12.15 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing this debate on an issue of enormous importance—tackling the differences in attainment among certain groups of pupils.

The overarching objective of the Government’s education policy is to close the attainment gap between those from wealthier and poorer backgrounds, between girls and boys and between those from different ethnic minorities. As hon. Members have already argued, the gap in attainment between black and minority ethnic pupils and other pupils is too wide, and has been too wide for too long.

The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth pointed to the educational attainment gap between BME students and their peers. She pointed to the high levels of unemployment among black men. It is 55.5% in the 16-to-24 age group. She pointed to the fact that young Indian people are more likely to be unemployed than their white peers, despite being in one of the highest-performing ethnic groups educationally.

The hon. Lady pointed to the high degree of variation in the educational achievements of different ethnic groups. She pointed to the poor attainment levels of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils. For example, in 2011, 25% of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils achieved level 4 or above in English and maths at the end of primary education, compared with 74% of all pupils. That is one of the largest attainment gaps for any minority ethnic group. At key stage 4 in 2011, 12% of GRT pupils achieved five or more good GCSEs including English and maths, compared with 58.2 % of all pupils. We have established a ministerial working group on tackling the inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers. We are taking action, including by piloting a virtual head teacher for GRT pupils, looking again at the impact of legislation with regard to not prosecuting families for non-attendance at school, and so on.

The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) pointed to the attainment gap of 6% between Caribbean-heritage boys and the rest of the

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cohort at GCSE level. For girls, it was 5%. The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) pointed out that when black children enter primary school at the age of five, they are doing as well as, and in certain circumstances better than, their peers attending the same primary school, but by the age of 11, achievement starts to drop off, and by 16 there are real attainment gaps for that group of children. I agree with her that this does matter—it is a matter of social justice and fairness. She is right to have devoted so much of her life to trying to tackle these issues and raise awareness of them. I join the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) in paying tribute to her for the work that she has carried out over three decades in seeking to address the issue of higher educational standards for BME children in general, and black boys in particular.

The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington is right to say that the focus must be on raising educational achievement for black children, and children from groups that historically have underperformed educationally. She is right to point to the importance of data and making the data available. That is something that we are doing. We have put increasing amounts of educational attainment data in the performance tables. Those are broken down by free school meals, by low prior attainment and by high prior attainment. The underlying data are also available. They break down achievement by different ethnic and minority groups. We intend to put ever more data on the website over time, so that they are available to the public, and to academics who want to drill down further than the general public.

Attainment gaps are a complex issue. BME pupils’ underperformance may be due to a combination of factors, including financial deprivation, low parental literacy levels and aspirations for children’s academic achievement, poor attendance and bullying.

Ms Abbott: The Minister mentions low literacy levels among parents as a reason for educational underachievement. Let me tell me him that many parents with whom my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and I work would resent that inference.

Mr Gibb: I take the hon. Lady’s point. I am making a general point about the issue of underperforming groups in society. The range of causes is complex, and one of them can be—it is not always—literacy among parents generally.

Particular combinations of pupil characteristics can indicate that a child is especially vulnerable. Currently, white or black Caribbean boys eligible for free school meals are among those making the slowest progress. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children significantly underperform. Many of the lowest-achieving free school meal pupils also have a special educational need, and therefore face an even steeper struggle to succeed.

Nationally, in 2011, 58.2% of pupils gained five or more GCSEs, including English and maths, but the attainment levels of black and minority ethnic groups were lower. Some 52.6% of children of Pakistani origin obtained five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including in English and maths, while 54.3% of black pupils, including those of African and Caribbean background, attained the same GCSE results. The figures show that

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some attainment gaps have narrowed in recent years, as hon. Members have mentioned. For example, attainment levels for pupils of Pakistani origin have improved at a greater rate, narrowing the gap from 12 to six percentage points since 2006.

Narrowing the gap between those from wealthier and poorer backgrounds is key to raising attainment levels among those black and minority ethnic groups with higher than average levels of deprivation. For example, 30% of key stage 4 students of Pakistani origin were eligible for free school meals in 2011, compared with 14% of all key stage 4 pupils.

Our policy is to improve reading in primary schools through systematic synthetic phonics and the new draft primary curriculum for English, with its focus on rigour and ensuring that children become fluent readers and develop a long-lasting love of reading, as well as being taught the rules of English grammar. That is key to closing the attainment gap, as are our other programmes of study for maths and science.

The academies and free schools programmes are designed to raise standards in schools throughout the system, particularly in areas of deprivation. Similarly, the new floor standards for primary and secondary schools and the new focused Ofsted inspection framework are designed to raise academic standards in the least well-performing schools. The pupil premium will direct £600 of extra school funding to each pupil eligible for free school meals, giving schools the resources to tackle all the challenges that they undoubtedly face in overcoming disadvantage.

The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington is right that schools must not hide behind social difficulties as a reason for poor educational attainment. That is one reason for the pupil premium. It is a challenge: “Here are the resources to deliver high attainment, so there can be no reason for not delivering.” Total funding for the premium was £625 million last year. It will be £1.25 billion this year, rising to £2.5 billion a year by 2014-15. In 2012-13, coverage of the pupil premium is being extended to include pupils who have been eligible for free school meals at any point in the last six years, extending the premium from 1.2 million pupils to about 1.7 million. The Deputy Prime Minister also recently announced an additional £10 million for the education endowment fund to support projects aimed at transition and literacy catch-up for disadvantaged pupils who did not achieve level 4 at key stage 2 in English at the end of primary school.

The hon. Members for Oldham East and Saddleworth and for Cardiff West raised the issue of the ethnic minority achievement grant. Raising the attainment of children from minority ethnic communities remains a key priority for the coalition Government, but we believe that head teachers understand the particular needs of their schools and are best placed to decide for themselves how that money should be spent. That is why, as part of our school funding settlement for 2011-12, we decided to simplify the funding system by mainstreaming some grants, including the ethnic minority achievement grant, into the dedicated schools grant. Although the EMAG will not continue as a separate ring-fenced grant, we are maintaining last year’s funding levels during 2012-13 at just over £201 million. That means that schools still

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have funds to support underperforming minority ethnic pupils, and to contribute to the additional costs of supporting pupils with English as an additional language.

Debbie Abrahams: Does the Minister accept that as schools are under severe financial pressure at the moment, the funds might not be targeted specifically at reducing the inequalities in attainment for which they were originally intended?

Mr Gibb: I accept that that is always a risk, but our philosophy is to trust the professionals to make the decisions, and not have decisions always taken in Whitehall that direct head teachers, who are experienced professionals, on how to spend their budgets. The funding of £201 million is in the dedicated schools grant to address such issues.

This country performs poorly in helping young people to overcome their socio-economic backgrounds. The OECD recently reported that just 24% of disadvantaged students are able to overcome their backgrounds and achieve as well as their peers academically. That is compared with 76% in Shanghai, 72% in Hong Kong and 46% in Finland, which puts the UK 39th out of 65 OECD countries in terms of what it calls the “educational resilience” of children from poorer backgrounds.

In this country, however, there are many schools where pupils of all backgrounds succeed. In Challney high school for boys and community college in Luton, for example, 29% of pupils are in receipt of free school meals, and 61% are of Pakistani origin and 11% of Bangladeshi origin. It saw 77% of its students achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths. The national attainment figure is 58.2%. In Valentines high school in Redbridge, 19% of pupils are in receipt of free school meals, and 24% are of Pakistani origin and 10% of Bangladeshi origin. It saw 76% of its students achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths. The question we must ask is this: if such schools are able to achieve those results and that standard of education for their pupils, why not all schools?

As the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington pointed out, black children sometimes have a culture of low expectation. When Sir Michael Wilshaw was head at St Bonaventure’s and at Mossbourne community academy, however, he transformed the educational achievement of the youngsters with a combination of high expectations and strong limits and boundaries on behaviour. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch cited Mossbourne community academy and its very high academic achievement. It saw 84% of pupils achieve five or more GCSEs at A* to C and nine pupils offered places at Oxbridge last year, despite high levels of deprivation in that part of Hackney and a very high proportion of pupils with English as an additional language.

