6.21 pm

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson). We both have experience of the 2007 floods—she as a Member of Parliament and myself as a councillor—and a good understanding of flooding in our area.

It has been an interesting debate, and I have liked a number of contributions. However, some Opposition Members have been more interested in trying to make political points about flood funding rather than in dealing with the recovery in which we are engaged. If they were honest, the reality is that after the devastating flood in 2000, which affected a large part of my constituency, the Government at the time increased flood funding but not to the level that they should have done, although we saw another boost after 2007. If we look at the history of flood funding, we see that we tend to get a boost after a major incident, and then it starts to taper off over a number of years. Sadly, that has been the case for decades. If anything comes out of this, it is perhaps the need for us to take a more long-term sustained approach to flood funding.

It is also a little bit incredible for Opposition Members to talk about flood defence funding as if they would not have made the same reductions had they won the last general election given their own commitments to cutting the deficit. We just need a bit of honesty from all parts of the House on this.

Chris Ruane rose

Andrew Percy: No, I will not give way, because there are others who wish to speak. The flood defence funding issue in my constituency was not related to cancelled schemes. In fact, the improvements that were expected in my area were not scheduled until 2023, and 2028 in many cases. Our flooding was down to a significant tidal surge, which flooded 350 homes in my constituency. As I have said on numerous occasions, that incident coincided with the death of President Nelson Mandela, so it was not top of the six o’clock news. None the less, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural

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Affairs visited, as did the chairman of the Environment Agency. Eleven communities in my constituency were flooded. Some of them, such as Burringham and Keadby, received warnings, but others in South Ferriby and Reedness did not and many people found themselves in quite dangerous situations with water in some cases as high as their waists, and in one case up to their chests. A number of residents were stuck in their properties because they had not been provided with proper warnings.

We had a public meeting in South Ferriby last Monday night; a couple of hundred people turned out. It was a really well attended and good spirited meeting. One thing residents asked me to take back is the issue of flood warnings. A lot of people are elderly and not on the internet. Large parts of my constituency have internet speeds of about one megabit a fortnight, so it is not possible to get the updates. They did not know a warning had been issued in the morning. We did not have a severe warning, and people were not evacuated. The first thing people knew of the problems was when the Humber started pouring through their front doors, which was a frightening experience for elderly people living in bungalows. No one was there to help them, because the flooding was not expected in that community. Had it not been for the parish council and younger, fitter neighbours, a number of residents could have found themselves in an even more distressing situation.

Following that flooding I visited all the communities, but it took me three days to get round them all, given the scale of the flooding across east Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire. At that time I was struck by the response of the emergency services, and of the Environment Agency, which has come in for a lot of stick, but whose dedicated personnel were out there on the front line—maybe not at the time that some residents would have liked them, but in the days afterwards and since then, informing and protecting residents.

I pay a particular tribute to North Lincs council. The flooding happened on the Thursday evening. From the Friday and the Saturday, the council worked with me and my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on a package of support, which was put in place that Monday morning, of £300 to every home that was flooded and a £1,000 interest-free loan to every resident who had been flooded, repayable over five years, starting six months from the date of the flooding. That package was available and was delivered to people by the end of that week. So within a week they knew the council was there to support them.

I want to say a little about the history of flooding in our area. We know we are likely to flood. I live next to one of our tidal rivers. On 5 December it was about 6 feet higher than my front room; fortunately it did not overtop, but only by an inch or two. We know we live in an area that was drained by Cornelius Vermuyden in the 17th century. It is former marshland. We know the risks we face. That does not mean that we should be written off.

Martin Vickers: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Andrew Percy: I give way to my honourable neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes, who did so much to support his communities.

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Martin Vickers: Does my hon. Friend agree that local knowledge is particularly important in forecasting, and that it would be very useful if we brought the farmers and councillors who serve on drainage boards into the equation a little sooner?

Andrew Percy: That is absolutely correct. It ties in with the point I am making, which is that in 2007 the river catchment plans for the Trent, the Ouse and the Aire were all issued, and those plans at that time suggested reducing defences. That was at the time of the last Labour Government. I, as a local councillor and a prospective parliamentary candidate, did not go around saying that the Labour Government wanted to flood our areas, but the catchment flood plans that we faced at that time would have reduced our defences substantially. We fought them very hard. Largely because of the information and skill of the drainage boards and local farmers, we were able to disprove the Environment Agency’s argument for its proposal and to win a change in the policy, so now our defences will be maintained and improved in line with rising sea levels.

That is all now subsumed by the River Humber flood strategy. This is where we really need some action. That strategy was adopted in 2008 for the Humber. It highlights large parts of my constituency as in need of improved defences, but at some time in the future—15 years hence. That is not good enough, bearing in mind what we have seen in the past few weeks. We need the funding for that, and we need to know what that strategy actually means. At a public meeting in South Ferriby, and in the previous public meeting we held at Reedness, residents were saying, “It is fine for our areas to have been identified in 2008 as needing improvement, but it is not good enough for us not to know when that will happen.” That is why I am pleased that last night the Conservative group on North Lincs council passed a budget that is bringing forward £5 million of funding, which we hope will be unlock that other funding.

