be only two trains per hour to Cannon Street and two trains per hour to Victoria.

The Sidcup line, which serves Crayford station in my constituency, will lose the off-peak and weekend services to Cannon Street, with the majority of those services being transferred to Charing Cross, with the result that four trains per hour will go there. The timetable changes mean the loss of our loop line, with the end of the direct service to get on the Elizabeth line at Abbey Wood. That is a disadvantage for commuters who need to go to the Docklands or other places via the excellent Elizabeth line.

The Woolwich line is served by Slade Green station in my constituency and by Erith station, which is used by a lot of my constituents in the Barnehurst and North End wards. The relevant services will go only to Cannon Street at both peak and off-peak times.

The new timetable has met with huge dismay across our borough of Bexley, and indeed throughout other parts of south-east London. My constituents and I are bitterly disappointed by, and rather angry about, the lack of consultation on the dramatic changes that are taking place that will affect rail users and businesses across our south-east region.

Southeastern has explained the reasons why it did not consult, which I do not accept—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup has been even more robust in that division. I advise Southeastern, and the Minister, that if it consulted on the timetable now, it would be amazed at the overwhelming opposition from people from all sections of the community, of all ages, and from all the travelling public. I remain totally unconvinced about why some of the Cannon Street services at off-peak times and at weekends cannot be substituted on the Bexleyheath line for some Charing Cross services instead.

Southeastern has explained to me—very badly and disappointingly—that the reason for the new timetable is, as the hon. Member for Eltham said, to untangle the crossovers in the line at Lewisham and improve punctuality. I was at meetings with the hon. Gentleman about a previous consultation when that was disproved. I do not accept the views of Southeastern. It has failed to acknowledge the disruption and the added time that journeys will require in order for people to change at London Bridge, which will cause more inconvenience for our constituents when they travel.

The Bexleyheath line has enjoyed direct services to Charing Cross since the Victoria era. A year or two ago, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Crayford line, which goes through Sidcup. The new timetable will see the Charing Cross to Bexleyheath line come to an end for off-peak services, with only two trains an hour at peak times, which is totally inadequate for the needs of constituents. Those commuting at that time often face delays that tend to originate from Dartford, at the kick-off, not from the crossover at Lewisham.

The status given to Cannon Street as a major terminus area is absolute nonsense. Cannon Street is a commuter line. It is a ghost area outside the rush hour. Families would not take the train to Cannon Street to go to a Saturday afternoon matinee at the theatre or to an appointment with a doctor or consultant at a London hospital. It is unbelievably crass to suggest that that is fine. Barely anyone wants to travel to Cannon Street for non-work purposes, while Charing Cross is the most popular service for rail users travelling to London from Bexley for both work and leisure. The staff and the ambience at Charing Cross is very good, commensurate with safety and security, and there is a buzz there. I do not think there is that buzz at Cannon Street, even in the rush hour.

Frankly, the changes are inconsiderate, totally unfair and lacking in logic. As I have mentioned, although it is a London borough, Bexley does not have a tube station. The residents therefore want a reliable, good service to get them to their place of work, hospital appointments and social events. We have fought on a bipartisan basis across my borough of Bexley and Greenwich, and also with Lewisham, to say that this is what people want and expect. In other parts of the country, such as on the Essex side of the Thames, the train service is so much better. I can never understand how it is that my personal assistant Perry Taylor can get in much quicker and easier from Billericay than we can from south-east London. We are closer to London than he is, and he is never late—I hope he will not be late tomorrow, at any rate.

The train service available for rail users at London Bridge to get to their destinations is unacceptable. It will also add unnecessary stress and time for passengers. A number of people based at the House of Commons do not work peak times. They are going home, as we are, after 10 o’clock at night, which means that they have to change at London Bridge station. That makes things far worse and they will get home even later. I know we have more user-friendly hours in Parliament than we were used to in the past, but we were still here last night voting at 10 o’clock. The staff have to be here after that. A lot of them work in this property and are on our line down to Dartford.

There are also vulnerable passengers, such as the elderly, those with mobility issues and parents with pushchairs, who have to navigate lifts, escalators and stairs to get on to the main concourse and on to the next line. Whereas, when they come to Charing Cross, they can go straight through to Eltham, Welling, Bexleyheath or wherever, without changing. Once they are on the train, they know they are there until they get to their destination station. Coming home late means more time, more hassle and more stress. We are here as representatives of the people to support constituents and the best service for them—not one that is convenient to civil servants and Southeastern, but one that is convenient to the people who pay the bills. That is why I am passionate and cross about the new timetable.

One concern raised by people in Crayford is that they lose the loop around to Abbey Wood. Although that is not devastating, it is certainly disappointing, because people moved to our area in the belief that it meant that they could commute reasonably quickly into London, but that will not happen under these new proposals. A lack of connectivity with the Elizabeth line is a great disappointment, and I ask for that to be looked at again.

Bexley borough generally has poor transport links from north to south. Buses and trains run more from east to west, though buses are impacted by traffic. There is considerably more traffic in Bexley now than there was a decade ago. We have been given no reasonable explanation why the connectivity service should be removed.

I have had many meetings and discussions, as well as written communications, with Ministers present and past from the Department for Transport over the years, as has the hon. Member for Eltham. That includes the current Minister over the past month or two. I have also asked questions in Parliament, raised debates and collaborated with parliamentary neighbours and the leader of Bexley Council on transport issues affecting our borough. Yet we have seen no progress, despite the increasing cost of fares and the frustration for railway users.

We need—we deserve—to see improvements finally, and we thought we were getting there with longer trains, more trains and newer trains. Does the hon. Member for Eltham remember that? We were going to get all those things. Well, they have not materialised. Now we are getting detrimental cuts to our services, just when we are trying to encourage people to go back to the office and other workplaces, and to go to the city and enjoy the recreational facilities in London, which is the greatest city in the world.

I appreciate the time and sympathy that our new Rail Minister has given me and my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, and colleagues on the Labour Benches. He has listened and we appreciate that very much. However, the new timetable needs to be amended and changed, so that residents in south-east London—not just Bexley but all south-east London boroughs affected—have the benefit of a better service. They need to be consulted. This needs to be thought about again. We are being told that we cannot do anything because this has already been agreed with everybody, even though we did not agree with it and did not even know much about it until quite recently. We need to be consulted on changes for when the next timetables come in, because these new timetables are not fit for purpose.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (in the Chair)
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I will not impose a time limit at the moment, but I will call the Front Benchers to speak from 3.37 pm. I hope colleagues will bear that in mind.

14:55
Matthew Pennycook Portrait Matthew Pennycook (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)
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It is an absolute pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Harris, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) on securing this important debate and on the powerful case he made in opening it.

The deeper that I have dug into Southeastern’s stated rationale for its planned December timetable changes, the more convinced I have become that it simply does not add up. No one denies that we have seen a reduction in passenger numbers on Southeastern services post pandemic. However, given the difficulties inherent in determining levels of permanent demand reduction, not least given the fact that passenger numbers across the country continue to recover steadily, it beggars belief, quite honestly, that levels of demand as they were six months ago are being used to justify the kind of radical and disruptive change entailed by the timetable that is due to come into force next week.

It is worth bearing in mind that Southeastern introduced a reduced timetable on the Greenwich line in November 2020, but it was forced to restore the full peak hour service in January of this year because of overcrowding. Yet we are now told that similar service reductions are essential and that despite there being 302 fewer weekday services and 426 fewer weekend services across the network, as well as extremely large gaps between services during peak periods, there will be more than enough space to meet demand.

In the face of significant public anger, Southeastern has offered all manner of additional reasons why these planned timetable changes must be made. We are told by Southeastern representatives that the current timetable has:

“several disbenefits which will only get worse as customers return to the railway.”

That statement not only contains an implicit admission that demand is expected to continue to rise, but the company has also failed to make clear what those disbenefits are.

We are also told that the timetable is needed to deal with:

“the notorious bottleneck at Lewisham”.

However, as several colleagues have already mentioned, once again no specific information about delays caused by conflicting movements at or outside Lewisham station has been presented.

We are also told that Southeastern is an aberration for having metro trains that serve multiple London termini, yet Southern runs services into both Victoria and London Bridge, and Great Northern runs services into King’s Cross and Moorgate, both doing so without issue. We are told that the new timetable was based on feedback from customers and stakeholders, yet there was no engagement campaign with rail user groups and community groups prior to the cackhanded announcement of these changes in late September. Indeed, there has been none since.

It is hard to escape the conclusion, particularly given that the new timetable closely reflects proposals made prior to the pandemic as part of the 2017 Southeastern franchise tendering exercise, that what we are witnessing is the implementation of plans drawn up long before anyone had heard of coronavirus, under the pretext of post-pandemic changes in travel patterns and ultimately being driven by a desire to cut costs.

That would certainly explain why Southeastern sought to evade proper scrutiny about these planned changes by seeking and securing from the Department for Transport a formal derogation against the requirement to undertake a consultation exercise in respect of them.

Responding to that charge, Southeastern has argued that it takes many months to design and consult on a timetable change, and the pace of events meant that it was unable to do so. Yet other train operating companies that are minded to make timetable changes, including South Western Railway and London North Eastern Railway, managed to undertake detailed consultations with their customers despite facing the same pressures.

Despite the concerns raised by colleagues from across south-east London over several months, it is clear that the Government and the operator will plough ahead and introduce the new timetable on Sunday 11 December. That is deeply regrettable, because of the inconvenience that will be caused to all those passengers who will henceforth be forced to take multiple services to reach their intended destinations, but also because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham mentioned, of the risk of severe overcrowding.

The Minister owes it to concerned Southeastern passengers to make clear precisely what will happen if demand does exceed service capacity, as I fear it will, so I would be grateful to him if he could address the following questions. Given that departmental responses to written questions suggest that data on overcrowding on the rail network has been discontinued, how will pressure on Southeastern services be monitored in the weeks and months ahead? Assuming that it is monitored in some open and accessible form, what extent of overcrowding will trigger an internal review of the new timetable’s efficacy?

How serious will matters have to become for services that are to be cut this weekend to be restored, and how quickly can any revisions be made? Indeed, can the Minister confirm that specific revisions to the planned timetable can be made, given that it is premised on significant alterations to termini on various lines? Finally, will the Minister today rule out issuing Southeastern with a further formal derogation and provide a commitment that there will be extensive public consultation ahead of any further timetable changes carried out next year?

It is not enough for the Minister to argue, as he did in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham at Transport oral questions, that we should all

“just wait and see how matters progress”.—[Official Report, 24 November 2022; Vol. 723, c. 437.]

Concerned passengers in my constituency and many others rightly expect answers from the Government as the operator of last resort, and, most importantly, an indication that Ministers will move quickly to amend this new timetable if it proves as damaging as we all fear.

15:01
Louie French Portrait Mr Louie French (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con)
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Thank you for chairing, Ms Harris, and I thank the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for securing this important debate. Although we often differ in our views, when it comes to Southeastern trains we share frustrations over the timetable changes that will come into force next week. On my first anniversary of being sworn into Parliament, local residents will not be surprised to see me standing up and fighting against Southeastern for them again today.

The issue of no consultation has been mentioned by several colleagues. The new Minister is already aware of how frustrated MPs and members of the public are over not being informed of the timetable changes by Southeastern until it was too late. In recent weeks, people in Bexley have experienced two transport shocks. First, Southeastern pushed through these changes under the guise that they are demand based, when they clearly go much further. Secondly, the Mayor of London ignored the wishes of the clear majority of Londoners who rejected his outrageous ULEZ—ultra low emission zone—tax raid on drivers in outer London. We have had no consultation on the trains, and a sham consultation by the Mayor. That helps explain my anger and that of local residents across Bexley.

The Minister and many Members here will be aware that, since Southeastern’s announcement in late September, I have been running a constituent survey on the timetable changes. The thousands of responses to the survey highlight that the most impactful changes are the reduction in Albany Park station services in my constituency, the loss of off-peak Charing Cross services on the Bexleyheath line—we have heard about that from colleagues already—and the loss of the loop service on the Sidcup line, which I will talk about in turn.