The hon. Lady pointed to City academy, and the high academic achievement of pupils who had low attainment prior to coming to the school. She said that good heads and good rigour are key, and I certainly agree. She also pointed to the exemplar behaviour policy at the Petchey academy in Hackney, which brings me to school attendance and how regular attendance is key to raising academic standards.

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Absence rates for some BME groups are higher than the national average. The absence rate of children of Pakistani origin is 6.7%, but the national average is 5.8%. Nationally, over 54 million school days were lost in 2010-11 due to absence. A pupil missing about nine—

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order.

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Rail-Air Connectivity (South-East)

12.30 pm

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise the issue of improving rail-air connectivity for London and the south-east. As a successful trading nation, we rely on aviation, and our commerce relies on connectivity. In the brief time that I have, I want to concentrate on the importance of air-rail connectivity for the world’s busiest two-terminal, one-runway airport.

The Government’s economic strategy rightly wants to see improved links with emerging markets. UK businesses trade 20 times as much with countries where there are daily flights than with those with less frequent or no direct services. Ministers correctly want to boost growth through increasing inward investment and boosting exports. Improved international connectivity is therefore critical. Gatwick airport’s recent investment programme has made it a credible competitor to London Heathrow airport.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was quite correct when he recently said that, under new ownership, Gatwick is emerging as a business airport for London, competing with Heathrow. The airport has recently invested £1.2 billion in facilities. In April, it announced proposals to invest a further £1 billion from 2014 to 2019. All of the money is going into making Gatwick a better, not a bigger, airport. Today, Heathrow, the UK’s largest and major hub airport is effectively full. Whether further capacity should be provided is a debate for another day. However, Gatwick is not full. At times of peak demand, such as in August, there are constraints, but, averaged out over the year, Gatwick currently operates at approximately 78% of capacity. There is potential for a further 11 million passengers to use Gatwick every year—a 25% increase on today’s levels, and a new runway is not needed to accommodate such numbers.

If Gatwick has airport capacity that can be used, the question becomes how do we best utilise that. There is no doubt that Gatwick faces a competitive disadvantage in taking on Heathrow to deliver this connectivity. Gatwick is not a “hub” airport. In pure economic terms, “hub” airports are more attractive to airlines than point-to-point airports. Although, under current market and capacity conditions, Gatwick could not become a “hub”, it is competing, and it is serving routes that are traditionally the preserve of Heathrow. It is at best simplistic, and at worst fundamentally inaccurate, to suggest that because Heathrow is full, there is no alternative in terms of enhancing the UK’s international connectivity to emerging markets.

Surface transport links are key to airline choice and can encourage full use of existing capacity. At present, Gatwick is engaging directly with Governments and national carriers in emerging markets, and asking them what it will take for new routes to the UK to be established. They hear time and again that airlines want to come to London, and that their choice of airports rests on available capacity, suitable facilities and, crucially, the airports’ surface connectivity to London. If we want new international air links to the emerging markets, good rail access to the airports that can provide them is critical.

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The UK national infrastructure plan rightly recognises the national role that London’s airports have in increasing economic output and in enabling business to access new and larger markets. Indeed the NIP has identified Gatwick’s current £1.2 billion capital investment programme as one of the country’s top 40 infrastructure projects. It also outlines that the Government will

“improve road and rail links to the UK’s international gateways to help maximise the efficiency and competitiveness of the whole transport network.”

A £53 million upgrade of Gatwick rail station is already under-way. It will deliver much-needed additional platform capacity, concourse improvements and local track and signal infrastructure.

The focus now is on the services that run in and out of Gatwick station. Gatwick is already the home of the busiest airport railway station in the UK with more than 10 million passengers every year, and proportionally more people travel by rail to and from the airport than any other major UK airport. There is already a substantial growth in forecast demand. Along with Gatwick’s substantive growth, the number of ordinary commuters who use the same rail links is forecast to grow by 29% by 2026. The Brighton main line, which is effectively Gatwick’s main rail artery, is near capacity, and peak services on the line were already at almost 80% back in 2009.

The new Thameslink project will help the airport. Already, it is quicker to get to the City of London from Gatwick than from Heathrow. The airport should see a doubling in train frequency from 2018 through Thameslink, and someone living in, for example, Peterborough or Cambridge will be able to go directly to Gatwick by rail for the first time. It is partly due to this Government’s decision to progress the Thameslink upgrade project that we will see clear improvements in north-south links to and from the airport. However, further improvements are necessary.

A consistent implication from Ministers has been that the welcome improvements that Thameslink will bring are sufficient to deliver the improved rail connectivity and capacity that Gatwick will need in future. In my view, a far more holistic approach to improvement needs to be taken and, in particular, one that takes into account just how central high-quality express services from Gatwick to London Victoria are to the airport’s growth.

Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that many of his arguments relating to Gatwick also apply to airports such as Stansted, which have masses of spare capacity and many millions of unused passenger journeys, but which, like Gatwick, suffer from very poor transport links, and that, if they were improved, they would transform an unattractive airport into a very attractive one and a potential alternative business hub?

Henry Smith: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I apologise if my contribution seems a little parochial in its concentration on Gatwick, but the points relating to Gatwick are replicated for other airports, not just in London and the south-east, but around the country.

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Over the past few years, Gatwick has lost direct links to Oxford, Birmingham, Manchester, Watford and Kent and, importantly, due to decisions taken by the previous Government, the Gatwick Express is now under threat. On-board ticketing has been discontinued, and 25-year-old carriages have replaced new ones.

Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He has highlighted the important point that the rolling stock that is now used on the Gatwick Express is inadequate for airport passengers because there is insufficient luggage space, and wheelchair access is difficult. The irony is that that stock has replaced purpose-built stock, which has been cascaded elsewhere on the network. I urge my hon. Friend to impress on the Government that when we argue for the Gatwick Express to be a dedicated franchise or part of a broader franchise, there should be flexibility to have appropriate rolling stock to make it an attractive airport link.

Henry Smith: My hon. Friend raises an erudite point. It is incredible that purpose-built rolling stock for the Gatwick express is now elsewhere on the network and that, as he rightly points out, unsuitable carriages are used. The matter is even worse because the Gatwick Express starts many of its journeys in Brighton, and by the time those carriages have reached Gatwick station, particularly at peak times, they are already full, and arriving air passengers cannot get a seat on what is supposed to be a dedicated service to London. Additionally, Network Rail is proposing a further stop for the Gatwick Express at Clapham Junction, which would be a retrograde step. It would threaten Gatwick's ability to compete with Heathrow, and because of that, reduce its potential for growth.

Passengers are noticing the trend. Already, the Gatwick Express ranks below its equivalents at Heathrow and Stansted, and is at the bottom of comparative league tables for other services, behind airports such as Heathrow, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Stockholm. Gatwick is not effectively connected to locations to the east and west of the airport either, with no direct rail service to and from Kent. Trains have to go via London, meaning that the 2 million passengers from Kent who use the airport every year cannot reach it directly.

The new Southern-Thameslink franchise must deliver improvements to the Gatwick Express. In December 2009, the Government announced that they were inviting tenders for new franchises for the south-east region from 2015. The new service will integrate those currently operated by First Capital Connect and Southern, including the Gatwick Express. From 2015, nearly all rail links in and out of Gatwick will be operated by one company, with the exception of a direct link to Reading. We currently have the unique opportunity to address many of the issues.

Preserving the Gatwick Express is a priority. It should be recreated as an all-day, dedicated service between Gatwick and London, to support Gatwick’s role as a key economic driver for London, the south-east and the UK economy as a whole. To guarantee its success, bidders for the franchise should be required to outline a vision of how both the quality of the journey and the range of direct routes to and from Gatwick can be improved. In addition to the invitation to tender for the

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new franchise including direct express rail services to London from the airport, there must also be a clear requirement for fit-for-purpose rolling stock that caters for the needs of air passengers—so ably pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart)—as it is clear from Gatwick’s research that the current stock is not. Gatwick is particularly concerned about the installation of ticket gates at the airport railway station and the removal of on-board ticketing adversely affecting passenger experiences.