What we want from Ministers now is leadership. Where money has been made available to unlock that match funding, as it has from North Lincs council—voted against by the Labour group, it must be said—we want Ministers to ensure that that match funding is unlocked now, not at a time convenient to the EA. Two and a half million pounds of that funding is scheduled for this financial year, specifically for defences on the Humber and the Trent, and the remainder in the forthcoming years. My plea to Ministers would be to ensure that where that match funding is being offered, the EA’s hand is snapped off and we can bring forward this investment as quickly as possible. I will end there, because I understand that there is pressure on time.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker: The wind-up speeches are due to start from 6.40 pm.

6.29 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I will try to take just five minutes, so that my “hon. Friend for Heathrow, South”—the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng)—can speak.

I will briefly make three points about constituency matters. I visited on a daily basis those areas of my constituency that were at risk in West Drayton; West

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Drayton came into my constituency at the last general election. We were very fortunate that no homes were flooded but it was a near-run thing, particularly in Frays avenue and Donkey lane, and down in Longford. I cannot pay enough tribute to the Environment Agency staff, who were superb, as were the local fire services. The local council was slow at first, but then really got in on the act. I am very grateful to all of them; I thank all the officers involved.

I would like to raise one issue with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson); I would welcome a ministerial meeting, or a meeting with officials, about it. In 2010, there was a proposal for what was called the Arklyn Kennels scheme in West Drayton, for investment to build up concrete and earth-bank defences by 2014-15. Originally, that was a £2.8 million scheme, which subsequently, I am told, was reduced to a £1 million scheme and delayed until at least 2018-19. I hope that, in the light of the events of recent weeks, that scheme will be reviewed and we can look at it again. I would welcome a meeting with Ministers or officials to talk it through, and to bring in the relevant local authority representatives as well, because the area affected is one of those on the Thames floodplain that has demonstrated that we need to do much more.

The second constituency issue that I want to raise is about Heathrow. I am not trying to be opportunistic; I am just making a relevant point. At the terminal 5 inquiry, detailed submissions were put forward with regard to expanding Heathrow on what is, in effect, the Thames floodplain. The argument put forward in favour of Heathrow expansion then was that rivers would be diverted and culverted, which I do not think has been successful. The Howard Davies review is looking at the various options for runways across the south-east, including at Heathrow, and it is important that his attention is focused on the implications for flooding on the Thames floodplain. Any further expansion at Heathrow—any additional runway—will effectively build up a dam, which will cause flooding further on.

Finally, I will return to the issue about the Pitt review. Recommendation 39 of the review was that a statutory duty should be placed upon fire authorities with regard to flooding. In opposition, the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats supported that recommendation, and a number of us went to see Labour Government Ministers to urge them to implement it. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee also recommended that it should be implemented; the Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), raised the issue in debate after debate. There were delays and we were then told that there would be Operation Watermark, which would eventually determine whether that statutory responsibility would be given to fire authorities. That took place and there were recommendations that the issue should now be addressed. The chief fire officers have come out in favour of the proposal. The Government’s new system of an ideas bank, which I support, has also recommended that the Government act on this matter. I urge the Government to consider it seriously.

In the coalition agreement, there was an agreement that the recommendations of the Pitt review would be implemented. This recommendation is important, and I will say why. I think that it was the hon. Member for

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Worcester (Mr Walker) who said that there have been improvements in recent years in the supply of equipment and so on. Those improvements came as a result of learning the lessons of past disasters, when firefighters had turned up and there was inadequate equipment. We realised that for decades there had not been sufficient investment because no one took responsibility. Placing a statutory responsibility on fire authorities protects their budgets, ensures that someone takes responsibility, and in the long term cumulatively ensures that the lessons of past disasters are learned.

This matter must be addressed now. As I say, I hope there is virtual consensus on it, and it just requires political will to undertake it. Let us use this lesson this time round to ensure that this recommendation is implemented and that we do not delay further.

6.33 pm

Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne) (Con): I am very grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate. I am also very pleased to follow my neighbour, the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), even though we have different views on airport expansion. We are not speaking about that issue today, so we can come together with a degree of comradeship and co-operation.

I am also pleased to speak on behalf of people who live by the River Thames. Pictures have been shown and seen around the world of massive flooding and a considerable amount of devastation in the Thames valley. I know that it is fashionable in this House to suggest that action was taken only when the Thames itself was flooding, but as a Member of Parliament representing a Thames-side seat I have to say that a considerable number of families and a large number of properties were materially affected by the flooding. It is absolutely right that attention should be given to the issue.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who came to Guildford street, and saw for himself the problems caused by flooding. In Shepperton, in the south of my constituency, there was a considerable amount of flooding. It is a testament to the people of Spelthorne, who have created a thriving community, that there was so much resilience. Time and again, I spoke to people who were not expecting massive amounts of aid or of intervention. They appreciated that the borough’s resources were stretched, and that the EA and other organisations were under a great deal of pressure. I was impressed by their sheer resilience in managing to deal with a lot of the problems that they faced.