I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) on the loss of off-peak Charing Cross services and the impact on passengers travelling to the west end for leisure and work. As someone who commuted to the City for more than a decade from the likes of Welling and Sidcup train stations, I can confirm that Cannon Street services at those times are of minimal benefit to local residents and will force thousands of passengers to change trains at London Bridge. That is of particular concern, given the impact on the more vulnerable residents in our communities and the general increase in travel times that they will experience. I hope that the Minister will at least explain what support Southeastern is putting in place in the short term to help passengers forced to change at London Bridge station.

The extent of the changes in the new timetable are arguably best reflected by the drastic, near 50% reduction in Albany Park services. Peak services have been reduced from seven trains per hour to four, and off-peak services from four trains per hour to two. That reduction has not only led to concerns about overcrowding and long waits in the event of cancellation, but resulted in the loss of direct services to Lewisham station, which is used by commuters from Albany Park to the DLR and Canary Wharf. I visited that station during my campaign against the timetable changes and I saw at first hand how busy it is, particularly during peak times on Tuesday to Thursday. I remain concerned that that is not fully accounted for in the passenger numbers.

I raised those concerns with the Minister and at our latest meeting with Southeastern, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford. I am grateful for Southeastern’s commitment to look at the live train-loading data for that station daily, and for the fact that it has since visited Albany Park station to reassess passenger numbers. I again request, through the Minister, that it provides the latest peak-time passenger numbers and capacity for the station, especially for Tuesday to Thursday. Furthermore, I would be grateful if the Minister can use his position to ask Southeastern again why there has been such a significant reduction in trains stopping at Albany Park station. Will he seek assurance about the future of the station, which is frequently used by commuters in a residential area with few alternative transport connections? There have been some silly rumours floating around locally that the station is closing. I hope the Minister will put them to bed by confirming that there are no plans to close it.

At all meetings, I have expressed my considerable disappointment at the loss of the loop service on the Sidcup line, which is used by many constituents, including to connect to the Elizabeth line and for Charlton Athletic fixtures. It is also used by children and parents travelling to school. Again, I am concerned about the data that Southeastern used to inform that decision. The time period used to capture passenger numbers does not incorporate the increase in passengers on the service since the Elizabeth line was opened. It would be a shame for residents to lose that connecting service, especially given the four-year delay and the billions it has cost taxpayers and businesses in our area. I again urge Southeastern to provide more services to Abbey Wood on the Sidcup line, especially off peak and at weekends.

As Members have said, Southeastern has consistently stated that the timetable changes have been demand-led, and that their purpose is to reduce crossovers in Lewisham, thereby improving reliability and reducing delays. I fundamentally disagree with that reasoning, especially given the consistent increase in passenger numbers since the pandemic and the £250 million investment in junction works at Lewisham over the past couple of years. Those engineering works, which have often required full and partial line closures, have been to improve track, signalling and capacity at Lewisham to meet demand “for decades ahead”. I am frustrated that my constituents have been negatively affected by regular disruption caused by union strikes and the works, which includes a planned nine-day full closure of the Bexleyheath line later this month, only a couple of weeks after the timetable changes.

My constituents have tolerated that major disruption to their journeys over the past couple of years on the basis that the works are

“to meet the demands of the railway today.”

That is a real kick in the teeth, because they are now losing a substantial number of services and the choice of termini to reduce crossovers at Lewisham—the very issue the works were said to address. I hope the Minister will address that issue, because that could be a massive waste of taxpayers’ money. It should be a good thing for the area, not a bad thing.

I emphasise again my disappointment and outrage at the lack of consultation for such drastic changes, which will have a detrimental impact on my constituents and their ability to travel for work, school and leisure. Given that Bexley does not benefit from direct access to the underground, rail services are the principal means of transport into and out of London, as well as for travelling to other areas in the south-east. It is therefore vital that the frequency and links to a range of central London stations are preserved. I continue to call for urgent concessions and reversals to many of the changes, particularly ahead of the new timetable in May.

15:09
Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)
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It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship for the first time, Ms Harris. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) on securing this important debate and on his speech. He has made many key points with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Like many colleagues, I have worked closely with local transport users during my time as an MP, and I am here today to share the concerns of constituents who have contacted me following the publication of the amended timetable. As we have heard from many Members, it is fair to say that there has been widespread anger with the Department for Transport for allowing Southeastern to press ahead with the changes without consulting its passengers.

Although I can appreciate the removal of the requirement during the pandemic so that operators could bring in changes more quickly, most Members would agree that we are now at a point at which passenger numbers have restabilised. In response to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), the Department stated:

“There will be less than 1% fewer typical weekday passenger services across the…network compared to the current timetable.”

Well, I can tell the Chamber that users of St Johns station in my constituency are expecting to lose 19 services per day thanks to the rerouting of the Hayes line’s trains to Charing Cross.

I have received representations from two very active local organisations: St John’s Society and Brookmill Road Conservation Area Society, as well as from individual constituents. St Johns has had its services reduced in recent years, and the walk to nearby stations—New Cross and Lewisham—is long and uphill for many, causing difficulties for disabled people and those with young children.

Lewisham in particular suffers, as has been mentioned by many colleagues, with overcrowding at peak times and a woefully inaccessible station. The situation will only get worse as further large residential developments are completed in Lewisham, as Members have referenced in relation to their own constituencies. When the remaining peak-time trains reach St Johns—the next stop on the line—they might be too full for passengers to be able to join them. There are environmental considerations, too, if people are forced to use their car when previously they would have opted to travel by train.

Similarly, users at Blackheath station in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), just over the border from my constituency, have been hit with the news that there will be no direct services to London Charing Cross during off-peak hours, and many peak trains will also be cut.

I will conclude my comments. While the overall number of services might not be significantly reduced, that 1% figure in no way reflects the impact that the changes will have on individual stations and communities.

15:13
Janet Daby Portrait Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Harris. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for securing such an essential and necessary debate. I share many of the concerns that have been expressed by other Members and hon. Friends.

The changes will be implemented in just five days’ time. They have been very controversial, to say the least. South London has always been seen as the poor relation to north London in terms of transport connectivity. In Lewisham East, we do not have the Elizabeth line, the docklands light railway, the Jubilee line and so on. We rely on rail services to travel. They are essential. The changes reduce connectivity in areas south of the River Thames. That means that for users of Blackheath station the number of direct trains to Charing Cross is dramatically reduced. In fact, there will be no direct trains to Charing Cross during off-peak times.

The new timetable clearly creates problems, not solutions, for many of my constituents. I will share with the Chamber two significant quotes from constituents. One said:

“Changing at London Bridge will be difficult for me as a registered blind person with severe arthritis. I avoid changing trains as a rule. The changes will make any trips to Charing Cross or Waterloo significantly harder and more time-consuming for me. I will probably stop going into London unless I have to”.

Another constituent said:

“My elderly neighbours rely on the service to Charing Cross for entertainment and for connecting trains to Kings Cross. They have told me that the change at London Bridge is so stressful that they will probably stop taking the train altogether. They are aged 91 and 85 years old and the escalators and lifts at the New London Bridge present too much of an obstacle for them.”

Southeastern really needs to ask whether it is trying to deter people from using the train service, or is it trying to encourage people to use it. It seems that the former is being achieved. My concerns about the timetables include the impact on the safety of young girls, women and vulnerable people, as they have to make an extra change at London Bridge late at night. I am concerned about commuters’ ability to get to work on time and about the timetable making it harder for Londoners to use public transport during the climate crisis, as already mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft).

Blackheath councillors and I started a petition as soon as we heard about the proposed changes and cuts to the trains, to call for the reversal of the timetable. It was signed by hundreds of local people. Last week, the petition was handed in at Southeastern headquarters. What has angered many residents is the fact that local people have not had the chance to be consulted on the changes. It is outrageous that the Government have allowed Southeastern to implement the changes without a consultation, which is entirely unacceptable.

My Blackheath constituents have written to me endlessly on this matter. They need to be heard. That is why I did a survey asking for their views on the timetable. Of the 1,151 households who responded, 98% said that Southeastern should not go ahead with the timetable. Some 96% said that the timetable changes will make their journeys more difficult. When asked what concerned them most about the timetable changes, the top three answers were: the safety of vulnerable people, including young women and those with disabilities, travelling back from central London; the fact that the timetable would make them change their commuting journey; and increased crowding on trains for those using Blackheath station. Lastly, when we asked whether Southeastern should have consulted on the changes, 96% of respondents agreed. I also agree, and I encourage the Government to ask Southeastern to press the pause button on the plans. Will the Minister tell us that all future significant train cuts to services will be met with transparency and consultation?

15:17
Abena Oppong-Asare Portrait Abena Oppong-Asare (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Harris, I believe for the first time. I want to begin by congratulating my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), for securing this important debate. He outlined in a very detailed way how commuters will be impacted negatively. I want to raise a number of reasons why the Southeastern time changes are problematic for my constituents. The main problem, obviously, is the cuts to the timetable. The timetable changes are problematic. There has been no consultation and little engagement with service users, and we need a commitment from the Government on future plans.

As colleagues have mentioned, there will be reduced frequency of services and destinations. We all know that the changes were announced on 28 September, following a formal derogation issued to Southeastern by the Department for Transport on 5 August. That means that there will be no direct line to Charing Cross or Waterloo from my stations of Abbey Wood Belvedere and Erith. There will also be a reduced frequency of trains to London Bridge. Some constituents of mine use the neighbouring stations of Barnehurst, Bexley, Plumstead and Slade Green.

The data used by Southeastern was collected during the pandemic and the immediate post-pandemic period, which were periods of big changes in commuting and leisure patterns that are not reflective of long-term trends. As colleagues have mentioned, Southeastern trains are very busy and are often delayed, so reducing the number of trains would definitely reduce the service quality. The Elizabeth line only connects to the constituency at Abbey Wood and goes to different destinations from those of some Southeastern trains. I also want to point out that the equality impact assessment of the disproportionate impact that the cuts will have on people, which was published two weeks ago, was not released in a timely manner.

There has been a lack of consultation, as colleagues have mentioned. Rail operators are normally required to consult on timetable changes, but the Department for Transport gave Southeastern a derogation from this requirement and was not transparent about its involvement —that had to be teased out through a written question. The contract between Southeastern and the Department for Transport explicitly says that material alterations of the timetable require a consultation exercise. The Department for Transport says that the lack of consultation is due to the pandemic, uncertainty and the fact that Southeastern is a new operator, but that is simply not good enough. Other rail operators, such as the London North Eastern Railway and South Western Railway, managed to hold consultations for their 2022 timetable changes.

The right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), a previous Secretary of State, said he would rebuild trust in Southeastern Railway, but he did the opposite. The changes were not shared with MPs prior to their announcement, and we MPs are elected representatives who can help provide input on our constituents’ views and share information with them. A number of us have received really angry emails from constituents demanding to know what is going on, and we have been on the back foot when trying to update them on the changes. That has been really difficult.

I am grateful to the current Secretary of State for accepting my request to have a meeting and share more information, but it would have been great if we had had the information much earlier, because the changes have not been widely advertised. Southeastern has started a leafleting campaign, but only in some parts of my constituency—for example, leafleting has been done on one occasion in Erith, on one occasion at Belvedere station, and on two occasions at Abbey Wood station, which is where the Elizabeth line starts. Many people do not know about the changes, and if they go ahead on Sunday, I am really worried that a number of our constituents are not prepared. We will face a flood of emails from angry constituents, who will want to know what has happened.

Southeastern has said:

“The timetable is the next iteration of our service following the pandemic, and we will be taking feedback on board for future timetable changes as we build on this base and can add more trains as customer travel habits change”.

It is not clear how the company will do that unless it commits to a formal consultation. It would be helpful if the Minister would commit to something like that today.

I thought it would be helpful to share some of my constituents’ stories, to show the strong feelings about what is going on in our constituencies. Constituents have expressed their surprise and frustration at the new timetable, which has yet to be fully communicated across Erith and Thamesmead. Many have expressed frustration that they will now have to change at London Bridge to get to central London. Older constituents, people with young children and disabled people are particularly worried, as we all know that changing at London Bridge is not easy and involves walking all the way through the station. Direct services to Waterloo are essential for older and disabled people, who will be travelling to appointments at St Thomas’s Hospital. I fear that cancelling direct services will only further reduce Southeastern’s revenue, as customers choose not to opt for a journey involving multiple changes, and I think that we will see more constituents using cars. We already have a lot of people using cars in our area, particularly on the Bexley side, because it is difficult to travel around.