In the long term, the requirements in the recent rail Command Paper need to be implemented. The paper states that during the next regulatory cycle Network Rail and the broader rail industry should look at how best to improve surface access to major airports. Network Rail should, as part of its development of the south-east’s rail network, take advantage of the new capacity that the Thameslink programme will provide from 2018, to reorganise the way in which lines running though Gatwick are used. Gatwick’s plans for long-term infrastructure improvements deliver a win-win solution for commuters and air passengers alike. The line that supports Gatwick’s direct rail links into London is important for both air passengers and local commuters, and the airport is not suggesting that the needs of the airport outweigh those of the everyday user.

I note that the Office of Rail Regulation has projected that, independently of air travel, passenger numbers on the main line running in and out of Gatwick could grow by 29% by 2026. The office believes that Gatwick airport’s technical proposal would allow for the needs of both sets of users. This is not an either/or choice for the Government, but a solution for all.

The plans that Gatwick has published support the growth of the airport and help to ensure a better experience for the ordinary commuter using the same rail links. They provide adequate capacity for the projected growth of both sets of users, and help to deliver the connectivity that the national economy needs. In essence, they meet the needs of most user groups, and the interests that Ministers should consider.

There would be substantial benefit to the Treasury, too, because air-rail users pay a premium. Gatwick Express users reduce Government subsidies by £27 million every year, lessening the burden on the taxpayer. More users would mean less taxpayer money being spent on the network, and keeping the service as a non-stop one would allow a further £6 million to be saved by reducing journey times.

Direct rail links to Gatwick would help to improve the environment for inward investment in the south-east, because 51% of potential investors cite international transport links as an important factor in deciding where to locate. Easy rail access to airports means better links to key export markets. In the short term, Gatwick’s proposals would greatly assist the airport in marketing itself internationally to airlines operating from emerging markets, because a high-quality, dedicated rail link is key in their decision-making process. In that way, improved rail links would help efforts better to manage the capacity shortages that airports in the south-east face, and which have the potential to hamper our economy.

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12.44 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) on securing a debate on such an important and interesting topic. He is a great advocate for his constituents, and I welcome his expertise in and understanding of aviation issues, which I am sure are of great importance to many of his constituents who work at Gatwick airport.

I fully appreciate all the points that my hon. Friend made about the importance of high-quality rail services to airports, and particularly to Gatwick, which is one of our biggest and most successful airports. I echo his praise of and congratulations to Gatwick on its investment programme, and I welcome the new services that it is attracting, including Air China’s new service from Gatwick to Beijing. Gatwick well deserved the praise that it received from the Prime Minister, to which my hon. Friend referred.

It is entirely correct to say that the debate about aviation connectivity in this country is not just about Heathrow. Heathrow is an extremely important airport, but we should not forget that London’s five successful airports together make us one of the best connected countries in the world, and Gatwick plays a very important role in that system.

High-quality surface access to our key airports is important for air passengers and for our international economic competitiveness, as my hon. Friend rightly highlighted. In addition, improving rail services to airports can provide important assistance in addressing local road congestion problems and, in certain places, in dealing with air quality problems. As he said, one of the Government’s strategic priorities for the nation’s rail network is improving rail links to major ports and airports.

A significant programme of rail infrastructure improvements is under way, and a number of the projects will benefit airports. If time permits, I shall deal with those later, but first it would be best for me to address some my hon. Friend’s points that were specific to Gatwick.

We have recently started consulting on the new combined Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern franchise. All the responses to that consultation will be shared with the five shortlisted bidders that will compete to become the next operator. The consultation is an important part of the decision-making process on what goes into the new franchise. This debate is therefore very timely, and I encourage my hon. Friend and his constituents to take part in the consultation.

The task that the bidders for the new franchise face in balancing the competing priorities of those who use the Brighton main line, which serves Gatwick, will not be easy—there is no getting away from that fact. Along with much of the nation’s rail network, the line is a tribute to the engineering excellence of our Victorian forebears. Driving tunnels through the downs and building a nine-track viaduct over the River Thames are the sort of engineering projects that we take for granted today, but they were a massive challenge when they were built more than 150 years ago, largely using only manual labour and sheer hard graft.

Brilliant as those Victorian engineers were, however, they bequeathed us a railway that had only 19 platforms at Victoria, and only five tracks south of East Croydon.

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Since Victorian times, commuting demand has increased dramatically. In a typical weekday morning, the Gatwick Express carries more than 2,000 passengers from Gatwick airport into London, but there are more than 35,000 Brighton mainline commuters, and approximately the same number again commuting into London on Southern’s services from the inner suburbs. Expanding our inherited railway network is neither low-cost nor easy, especially where it runs through our crowded cities, so we will expect the bidders to think hard about how they can make best use of the track capacity available to them in such a way that they can continue to provide a high-quality service to those travelling to and from Gatwick, without compromising their ability to meet the needs of the thousands of commuters who also use the line every year.

Against that background, there is certainly some pressure for more trains to call at Clapham Junction, which is one of the busiest stations on the route and arguably one of the busiest in the world. My hon. Friend will appreciate, however, that although that proposal was included by Network Rail in its south-east route utilisation strategy, that is not binding on the Government. No final decision has been made on it. When we make our decisions on the new franchise, we shall carefully weigh the needs of airport passengers and commuters, as well as taking into account wider strategic economic considerations of the sort to which my hon. Friend referred. This debate is useful for feeding into that decision-making process.

My hon. Friend has concerns about rolling stock. The Government are keen for such decisions to be made, when possible, by the people who run the railways rather than Whitehall. However, I agree that when making choices about rolling stock and its internal layout, the current and future franchisees will need to balance carefully the different needs and wants of railway users.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley also referred to decisions about on-train ticketing and the installation of ticket gates at Gatwick. I am aware of the concerns of the airport operator and I have held discussions with Gatwick on several occasions. However, the installation of gates is one of most effective ways to ensure that passengers pay the fares that are due. Protecting that revenue is an important element of delivering a more financially sustainable railway. I note that efforts were made to try to respond to the airport’s concerns, with a choice of wider gates to facilitate passengers with larger bags. I hope that that provides some mitigation to the concerns that my hon. Friend and the airport operator expressed.

I want to discuss the wider programme of activity that is under way to improve rail-to-air links in the south-east and elsewhere. A fleet of brand new trains built by Bombardier in Derby is now in use on the Stansted Express to improve the experience for passengers going to that airport. Network Rail, with the assistance and support of Gatwick Airport Ltd, is investing £53 million in upgrading the station, tracks and signalling at the airport, which includes new platforms and escalators, and a refurbished concourse. That will greatly improve the attractiveness of rail services to and from Gatwick, and I was delighted when the airport and Network Rail put together the funding to make it possible.

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Through the regional growth fund, we have awarded £19.5 million to Luton borough council for junction enhancements that will improve access from the M1 to Luton. The RGF has also awarded £40 million to Kent county council for its Expansion East Kent programme, which includes rail improvements affecting journey times between Ashford and Ramsgate that could support the further development of Manston airport as a passenger airport. In the north of England, Manchester airport is getting linked up to Metrolink for the first time, and funding has been secured for a new airport link road connecting the M56 and the A6. Looking ahead, Manchester airport is also set to benefit from our programme of rail electrification in the north of England and from the work on elements of the northern hub that we are committed to delivering.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley rightly pointed out, the Thameslink programme, which took some years to get started under the previous Government—they started out calling it Thameslink 2000, but for some reason dropped that title as delivery got later and later—is very much under way. It is a £6 billion programme that will benefit Gatwick and Luton airports through the operation of a brand new fleet of high-capacity trains running at greatly increased frequency. The trains serving the two airports will be able to stop at London Bridge at peak times, which is not possible at the moment. The Thameslink programme also means that, for the first time, Gatwick will get new direct services to destinations north of London, such as Cambridge, Stevenage and Welwyn.

Crossrail is finally under way, with tunnelling under London commencing at the beginning of May. Once it is completed, we expect Crossrail to provide new services linking Heathrow directly with the west end, the City of London and Canary Wharf. In the longer term, Heathrow will also benefit from the Piccadilly line upgrade, and High Speed 2 will connect to Birmingham airport and provide radically improved access to Heathrow from destinations in the midlands and the north of England. A great deal of work is under way to improve our links between rail and air in the south-east and elsewhere in the country. We shall be giving further thought to whether more can be done as part of our HLOS—high-level output specification—programme for the 2014-to-2019 railway control period.