As for Staines and other areas in my constituency, the problem was not so much—other Members have alluded to this—the rising river level but the problems associated with groundwater, drainage and sewerage. That had a material effect on the—

Bob Stewart: The water table.

Kwasi Kwarteng: Indeed. That really affected people’s lives, and down Guildford street, Garrick close and other places in Staines and beyond, people have had to put up with roads that are waterlogged and flooded with contaminated water. That is the situation that I

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want to bring to the attention of the Government and of the House. It is quite wrong that in 21st-century Britain people should have to put up with that for weeks. Even now, the chances are that it will be another couple of weeks before the groundwater is cleared. That is something that the Government should consider seriously in formulating policy in future.

People have tried in this debate to make political points about reduced Government expenditure. We all know that, according to the Darling plan of 2010, the DEFRA capital budget would be reduced by up to 50%. We all know that there are responsible people in the Labour party who realise that there was a deficit and, regardless of who won the general election, accept that there would have to be reductions in expenditure. I do not think that it is responsible of Opposition Members to blame the Government for the cuts because, according to the previous Chancellor’s own plan, there would be severe reductions in the budget.

Hugh Bayley: If it is right for the Government to cut the budget to below what it was when they came to office, why is it right for them to propose in two years’ time to increase the budget to more than it was when they came into office?

Kwasi Kwarteng: The hon. Gentleman knows full well that in 2010 we had a budget deficit that we had to reduce. That was clearly the plan on both sides of the House, and it is a cheap political point to blame the Government in that respect.

Hugh Bayley rose

Kwasi Kwarteng: No, I am not going to give way, as there is intense pressure on time. I want to conclude by saying that I think that the Government have responded quite effectively to what was an unprecedented situation that was not at all expected. I look forward to working more with members of the Government in future to try to alleviate the problem and see how we can deal with it more efficiently next time, if there should be a next time.

6.39 pm

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): May I begin by joining my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government in sending good wishes to the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) for a speedy recovery? We really do look forward to seeing him back in his place.

We have had an extremely important, well-informed and wide-ranging debate. I would like to express my condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in connection with the recent stormy weather. I also echo the thanks that have been expressed to all those who worked so hard during this extremely difficult time: the local communities, the farmers who supported one another, the council staff who delivered sandbags and provided rest centres where people go when they have to leave their homes, the police, the fire service—the fire service in particular has been praised by my hon. Friends the Members for Derby North (Chris Williamson) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and the hon. Member

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for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes)—the armed forces, the utility companies and the transport companies, all of them, which rescued people and tried to restore power and keep people moving where that was possible, and of course the staff of the Environment Agency.

I know from my own experience just how committed and dedicated the agency’s staff are and how difficult it must have been for them, at the very moment when they were working all hours, to hear their efforts insultingly and unfairly criticised by some. I do hope they will have taken some comfort from the praise that we have heard from many parts of the House today for their efforts, including praise for individual Environment Agency staff by name, including from the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine). I do not know whether the great big bags were given a name, but the Itchen diversion would probably suffice. It was an example of imagination and innovation in the face of huge quantities of water.

Steve Brine: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Hilary Benn: Very briefly, as time is short.

Steve Brine: It was a restriction of the River Itchen which took the heat out of the river and flooded some farmland to save Winchester.

Hilary Benn: It shows what can happen when people take advice from the experts, as happened in that case.

We heard powerful testimony from many hon. Members about the effect that flooding has on the lives of the people whom we all represent, and on the communities and the families involved. That has been experienced not just in the past two months, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) in recounting what happened in the terrible summer of 2007. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) spoke about people’s homes. I remember visiting his constituency in 2007. There are few things worse than seeing one’s home invaded by dirty brown water full of sewage, seeing one’s possessions ruined, and in many cases having to flee one’s home with no idea when one will be able to return.

We live in an era in which, as human beings, we have come to think sometimes that whatever happens, whatever nature throws at us, somebody ought to be able to deal with it, and if it cannot be dealt with, someone must be to blame for what has happened. The truth is that we are confronting nature’s raw power and in the face of it, we human beings are small in comparison. It has enormous force. It can wreck a train line. It can, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) said, reshape the land itself. Of course that does not mean there is nothing we can do; on the contrary, there is a great deal we can do, and that action should be informed by the lessons that we learn.

I hope that in replying the Minister will tell the House what the process for learning lessons is going to be on this occasion. I commend the approach taken by Sir Michael Pitt in carrying out his review in 2007. It was a widely praised report. I thought it was exemplary. It was clear, practical and full of recommendations, including the proposal, for example, that the Met Office and the Environment Agency should come together to issue a single flood warning. In 2009 we established the Flood

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Forecasting Centre and everybody recognises that it has led to an improvement in the information that has been made available.