I have also been contacted by constituents who are concerned about the cancellation of the loop line. One constituent, who works in the local prison service, told me that she is incredibly distressed, because the changes mean that she will no longer be able to drop her children at school and get to work by 9 am, and that she may lose her job as a result. There are no bus services that cater for her route, and she does not own a car. The changes will affect a lot of shift workers and key workers who need to get to work really early or who work late, as one of my colleagues mentioned.

My constituency covers more than Abbey Wood, which is served by the Elizabeth line—for example, passengers using Erith and Belvedere stations will struggle. There is no Thameslink service either; it passes through, but does not stop in my constituency. The loss of the direct Southeastern services will be severe, as there is no train station in Thamesmead.

I want to highlight strongly the fact that there has been a huge lack of transport investment in south-east London over the years, and I am concerned that these changes will just make things even more difficult for our constituents. In my constituency, there are calls for Crossrail to be extended to Ebbsfleet and for the Thames Clippers and the DLR to extend to Thamesmead. It would be helpful if the Minister gave assurances today that he will commit to mitigation funding for DFT in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies to ensure that no one is left behind.

The new timetable is due to be put in place this Sunday, 11 December. Can the Minister set out how it will be reviewed and what measures the Government have in place to revise the timetable if it is to go ahead?

15:25
Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Harris. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) on bringing forward this important debate so that we can address Southeastern railway’s timetable changes, which will be implemented on 11 December.

Whether it is the north, with the likes of Avanti and TransPennine Express, or the south, as has been eloquently expressed by right hon. and hon. Members across the House, this Government are presiding over rail chaos and catastrophe. Cuts to services, increasing rail fares and empty promises—this summarises the Government’s record on rail for the past 12 years. The proposed timetable changes announced by Southeastern show that this record is not set to change any time soon.

Southeastern’s proposed timetable changes will see 302 fewer trains running on a typical weekday and even more trains cut from the weekend timetable, meaning that people travelling from Greenwich will be left with just four trains per hour and made to wait up to 23 minutes. Given that passenger numbers are consistently reaching 90% of pre-pandemic levels, and given that the Government have decided to discontinue collecting data on the overcrowding of rail networks, as eloquently highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), can the Minister advise how he will ensure that these packed services do not become even more overcrowded?

Who, indeed, is going to address the anger? What was palpable from the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) was the feeling of widespread anger. How will that be addressed? My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) also highlighted the problems that will now be faced by elderly and disabled passengers, along with the safety of vulnerable people, and I hope that the Minister will address those concerns.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) highlighted the loss of trust among the public, the emails from angry constituents and the car-led recovery that none of us wants. I hope that all those factors will be addressed by the Minister. While Southeastern has tried to justify the timetable changes as an attempt to reduce the pressure on junctions, there has clearly been little consideration of the pressure that the reduced services will place on our roads.

I have a great deal of respect for the Minister. He will know that our public transport network is integral to Britain’s efforts to tackle the climate crisis and meeting net zero, yet the Government’s priorities sadly appear to be cutting services, not emissions. This, alongside ever-soaring fares and the Government’s inability to guarantee a reliable train service, will inevitably force passengers to consider less sustainable travel alternatives. Can the Minister advise whether he has considered the wider environmental impact that Southeastern’s proposed timetable changes will have?

The Government’s failures are a reflection of their inability to manage our rail network on a much larger scale. The Minister himself has spoken of the need to instil

“confidence in our railways”.

The reality is that the Government’s management of our rail networks has done the exact opposite, throwing rail services across our country into complete and utter chaos. In one day, almost 40 services were cancelled by TransPennine Express alone, while Avanti has had the fewest trains on time and has had more complaints than any other operator. However, it was still awarded a contract extension. Let us not forget that the Government have continually failed to engage in productive discussions to resolve the ongoing Tory rail strikes, preferring instead to pay the same amount of taxpayer money to the train operators, regardless of whether services are running.

The Government are showing time and again that they are unable to deliver the rail service that the British public want, need and deserve. What is worse is that the passengers who are suffering due to those failings have had no say whatsoever in this Conservative-created chaos. As has been the case with many of the Government’s decisions over the past few months, the proposed cuts to Southeastern services have been decided without any public consultation as has been expressed by Members from throughout the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham noted, the Government seem to have adopted the role of Fat Controller with little regard for how the changes will have real implications for the 400,000 passengers who rely on the operator’s services to get to work, make appointments and visit family members. I am not saying that the Minister is the Fat Controller; I am merely saying that this is emblematic of the wider approach.

Passengers who use the popular Woolwich line to Charing Cross, for example, now find that regular service completely scrapped. That puts further pressure on other already overcrowded stations and services with no thought, it seems, for the consequences that will have for passengers with accessibility needs or those who want to maintain a safe and quick way to travel back from London’s west end late at night, as the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) eloquently highlighted. The excuse for that cut has been the opening of the Elizabeth line. However, it is not clear to me why that line, which was intended to enhance our transport network and runs largely north of the Thames, has resulted in the stoppage of services that run almost exclusively to the south.

The lack of public consultation for such significant timetable changes has not gone unnoticed across the House, including by those in the Minister’s party, with many of his Back Benchers citing the value of consulting with local communities. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) forcefully highlighted that everybody is singing from the same hymn sheet about how the changes fail customers and will be a complete disaster. Given that everyone agrees that the lack of public input is entirely unacceptable, will the Minister advise why Southeastern was granted the derogation back in August and confirm whether Ministers intend to grant any further operators derogation from consultation? This debate will be listened to not just by Members representing constituencies in the south-east; the wider point will be very closely listened to by others across our country.

This debacle is the most recent in a catalogue of failures from Southeastern. If the Minister is serious about restoring confidence in our railways, the Government need to begin by listening to those most affected by the proposed timetable changes and committing to providing the investment necessary to see real improvements to our services, rather than overseeing the managed decline of our railways that we have sadly come to expect from them. Those who rely on Southeastern rail services deserve a network that works for them. My final question is simple: when can those passengers expect to get one?

15:34
Huw Merriman Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Huw Merriman)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Harris. I thank the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) for securing this important debate on Southeastern’s rail timetable changes, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken. I have always been a south-eastern MP. Over the past seven years, I have shared debates with many Members or their predecessors in Westminster Hall, the main Chamber and, indeed, meetings on Southeastern. I declare that as an interest, but I have always enjoyed working with south-eastern MPs.

I will do my best to cover the rationale for these changes and to explain the positives and negatives. I will explain the positive changes, although sadly there are no Members present from the constituencies where those changes will take place. I will certainly talk more about the consultation—or lack of one, as Members have pointed out. I will write to all Members who have contributed, so if I have not answered their points directly, I will ensure that we do so via correspondence.

I have met many Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett), and they have made their points with force. I appreciate what they said because I empathise with colleagues and their constituents who believe that the changes will negatively impact them. With any timetable change, some will feel that they are losing out. There is ultimately no way of making changes that will please everyone who uses the railway, but the changes are necessary, and I hope to highlight some of the reasons behind it.

The changes are driven by our current financial and travel habit situation. Travel habits have changed and there is a need to make our railways more financially sustainable, as well as improving their reliability. That has been the starting point. Within that framework, the team has worked hard to ensure that we will build a more resilient and reliable timetable through the process; again, I will talk more about that. The benefits of resilience and reliability will be there for all who use Southeastern, and we must look at the network as a whole. We must acknowledge that the pandemic has caused changes in travel habits, with many people who can adopting a hybrid approach, working from home some days of the week and/or travelling at different times of the day to avoid peak times. The new timetable needs to reflect that.

The changes in travel habits, alongside the successful introduction of Elizabeth line services, mean that all-day weekday demand on Southeastern services is around 70% of pre-covid levels. That figure drops to between 50% and 65% during peak periods. Demand simply does not warrant 2019 levels of service provision. The Government have earmarked £16 billion of funding for rail services since the start of the pandemic. That is taxpayers’ money and is clearly unsustainable in the long term, so the Department has asked all operators, not just Southeastern, to develop timetables that are appropriate to customer demand and that deliver good value for the taxpayer while prioritising the punctual services that customers rightly demand.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford
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Will the Minister give way?

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Can I go on a little further? I will touch on the three key reasons why Southeastern has changed its timetable and then I will give way. The first reason is efficiency and the post-covid rail situation. The timetable reduces train mileage to better match capacity to demand and changes the underlying structure to improve efficiency. At a time of unprecedented pressure on Government finances, this will save significant taxpayer subsidy and is essential to enable Southeastern to meet its spending review budgets. Southeastern is taking the opportunity to remove first-class seats from its mainline services, freeing up almost 4 million extra seats for all each year. That creates capacity without adding cost.

The second reason is punctuality and reliability, which are the No. 1 drivers of customer satisfaction as measured by Transport Focus. Today’s timetable includes many crossing moves at key junctions that have a damaging impact on performance. Furthermore, at times of service disruption, the current timetable leads to the spread of delays to other routes and makes it much harder to recover the service. By deconflicting key junctions and changing the base structure, the new timetable is estimated to deliver a 12% reduction in cancellations and a 3% improvement in on-time station stops across the whole Southeastern network services. That is 300,000 more on-time station stops ever year. I want to make clear that reducing the number of London terminals directly served on some routes, which have been touched on today, will dramatically reduce the number of trains having to make complicated crossing moves at Lewisham, a notorious bottleneck. That will significantly improve performance for everyone using Southeastern.

I will turn to the third part of the rationale, which is flexibility. The change provides a simpler, cleaner, basic structure from which services can be altered far more easily and efficiently. Should demand patterns change in the way that we all want them to, services can more easily be scaled up—or down, if that is not the case—subject to available funding, of course.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister gave figures for the reduction in demand. According to the ORR report I have in front of me, the peak of 183.2 million passenger journeys was in 2018-19. That is back up to 97.8 million, which is well over 50%. That is not the 65% reduction that I think he quoted. It is similar with the passenger kilometres, which are at 2,543 million, which is way over 50% of where we were at the highest point. What is happening is that rail services are recovering after covid, as we would expect. It is too early to make these decisions.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am happy to send our statistic base to the hon. Gentleman and others who have contributed to the debate, so that we can agree on our starting point. The ORR report also demonstrates that passenger contributions through the fare box were more than £12 billion during pre-covid time, and we have got back to only £6 billion. That in itself demonstrates that we do not have the same patronage across our services. He will know that commuting has been the worst hit, because commuters can work differently. I am confident that my evidence base will stack up for this, but I will exchange it with him and other to ensure that is the case. I am about to come to consultation, but I will take an intervention.

Matthew Pennycook Portrait Matthew Pennycook
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I want to probe the Minister a little further on levels of demand. Southeastern approached the Department for the derogation on 22 June, so were using demand data from that time. Will the Minister give us a sense of what the Department thinks is the permanent level of demand reduction? Or does he accept that passenger numbers are steadily recovering, which may require the timetable to shift again very quickly?

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Again, we will come back to that. The point I would bring back is that during the peak times we have largely been talking about, the 70% of pre-covid level figure drops to 50% to 65% during those peak periods. We are arguing about different parts of the service at different times. That is why I want to write, to explain exactly where my base is. Members can write back and say that they have a different base.

There have been a lot of points about transparency. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members who have met me know that I have an absolute desire to ensure that all the facts that I have are all the facts that right hon. and hon. Members will have—[Interruption.] I will take one more intervention; why not?

David Evennett Portrait Sir David Evennett
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I totally agree that the Minister has been helpful and transparent. We are very grateful for the meetings that we have had. My concern is that if there is no train service on the Bexleyheath line to Charing Cross at weekends, the passenger numbers will fall. Therefore, it is a flawed argument. I hear what has been said about the peak period, but I am also concerned about the weekends. We have already heard about the disadvantage for certain members of our communities who will not go up to London. It could be that Southeastern loses a lot more passengers and revenue at the weekends.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My right hon. Friend makes a good point. This is the challenging balance for Government and train operators. The cloth has to be cut accordingly. If I look at my Southeastern service, I am now down to an hourly service, without the benefit of going up to Cannon Street but having to change at London Bridge, in the same way that Members are about to experience with their constituents.

I recognise the danger that, in order to grow the railway, it is necessary to demonstrate a positive experience. We do not want to get to a situation where the railway service looks like the bus service. At the same time, there has been time taken post pandemic to assess how passenger numbers have been performing and they have not performed with the level of uptick that we need to give us an indication that people will not change their work habits—they are not going to return to the office five days a week. That is why difficult decisions have had to be made, but my right hon. Friend makes a very good point and it will be taken into account.