Let me respond to the hon. Friend’s comments in the context of the overall debate about aviation. The coalition has been clear that it wants a successful and sustainable aviation sector that supports economic growth and addresses aviation’s environmental impacts. Our forthcoming consultation on a sustainable framework for UK aviation will be a further opportunity to consider surface access to airports and the kind of issues that my hon. Friend shared with the Chamber. For example, in response to the scoping document on aviation with which we began the policy development process last year, a number of people advocated the potential of new fast rail links between Heathrow and Gatwick as a way to deal with connectivity. Such ideas will be considered alongside the many other responses that I am sure we will receive in our consultation, in which I hope that hon. Members will participate.

The Government will continue to work with airport operators, the rail industry, local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and MPs on ideas to improve rail access to

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our key airports in the years to come. All the matters mentioned by my hon. Friend will be carefully taken into account when decisions are made on new franchises for the railways—we are about to embark on the biggest programme of refranchising since privatisation—and we will ensure that we consider the importance of good surface access to our key airports.

Zac Goldsmith: Will the Minister reconfirm that it is her view, and that of the Government, that the Government’s first priority is to find ways of making better use of existing capacity? Will she confirm that any thoughts of expansion in the south-east take a very clear second place, and that people will not be subjected to the horror of expansion unless it is an absolute last resort?

Mrs Villiers: I agree that whatever decisions are taken about long-term capacity needs in the south-east, it is essential that we do everything that we can right now to make our airports better and to ensure that we make the best use of existing capacity. Two separate things need to be done: to work out how we improve our airports today—we have initiatives on that important aspect under way, such as the operational freedoms trial at Heathrow and reforming how security is delivered—and, at the same time, to give serious, evidence-based consideration to what our future capacity needs might be.

On rail-to-air connectivity, we must be mindful of affordability constraints and value for money. When appropriate, we continue to look to the airports that will benefit from transport improvements to make a fair contribution to their funding. When there are decisions on how limited capacity is allocated between competing priorities, we will need to consider carefully the needs of all railway users—those who are travelling to the airport and those who are not, including commuters and freight operators. We need a successful and sustainable aviation sector that is supported by a railway that delivers reliable, high-quality services for all its users. That is what the Government are striving to achieve, and I am sure that our discussion today will provide useful input into forthcoming decisions on aviation and rail matters.

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Mesothelioma (Legal Aid Reform)

12.59 pm

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): We now come to the debate on the effect of legal aid reform on mesothelioma victims. I call Bill Esterson—you may speak seated, if you find that helpful.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): Thank you very much, Mr Williams. I will stand, but it is kind of you to make the offer. It is a pleasure that the debate is being held under your chairmanship. It is an important debate, which I am sure that you and Members in all parts of the House appreciate—so far, it is mostly Opposition Members, but I know that Government Members have also indicated an interest in the subject.

I requested this debate because the Government have said that they will review the support given to victims of mesothelioma and their families following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which includes industrial diseases along with personal injury in measures to end no win, no fee litigation in the courts. The Government say that they want to stop fraudulent claims, but I believe that there is no evidence of fraudulent claims by those suffering from mesothelioma. That is the basis of this debate.

The House of Lords tried to amend the Act to exclude victims of mesothelioma from the changes to no win, no fee legislation, but the amendments made by the Lords were rejected by the Government. Instead, the Government said that they would hold a review and consider how to support victims and their families. So far, Ministers have not said what that review will consist of or when it will be held. Victims and their families need to know. When the Minister responds, he should tell the House what will happen in the review so that those suffering from that terrible disease can know and compare their evidence, so as not to lose out as a result of the end of no win, no fee.

The Government decided to include industrial diseases along with road traffic accidents in stopping no win, no fee. The implication of the change is that mesothelioma claimants are part of the compensation culture. That may well affect some personal injury claims, including whiplash, but mesothelioma victims are clearly not making spurious claims. When my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) put that point to the Minister on 17 April, she asked him to give one example of a spurious mesothelioma claim. The lack of an answer made the point that there are none.

Let us remind ourselves of what mesothelioma does. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) said in the debate in April that

“one fibre could go into someone’s lung and lie dormant for many years, but when it becomes active there is no alternative—that person suffers horribly and then they die. There is no cure, no remission and no element of survival; they die…Everybody who gets mesothelioma will die an agonising death.”—[Official Report, 17 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 279.]

The idea that those suffering from mesothelioma could be involved in fraudulent claims is absurd and disgraceful.

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. Does he agree that one of the big issues is how long we must wait

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before we get information about how the review will start? Since we had the debate in the main Chamber, some 200 people have died of mesothelioma.

Bill Esterson: My hon. Friend has a long and distinguished record of fighting for those suffering from many industrial diseases, especially mesothelioma. He has made the point well: 200 people have died since the last time the issue was debated. That demonstrates the urgent need for the Minister to indicate exactly when the review will be held and how quickly it will conclude.

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware, as I am, of constituents who have unfortunately contracted asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma. Why are people who have terrible diseases through no fault of their own being doubly punished by the Government? Is it a case of the law of unintended consequences, or does my hon. Friend believe that they are being targeted by this uncaring Government?

Bill Esterson: I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for his question, and I hope that the Minister will answer it. We could all make our guesses as to the true motives. There are well-established financial links between the Government and the insurance industry, which might be at the heart of why things are being done in the way that they are.

It cannot be right that victims of asbestos-related diseases should be required to surrender a quarter of the damages that they have been awarded to pay for legal costs. Those damages are awarded to recognise and compensate men and women who have suffered terribly, if it is at all possible to compensate them for the pain, suffering and life-shortening that resulted from their work.

Mesothelioma has an extraordinarily long latency period of up to 60 years. As well as those 30,000 who have already died in the United Kingdom from mesothelioma, an estimated 60,000 more are yet to lose their lives due to past exposure, the vast majority of which occurred at work.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the coffers of the Government, in the shape of the Department for Work and Pensions, will also lose out? There has always been a payment back of benefits that have had to be paid up front early on because of people’s short life span once diagnosed with mesothelioma. Does he also agree that we should be making absolutely certain that no part of the compensation is taken out? The money should be used for the victims and their families and to repay the Government. Will my hon. Friend congratulate a colleague of mine in the Welsh Assembly, Mick Antoniw, who proposes to introduce a private Member’s Bill that would compensate the NHS for its expenditure on treating mesothelioma by recovering the money from liable companies?

Bill Esterson: I am happy to congratulate my hon. Friend’s colleague. She is right that it is the companies that cause this terrible pain and suffering, as well as their insurers, that should bear the financial costs, although there is no way of truly compensating the victims and their families for their suffering. It should be the private industry that caused the condition, and its insurers, that pays, not the public purse.

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People were exposed to this terrible disease at work in situations which employers knew would ultimately kill the workers. However, as things stand under the legislation, those same people and their families will lose a quarter of the compensation that they absolutely should receive from the insurers of those companies.

The Government rejected a Lords amendment that would have exempted mesothelioma from the provision, but they have yet to say how sufferers and their families will be protected. In all the non-answers from Ministers, they have yet to justify to thousands of families why they did not exempt mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is an exceptional case, because the problem was known about for more than a century. Asbestos was identified as a poisonous substance in 1892 and has been banned from use in this country for almost half a century, yet employers knowingly exposed their workers to it day in, day out. They knew the dangers and ignored them for decades. They were eventually held accountable, but ever since the first successful case against employers and insurers on asbestos-related diseases, they have kept coming back to the courts and the issue has kept coming back to this place.

Mesothelioma causes intractable pain and severe breathlessness, which means that more than half of all the very modest damages claimed are for pain and suffering. The Government’s proposals would have a disproportionate effect on mesothelioma sufferers, because victims receive a higher proportion of their damages for pain and suffering than those who claim for personal injury.

The legislation requires terminally ill asbestos victims who succeed in a claim for compensation against negligent, guilty employers to pay up to 25% of their damages for pain and suffering in legal costs. They are not part of the compensation culture, nor are they legally aided, so to include them in that provision is wholly wrong. Many sufferers are so defeated by their illness that they never make a claim under current circumstances. Victim support groups have been told by victims that the change proposed would be a significant further deterrent to them making a claim at all. That would represent a big saving for the insurance industry, which therefore has the financial interest hinted at by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram).