The other lesson is that whatever the recommendations and however good they are, they need to be followed through. I saw the Secretary of State nodding when the point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood in her opening speech. I hope the Government will produce some further implementation reports on the Pitt report and that that of 2012 will not be the last, because we know that there are some recommendations that have not yet been completed.

We also heard in the debate many examples mentioned by right hon. and hon. Members where the arrangements have worked on the ground—where there has been effective co-operation, the right leadership and all the agencies co-operating. However, we also know from the experience of the past two months that there have been some places—Muchelney is one, Wraysbury is another, and there are others—where residents felt that help was very slow to arrive.

I think that there is a very fair question to be asked about that. What was the plan locally? If help did not arrive to ensure that elderly people got the assistance they needed, to help folk move furniture and valuables upstairs to stop them being wrecked by the water, and to evacuate people in a timely way, why did it not arrive, especially in places where there had been flooding previously? The Government have a responsibility nationally, but local government and the local community also have a responsibility. We need plans that are not only good on paper, but can be implemented when the time comes.

Given the number of families who have been forced out of their homes, I am grateful for the swift response—Downing street took about 20 minutes to respond—to my call for families not to have to worry about paying council tax on a home they cannot live in. I would be grateful if the Minister could be absolutely clear that what the Prime Minister said when he was in Wales—that local authorities will be fully funded for the cost of offering a council tax rebate—will happen. The Secretary of State said that the Government have talked about there being enough funding for at least three months, but we know from evidence from the insurance industry, in particular, and the experience in 2007 that people can be out of their homes for a lot longer, perhaps for six or nine months, and sadly in some cases for more than a year.

Will the Minister also indicate whether the Government are proposing to look again at the rules? To answer the Secretary of State, of course councils should be able to charge more council tax when properties are left empty deliberately, but there was previously an automatic exemption in cases of flooding, for example if someone could not live in their home because it needed repair to make it habitable. That was taken away in the 2012 changes and instead made subject to the discretion of councils. To provide reassurance in the years ahead, I think that it should be automatic in cases of flooding.

On transport, we all want to see the railway line at Dawlish repaired as soon as possible, because it is an economic lifeline—a point reinforced in my conversation with the leader of Plymouth city council, Tudor Evans. As that and other storm damage reminds us, the complex ecosystem of modern life and infrastructure can be very

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vulnerable, which is why we need to take it into account not just in repairing but in building for the future.

We must also learn to adapt. We need crossovers on motorways so that when they are flooded cars can turn around and go back the other way. As we heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and for Newport West (Paul Flynn), we need to plant trees near rivers and look at farming practice and land use helping the water soak away and slowing its rush. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) explained, we need to look at where dredging can and cannot help. We must ensure that when there are huge downpours in towns and cities, the water does not meet a wall of paving slabs, concrete and tarmac, because that is why Sheffield and Hull flooded in 2007. We also need to recognise that although sandbags can help in some cases, it is dedicated flood protection that makes the difference.

I hope that the Minister will agree to the cross-party talks referred to in the motion, because whoever is in government will have to continue to deal with this problem. There is no doubt that the world’s climate is changing and that humankind’s actions are causing it. The climate impact projections, based on the best science we have, suggest that in the years ahead we will see hotter and drier summers and wetter winters with more flooding.

Let us just reflect on the past decade. In 2003 a heat wave led to 2,000 excess deaths in this country, even though temperatures were just 2° higher than normal. In 2006 we had a severe drought. Around 8 million people in the south-east of Britain depend on rivers for their water supply. In 2007 we saw widespread flooding across the country, and Great Yarmouth came within 10 cm of being overcome. In 2009 the High street in Cockermouth turned into a raging torrent. This January was the wettest winter month for almost 250 years. The result—we have heard it powerfully expressed today—is that yet more communities in our country are coming face to face with the consequences of a changing climate, in this case as the waters invade their homes.

We know what happens when these events occur—the drama unfolds, the cameras arrive, the stories are told, the statements are made, and for a while the nation’s attention is focused on what we can see before our very eyes. But we also know that when the waters recede and the weeks and months pass, the long, slow, hard process of recovery continues away from the public gaze. We should come together for the families and communities so that we adapt to what we cannot change and protect what we can, and so that others people do not suffer what so many have experienced over the past two months.

6.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Rogerson): I thank the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) for the spirit in which he closed the debate, and his reflective and thoughtful approach. I thank hon. Members for setting out how their constituents, or people near to them, have been affected. It is a devastating experience to go through flooding. I know that all of us in this House send our sympathies to all those who have been affected, whether in their homes or businesses or their communities more broadly. Once again, I should

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like to thank on the Floor of the House the many people who have worked tirelessly in response to these recent events, including staff of the fire, ambulance, police and other rescue services, local authorities, the Environment Agency in particular, the voluntary sector and local communities—neighbours who have helped each other.