On consultation, there has been a need to recast the Southeastern timetable for many years. The last recast was over a decade ago, when Southeastern’s highspeed services were introduced. Even before the pandemic, the timetable no longer matched demands and had inherent efficiency and structural performance issues. As has been pointed out, Southeastern has changed its timetable 15 times since March 2020. Coming out of the pandemic, the industry has had to continue to work at pace to provide rail timetables that meet the new travel patterns and carefully balance cost, capacity and performance.

Operators have had to move at speed to address changes in demand and deliver cost-efficient timetables. That means that traditional public consultation has not always been possible. It takes many months to design and consult on a timetable, and it would have been challenging for Southeastern to conduct a meaningful consultation without time to change the timetable based on the feedback it received. That ultimately means money spent on running an inefficient timetable for longer, costing the taxpayer money. Ministers at the time thought that this was unacceptable, and, as a result, agreed to allow operators to implement demand-led timetables through 2020 without consulting formally.

Going forward, fiscal pressures may mean that other relatively short-notice timetable changes need to happen. However, there are lessons to be learnt from this timetable change on engagement and information sharing with stakeholders, even if timescales are compressed. I say to all right hon. and hon. Members present that I will ensure that if changes need to be made there will be transparency and engagement with Members of Parliament and other stakeholders at the earliest opportunity. It may not be possible to do a full 16-week consultation, but I will ensure that the starting point is with Members in this place. That is what I would expect, and I give them that assurance.

While I am giving assurances, I was also asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) for an assurance that there are no plans in place to close Albany Park station: there are no plans in place to close Albany Park station.

Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

There has been quite a lot of talk about Lewisham station, which is in my constituency. I can assure the Minister that Lewisham station is absolutely rammed at times, and there have been humungous safety concerns around it and the rerouting of passengers. We have had many new developments going up in the area. In the spirit of the Minister wanting to do consultations, would he like to come and meet me and Lewisham station’s user group—who are very expert in the rail network and Lewisham station—to hear their views on what might happen as we proceed?

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I have always enjoyed spending time with the hon. Member—if that does not damage her electoral chances—so I would be very happy to meet her and the user group. I will put out another offer at the end of my speech.

Since the publication of the timetable in September there has been a mixed reaction from stakeholders. Many are pleased by the delivery of long-held ambitions on their routes, but others, such as those on the Bexleyheath and Sidcup line, are concerned about the loss of direct services to either Cannon Street or Charing Cross stations at off-peak times. All passengers affected by losing direct services can change at London Bridge to access high-frequency services to either station at no extra cost, and without having to use the tube. I see the hon. Member for Eltham shaking his head—that is a change I do on a regular basis, and I know what it takes. I will explain why it is not the poor experience that some may think it to be.

London Bridge is a modern station that has been designed for high volumes of interchanging passengers. I understand that some Members have concerns about changing there, but I can assure them that, as someone who does the change often, the station is well designed for that purpose. We believe it is one of the best in the country. The station is well lit, is sheltered and has full CCTV coverage. Southeastern has completed an equalities impact assessment and has made further improvements, which include the increased provision of dedicated mobile assistance staff, on-site lift engineers to ensure that all platforms remain accessible and on-site paramedics for any emergencies.

I turn to some of the benefits that Members who are not here might receive from the timetable change.

Janet Daby Portrait Janet Daby
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

In conversation, many of my residents raised concerns about their daughters working up town quite late. The parents and the young women like the reassurance that they can get on the train at one end and be taken straight to their destination at the other, rather than having to change at London Bridge—no matter how lovely that station may be.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That experience involves getting off the platform, taking the lift—while staying within the station, not going all the way through the station—and then going back up the lift to another platform that can be seen directly. It is a change that I see many do daily. I recognise that it is not ideal, and we would rather that it did not occur, but it is a safe, well-designed and modern station environment. I hope that that reassurance can be given to those who may be concerned.

Let me turn to the benefits. As with any timetable change, there are trade-offs. Inevitably, those who feel that they are losing out are making their voices heard. However, as well as the improved performance, which we believe will benefit everyone, the changes deliver a wide range of other benefits. In the metro area, passengers will benefit from the reintroduction of peak Beckenham Junction to Blackfriars services, and all metro services on the Herne Hill line will be extended to Orpington, which will benefit Bickley and Petts Wood. Bexleyheath line customers will enjoy an uplift to four trains per hour on a Sunday from the current two per hour. Passengers on that line will also have off-peak connections to London overground via New Cross for the first time.

The Sidcup line will receive a new peak service to Blackfriars via Denmark Hill, and Swanley will gain an all-day fast service via London Bridge. Woolwich line passengers will benefit from the new Elizabeth line offering 10 trains per hour from Abbey Wood at peak times, and eight for the rest of the day, as well as extra services on the DLR from both Woolwich and Greenwich. On the main line, the December 2022 timetable will deliver the long-awaited service from Maidstone East to the City of London in under an hour. Tunbridge Wells and Hastings services will see journey time improvements in the morning peak, and there will be new peak services between Cannon Street and Tonbridge. Finally, local services in Kent will see a service doubling of one to two trains per hour between Strood and Paddock Wood, which will improve connectivity on that corridor.

To conclude, I appreciate the concerns raised by some Members. We should bear in mind that the timetable changes will undoubtedly be affected by the planned industrial action. When we can evaluate, we will. There will be transparency. We will reflect and act accordingly. As part of that process, I can perhaps visit more services and stations. I have already given one offer, across the Chamber, to the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft). Perhaps I can also offer to visit my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford. I am keen to find out how the changes are bedding in. I ask all right hon. and hon. Members to allow the changes to bed in and see whether they work.

15:53
Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to colleagues who have supported the debate, and they all made very strong cases against the changes. Many used their constituents as examples, and I am no exception: I was contacted today by the mother of an autistic son who is not looking forward to having to change with her son at London Bridge. It is a small matter, but it is an example of huge changes to people’s lives and journeys. People coming back from the west end via Charing Cross, late at night, will have to change at London Bridge. Thousands of people will be regularly inconvenienced.

Members mentioned elderly people using their freedom passes after 9.30 am. They will be inconvenienced because they cannot go to Charing Cross, which is the favoured destination. We need to know how the Minister will measure capacity. All our constituents suffered from the disruption caused by the refurbishment of London Bridge. Now they are being inconvenienced again, because the refurbishment is complete and we are told it is a perfectly good place to end a journey. It is not good enough. This is “Government knows best” and Government by diktat without consultation. It is simply not good enough.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered Southeastern railway timetable changes.

Ofsted School Inspections

Tuesday 6th December 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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14:30
Philip Hollobone Portrait Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Ofsted school inspections.

It is a delight to see you in the Chair, Ms Harris. I thank Mr Speaker for giving me the honour of holding this debate, and I welcome the Minister to his place. I am delighted that we are joined in the Public Gallery by the headteacher of Bishop Stopford School, Jill Silverthorne, and the deputy head, Damien Keane, who recognise the importance of the issues I wish to raise. I am grateful to them for travelling to London today.

May I start by praising the Minister, who is one of the Ministers I hold in the highest regard? He has a distinguished record in education. He was shadow schools Minister from 2005 to 2010. He was a Minister in the Department for Education from 2010 to 2012. He had his second coming from 2014 to 2021 and his third coming on 26 October this year. That is 15 years of Front-Bench experience in opposition and in government. We are very lucky to have him as schools Minister. He cares about the subject and I am grateful to him for being here today and for his genuine involvement in this issue.

I wish to raise the recent Ofsted inspection of Bishop Stopford School in Kettering, which resulted in a downgrade from “outstanding” to “requires improvement.” May I declare my interest, as one of my children attends Bishop Stopford School? However, I raise the matter not because of my child, but because I think a genuine injustice has been done with this inspection.

Bishop Stopford is a non-selective secondary school and sixth form with academy status in Kettering. Located in the Headlands, the school has 1,500 pupils. At the heart of all it does is a Christian ethos, and its core values are faith, responsibility, compassion, truth and justice. That provides stability for pupils in an ever-changing world. In the light of that ethos, the school’s aim is quite simple:

“to provide the highest quality education for every student.”

The Minister has seen the school’s pupils in action. The school’s brass band performed at the Music for Youth Proms in London, in November. Students were outstanding in the performance in every respect—behaviour, attitude, performance, kindness to each other and helping staff. They did the school proud in every way possible and were tremendous ambassadors for the school. Yet Ofsted’s view is that personal development at the school “requires improvement”.

The Ofsted inspection was done on 28 and 29 June 2022. The overall recommendation was “requires improvement”. Quality of education was “good”. Sixth form provision was “good”. Behaviour and attitudes, personal development, and leadership and management were graded “requires improvement”. I am very concerned about the way in which the inspection was carried out. From the information I have received, I believe not only that the correct procedures were not followed, but that the inspection team deliberately set out to engineer a downgrade in the school’s Ofsted rating from “outstanding” to “requires improvement”. That is the equivalent of one of the highest scoring teams in the premier league being relegated straight to the conference.

I support rigorous Ofsted inspections of schools, which raise school standards. Until now, I have had every confidence in Ofsted’s abilities to inspect schools in line with proper process and to challenge them where improvements can be made, but I have to tell the Minister that it is my strong view that this Ofsted inspection has gone wrong. It should be quashed, and a fresh inspection undertaken with different inspectors. I know that this is a serious request, and I do not make it lightly.

The evidence I have heard from the headteacher, the deputy head and pupils at the school is compelling. I believe that the inspection team sent in by Ofsted went rogue. In effect, Ofsted has sent in an educational inspection hit squad with a pre-arranged agenda to downgrade this faith-based school, whatever it found on its visit. In interviews with pupils, the inspection team disparaged the school’s Christian ethos. One year 7 boy was asked, “Do you think this is a white, middle-class school?” A year 10 girl was asked, “Do you feel uncomfortable about walking upstairs when wearing a skirt?” I ask the Minister, are these questions appropriate for an Ofsted inspection?

Furthermore, the new downgraded rating for the school was leaked by Ofsted to the local community in breach of Ofsted’s own procedures.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his initiative and assiduousness on behalf of the school. I am shocked at the allegations that he has made, and I see the problems there among those of a certain faith group. Does he feel, as I do, that this inspection has increased anxieties and stress among the teachers, parents and others involved? He has asked for the whole thing to be done again, and that is probably the best thing to do, because what has happened is clearly wrong.

Philip Hollobone Portrait Mr Hollobone
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. Gentleman is a Christian gentleman. He understands the importance of a Christian ethos in schools, but it seems that some Ofsted inspectors do not share those values. In this case, it seems that they have deliberately set out to downgrade the school, and the hon. Gentleman is right that that is having a devastating impact on the teachers, pupils and parents, who feel that the inspection has gone wrong and that they have all been treated extremely unfairly. It appears that, unable to criticise the school’s educational achievements, inspectors have pursued an agenda against a top-performing school with a Christian ethos by engineering criticisms of the behaviour and attitudes, personal development, and leadership and management criteria.

I thought that this matter was so serious that it should be brought to the immediate attention of the Department for Education, so I wrote to the Minister’s predecessor on 11 October. I am afraid that I do not think that Ofsted can be relied on to judge its own homework. The deficiencies in the inspection of this school are extremely serious. In effect, no one is inspecting the inspectors, and they can basically do what they like.

On the same day, I wrote to Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman, yet all I received was a one-page letter from the assistant regional director of the east midlands on 20 October saying that they noted my concerns but that nothing else would be done and that they would just go along with the complaints process in which the school was engaged. I do not regard that as satisfactory, when a Member of Parliament has raised genuine concerns.

Let us look at the quality of education at the school. On the Department’s latest unvalidated educational attainment data, Bishop Stopford School ranks 106th out of all 6,761 secondary schools in the country and is in the top 1.5%. Let us look at the key headline measures of educational attainment. On the EBacc scores, in the data comparing Bishop Stopford School with schools that Ofsted has rated “outstanding” since September 2021, the school is the highest performing non-selective school. Some 94% of the school’s students entered for the EBacc, which is massive. In Northamptonshire, the second highest school is at 79%. The national average is 39%, and the Government’s ambition is 75%.