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this issue for the umpteenth time. It is always possible to tell when an issue ought to be dealt with. We fought constantly for bronchitis and emphysema to be treated as industrial diseases, and did the same with vibration white finger. In 1999-2000, we managed to get the show on the road. Mesothelioma has been debated in this place ad nauseam, which is why we can tell that it ought to be dealt with at long last. I thank my hon. Friend for raising the matter once again.

Bill Esterson: My hon. Friend speaks with greater experience than anyone in this House on the subject and on the issue of protecting the rights of workers who have suffered, over many years, grave injustice through industrial diseases and industrial accidents. He brings that wealth of experience from his time as a miner, and he continues to campaign tirelessly, and I applaud him for that. He is absolutely right that we have a duty to the victims to ensure that the matter is dealt with properly

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and that this Government are held to account. We need to hear answers today as to what will happen in that review, and it needs to be done quickly.

KPMG estimates that the insurance industry was given a £1.6 billion windfall when the Government ended compensation for pleural plaques. Unless the Government change their mind on mesothelioma, a similar windfall may be made available to the insurers at the expense of victims of industrial disease.

In contrast to other diseases, mesothelioma has only one outcome—loss of life. It is not trivial, and victims need help not hindrance. Most doctors say that the average lifespan from diagnosis to death is around nine months to one year. As one victim explained:

“My life has been turned upside down, and I really didn’t want to think about anything except spending my last days with my family. I worked all my life and paid all my national insurance and taxes, so this seems unfair.”

Mesothelioma victims, who often have just months to live, should not be expected to devote their energies to finding the lawyer with the best deal, yet that is what the Government expect them to do. Asbestos-related disease is not an accident. It is the result of negligence and lack of duty of care.

The claims of dying asbestos victims are never frivolous or fraudulent, but they are lumped in with road traffic accident claims that make up more than 70% of personal injury claims, for which the Government and insurance industry suggest that conditional fee agreements have been exploited. Between 2007 and 2011, there was a 6.6% reduction in employer liability cases, of which most respiratory claims are a subset. During that same period, road traffic accidents increased by 43% to nearly 800,000 cases. It is expected that mesothelioma claims will peak in about 2015, as asbestos has been eliminated from the working environment. Unscrupulous claimants may be able to fake road traffic injuries, but not mesothelioma or asbestosis. Road traffic accident problems will not be solved by punishing asbestos victims.

Mesothelioma sufferers who make a claim mainly do so because they and their families will not be at risk in terms of legal costs, which, without no win, no fee agreements, would be prohibitive. A claim may be valued at between £5,000 and £10,000, which is of great importance to the individual concerned, but which could be eaten up in costs and premiums under the Government’s plans. Mesothelioma sufferers would lose the whole of their compensation simply by not taking any action, which, as we have heard, is increasingly likely if no changes are made. Their access to lawyers would be restricted by making success fees unrecoverable from defendants, putting them at risk of paying defendants’ costs if they lose. Victims are already reluctant to claim because they have so many problems dealing with their rapid deterioration in health and trying to survive. The risk that if they lose they will have to pay such costs would be a massive additional hurdle for some of our most vulnerable people, to whom a decent, civilised society should and would guarantee support.

We should not forget that compensation is already significantly reduced for many sufferers. They must not only provide evidence of heavy exposure dating decades back, but forgo that portion of compensation where

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insurers cannot be traced for employers that are no longer trading. As insurance companies fight mesothelioma cases to the end, often trying to elongate the case until the victim dies, the cost of after-the-event insurance can be huge. As that will also be unrecoverable under the Government’s plans, there is no prospect of claimants being able to afford the premiums. The Government’s one-size-fits-all approach in the legislation is wrong. It may work for some personal injury claims, but is not effective in the case of complex industrial disease cases such as those involving mesothelioma.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): My hon. Friend has given a graphic description of the pain and suffering faced and experienced by mesothelioma sufferers. He is describing the impact that the legislation would have on mesothelioma sufferers if, following a review, it was fully implemented for that group. He has mentioned several times the review that the Government have offered as part of the concession that they made while the Bill was passing through Parliament. Does he agree that it is essential that that review fully engages with mesothelioma sufferers and their families and especially the support groups, such as the Asbestos Victims Support Groups Forum UK, which has done so much to make the case on behalf of mesothelioma sufferers?

Bill Esterson: I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. I completely agree with him and will come shortly to what we need in the review.

For mesothelioma sufferers, unwarranted and fatal risks have been taken unknowingly, so the correct function of the legal system in such cases would be to restore victims to the position that they were in before diagnosis and to make provision for them and their families. Terminally ill and dying people will have other things on their mind than looking for a lawyer to give them a good rate, so there will not be greater competition, driving costs down, as the Minister claims. There is in fact no evidence that lawyers will reduce costs, as lawyers themselves will be less likely to take these cases because they risk not being able to recover costs if they lose or they face the dreadful prospect of having to recover those costs from their clients in a situation in which they have just lost in terrible circumstances.

Making changes to rules on compensation is no motivation or incentive for mesothelioma sufferers. One sufferer has said that

“no amount of compensation could ever compensate for my husband’s suffering and loss of life. To even contemplate this is wrong. My husband’s suffering has ended but still I have terrible images of his horrific suffering which I cannot erase…My husband was poisoned going to work. I hope this Government remembers that!”

At all stages of consideration of the legislation in this House and in the House of Lords, the fallacy of the Government’s position on industrial disease was pointed out. Twice the Lords voted on amendments to this effect:

“The changes made by sections 43, 45 and 46 of this Act do not apply in relation to proceedings which include a claim for damages for respiratory disease or illness (whether or not resulting in death) arising from industrial exposure to harmful substance.”

The Government were forced to reconsider their position and they agreed to an amendment, which brings us to the point of today’s debate. This is the amendment:

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“Sections 43 and 45 and diffuse mesothelioma proceedings

(1) Sections 43 and 45 may not be brought into force in relation to proceedings relating to a claim for damages in respect of diffuse mesothelioma until the Lord Chancellor has—

a) carried out a review of the likely effect of those sections in relation to such proceedings, and

b) published a report of the conclusions of the review.”

Since then, the nature of the review, its timing, its terms of reference, how it is to be conducted and who is to be consulted have been raised several times. I have raised those matters myself with Ministers, as have the Labour Front-Bench team. When agreeing to the compromise, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) said:

“We need assurances it will be truly independent and not just a whitewash. We also need confidence there’ll be sufficient time allowed to see how the changes brought about impact on other successful claimants before rolling them out for mesothelioma sufferers.”

Given the Government’s conduct throughout, it is not surprising that we and those who represent mesothelioma sufferers, and the victims themselves, are sceptical about the Government’s promise. Today is an ideal opportunity, which I hope the Minister will take, to address the doubts of everyone who has concerns about mesothelioma. Anything less than a fully independent and thorough review of the potential effects of limiting claims will not be within the spirit or the letter of the amendments agreed to, which enabled the Government to get their legislation through. I hope that we will not hear generalities or evasions from the Minister. A clear commitment to do justice for the victims of this terrible disease is the least we can expect.

I therefore ask the Minister these questions. When will the review take place? Who will be part of the review body? What will its terms of reference be? No doubt it will include representatives of the insurance industry, but who will be the victims’ representatives? Will the review be truly independent, by which I mean independent of the insurance industry?

Concern remains that the change to no win, no fee will cut the number of people claiming and the amount being paid by insurance companies. The insurance industry has a clear financial interest in cutting down the amounts paid out. How will the Minister or his colleagues ensure that that interest is balanced by how the review is run? Will he consider an independent panel to examine mesothelioma and compensation for victims and their families? Will he and his colleagues consider the call for an employers’ liability insurance bureau following the pattern of the Motor Insurers Bureau? We must ask why there is such a facility for traffic accident victims but not for those suffering from mesothelioma or other industrial diseases.

Victims and their families want answers and protection. They have a right to that protection, given the suffering that they go through. It is time that Ministers gave answers about how that protection will be guaranteed, and soon, by this Government.

1.21 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Crispin Blunt): I apologise for the absence of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), to whom this debate would normally fall, but he is serving on the Committee that is considering the Defamation Bill.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing this timely debate. He asked wholly appropriate questions and I hope to be able to give him some of the satisfaction that he seeks, and some guidance for claimants and their families on the circumstances that we are in.