As we have heard, we have had extreme events since early December with the east coast tidal surge. We experienced flooding over Christmas and it has been the wettest January since 1766 in England and Wales. Central and south-east England have received over 250% of their average rainfall. Recently, flooding has been confined mostly to the Thames valley, Wiltshire and the Somerset levels, with this last, in particular, seeing unprecedented water levels. Groundwater levels remain high across many southern counties. We need to remain vigilant to ensure that communities are protected, because that groundwater will take some time to recede.

Climate change is referred to in the motion and was mentioned by the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) in her opening remarks. While it is not yet possible to attribute a single instance of extreme weather to climate change, the recent winter storminess is in line with what we expect to see under climate change scenarios. We expect an increase in the frequency and severity of these types of weather events. The UK’s first climate change risk assessment, published in 2012, assessed this trend and informed the report on the national adaptation programme that we published last year. This sets out a wide range of actions by Government, business, councils and civil society to address the most significant climate risks we face as a country.

Severe damage has affected our infrastructure—the railway at Dawlish, famously, but we have also seen roads cut off and communities swept away. There will be costs that we need to assess, along with local authorities, to ensure that things can be brought back to the condition that local communities need.

The response has been, and continues to be, a magnificent effort. In the face of such unprecedented weather, countless people and organisations have worked together around the clock to help those affected. The level of response, and the spirit of it, has been staggering. I appreciate how hard everyone has been working and just how hard it is for the people whose homes and businesses have been affected. All levels of Government and the emergency services are fully engaged in dealing with the floods and extreme weather. It has been particularly gratifying to hear Members talk about how that has been put into practice on the ground locally and how people have learnt the lessons of the past to work together on this.

Protecting our communities against flooding is a high priority for this Government. Existing defences and improvements to the way in which we respond to incidents meant that we were able to protect 1.3 million properties from flooding since December—over 270,000 in the latest flood event. During this Parliament the Government are spending more in cash terms—in real terms—than ever before. The Government are spending £2.4 billion on flood defence over the period 2010-14, compared with £2.2 billion in the previous four-year period.

Hugh Bayley rose

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Dan Rogerson: I will come back to the hon. Gentleman later.

In addition to DEFRA funding, we are on course to bring in £148 million of additional funding over this spending review period compared with just £13 million in the previous period. This means that some schemes that perhaps would not meet the cost-benefit ratios that we want from national funding will now go forward because local funding has made that possible.

Looking further ahead, we have made an unprecedented long-term six-year commitment to record levels of capital investment in improving defences. Since the beginning of December, our defences have taken a terrible pounding. The extra £130 million that we have committed to pay for emergency repairs will ensure that our long-term improvement plans progress as planned. These future schemes will not lose funding that needs to go towards the repairs that we will make sure happen, and are happening immediately.

Many hon. and right hon. Members have spoken and I want to pick up on some of the points that have been made. The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) has clearly volunteered to take a PowerPoint presentation to the Somerset levels on how people there could do a better job and how dredging will have no effect whatever. I wish him well with that. I will be there tomorrow and will extend his offer. If he would like to talk to them, I am sure they would welcome that.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s view, however, that we could do more in terms of land management and local solutions to problems. I think that hon. Members across the House would agree with that and it is something we will take forward in catchment management approaches.

The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) discussed planning and the need to ensure that it takes account of flood risk and floodplains. The Government’s message not to build on floodplains is very clear and we maintain it. Local authorities, which are of course key to responding to these events, also have an incentive to take account of that. Flood Re includes premiums and excesses, so I hope that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who, as we heard earlier, looks as radiant as ever, was keen to pick up on a number of issues that are, as he knows, devolved to Wales. I am pleased to hear that he is raising them with the Welsh Government. Flood Re is not devolved and I would be happy to talk to him about it if he wants to raise any further issues. I went to university in Aberystwyth and saw the effect on the west coast of Wales. I would very much have liked to have visited as a Minister, but this is a devolved issue and I respect the duties of Welsh Ministers and what they are doing.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned discussions with the Association of British Insurers and a response to a parliamentary question. I want to clarify that the response was not that we have had no discussions with the ABI on this issue. The question was about technological and process improvements to speed up drying out after flooding, and not about flooding generally. We continue to have regular discussions with the ABI. I did so over Christmas and have done so more recently since the recent flooding events.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) spoke movingly of the impact on his constituency. In

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particular, I took into account his point about the importance of a timely response from the insurance industry. We have addressed that and I am pleased to say that the spirit in which it is approaching the situation is very reassuring. It knows that mistakes were made in previous years and a number of loss adjusters are getting on with work on the ground.

The hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) continued his discussion about funding figures. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to him and offered a meeting at which he would be happy to discuss the issues further. I have set out our position and will do so repeatedly, and I will of course answer any questions the hon. Gentleman puts to me in order to ensure that he has all the information he needs to inform his constituents of the actual picture.