On progress 8 scores, which show how much progress pupils at this school made between the end of key stage 2 and the end of key stage 4, out of 3,721 selective and non-selective schools with a progress 8, the school is No. 115, which is in the top 3%. On the attainment 8 scores, which are based on how well pupils have performed in up to eight qualifications, there are 3,768 non-selective schools, and Bishop Stopford School is 110th, which is in the top 3%. On the basic five GCSEs, including English and maths, Bishop Stopford School is at 70%. Of the 126 schools ranked as “requiring improvement”, Bishop Stopford School is fourth, with the range 0% to 96%. Of the 52 schools rated “outstanding”, the school is 27th, with a range of 45% to 100%, and it is fifth for the non-selective mixed schools in this category.

In terms of the number of pupils who stayed in education or went into employment after finishing key stage 4, of all the selective and non-selective schools previously rated as “outstanding”, Bishop Stopford School is ranked 16th in the whole country. Of non-selective mixed-sex schools, it is fourth in the whole country, with 98% staying in education or going into employment. Ofsted partially recognises this educational record:

“Most pupils enjoy attending Bishop Stopford School and value the teaching that they receive. The school is ‘unapologetically academic’ and leaders have high expectations of what pupils should achieve.”

Yet Ofsted only gave the school a “good” rating in this area.

The mantra about making a judgment about the quality of education is explicitly stated as depending on the three Is: intent, implementation and impact. In essence, this assesses whether a school is clear about what it wishes to achieve with its curriculum, how well that intent is implemented and what its impact is. The only way this can be easily measured is through the empirical data: results, destinations and attendance. The impact of the school’s curriculum is, once again, abundantly clear in this validated data.

If the school is enabling its young people to be so successful and to progress to high-quality destinations, there has to be a disconnect somewhere. If the school is performing so poorly, as the report suggests, how could it possibly generate outcomes that can only be described as excellent, even among the schools Ofsted has judged to be “outstanding”?

The school has followed the Ofsted complaints process, and it got a reply dated 9 November from the senior regional inspector. The school complained about the judgment on quality of education. Ofsted said that a common area that needs to be improved is using assessment to adapt teaching so that identified gaps are addressed. It said:

“modern foreign languages and the mathematics curriculum are not as securely embedded as other curriculum areas”,

and the complaint was not upheld.

The school complained about the judgment on behaviour and attitudes. Ofsted acknowledged that

“behaviour was calm and orderly around the school.”

In its report, it said that the school deals with low-level disruption when it occurs, yet in the inspection on the day the Ofsted inspectors said that there was no low-level disruption. The inspection team had a particular concern about bullying and the use of derogatory language. In this case, the grade descriptor that needed to be considered was:

“Leaders, staff and pupils create a positive environment in which bullying is not tolerated.”

The inspection team said that that criterion was not fully met, and the complaint was not upheld. Parents are in disbelief that the inspection team could come to that conclusion.

The school complained about the Ofsted judgment on personal development. Ofsted said:

“inspectors considered how the Christian ethos and wider curriculum supported pupils’ personal development”,

yet the inspection team raised the Christian ethos only twice, both times negatively.

Scott Benton Portrait Scott Benton (Blackpool South) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Surely the aim of the equality, diversity and inclusion statement should be to ensure schools are abiding by the necessary equality regulation in legislation. I am concerned that, in some cases, Ofsted appears to take it beyond its original intention by judging schools against its own ideas about what life in modern Britain should be. Does my hon. Friend share those concerns?

Philip Hollobone Portrait Mr Hollobone
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising those concerns. I do share them, as do pupils at the school. I had the privilege of speaking to some of the pupils who engaged with the inspectors. They were expecting the inspectors to ask about the curriculum and their academic studies, but they were probed particularly about the Christian ethos. One pupil, very maturely, responded: “It is not so much about Christianity as about Christian values.” That was a very mature and sensible response.

Kim Leadbeater Portrait Kim Leadbeater (Batley and Spen) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman is making a really powerful and interesting speech, and I thank him for securing this debate. Does he agree that it would be more sensible if Ofsted inspections were not so narrowly focused on academic achievement? Although that is important, and the school clearly has a fantastic academic record, Ofsted should have a more holistic approach and look at things such as how schools work extremely hard to build social and emotional resilience in children and young people and to create a happy and healthy learning environment, which gives pupils the skills and values they need to be well-rounded citizens?

Philip Hollobone Portrait Mr Hollobone
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for making that very sensible point. That is right. The school clearly has a Christian ethos. I am not saying that all the pupils and parents are Christians, but this is about Christian values and the key themes I mentioned at the beginning, which we surely all share: responsibility, compassion, truth and justice. Yet it seems that this inspection team regards those values as inappropriate for a school because they are Christian. The parents and I find that outrageous.

The pupil said that when they responded to the inspector’s question, “The inspector shut my comment down. He made me feel silly, embarrassed and a bit stupid.” Pupils described the interaction with inspectors as “intense”, “uncomfortable”, “tense” and “awkward”. Those are the pupils themselves telling me about their experiences with the inspectors. Something is not right here, and I want the Minister to take that on board.

The school complained about the judgment on sixth form provision. Ofsted said:

“Inspectors spoke to groups of students. They raised the point that they were well prepared for university, but other routes were not as well covered. While I agree that there is no statutory requirement for work experience, it was clear from the evidence that preparation for the wider world of work was not as secure as other areas of students’ wider development.”

That was Ofsted’s comment. However, 98% of pupils go on to education or go straight into employment. Nevertheless, this aspect of the complaint was not upheld. The school also complained about the overall inspection report, the overall judgment, and the inspection process, but all those complaints were not upheld. All the points that the school made to Ofsted were dismissed.

The breach of confidentiality point has not been addressed by Ofsted in any satisfactory way. Ofsted said to the school:

“It was explained that unless you were able to provide any further evidence, we would be unable to look into this any further.”

Yet the headteacher gave Ofsted the names of two local schools that had heard of the downgrade before the report was published. A serious breach of confidentiality has not been investigated properly and has effectively been dismissed.

On the comments about

“a white middle class school”

and

“walking upstairs when wearing a skirt”,

Ofsted said:

“There is no record in the evidence of the exact line of questioning from the team inspector that you referred to. Having spoken to the team inspector, they cannot recall asking the two questions that are cited.”

I have to say to the Minister that I spoke with the pupils involved and they confirmed what was said, so clearly something is not right here.

The headteacher wrote a measured letter to parents to reassure them on the back of the publication of the report, stressing the school’s outstanding academic performance. He said that

“student performance last summer was outstanding”,

and that that was based on the Department for Education’s own statistics. He went on to say:

“GCSE results place us in the top 3% of schools nationally. A Level performance data is still provisional, but with 43% of grades awarded at A and A*”.

On behaviour and attitudes, the headteacher rightly said:

“External visitors to our school almost without exception comment on the impressive behaviour and engagement of our students. On the inspection days themselves, students’ behaviour was exemplary, and the five members of the inspection team unanimously agreed that they saw no low-level disruption during the inspection.”

That is not what the report said. He went on to say, rightly:

“Unfortunately, this detail has not been included in the report, but we will be sharing with students that we were immensely proud of the way they conducted themselves and upheld our core values in the inspection—and continue to do so.”

I have to say to the Minister that since the report was published 500 parents have been in touch with the school to offer their support and basically they say that they do not believe what Ofsted is saying and do not respect the downgrade to “requires improvement”. However, I think there is a wider agenda going on here, because although I believe that Bishop Stopford has been picked on, recent information has come out that more than four fifths of “outstanding” schools inspected last year have lost their top grade after the exemption from inspection was removed. Also, the chief inspector herself said that the outcomes from the first full year of inspection since it was scrapped:

“show that removing a school from scrutiny does not make it better.”

A fifth of schools, including Bishop Stopford, dropped at least two grades.

The Minister will know that schools rated “outstanding” were exempt from reinspection between 2012 and 2020. The exemption was lifted in 2020 after Ofsted warned that over a thousand schools had not been inspected in at least 10 years. Ofsted itself has said that 308 of the 370 previously exempt schools had a graded inspection that resulted in a downgrade, which is 83%: 62% became “good”; 17% fell to “requires improvement”, including Bishop Stopford; and 4% fell from “outstanding” to “inadequate”. This is a power grab from Ofsted, saying to the Government, “You must let us inspect all schools all the time.” I am not sure that is appropriate, given the level of distress it can cause to excellent schools such as Bishop Stopford when an inspection goes wrong.

On behalf of the school, parents and local residents in Kettering, I ask the Minister to quash the report and send in a fresh inspection team. Let us have a proper inquiry into the leaking of the downgrade. If quashing is not possible within the Minister’s powers, can we have a reinspection of the school at the earliest opportunity? I would not want that grade hanging over the school for potentially the next 30 months. At the very least, can we have a meeting between the Minister himself, the chief inspector, the headteacher and myself as the local parliamentary representative, so that local concerns that the inspection went wrong can be relayed in the clearest possible terms to Ofsted?

16:21
Nick Gibb Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Education (Nick Gibb)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Harris. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate, and I thank him for his kind opening remarks. This important subject deserves scrutiny and discussion in the House, and I have valued the opportunity to listen to my hon. Friend’s insights in his well-constructed speech.

We all share an ambition to ensure that every pupil in every school across the country receives the education that they deserve—one that helps them to achieve academically, and more broadly prepares them to thrive and contribute to the world beyond school. Ofsted, as the independent inspectorate for schools, has a distinct and central role to play in supporting that ambition. Ofsted school inspection serves a range of purposes. It provides an independent and rounded assessment of a school’s quality, which gives key information to parents and informs their choices. It gives recognition and validation to effective practice where it is seen, and prompts self-improvement. It also offers assurance to the wider community about standards. It triggers intervention where necessary, and provides evidence to the Government and Parliament about the quality of the education being provided across all our schools.

The value of Ofsted, and the root of its credibility, comes from its independence. That does not mean that Ofsted operates in a vacuum. It is, after all, an arm of Government. Critically, Ofsted can inspect and report without interference. That must be carefully guarded. His Majesty’s chief inspector is responsible for the conduct and reporting of Ofsted’s inspections. No Minister, Committee or Member of this House can amend or overturn the professional judgments of the inspectorate. That enables Ofsted to fulfil its mantra of reporting “without fear or favour”.

I appreciate that on occasion the situation can seem difficult and frustrating, especially when Ofsted’s findings are challenging or disputed. That independence and responsibility, which Parliament has chosen to bestow on His Majesty’s chief inspector, is a key safeguard for the system and it is worth preserving. I am acutely aware, as is His Majesty’s chief inspector, that independence places an onus on Ofsted to ensure that all its inspections are conducted to the highest professional standards. It has a strong responsibility to produce inspection judgments that are fair, evidence-based and accurate. That is at the heart of this afternoon’s debate. It is also the focus of the chief inspector and her inspectors, and rightly so. Given my hon. Friend’s specific concerns about the inspection of Bishop Stopford School, I will request that he get the opportunity to discuss them directly with His Majesty’s chief inspector.

Turning to the approach that Ofsted takes more generally to ensure that inspections are high quality, I remind the House that Ofsted’s school inspections are conducted under a framework that is grounded in research evidence. That framework took Ofsted two years to develop and involved significant engagement with the sector, leading to over 11,000 consultation responses. The widely supported proposals were implemented from September 2019. Of course, covid interrupted that, but Ofsted has been able to resume its full programme of inspections since September last year, and it conducted around 4,600 inspections in 2021-22.

The new framework sees a shift of focus towards the importance of curriculum, the intent of that curriculum, how it is implemented and, importantly, the impact that it has on pupil attainment and achievement. However, alongside the focus on the quality of education is assessment of a range of key aspects, such as the behaviour and attitudes of pupils, how the school is supporting pupils’ personal development, and the quality of the leadership and management of the school, including whether its safeguarding arrangements are effective. Taken together, Ofsted’s framework provides for an effective assessment of whether pupils are benefiting from a rounded inspection.

However well trained the expert workforce, and however good the framework, it is right that quality and consistency are checked. Inspection is not a tick-box exercise; it requires professional judgment to balance a wide range of evidence and form an overall assessment. The lead inspector plays a key role in this and must ensure that inspections are carried out in accordance with the principles of inspection and in line with Ofsted’s code of conduct for inspectors. Beyond that, though, Ofsted monitors the quality of inspections and the work of Ofsted inspectors through a range of formal processes.