I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that I slightly regretted the tone of his speech. To suggest that concern about the issue is located on one side of the House and not the other is a little wide—

Bill Esterson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Blunt: No, because otherwise I will not have time to put the necessary points on record.

Bill Esterson: You made an allegation.

Mr Blunt: The sister of my right hon. Friend Lord McNally, the Justice Minister in the House of Lords, died of that disease, and my father died of respiratory disease. I assure the hon. Gentleman and all his hon. Friends—

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr Blunt: I will not, if my hon. Friend will forgive me, because I need time to put on record all the things that I think are important for mesothelioma sufferers, for whom concern is, very properly, universal.

Mesothelioma is a terrible disease. We recognise its devastating impact on sufferers and their families, and we take extremely seriously the plight of sufferers and their right to claim compensation for negligently caused personal injury. As was clear from the way in which the hon. Member for Sefton Central spoke, this is an emotive subject. This debate highlights the importance of the issue, and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) also made that clear.

I will deal briefly with three main issues: first, why our reforms to conditional fee arrangements are the right way forward; secondly, why we are taking an exceptional course in respect of mesothelioma claims, and the circumstances in which that exceptional course will be managed once we have improved the position for sufferers who cannot trace their employer’s insurer; and, thirdly, how some reforms have lowered the barriers for claimants in recent years.

On the rationale for conditional fee arrangement reform, it is important to make it clear that our current legal aid reforms do not affect mesothelioma cases, as legal aid is not generally available. The Access to Justice Act 1999 removed legal aid for the majority of personal injury cases, including mesothelioma cases, where alternative forms of funding such as conditional fee arrangements were available. As the hon. Member for Sefton Central will be aware, the Government are implementing the recommendations in Lord Justice Jackson’s review of civil litigation costs, and particularly a fundamental reform of no win, no fee CFAs. Part 2 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 implements those reforms.

Lord Justice Jackson concluded that the current arrangements, under which success fees and after-the-event insurance premiums are payable by the losing side, in

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addition to standard legal costs, are a major contributor to the high costs of civil litigation, and that it was right in principle to change the arrangements across the board. The truth is that the current system is indefensible. It has turned out to be a racket for lawyers, which is why it is changing. The new system will assist the execution of meritorious claims rather than supporting a claims-management industry.

The Government are committed to addressing disproportionate costs throughout the whole of civil litigation, and the provisions in part 2 of the Act will deal with the unfairness that currently exists in the system between claimants and defendants. These important reforms will ensure that meritorious claims can still be pursued, but at a more proportionate cost. As part of the reforms, earlier settlement will be encouraged and damages for non-pecuniary loss, such as pain suffered and loss of amenity, will be increased by 10%. In time, the reforms will apply to all areas of civil litigation—that was what Lord Justice Jackson recommended, and the Government agree.

The Government are certainly not suggesting that mesothelioma claims are brought inappropriately. Indeed, such claims are often among the easiest in which to establish base merit. I want to be absolutely clear, in response to the tone of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Sefton Central, that these claims are, of course, not part of the compensation culture—no one has suggested that they are. They are, however, part of a process of civil litigation that has to be reformed.

On the temporary exception from conditional fee arrangement reforms for mesothelioma claims, we announced that the relevant provisions in part 2 will come into force in April 2013. In particular, sections 44 and 46 abolish the recoverability of success fees and after-the-event insurance costs from the losing side in all categories of case in which they are currently used. We are, however, deferring implementation in relation to mesothelioma claims until we are satisfied on the way

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forward for those who are unable to trace their employer’s insurer. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands the crucial importance of that.

A number of reforms in recent years have improved the position of mesothelioma sufferers by lowering the barriers to bringing claims. In particular, the Employers’ Liability Tracing Office, which was introduced in April 2011, is designed to be a comprehensive online resource of current and historical employers’ liability policies, thus making it easier for claimants to find the relevant insurer. The database is updated with the results of any new traces, so its size and utility continue to increase. We recognise, however, that there remains a gap where sufferers cannot trace their employer’s insurer. The Department for Work and Pensions is therefore in discussions about the way forward for stakeholders. Primary legislation might be required, but I anticipate that my noble friend Lord Freud, who is working on the matter, will make a statement before the summer recess. If primary legislation is required, however, the hon. Member for Sefton Central and other hon. Members will understand that that will take a considerable period of time.

I can give a commitment that we will consider all the factors raised today when we come to set out the review’s terms of reference. I cannot, however, set out those terms of reference or a timetable, because any review may not happen until we have identified any primary legislation that might be required. Additionally—the hon. Gentleman made this point, and it has also been made by the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan)—that means that the review will occur against the backdrop of a substantially changed conditional fee arrangement market, so we will of course consider the effect of those changes as part of the review.

I have rather more to say, but I regret that I will not be able to do so, given that, understandably, the hon. Gentleman took interventions during his speech. Nevertheless, I have put on the record the substantive responses that he was seeking from the Government.

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Neglected Tropical Diseases

1.30 pm

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): It is an honour, Mr Williams, to serve under your chairmanship.

I declare an interest as the chairman of the all-party group on neglected tropical diseases. NTDs are a group of diseases that affect more than 1 billion people around the world. They do not have the high profile of malaria, HIV/AIDS or TB—hence the word “neglected”—but they result in disability and death. Even for those who are less seriously affected, they bring chronic conditions that mean loss of income. Such diseases include worms or helminths, schistosomiasis or bilharzia, trachoma, lymphatic filariasis or elephantiasis, and leprosy.

Almost without exception, NTDs are diseases of the poor. They are also curable. The World Health Organisation’s 2010 report found that approximately 90% of their burden can be treated with medicines administered only once or twice a year, and that can sometimes be achieved for as little as 50 US cents. Treating and eradicating those diseases must be at the heart of any programme to tackle poverty. Yet as the title of the debate makes clear, they have been neglected for many years. Institutes such as the Liverpool and London Schools of Tropical Medicine, Imperial College London and the Antwerp Institute of Tropical Medicine, working with researchers and institutes in developing countries, have made great strides in the understanding and treatment of NTDs.

Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, not least because his knowledge of the matter is well recognised. Does he agree that Members of Parliament have a role in highlighting neglected tropical diseases, making the public, the media and policy makers aware of them, and ensuring that we reduce them because they kill millions of people every year?

Jeremy Lefroy: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for making that extremely important point. I will come to the reasons why it is important—particularly with regard to efficiency in the use of aid money, which is a major public policy question.

In recent years, Governments, principally in the UK and the USA, have begun seriously to fund work on NTDs. In the UK, this began under the previous Government with an allocation of £50 million. Earlier this year, the Department for International Development announced a further £240 million over four years, which will supply more than four treatments every second for people in the developing world. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and his predecessor for recognising the importance of this work. We are especially fortunate because the Minister—I am delighted that he will respond to this debate—has been a champion in the fight against NTDs, both when he was chairman of the all-party group and subsequently as Minister.

Drug companies have also made a great contribution, working with bodies such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. On the day when the UK announced a fivefold increase in its funding commitment to tackle NTDs as part of a global partnership, all drug companies

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with NTD drug donation programmes pledged to sustain, extend or increase their programmes to the end of the decade.

For example, GlaxoSmithKline has already donated nearly 2 billion tablets of albendazole for lymphatic filariasis and will continue until elimination is achieved. It is also providing 400 million tablets a year free of charge until 2020 to de-worm school-age children in Africa. Johnson and Johnson is increasing its annual donation of mebendazole to 200 million tablets every year—again, to tackle worms. Novartis is continuing its commitment to providing multi-drug therapy against leprosy in a final push against the disease. Pfizer will continue its donation of drugs for blinding trachoma until at least 2020, as well as donating the drug and a placebo for a study on the reduction in mortality of children treated with that drug. Sanofi, Merck and various other companies are also providing major drug donations.

It is not only drugs that are important, but vaccines. The Sabin Vaccine Institute, in which I declare an interest as a trustee of its UK charitable body, is developing vaccines to treat NTDs around the world.