My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) has been a doughty campaigner on behalf of his constituents, as have his colleagues from across Somerset, making sure that what is happening on the levels remains in the public eye and that we get the balance right on all the tools we can use.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dan Rogerson: I am afraid I do not have time, although my hon. Friend has raised these issues consistently too.

The hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) highlighted the great responsibility taken by the Environment Agency and, indeed, all the community action that took place to look after residents in his area and the innovative solutions they came up with.

The hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) was clear in saying that there are no simple answers and that it is worth exploring some of the issues relating to farming practices. They will not be appropriate in every area and we will need a range of tools to tackle this.

I particularly welcomed comments made by the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on the role played by armed service personnel in what was delivered on the ground in her area. I recognise the urgency of some of the issues she continues to raise.

The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) raised transport issues again—we debated them this morning as well. She will have plenty of opportunities during Transport questions and other debates to pursue my colleagues at the Department for Transport with some of her concerns.

Hon. Members from along the east coast, including the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), were absolutely right to say that the Government are taking into account the effects on the whole country and that all the measures being put in place to help the recovery will be available to them too.

I would be happy to meet the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) to discuss the points he raised. The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) focused on groundwater, which is a particular problem that will be with us for some time.

I reassure hon. Members that we are continuing the implementation of the Pitt review. The vast majority of recommendations have been implemented. I do not think, therefore, that the formal need to continue reporting

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is necessary, but we will continue to update the House on anything that still needs to be dealt with.

The Opposition have tabled a motion that we are happy to support in the main. We disagree with some issues, but the important thing today is consensus to tackle the problems and recognise the contributions that people have made on the ground.

Mr Alan Campbell (Tynemouth) (Lab) claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

Question agreed to.

Main question accordingly put and agreed to.


That this House notes the recent severe weather which has caused widespread and distressing flooding of homes, businesses and farmland; praises the work of communities, the Environment Agency, the Armed Forces, the emergency services and local councils in assisting those affected; calls on the insurance industry to ensure pay-outs are made as quickly as possible; recognises that continued support will be needed for the communities and businesses affected in the months ahead as homes and infrastructure are repaired; acknowledges the clear scientific evidence that climate change is contributing to the increased frequency of severe weather and the consequent risk of flooding; notes the advice from the Committee on Climate Change that current and planned levels of investment are insufficient to manage future flood risk given the increased threat from climate change; calls for further reports on the implementation of the recommendations contained in Sir Michael Pitt’s report into the 2007 floods to be made to Parliament; and supports cross-party talks on the impact of climate change and the funding and policy decisions necessary to mitigate the consequences of more frequent severe weather on communities and the economy.

Business without Debate

delegated legislation

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): There are motions to be taken, so it would be helpful if Members leaving the Chamber did so quickly and quietly.

With the leave of the House, we shall take motions 3 to 8 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),


That the draft Marriage (Same Sex Couples) (Jurisdiction and Recognition of Judgments) Regulations 2014, which were laid before this House on 23 January, be approved.

Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages etc

That the draft Marriage of Same Sex Couples (Registration of Shared Buildings) Regulations 2014, which were laid before this House on 23 January, be approved.

That the draft Marriage of Same Sex Couples (Use of Armed Forces’ Chapels) Regulations 2014, which were laid before this House on 23 January, be approved.


That the draft Consular Marriages and Marriages under Foreign Law Order 2014, which was laid before this House on 23 January, be approved.

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That the draft Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 (Consequential and Contrary Provisions and Scotland) Order 2014, which was laid before this House on 23 January, be approved.

That the draft Overseas Marriage (Armed Forces) Order 2014, which was laid before this House on 24 January, be approved.—(Amber Rudd.)

The Deputy Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until Wednesday 5 March (Standing Order No. 41A).

Madam Deputy Speaker: With the leave of the House, we shall take motions 9 and 10 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

Representation of the People

That the draft Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 (Transitional Provisions) (Amendment) Order 2014, which was laid before this House on 30 January, be approved.

That the draft Electoral Registration (Disclosure of Electoral Registers) (Amendment) Regulations 2014, which were laid before this House on 3 February, be approved.—(Amber Rudd.)

Question agreed to.


Closure of Skerton Community High School (Lancaster)

7.1 pm

David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): I rise to present a petition on behalf of my constituents in Skerton. Lancashire county council is closing Skerton community high school in my constituency against the wishes of the wider community and, most importantly, the best interests of the students who attend the school. In the first stage of the consultation, more than 99% of responses were against the closure of the school, but Lancashire county council still proceeded with the next stage of closing the school. This petition urges Lancashire county council to listen to the residents of Skerton and to put the children’s best interests at the heart of this decision. I urge the House to support the people of Skerton in my community.

Following is the full text of the petition:

[The Petition of the community surrounding Skerton Community High School,

Declares that the Petitioners believe that Lancashire County Council have not listened to their concerns for the schools closure in the initial round of consultation and

26 Feb 2014 : Column 378 that the County Council should not have perused the closure of the school any further.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to take steps to support the School in its bid to remain open.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.]