I do not want to gloss over the one in 10. Nine out of 10 inspections are regarded as a good experience by schools, but I do not want us to pretend for one moment that every single inspection will be a happy experience. It is disappointing when those who experience inspections at first hand come away with negative feelings about the conduct or reporting of an inspection. Where there is dissatisfaction, schools are encouraged to raise their concerns with the lead inspector as soon as possible during the inspection, so that any matters can be resolved before the inspection is completed. In those circumstances, both the concerns raised and the actions taken will be recorded in the inspection evidence.

Once a school has received its draft report, it will have the opportunity to raise any comments or concerns about the inspection process and findings, which Ofsted will consider—I know that process was undergone in the case of Bishop Stopford School. If, despite the process taking place, the school feels that its issues have not been resolved, the school, on receiving its final report, can submit a formal complaint to Ofsted, which will put the report’s publication on hold while the complaint is thoroughly investigated. It is worth noting that across Ofsted’s work on schools and beyond, which amounts to over 30,000 inspections and activities each year, only around 2% lead to a formal complaint being received.

I want to conclude be reiterating my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering. I hope that the comments I have made about the inspection process and the importance of maintaining the independence of Ofsted in its work, and the fact that he will be having a meeting with His Majesty’s chief inspector, have provided him with least some assurance. Schools have every right to expect that inspections are of the highest quality, and I know that HM chief inspector, her staff and her inspector workforce are fully committed to meeting this expectation and strive every day to that end.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered Ofsted school inspections.

Dormant Assets Funding: Community Wealth Funds

Tuesday 6th December 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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16:30
Jo Gideon Portrait Jo Gideon (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered dormant assets funding and community wealth funds.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris. I begin by saying that I am pleased to see the proposal for a community wealth fund explicitly considered in the consultation on the next portion of dormant assets funding. As the Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central, I welcome the Dormant Assets Act 2022 and the future unlocking of new investment in good causes. Dormant assets have been a significant source of funding for youth and social investment and it is important to ensure that the next tranche has a similarly transformative effect by backing plans for the community wealth fund.

Historically, underfunded neighbourhoods have seen essential social infrastructure deteriorate, decay and disappear, resulting in depleted levels of the social capital that is so important for underpinning healthy, prosperous and resilient communities. When combined with the absence of places to meet, the lack of an engaged community and poor connectivity, these neighbourhoods experience significantly worse outcomes across a range of indicators, from health and wellbeing to education and employment.

The 225 areas the Local Trust has identified and named as left behind have considerably fewer jobs, with only 52 available locally per 100 people. Many children face poverty and live in out-of-work households and participation in higher education is markedly lower. Despite being at greater risk, these areas have historically missed out on funding. Research by the Local Trust shows that in the past two decades, left-behind communities and neighbourhoods, including those in Stoke-on-Trent Central, have received an average of £7.77 per head in national charitable funding. That is less than half the amount received in other equally deprived areas, and is well below the national average. Understandably, this makes it harder for these communities to take action to improve local outcomes and work with partners to tackle what are often deep-rooted and multigenerational challenges.

We saw these areas fare disproportionately badly during covid. Now, they are again the most vulnerable to the cost of living challenges, as they have fewer resources to draw upon and often lack the ability and skills to apply for funding. The community wealth fund would provide a crucial opportunity to correct this by creating a long-term endowment for deprived communities that have not benefited from economic prosperity, helping to resolve some of the disparities at the heart of the levelling-up agenda.

These communities are typically located in post-industrial areas in the midlands and the north of England, and are particularly prevalent in red wall constituencies like mine. In fact, seven of England’s 225 most left-behind communities can be found in Stoke-on-Trent, two of which—Abbey Hulton and Townsend, and Bentilee and Ubberley—are in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central. These areas must be a priority when it comes to levelling up and fostering economic growth. Deep-seated disparities in social capital must be addressed by enabling communities to be the drivers of local social change. In particular, a community wealth fund would allow for a range of solutions that could be decided by communities based on what they know is most needed in their area.

Kim Leadbeater Portrait Kim Leadbeater (Batley and Spen) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Lady is making a fantastic speech that I wholeheartedly agree with. While talent is everywhere, does she agree that opportunity, sadly, is not? The places and spaces where people from all backgrounds can come together and build meaningful relationships are crucial to our social wellbeing, but access to them is not evenly spread throughout the country. Local people know what is best for their neighbourhoods. It is vital that the community wealth funds be available as widely as possible across the country. That involves a radical new approach to make sure that responsibility is as close as possible to the people whose lives these funds are designed to benefit.

Jo Gideon Portrait Jo Gideon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I absolutely agree. By utilising the area-specific knowledge of local residents, priorities and desired outcomes can be determined at neighbourhood level. Polling by Survation found that the residents of left-behind neighbourhoods held a strong belief in the power of community action. A clear majority said that they would prefer a greater say over how money is spent locally. Research by the all-party parliamentary group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods has found that social infrastructure is what our neighbourhoods most lack. That has an impact on how people feel about their area. Clearly, we need to build community confidence and capacity.

An in-depth analysis of local area initiatives over the last 40 years by the University of Cambridge identifies characteristics that have improved participants’ chances of better social and economic outcomes. It found that the programmes that focused investment on a small geographical area of between 3,000 and 10,000 residents, which had control of decisions, design and resources to local people and adapted bespoke approaches rooted in each area’s particular characteristics, and areas that guaranteed a long-term, consistent commitment over 10 to 15 years, were found to be more likely to deliver benefits for communities.

Kieran Mullan Portrait Dr Kieran Mullan (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

When we talk about the politics of devolution and devolving power, too often we focus on local authority and regional level. Actually, what people really want is to get involved in their own local neighbourhoods. That is where they can make a difference. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is what the community wealth fund could potentially enable them to do?

Jo Gideon Portrait Jo Gideon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend makes a good point.

As a result, it is important to get the structure of a community wealth fund right, reflecting the knowledge and skills of the local community, the aspirations for that community and the necessary governance to ensure the appropriate use of funds.

16:37
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
16:44
On resuming
Jo Gideon Portrait Jo Gideon
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The community wealth fund is a place-based initiative aimed at natural communities in left-behind areas, typically with a population of around 10,000 people, which is much smaller than the typical local authority serving such areas. For that reason and others I have mentioned, a local authority is unlikely to be a suitable body to lead the community wealth fund process.

By involving communities in the process, whether planting street trees, investing in community pantries or creating a group of community callers, we will move away from doing things for people, or even with them, to giving them as much ownership as possible. The more local people are involved, the more transformative outcomes are. Partnerships work.

For decades, we have had a system that has treated citizens as consumers of services, rather than members of empowered communities, so a fundamental shift in our national thinking will be required to enable this new social model approach. However, it is an approach that the Government can embrace because it is a fundamental principle of Conservatism to believe in small Government and local, community-led solutions. We must challenge the narrative that suggests the solution to all inequalities lies in growing ever-larger, top-down-controlled public services. That undermines the power of communities to support their health and wellbeing, and stifles a philanthropic approach, which has been a lifeline during the last year.

During covid, we woke up to the power of communities. During the first lockdown, I conducted an online survey to gauge residents’ feelings, including the impact of volunteering on their mental health. The findings featured in the “Connecting Communities” report, which I co-authored for One Nation Conservatives. Of Stoke respondents, 39% stated that covid-19 changed their view of the local community. One resident from Stoke-on-Trent Central said about lockdown:

“I think it] highlights the untapped—undervalued—potential of people and neighbourhoods across the Country…Local community is essential in times like COVID. At first people were much more helpful and considerate but sadly the effect of this is fading fast. I feel that good will could have been harnessed and directed better locally and nationally.”

With the community wealth fund, we have the opportunity to harness this.

The indicator that shifts most when communities are part of levelling up is civic pride. When we see improvements for community outcomes, we also see improvements in other areas. Many success stories of locally empowered communities have shown that we can expect investment into projects that enhance environmental sustainability and stewardship of local resources, such as ethical food production and better green spaces. I was delighted to welcome several such local initiatives to the local food summit I hosted in Stoke-on-Trent. Standing Tall 2gether is based in Bentilee and improves the lives of local residents through food activities, training and bespoke volunteering, and has a household essentials refill hub. Birches Head Get Growing is another local initiative that encourages people to offer their time and skills to support unmet needs in the local community, moving from a gift model of support to an energetic exchange. In2 Health and Wellbeing is a social enterprise committed to improving the health and wellbeing of disadvantaged young people in Stoke-on-Trent. It uses sport, physical activity and education to engage local people across the community.

I am convinced that not only would the community wealth fund help to meet Government goals, but we should also expect knock-on benefits for the economy. Replenishing stocks of social capital is vital for seeding economic activity, but also through the direct supply of local employment, opportunities for training and skills development, and building and rejuvenating community assets.

Indeed, there is strong evidence for the impact of a community wealth fund. Modelling by Frontier Economics estimated that a £1 million investment in social infrastructure in a left-behind area could generate approximately £3.2 million in fiscal and economic benefits over 10 years, actually helping generate savings. Combined with the fact that in areas with locally led solutions there is a faster decline in crime rates, the community wealth fund is an exciting opportunity to significantly boost the Government’s levelling-up agenda without placing pressure on public finances.

Community wealth funds can also play an important role in supporting early-stage social entrepreneurs in marginalised constituencies by connecting them to wider support to maximise their growth. The proposals would provide extra initial start-up support, among other things, in the most underserved parts of England. Harnessing the full potential of communities will require targeted interventions to create jobs, stimulate inward investment and grow social enterprise and trading charities.

Members of the APPG for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods have expressed support for the community wealth fund in the past, and the Government listened when earlier this year we made the case for including the fund as a potential new beneficiary of the next wave of dormant assets. The dormant assets scheme has created a unique opportunity to repair the social fabric of disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Now that the consultation has finished, I am grateful for the opportunity to restate my support and to recommend that the Government capitalise on the potential of investment through a community wealth fund.

Backed by a growing alliance of over 600 public, private and community sector organisations, the fund would provide long-term investment to rebuild essential social infrastructure in the left-behind neighbourhoods that many of us represent in Parliament. It would empower communities to play a much more prominent role in local decision making and inspire civic pride, as has already been demonstrated. I am incredibly grateful to my colleagues who have supported our cause so far, and I urge them to keep up the momentum so that we can deliver real and meaningful long-term change for communities like those in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central and across the country.

16:51
Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) on securing this important debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss the next wave of dormant assets and the possibility of establishing a community wealth fund.

I am proud that in 2008 the Labour Government passed meaningful dormant assets legislation, which began to unlock this crucial source of funding from financial assets such as bank accounts. Although it is important to reiterate that the priority is trying to reunite assets with their owners, where that is not possible the money goes to causes that facilitate real change in our communities. This policy raised over £800 million of funding to support social and environmental causes across the UK, so I am proud of the work that parliamentarians across the House, including many members of the APPG for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, have carried out. I am pleased that this proposal, in particular the creation of the community wealth fund, is being considered by the Government. However, it is important that this matter is not just considered; it must actually amount to meaningful change.

In England, funding from dormant assets is restricted to youth work, financial inclusion and social investment. It would be good to see that expanded so that the money could be used to finance a wider range of community projects. The design of the proposed community wealth fund has been informed by the success of the Big Local programme. The 2020 evaluation of the programme found that

“The concept of putting residents at the very heart of that change is showing its value up and down the country.”

A community-led approach means that local priorities and desired outcomes would be determined at local level by the people who live there. The importance of that cannot be overstated.

I want to use this opportunity to highlight the important research conducted by the Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion, in collaboration with the APPG, which identified 225 left-behind neighbourhoods. These neighbourhoods face significant deprivation, as we heard from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central, as well as poor connectivity and lower levels of community engagement and activity. That is especially poignant to me as the neighbourhoods identified include St Anne’s and the Washington North ward in my constituency. For example, in St Anne’s, there are only 25% of registered charities per 1,000 people compared with the English average.

Away from these statistics, I know at first hand the difference a community wealth fund would make in Washington and Sunderland West. This funding pot, which is now estimated to be £880 million, would be transformative in building community confidence and provide the foundations to enable the residents of the most left-behind neighbourhoods to bolster their social infrastructure. Consistent with this, the wards most in need of investment would receive awards, as opposed to having to compete for funding. That would be the right approach. Bids for levelling-up funding and freeports have pitted the poorest in our society against each other, rather than focusing on those in greatest need.