We have come a long way in tackling such diseases in the past decade. The number of new cases of leprosy reported to the WHO has fallen every year since 2002 from 620,000 to 249,000 in 2008. The number of new cases of human African trypanosomiasis reported to the WHO worldwide fell from 37,000 in 1998 to 10,000 in 2008. However, there is still much to do—and it can be done. Three things are essential. The first is to keep up funding. In the 1960s, malaria was on the retreat, but the world took its eye off the ball and it came back with a vengeance in the 1980s and 1990s. Malaria is now again being tackled, but at a cost of $5 billion to $6 billion a year and after millions of unnecessary deaths.

The lesson is that we need consistency and determination. The UK has rightly decided that eradicating NTDs is one of the best ways to tackle poverty, and we should make that part of our work each year until the work is done. I am not asking for more money. DFID has committed a substantial amount each year for the next four years. However, there should be no uncertainty about future funding. DFID should continue to be a reliable partner over several Parliaments.

At the same time, I should like DFID to encourage other countries to begin or increase support for the work. The USA has been a reliable funder, for which we are grateful. It would be most welcome if it, too, could commit to stable amounts over several years. Then there are donors who have yet to contribute to the work. Will the Minister report on what he is doing to encourage others into the fold?

Secondly, we need to support the countries in which NTDs are endemic, to strengthen their health systems. The most important thing I have learned in the past year as chairman of the all-party group is that it is only through effective grass-roots health systems with committed, trained staff, often backed by community volunteers, that the fight against NTDs is sustainable. One-off treatment campaigns can be effective, and are necessary where systems are weak or do not exist, but the effects will fade unless they are backed up by permanent staff and clinics.

The UK has considerable expertise in working with developing countries to strengthen their health systems, but it is vital that the countries themselves meet their

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commitments, under the Abuja declaration, to spend 15% of their total budget on health. Few are doing that. I would like the Minister to let hon. Members know what the Government are doing to encourage our partner Governments in those countries to keep to their commitment under the Abuja declaration.

Finally, we need to support research. I have been heartened, as chairman of the all-party group, to see both how closely involved and how generous several pharmaceutical companies have been in tackling NTDs in the way I have outlined. However, we need to work closely with them and the research institutes in the UK and elsewhere to ensure that there is a pipeline of effective drugs for all the relevant diseases. Developing drugs and vaccines and bringing them to market is costly; those who suffer from NTDs cannot afford prices that reflect the cost of the research and development. However, although the market may not justify the cost of R and D, common humanity does, and that is where the British people, through DFID, can make a huge contribution.

We often speak about DFID doing this or the British Government doing that, but it is not they but the British people who are making the work possible, by their commitment to international development. I know that the voices raised against are often loud, but in my constituency of Stafford I have met thousands of people who give up their time and money to support projects around the world—schoolchildren, scouts, guides, community groups, churches and others. When the British people see that it is their support, through donations and taxes, that is helping to improve the lives of millions suffering from NTDs, they should know that they are an essential part of that great endeavour.

1.39 pm

Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I want to pursue some things that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) said, and to congratulate him on securing this debate on such an important subject. He dedicates a huge amount of his time to malaria and NTDs through his chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group.

As vice-chairman of the all-party groups on HIV and AIDS and on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, I have been struck by the emerging evidence that patients suffering from some NTDs are more likely to contract HIV/AIDS or severe malaria. Dr Peter Hotez writes in his manuscript entitled “The neglected tropical diseases and the neglected infections of poverty: overview of their common features, global disease burden and distribution, new control tools, and prospects for disease elimination” that

“in the case of malaria there is a high degree of geographic overlap with hookworm infection…with evidence to show that co-infections of malaria and hookworm result in severe anemia…Similarly, urinary tract schistosomiasis, which occurs in more than 100 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa…commonly results in female genital schistosomiasis that is associated with a threefold increased susceptibility to HIV/AIDS”.

In other words, if we are effectively to tackle the killers—malaria and HIV/AIDS—we need to treat NTDs at the same time. Given that, will the Minister ask the

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Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to consider embracing NTDs as well? I appreciate that the fund currently faces financial difficulties, with the cancelation of round 11, but it would be a good start if it could acknowledge the importance of tackling NTDs in the fight against malaria and HIV/AIDS, and encourage its donors to support work on NTDs, just as the UK and the USA are doing.

I also emphasise that by tackling NTDs we are not only working with people to improve their health but helping them to pursue their livelihoods, to escape the very poverty that makes it much more likely that they will contract the diseases, which ensures that the millennium development goal of tackling poverty continues to elude many countries. Many NTDs, if untreated, result in chronic disability and, given that most people who suffer from them are likely to be involved in agriculture or manual labour, such disability severely affects their chances of earning a living.

In conclusion, I congratulate the Government on announcing a fivefold increase in UK support for the work in fighting NTDs. It meets DFID’s criterion for tackling poverty and, given the low cost of treatment and the 2 billion people affected in one way or another, it represents very good value for money.

1.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr Stephen O'Brien): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) not only on securing this important debate but on his relentless and consistent commitment to the improvement and survival of all vulnerable people, and in particular children, in many parts of the planet. His commitment, both in his life before Parliament and since taking over the chairmanship of the all-party group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, carries huge influence and is much appreciated by parliamentarians across the House.

This debate comes at an important moment. While being gracious enough to acknowledge his generous words, I hope that he will be the first to admit that the effort to tackle neglected tropical diseases is very much a combined and collective one. Many people have worked over many years to address this issue, which is one of the most tangible issues that our generation can get to grips with in the field of preventable, avoidable and treatable diseases. NTDs have struggled to compete against the three best-known diseases—HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria—because they often do not kill. Nevertheless, they impede and imperil the quality of life and well-being of many people in many parts of our planet.

I shall begin by setting the debate in a bit of context, from the coalition Government’s perspective, and I shall then seek to answer Members’ questions. When we came into office a couple of years ago, we made it clear that we wanted to build a different style of international development, one based on dynamic partnerships as well as on the relentless pursuit of results and value for money in the Department’s work. I think that it is accepted as common ground, both here and across the House, that the tackling of global disease, particularly tropical and not least neglected diseases, represents value for money. Our vision for controlling NTDs involved

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marshalling the evidence that NTD programmes deliver results, to justify increasing our investment considerably over the next few years. We were certainly encouraged and influenced by the very positive reports from across the NTD world, including from our pharmaceutical company partners, the World Health Organisation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and indeed the United States Agency for International Development, which was rightly referred to by my hon. Friend.

The UK’s experienced and respected academic community has encouraged us to relentlessly do more. I well remember the many representations that I received when I occupied the chair of the all-party group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, which my hon. Friend now occupies. The UK academic community’s conviction was, and remains, infectious and undiminished, and I found that their information was an enormously useful body of information to carry with me into office as a Minister.

The coalition Government’s determination to achieve the UN’s target for official development assistance spend of 0.7% of GNP, and to do that by demonstrating life-changing and transformative results to the British public, provided the bedrock for the decision that we have taken. Our conclusion was that a significant increase in the level and scope of our involvement was warranted to improve health outcomes and to reduce poverty, while ensuring value for money in achieving those results.

As my hon. Friend has already said, last October at a joint event with President Carter—whose own personal commitment in this sector has been undoubted throughout his post-presidential career—I pledged that the UK would increase its support to trying to achieve guinea worm eradication by 2015 if others stepped up and were able to help to close the financing gap. The challenge was met in January, when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is the President of the United Arab Emirates, and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation pledged enough money to close that financing gap.

That was important because, as my hon. Friend indicated, it is necessary to seek to encourage others. It is not just a question of seeking, as it were, to impose any kind of leadership or leverage; it is actually about how we get the best collective effort. That will be the most sustainable part of the process in the future, rather than continually having to renew funding.

That exercise in January was really helpful and it has given us great encouragement in this field. Although it is, of course, early days on the road to 2015, it is not so early that we do not need to make progress. So far this year, the results have indeed been impressive. Only in South Sudan has there been any reported cases of guinea worm this year. There have been 143 cases there, which represents a reduction of 62% compared with the same period last year. Of course that is good news, but we should remain aware of the considerable difficulties of operating in many of the affected countries as we aim to maintain the strong progress that has been achieved so far.