Fire Services in the Cleveland Fire Authority Area (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland)

7.2 pm

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): The petitioners include my hon. Friends the Members for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), who are in their places.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of the UK,

Declares that the Petitioners believe that it is unfair that the Department for Communities and Local Government have imposed large funding reductions on a high-risk area like Cleveland when lower-risk areas in the South of England have had their central funding increased; further that the Petitioners believe that funding reductions have contributed to the 54.1% increase in total fire calls in Cleveland between 2012/13 and 2013/14; further that the Petitioners believe that it is unacceptable that the Authority’s proposed Integrated Risk Management Plan recommends the closure of Marine Fire Station and the reduction by approximately 25% of the number of the whole-time firefighters; further that the Authority and Government should take steps to protect frontline services and further that a local Petition on this issue has received over 6,000 signatures across Redcar and Cleveland, Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees and Hartlepool.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Department for Communities and Local Government to provide a fairer funding settlement that gives due consideration to deprivation and risk, further that the House of Commons urges the Government to encourage Cleveland Fire Authority to reallocate planned capital expenditure to the preservation of frontline services, and further that the House of Commons urges the Cabinet Office, Department for Communities and Local Government and Cleveland Fire Authority not to further expend on unwanted and high-risk proposals to spin out fire brigades as public service mutuals.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


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Young Drivers (Safety)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amber Rudd.)

7.4 pm

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I am grateful to have secured this important debate. I tried to do so having learned the tragic story of Emily Challen, a 17-year-old constituent of mine who was killed in a car accident this time last year. Her death has left a void in the lives of her parents and family that few of us can begin to imagine. I pay tribute to her parents, Keith and Jennifer, for their bravery and dignity in telling Emily’s story and in trying to ensure that some good comes of what their family have been through.

On 15 February 2013, Emily was travelling to school as one of three passengers in a car driven by an 18-year-old friend, when the car ran into the back of a stationary lorry on a slip road. Emily was pronounced dead at the scene. In a few short moments, her promising young life, and the happiness of many whose lives she touched and enriched, were extinguished.

We cannot, of course, undo what happened that day. What we can do, and what we should be doing, is to try to reduce the chances of what happened to the Challen family happening to anyone else. In short, how can driving be made safer for young drivers? What lessons can we learn from other jurisdictions where young drivers cannot simply pass their test and enjoy the same access to the road network as those who have been driving for years? How can we minimise the chance of other families having to suffer what the Challen family have been through?

Road crashes are one of the biggest unnatural causes of death for young people in the UK. The figures are appalling and they speak for themselves. Young drivers are involved in one in four fatal and serious crashes, despite making up only one in eight holders of driving licences. One in five new drivers has a crash within six months of passing their test, and we all know that young male drivers have much higher crash rates than young female drivers.

Why is that so? The reasons are not, perhaps, obscure, but they deserve restatement. As anyone who has been driving for a while knows, young people are more likely to take a number of the deadliest risks on our roads, including speeding, overtaking blind and not wearing a seat belt. Young drivers, especially young men, are more likely to seek thrills from driving fast and cornering at high speed than their older counterparts. Although young people quickly pick up the physical skills of driving and, as a result, feel they have mastered the art and are very confident about their abilities, that is simply an illusion. Young drivers drive unsafely, but they do so believing that they are in control.

Young drivers do all that when, as anyone who has been driving for years knows, although some hazards on the road are easy to identify, many are not. It often takes experience to notice the hidden hazards, and owing to inexperience, young people may be poor at noticing them and reacting in time to avoid them. The research indicates that, since driving is a new experience for young people, they tend to use most of their mental energy on the immediate tasks, such as gear-changing and steering, rather than on general observation of the

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potential hazards ahead. Inexperience means that they have a poorer ability to spot such hazards; youth means that they are particularly likely to take risks.

As hon. Members will know, that is not the end of the story. Perhaps most worryingly, young drivers are more likely to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. So it is that drivers under the age of 25 have the highest incidence of failing a breath test after a crash. Any amount of alcohol in the bloodstream can affect a person’s ability to drive safely, as it impairs reaction times and affects the ability to judge speed and distance accurately. Alcohol or drugs, combined with a lack of experience on the roads, is therefore a particularly dangerous mixture.

Of particular concern to Mr and Mrs Challen, given the circumstances of Emily’s death, is the research that shows that having passengers in the car can cause even higher crash rates among young drivers. Peer pressure can encourage bad driving and result in drivers showing off to their passengers, as well as cause distraction. Research in the United States has shown that the already high crash rate for teenagers when driving alone is greatly increased when passengers are present. With two or more passengers, the fatal crash risk for 16 to 19-year-old drivers is more than five times greater than when they are driving alone.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for bringing this important matter to the House for consideration. Is he aware that between the hours of 2 am and 5 am, accidents among young people increase by 17%? Does he feel that the Government should perhaps consider a restriction on young drivers between 2 am and 5 am, to reduce accidents and improve safety?