A number of hon. Members in the Chamber were at a meeting of the APPG just last week. I have co-chaired a couple of the meetings of the APPG’s inquiry into levelling up, in which we heard about the power of local communities to take action to improve outcomes for local people, for instance through award-winning community mental health programmes for young people, or through support to strengthen the local economy and support jobs and businesses. Levelling up seems to be cosmetic: if we move people from the bottom rung to the second rung from bottom, we can claim to have succeeded. Labour wants equal opportunity for every part of the country. The APPG inquiry shows that communities can develop themselves despite Whitehall neglect, so imagine what communities like mine could achieve with access to the appropriate resources and long-term support under a Labour Government.

That is why the community wealth fund is vital. I hope that the Government appreciate its importance, and that the community wealth fund will be one of the beneficiaries of the next wave of dormant assets.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will go to the Front Benchers at 5.23 pm, so I ask colleagues to keep their speeches to under five minutes.

16:56
Danny Kruger Portrait Danny Kruger (Devizes) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under you, Ms Harris. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon). I am in a Stoke sandwich, between her and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), which is very nice—I do not know where Kidsgrove and Talke is today.

I regret that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) is not with us today. Sadly, he has suffered a bereavement. I want to put on record my appreciation for his leadership and the strong role he plays in this place in the campaign for a community wealth fund. I also pay tribute to Local Trust, some of the staff of which I suspect are watching. That brilliant organisation has promoted this proposal from outside Parliament.

I think we all recognise that this is a cross-party proposal. I agree with much of what we just heard from the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). I do not think that a community wealth fund requires a Labour Government, nor would it prosper only under a Labour Government. This is about getting the great mission of community development, levelling up or economic prosperity—whatever we want to call it—out of the political cycle and out of the hands of central Government. It is a tremendous measure that is in exactly that spirit.

My work outside politics was mostly in charities. I found that the most effective aspect of our work is not about the type of service that is delivered—not the “what”—but it is about the “how” and the “who” that do it. It is the quality and nature of the service that matter. What is crucial is giving people a sense of belonging and agency. That is what we need. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central made a very good point about the importance of treating people not as passive recipients of services but as active agents in their own lives and their own prosperity. The idea of a community wealth fund speaks to that, and would strengthen that spirit across the country.

I echo the point my hon. Friend made about people stepping up, establishing mutual aid groups and taking responsibility for neighbours during in the pandemic. It is not unfair to say that, in a sense, it was easy then: people were being paid to stay at home, so they could take part in their communities. The need was obvious—people who were isolating needed to be delivered food and medicines—and the demand was short term, only a few months at a time. However, before and subsequently, and increasingly because of the effect of the pandemic and all the lockdowns, we have long-term, wicked, entrenched problems and people who are very overstretched. We do not have the capacity in our communities that we had during lockdowns.

We need to build our social infrastructure. That was the key recommendation of the report that I wrote for the Government in 2020 on how we might build on the community spirit that the lockdown had brought forth. The answer is quite simply that we need to create the conditions in which people can be good neighbours and that means creating social infrastructure.

We can do a lot with policy. This is not the moment for the discussion about how we reform public services and local government, but there is one big thing we can do. I know the Minister has been harassed and harangued on this topic by many of us over many months. He has taken it with great patience and I hope he is not going to suddenly flip and say “Ah, no!” to us at the end of the process, because we have lobbied very hard. The big idea is that we establish a great new national endowment for our communities—a community wealth fund, which would support those non-commercial or sub-commercial activities that are so essential to local growth, including parks and libraries, arts and sports centres, facilities for the elderly and for the young and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central says, social enterprises and community businesses. We need to develop the capacity of local places.

I will end with one more observation. It is not enough to provide the money; we need also to ensure that communities have the capacity to bid for it, plan the services and then run the services themselves, so there is a capacity-building element in this. I pay tribute to the people who are trying to develop Community First, a model based on Teach First that gives people the opportunity straight out of university to become community organisers in an area of the UK and to develop their skills that way. Creating more opportunities for community organising will be helpful. We need to build social capital, Madam Chair, and even if financial capital is all you care about, which I am sure it is not, the evidence is that social capital is what drives economic growth and not the other way round. So we need to invest in the infrastructure of our communities and our proposal will do that.

17:01
Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Harris. I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) for leading the debate and setting the scene so very well, and for the other contributions and those that will follow.

I recall speaking in the Chamber on this topic in January so it is one that is close to my heart. It has been almost a full year of seeking assurances on the Dormant Assets Act 2022 extending to Northern Ireland. I am very pleased that we are able to say that it is and that we are able to use it for the purposes referred to here by hon. Members. It is really good news. I completely welcome the Act’s premise of ensuring that dormant funds find a way back to their owner, and if not restored to their owner, allocated to generate social engagement and social life in large enterprises to the benefit of the country’s people and, indeed, to the benefit of all, so it is really good news.

I will quickly speak about Northern Ireland. The Dormant Accounts Fund NI supports the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector in Northern Ireland to be more resilient and prepared for the future by funding activity that increases capacity and sustainability. Community funds offer up to £100,000 for any one organisation that can make real changes in the local community. There are many people with ideas, ability and talent to do just that. Figures released by Social Enterprise NI show that there are almost 843 social enterprises in Northern Ireland, generating an annual turnover of approximately £980 million, and that almost 25,000 people are employed in the Northern Ireland social economy. I fully support the use of dormant funds to improve our social sectors. Sometimes, those are the organisations that struggle the most to get up and running, so it is good to encourage them and have a way of doing so.

There have been differing comments surrounding the use of community wealth funds, by which dormant assets can be used for research and analysis regarding left-behind neighbourhoods. We all have such places in our constituencies: those left-behind neighbourhoods that need that wee bit of help. I have them in Newtownards. They are socially deprived and we hope that we can get some of the funding out to them. So far, we have done some of that.

Some communities not only have severe socio- economic challenges, but lack social infrastructure, defined as places and spaces to meet, digital and physical connectivity and an active and engaged community. Indeed, some estates in my constituency lack all those things. Furthermore, the community wealth fund has identified 225 neighbourhoods in England with those features. Given that the Dormant Assets Act applies to the whole of the United Kingdom, can the Minister clarify whether he has had any opportunity to discuss with his counterparts in Northern Ireland how those things are going, how they are rolling out, and the success stories that are quite clearly there?

To conclude, I acknowledge the progress and success that the Act has brought so far. I am excited about it, and am pleased to see it has been a success with community groups and enterprises. There must be further engagement between them and the Government, to ensure that opportunities and benefits are provided for all.

Money should not be wasted; it should be available for our constituents to benefit from. The figures are massive, and the funding that could provide for social enterprise and perhaps community wealth funds in future is needed and deserved. Alongside the success stories, let us do a wee bit more. I am looking forward to hearing from the Minister; I suspect the answers will be easier here today than in the Adjournment debate last night.

17:05
Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris. I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) on securing this important debate. I add my full support to the creation of a community wealth fund, with funding from dormant assets, focused on those areas identified by the all-party parliamentary group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods. Those areas have so much to give but need more support to unlock that potential. They need this investment most, having suffered from a lack of investment for decades.

In my constituency, they are the wards of Blurton West, Newstead, Mere South and Mere North. The Mere North ward is particularly deprived, identified by the APPG as the sixth most deprived left-behind community in the whole country. I am determined to play my part wherever I can to help improve the situation. That includes transport schemes; my sponsorship of the scheme to reopen Mere railway station, which has advanced to the later stages of the Department for Transport’s restoring your railway programme, is part of that. When delivered, it will significantly address the shocking levels of transport deprivation in Mere North and the most deprived parts of Mere South.

In Mere North, the lack of effective public transport and very low car ownership—40% of households there do not own a car—exacerbate the challenges experienced in accessing work and further education. The station has considerable local support, and I have been struck by the level of community engagement. That shows that communities that are deprived, where engagement is usually low, can be enthused by identifiable projects and clear paths to improving the quality of life.

Much more can be done. Stoke-on-Trent has always had huge potential just waiting to be unleashed. Projects that deliver truly meaningful changes to the social and economic outcomes of our deprived communities will be those that tackle the underlying barriers to progress. Those can only be known locally, which is why inspiring community engagement in the process of delivery is so important.

I am pleased to have worked closely recently with the Coalfields Regeneration Trust in Mere, where we have launched the “Engage Mere” project. That pilot project is focused on working collaboratively to support local people to overcome some of the deeper-seated employment and health barriers many face, and delivering long-term improvements to quality of life. We need to see more support for projects like that.

This is the main thing I want to contribute to today’s debate, because it can be overlooked. There is a need for oversight and democratic accountability in allocating some of these funds. The best way to achieve that is through requiring project sponsorship of local MPs, as is already the case with local bids for national funding through the restoring your railway fund, led by the Department for Transport, and through the levelling-up fund, where local MPs rank priorities. That has been done because MPs are likely to back schemes that generally have wider community support. We are, of course, democratically accountable for our sponsorship decisions. MPs’ sponsorship would ensure that we do not see projects coming forward that do not align with local priorities and do not have local community support.

There are certainly many groups in my constituency that I am keep to support and promote, with the longer-term interests of the community in mind. I would happily sponsor community wealth fund projects that have achieved goals. I know that the local community shares and can deliver the long-lasting improvements needed. I am sure I am not alone in that. Community wealth funds have a vital role to play in ensuring we achieve the mission of levelling up for every part of the UK. As MPs, we must play our full part in realising those benefits.

17:09
Ian Levy Portrait Ian Levy (Blyth Valley) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris. I wish to speak in favour of creating a community wealth fund through the next wave of dormant assets. I will briefly outline some of the evidence as to why it is so important and why the core elements behind the idea of a community wealth fund have worked in the past. I hope Members will agree that we can work for left-behind neighbourhoods, such as those in Blyth Valley, and supporting the community wealth fund would signal a real commitment to levelling up communities that have been overlooked and forgotten for so long.

We know that investment in boosting local connectivity, such as transport, is vital, and I am pleased that we have made great progress with the Northumberland line, reconnecting communities that have suffered as the result of the Beeching cuts to our railways. However, community regeneration must involve investment in social as well as physical infrastructure, as the progress made by the Forget Me Nots clearly shows. I have been working in the Cowpen ward with people who felt that enough was enough, and who have set up a group called the Forget Me Nots—the name says it all about how they feel. Imagine how much more could be done if proper funding was in place to support such groups.

Regenerating our communities is no easy task. Areas such as the Cowpen, Isabella and Kitty Brewster wards in my constituency have not only high levels of deprivation but some of the highest levels of community need in the country, with a lack of assets, low levels of community engagement and poor connectivity. The Forget Me Nots now have a place to meet up for a coffee and can host drop-in sessions with crisis management services, such as citizen’s advice bureaux, debt counselling charities and outreach groups. They all make a real difference in their area, and they are the heart of the community. They know better than anyone what support is needed by local residents. Our goal should be to make lives better for people in those areas and give them the chance that they have been crying out for. This is our opportunity to do that, using the community wealth fund to change and improve lives. In doing so, we will level up.

A community wealth fund targeted at building social infrastructure will work to regenerate local communities, and it will do so from the bottom up. Pioneering and cutting-edge research by Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion, and shared intelligence from all-party parliamentary group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods, has assessed the additional benefits of community-level interventions. It is robust, and it is factual. Early results indicate that in areas where community-led economic partnerships are active, crime and antisocial behaviour are lower, and there are stronger social relationships and higher levels of participation in local activities than in areas without such interventions. The evidence shows that putting power and resources in the hands of the people who need them works best, and I am hopeful that the Government will ensure that this most important of initiatives benefits from the dormant assets funding needed to make the community wealth fund a reality and truly level up the communities in most need of investment.

17:13
Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris. I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) for securing this important debate.

Since people nowadays are more likely to have multiple bank accounts than they were 20 years ago, the issue of dormant assets is likely to continue to grow, as having multiple accounts will generally make keeping track of assets much more difficult. It is vital that banks and others in the financial services sector make a concerted effort to reunite account holders with their funds before freezing their accounts and classifying them as dormant. It is particularly important for vulnerable and elderly customers, who may have greater difficulty in regularly accessing their accounts due to increasing bank closures and an increased reliance on online banking.