On 21 January, we announced increased support for NTD control measures. That increased support has strengthened the UK’s partnerships with the WHO, with foundations, with other donors and with pharmaceutical companies that make drug donations—donations that are much appreciated and hugely valuable—as well as

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with the endemic countries and indeed with NGOs. As well as guinea worm eradication, the UK’s NTD package comprises five distinct but integrated strands; I will repeat them, although they were accurately described by my hon. Friend.

We will increase support to fight the other diseases that we are already working to combat, which are lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminths.

We will conduct more research, which is absolutely critical. Research was one of the issues that my hon. Friend raised. That research will build on the back of a fantastic track record of research around the world, not least in this country, where we have global centres of excellence. I had the honour and the privilege to be the vice-chairman, in a voluntary capacity, of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, where I saw such research for myself. The London School of Tropical Medicine, other London universities and colleges and many other institutions around the country also carry out research.

We have been seeking to strengthen the capacity of the WHO’s NTD department itself, and now we are able to do so. There are new programmes to control trachoma and visceral leishmaniasis, and an integrated programme approach to tackle a range of NTDs in two high-burden countries because, as my hon. Friend is well aware, there are quite a number of opportunities for synergies in tackling a number of diseases, where one can graft on to the back of some of the interventions for HIV/AIDS, and particularly for TB and malaria, not least because of the bed nets.

In many respects, referring to that issue is a way that I can answer the essential question put by the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham); I am grateful to her for her contribution to the debate. She asked if the global health fund could be extended to tackle NTDs. It is fair to say that even in the current circumstances, which she acknowledged are an impediment, the fund’s focus is on HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB, and even if there were not the current financial readjustments, which we hope will give us a stronger position to go forward and sustain what the fund is best at doing and what it has been tremendously successful at doing in the last 10 years, a focus on NTDs could be a distraction and could start diluting the fund’s efforts, particularly through the country co-ordinating mechanisms, which are the essential mechanism through which delivery is made at country level. What will be important, however, is to look at whether we can give a greater sense of purpose and instruction to the way in which the country co-ordinating mechanisms work to see where those synergies can be captured. In that way, we get the consequential collateral benefit of addressing the NTDs through what is already taking place or could be easily and mechanistically expanded in an easy, practicable, community-based way at ground level up when dealing with HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria programmes. Building on that community health approach should in itself bring benefits to the NTDs. The NTDs themselves tend to be rather more specifically focused and are somewhat more geographically identified than some of those broader-range diseases. We need to be careful, therefore, not to force or to graft something on to them. I take the point seriously, and the answer is probably through synergies.

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On 30 January this year, we had the London declaration, which took us a step further and set us the challenging 2020 deadline to demonstrate real progress. The meeting brought together some of the countries most heavily afflicted by NTDs—pharmaceutical companies, donors, academics, foundations and international financial institutions. Together we pledged to focus on 10 diseases, majoring on the five that preventive chemotherapy can control, such as schistosomiasis, and five that fall into the intensified disease management category, including guinea worm and visceral leishmaniasis, and to continue to support research. I hope my hon. Friend is pleased with this emphasis on research about which I am pretty obsessed. I had to give evidence myself yesterday to the Science and Technology Committee, which was not easy.

Jeremy Lefroy: I am delighted by the emphasis on research. As the Minister has already said in his speech, the UK is a world leader in research. I have visited the Liverpool school and was mightily impressed by what I saw there. We have also had huge contributions from the London school and Imperial college among others. I am delighted to hear that the Government place such great emphasis on research.

Mr O'Brien: As ever, one should back centres of excellence. We are all pleased to acknowledge that. I was pleased to see that the director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine was awarded a CBE in the recent Queen’s honours list.

Essentially, the challenge is set for all of us to work together in a complementary fashion through an overall strategy that allows these diseases to be managed within a country’s primary health-care system—to the extent that there is capacity in the system to work with—and ultimately to be eliminated as a public health problem. National legislatures have an important role to play here in making the case to Health and Finance Ministers on behalf of their constituents.

The session in London was groundbreaking, but after the fine words, the question is how to put them into effect. The first point is that of course we are building on a number of existing partnerships that for years had sought additional resources to expand their range and coverage. The second point, which is an answer to one of my hon. Friend’s questions, is the positive response. In many ways, it also addresses the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) who helpfully reminded us that we must continue with commitment to build awareness among the public. There must be a public buy-in and sense of ownership of this approach. There is the political will within the UK to sustain the support for these tremendous interventions that have such an effect and impact on the most vulnerable in the world. Getting that positive response and support from organisations such as the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and Geneva Global was encouraging.

In late 2011, a number of institutions here launched the UK Coalition against NTDs as a collaborative partnership between UK organisations actively engaged in research, implementation and capacity building for NTD control at scale. Bringing considerable experience

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to bear on lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis, guinea worm and avoidable blindness are at the forefront of the push for integration, especially at the country level, with country and other developmental partners. Its aim is to expand the numbers of organisations and sectors committed to supporting NTD control.

What has happened over the past five months? The UK has agreed with WHO on how to strengthen its NTD department capacity. That is important, as the department plays the key role of convening and setting standards, as well as helping ensure that the donated drug supply matches and meets demand. My Department has made considerable progress in developing the new trachoma and visceral leishmaniasis programmes, as well as programmes for an integrated approach to tackling neglected tropical diseases in two countries.

Expanding programmes to tackle neglected tropical diseases is an international effort. We are working closely with colleagues, particularly in the United States Agency for International Development, the World Bank, WHO and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to ensure that we continue to seek effective mechanisms for tackling such diseases while working through health systems, for example by exploring mass drug administration through schools and the role of improved water and sanitation.

Working collaboratively in-country is high on the agenda, as is developing strategies for working in challenging countries with heavy NTD prevalence, such as Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which the Select Committee on International Development recently visited, and South Sudan, where I was recently. That will reinforce value for money and avoid duplication, which is vital to increasing impact.

Binding together all that work is our relentless focus on the achievement of results. Our bold decision to maintain development spend at 0.7% of gross national income at a time of UK spending austerity brings with it an obligation to demonstrate to our constituents as well as to those benefiting from our programmes that the money is being extremely well spent.

The results of our investment will be huge. By 2015, UK support will help to protect more than 140 million people from neglected tropical diseases and the suffering, disability and death that they may cause. To do so, we have increased our financial investment and cumulative spend from £50 million to £245 million by 2015. Our investment provides a platform for expanding our work with the NTD community. With them, we can build on partnerships for change among international agencies, Governments, academic institutions, non-governmental organisations, corporations, national Ministries of Health, and most of all with people who live where the road ends. Increasing Government commitment through increased domestic resource provision is the starting point for sustainability, including strengthening the systems that deliver health services.

I pay tribute to a vast range of academics, campaigners, NGOs and parliamentarians. Within just two years of the formation of the coalition Government, we have made a massive step up. There is cross-party recognition of a commitment to scale up over the past couple of years, I am pleased to say, in the context of our overall commitment to international development on behalf of the British people, whose broad generosity we are able to express through such innovative programmes.

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We must recognise and accept that there is a risk of failure. Although we think that the interventions are well proven and their value for money will be great, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford said, there was a reverse on malaria in the past. I have just returned from the Sahel, where we were considering nutrition, a completely separate issue. Part of the challenge is that as we achieve success, the pictures will not be on our television screens. Being able to sustain it means committing continuing resources at the same if not greater levels. We must retain the political will to do the right thing through early interventions that work, making the political case all the tougher. Therefore, having champions such as my hon. Friend and the two colleagues who have joined him today is vital as part of the broad coalition of interest, which will ensure that we have the greatest impact in our generation for the most deliverable solutions for some of the greatest need in the world.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford asked about vaccine development, which he knows I support strongly, in many respects, for all diseases for which it is possible. We all wait with bated breath to hear whether the first vaccine for a parasite-borne disease, malaria, will become an effective element in the toolbox against that disease and for the control of its transmission. Our support for vaccine development, particularly for neglected tropical diseases, is given primarily through the drugs for neglected diseases initiative and through Tropical Diseases Research at the WHO. Working collaboratively through those institutions, we harness the greatest expertise. Of course, as with all vaccines, we need proof that it really works in adults and children effectively and efficaciously. It is rare to find a vaccine that is an absolute solution rather than just a tool in the box.

2 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).