Recently, HSBC announced closures of 100 branches, with Age Scotland’s head of policy noting that it was hugely disappointing. It joins a long line of banks leaving high streets at a rate of knots, with the result that many customers and communities cannot access the valuable face-to-face services they rely on. About 400,000 over-60s in Scotland do not use the internet, so without a branch they are left out in the cold as digital banking is not an option for them.

It is really important that banks reunite dormant accounts with their holders where possible. Most of the dormant HSBC accounts that were frozen belonged to customers aged over 65, and many had the power of attorney attached. That meant that those people were at real risk of losing money. More than half of dormant funds belonged to customers who had active accounts with HSBC, so it would have been easy for the bank to reunite them with their money.

Although banks have to make a concerted effort, the dormant assets scheme benefits people because it is used locally. It is a really good thing. The Scottish Government use dormant assets funding to improve young people’s physical and mental wellbeing by supporting them to learn new skills and enter employment through the Young Start programme. In Scotland, more than £67 million of dormant assets funding has been allocated to the Young Start programme, which has made more than 950 grants of up to £100,000 to voluntary and community organisations—[Interruption.] I do apologise— I am having a mare of a day. The cold has got into my very soul and I am really not doing awfully well.

Angus Women’s Aid is one of 20 groups that shared £1.4 million from the Young Start fund. It was given £100,000, which meant that it could continue to work across Angus delivering and developing a young expert group for young people affected by domestic violence. That sort of work really matters. It built those young people’s confidence and self-esteem. During the pandemic, the funding also covered tablets and internet access so the young expert group was able to meet virtually. Someone from the group said that the whole thing would have fallen apart without that sort of valuable work.

The Scottish Government have adopted the internationally recognised community wealth building approach to economic development as a key practical means by which they can achieve their wellbeing economy objectives. Community wealth building presents important opportunities for voluntary organisations to play a greater role in local supply chains and strengthen local economies, which benefits communities.

The third sector should not be a replacement for UK Government action. Charities and non-governmental organisations across the UK are under significant pressure from trying to plug the gap caused by UK Government inaction in the face of the ongoing Tory cost of living crisis. They carry out important work across communities in Scotland and the rest of the UK, but they should not be expected to plug the gap.

Charities that would benefit from community wealth funds are facing increasing cost pressures as a result of the ongoing cost of living crisis. The cost of living crisis also means that charities will not get the funding that they normally rely on. The pressure on charities has been exacerbated by the UK Government’s decision to delay the replacement to EU funding through the UK shared prosperity fund by a year. It is important that we look after our most vulnerable during the cost of living crisis. If the dormant asset scheme can help do that, it is to be welcomed. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

17:19
Barbara Keeley Portrait Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate with you in the Chair, Ms Harris; I think that it is the first time I have done so. I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) for securing the debate and all the hon. Members who have contributed to it.

The significance of an expansion of the dormant assets fund for our vital civil society organisations cannot be overstated. Currently, charities are being battered financially on every side. Just last week, the Charities Aid Foundation published an analysis of a YouGov survey that showed that more than half of charities are worried about their very survival, because of the rising cost of living. When the same question was asked back in April, the figure was substantially lower, so we know that the problem is intensifying.

The causes of the problem are manifold. On the one hand, the demand for charities’ services is higher than ever, as people grapple with the devastating impacts of falling living standards. On the other hand, charity income is being hit by rising energy costs, the declining value of grants and a hit to donations being caused by the cost of living crisis. The financial reserves of many organisations had already been stripped by the devastating impact of the covid pandemic.

For these reasons, it is critical that further funding is released for charities as quickly as possible. However, funds released to the dormant assets scheme must not be used as a substitute for Government spending. After the financial difficulties of the last 10 years, this scheme is a welcome supplementary fund for budgets that have been stripped back—and not a replacement.

Earlier this year, Labour was pleased to support the Dormant Assets Act 2022 as a delayed expansion of a scheme that a Labour Government put in place through the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Act 2008. The scheme has been immensely successful, both in returning £105 million in dormant assets to owners, which a number of Members have mentioned, and in distributing £745 million to good causes. Our intention was always to broaden the financial products to which the 2008 Act applies; indeed, a review was scheduled for 2011. But here we are, over 10 years later, with the 2022 Act finally in place.

The Government’s expansion of the scheme does not go as far as Labour’s expansion would have gone. We would have liked to see the inclusion of pension assets, unclaimed winnings from gambling and other funds that could have contributed to good causes. In the other place, Labour secured a commitment from the Government to consult on the potential benefits of the expanded scheme being distributed by community wealth funds. On Report, the Government repealed our amendment, which would have allowed the Secretary of State to include community wealth funds as recipients of funding in England. The amendment aimed to empower communities and it had cross-party support, so it was disappointing to see it being rejected. It is right that community wealth funds have been included in the consultation launched this summer, as promised.

Community wealth funds distribute funds to local communities, which in turn decide their own priorities—a matter that Members speaking in this debate have really stressed as being important. These funds are targeted at communities that persistently lose out on grants or that have low levels of civil society infrastructure but high need.

We know that deprived communities do not benefit from the same level of civil society infrastructure as other communities. Research by the all-party parliamentary group for ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods—I congratulate the APPG for the work it has done in this regard—found that there are almost three times fewer registered charities per 100,000 population in such areas than there are across England as a whole, and these communities also receive fewer grants. I understand this because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), I have a left-behind neighbourhood in my constituency, which is Little Hulton ward.

Community wealth funds have the potential to boost and empower these communities by enabling them to invest in the facilities and services that would have the most benefit locally. I know that this proposal has strong support from civil society, including an alliance of 400 charities and community groups led by the Local Trust.

We should recognise and celebrate the successes of those organisations that have distributed the Reclaim Fund until now. Big Society Capital, Access, the Youth Futures Foundation and Fair4All Finance have all done a really good job. We want these organisations to be able to continue to carry out their important work. I would welcome an assurance from the Minister that they have nothing to fear in the event of the Government making future changes to how funds should be spent.

Labour supports the need for consultation on the distribution of dormant asset funds in England. We want to ensure that it is carried out both properly and promptly. There has been too much delay already and it is now imperative for charities that the Government act as quickly as possible in publishing their decision on the distribution of dormant assets and move to the next stage of this process.

17:24
Stuart Andrew Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Stuart Andrew)
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I really mean it when I say that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris; like the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), I think it is for the first time. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) for securing this debate and all Members for their contributions and their interest in the topic. I also add my thanks to those given to my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), who cannot be here today but has done a lot of work on this issue.

I feel I should start by trying to manage some expectations in respect of what I can say, for reasons that I will elaborate on later. That said, today’s discussion has been important and I am grateful for the thoughtful consideration of dormant assets funding and the opportunities afforded by empowering local people to decide for themselves how best to support their communities.

It is worth reflecting on the assets scheme itself, which enables dormant financial assets to be unlocked for social and environmental causes across the UK. Over the past decade, the scheme has been used to tackle systemic social challenges and to level up the communities that need it most, in particular by targeting and benefiting left-behind areas. The scheme is led by the financial services industry and backed by the Government, with the aim of reuniting owners with their financial assets. That is an important point to remember. If that is not possible, the money supports vital social and environmental initiatives across the UK.

Since it became operational in 2011, the scheme has unlocked £892 million to be spent on the current three named causes: youth, financial inclusion and social investment. The funding is focused on supporting innovative, long-term programmes and has gone towards tackling some of the UK’s most pressing social and economic challenges, including youth unemployment and problem debt. It has also invested in charities and social enterprises that serve vulnerable communities.

To date, as we have heard, the funding has been distributed by four independent and expert organisations: Youth Futures Foundation, Fair4All Finance, Big Society Capital and Access, the Foundation for Social Investment. I thank them all for their work. The funding has had positive real-world benefits. For example, as a result of the work by Fair4All Finance on financial inclusion, 150,000 vulnerable people are estimated to have saved between £50 million and £75 million in unaffordable interest repayments from high-cost lenders and loan sharks.

The scheme has also provided urgently needed finance for social-purpose organisations serving people across England, particularly in more deprived communities. This includes almost £110,000 that has been invested in Pinc College, a brilliant organisation that works to provide neurodiverse young people with a purposeful pathway to careers in the cultural and creative sectors. The college’s creative-learning studios operate in partnership with arts and cultural organisations such as the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent, with which I am sure my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) are familiar.

The Dormant Assets Act 2022, which received Royal Assent in February and came into force in June, has expanded the scheme to include new financial assets. The scheme is set to unlock an estimated £880 million more throughout the UK. The English portion of that would be £738 million, on top of the ongoing flows from dormant bank and building society accounts. The release of the money is, of course, entirely dependent on voluntary industry participation. The Government anticipate that it could take some years for that to flow through the system.

After the Act became law, the Secretary of State launched a public consultation on the social or environmental purposes of the English portion of the funding. We ensured that the consultation was an open and fair opportunity for people to have their say on how the money could have the best impact in England. The consultation ran from June to 19 October and received more than 3,300 responses, including from financial services industry participants, civil society organisations and members of the public. It was gratifying to see so many people engage with how dormant assets funding should be spent in England in the years to come.

The consultation asked respondents to share their views on the three current named causes, the inclusion of community wealth funds in the scheme and any additional causes that they believed should be considered. All responses are being assessed and considered against a set of criteria published in the consultation. Any changes to the current causes, including if the scheme were to establish a community wealth fund, would need to be set out in secondary legislation and be approved by both Houses. Our officials are working at pace to analyse the thousands of responses to the consultation and I expect we will be able to publish a response in early 2023.

Let me turn to community wealth funds themselves. I am glad to see that they have brought together Members from across the House. As Members will know, community wealth funds are schemes that give pots of money to communities right across our country, empowering them to make their own decisions on how best to invest in their neighbourhoods. Such communities are typically areas of fewer than 10,000 residents.

The aim of community wealth funds is to direct funding to those areas that experience the highest levels of deprivation and the lowest social capital. The neighbourhoods that a community wealth fund could support are all too often ineligible for or unaware of how to apply for funding to address and overcome those challenges. This may be because local residents may not have the knowledge about grant processes, do not have the skills and experiences needed to apply for alternative funding sources or are unable to identify challenges and solutions.

Proposals for community wealth funds suggest that spending decisions should be made by local residents, who can design bespoke solutions that would improve their communities and the lives there. Allowing local residents to make the final decision would incentivise the involvement and participation of community members in the decision-making process, and using local knowledge would make spending as effective and impactful as possible.

I have always been an advocate for local people driving change in their own communities. It is something I certainly saw when I was growing up in Wales and during my more than 16 years of work in the charity sector. I believe local people will have the individual answers to addressing many of the disparities that Members have mentioned.

I am sure Members will appreciate that, as I said at the beginning of my speech, I cannot yet comment on whether community wealth funds will become a named cause in the dormant asset scheme. As I said, we are still reviewing the responses and the final decision rests with the Secretary of State, so I would not want to pre-empt the outcome of the consultation as it would undercut the fair and open process. However, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to discuss this important idea and the inclusion of community wealth funds, and I am grateful for many of the excellent points that were made.

It is clear from the debate that we all share the same ambition: to ensure that the dormant asset scheme continues to be successful in unlocking such assets for public good. I thank colleagues for their patience while the outcome of the consultation is decided. I certainly look forward to engaging with them all as soon as the response is published in, I hope, early 2023. In the meantime, the contributions today have been absolutely invaluable in highlighting the benefits that the inclusion of community wealth funds could bring. I finish by again thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central for leading this important debate.

17:33
Jo Gideon Portrait Jo Gideon
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I thank you for your chairmanship, Ms Harris, and I thank the Minister for listening. Clearly, there is more to be done once we have the consultation results.

I thank everybody who took part in the debate, which has been very good humoured. I think that reflects the fact that we all represent neighbourhoods in our constituencies that we hope will benefit from decisions that will hopefully be made in the new year.

I was interested to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about what might be achieved in Northern Ireland, and from the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) the interesting example of how Scotland has used the money from these assets.

Now that the dormant assets consultation has closed, it remains for me to urge the Minister to consider the community wealth fund as a new beneficiary of dormant assets. If we can make that change, we can make levelling up a reality in the neighbourhoods in our constituencies that are the most left behind.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered dormant assets funding and community wealth funds.

17:35
Sitting adjourned.