Stephen Phillips: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I was not aware of the specific figure that he has given, but I will certainly come on to what the Government might do, and what I—and indeed others—think they ought to do.

The Minister will, I suspect, know the figures I have given to the House, but neither this Government nor their predecessors have taken the action necessary to ensure the safety of young drivers on our roads, as well as that of those who travel with them and other road users. Why? I do not know. I want to hear tonight that the Minister and the Department for Transport will take a fresh look at the issue before more young lives are wiped out in an unnecessary and untimely fashion.

What can be done to make things safer? Although I accept there is a balance to be struck with social and work mobility for young people, the fact remains that we have to do something. I, and others such as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), have been extremely concerned that the Department has delayed its Green Paper on young driver safety, apparently indefinitely. Let me make it clear to my hon. Friend the Minister that not only is that not good enough, but he needs to tell the House why that decision has been taken and, frankly, either reverse it or face the consequences of not doing so, and what that will mean for death and serious injury to young drivers in the future.

Graduated driver licensing exists in many other countries, and at present I see no good reason for why it does not exist here. Exact requirements vary slightly, but the

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main aim, which any licensing system ought to share, remains the same: to build up the ability and experience of young drivers in stages on a structured basis, to minimise the risks that they face. That means limiting the exposure of new drivers to the dangerous situations I have mentioned. Novice drivers going through graduated driver licensing could be subjected to certain restrictions and conditions, including restrictions on the number of passengers they can carry, driving at night and alcohol consumption. A graduated licence system would also go hand in hand with road safety as a compulsory part of the national curriculum in schools, where we should be teaching young people about the risks that they face as novice drivers or young passengers and how to minimise them.

Presently, we allow eager young 17-year-olds to be out unsupervised on public roads exceptionally quickly. In the UK, drivers can go from never having driven at all to being fully licensed in months or even weeks. Each year, 50,000 17-year-olds pass their driving test with fewer than six months’ driving experience. That gives them very little time to develop experience while under the relative safety of some form of supervision.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con): Tragically, I have raised a similar case with the Minister. One of the solutions proposed by the family in that case was a probationary period, perhaps for three years after passing the test, where the P-plate, rather than the L-plate, would need to be displayed. Does my hon. and learned Friend think that would be a good idea as part of the package of solutions?

Stephen Phillips: That is certainly one of the options that the Department ought to consider, along with a number of other options from many other jurisdictions, some of which I will come on to, as part of a graduated licence system. Unless we do something, we will simply continue with this epidemic of death and serious injury to young drivers in this country.

One thing that could be introduced is a minimum learning period—for example, one year—before taking a theory or practical test. All learner drivers would therefore have time to develop experience under full supervision before being allowed out alone. However, because the Green Paper has been put on hold or delayed, that is apparently not something that the Government are prepared even to consider or consult on, which is more than regrettable.

Evidence from other countries that have introduced some form of graduated driver licensing system shows that a difference can be made. Analysis of such a system in New Zealand by the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory showed that, following the introduction of a graduated driving licence, there was a reduction in car crash injuries of 23% for 15 to 19-year-olds, and 12% for 20 to 24-year-olds.

In the great state of Michigan, home to the US auto industry, research has found that young people are 11% less likely to be killed or injured on roads than their parents, thanks to their reformed system of learner licensing. In Washington state, annual deaths and serious injuries among 16 and 17-year-old novice drivers reduced by 59% after the introduction of a driving curfew

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between 1 am and 5 am for the first year, a ban on carrying teenage passengers for the first six months and a licence suspension for under-18s of up to six months for committing two or more violations.

Why, oh why, are we not learning from those figures and experiences, and saving hundreds of young drivers in the UK from serious injury and death every year? It is not as though calls for something to be done are new. In 2007, the Transport Committee reviewed the evidence available and called for the introduction of a graduated driver licensing system, including a minimum 12-month learner period; raising the age of unaccompanied driving to 18; a maximum blood alcohol limit of 20 mg per 100 ml of blood for up to 12 months after passing the test; a ban on passengers aged 10 to 20 years between 11 pm and 5 am for a year; and a learning programme undertaken and examined by an approved driving instructor.

The House will not be surprised that the report, as with so many good and considered Select Committee reports, appears simply to have been ignored. It is not as though such changes would be unpopular. Again, we have the research to prove it. A survey by the road safety charity Brake and Direct Line found that 87% of drivers thought that learners should be required to achieve a minimum level of experience before taking their driving test and that 81% thought that there should be restrictions on drivers’ licences for a period of time after they first passed their test. If and when the Department publishes a Green Paper, those figures will no doubt be replicated in responses, so why on earth are we not getting on with it? How many families have to go through what the Challen family has been through before the Department for Transport gets the message?

The number of young people being killed or injured on our roads unnecessarily is too high, the present position is untenable, the attitude of the Department inexplicable, the persistence of the problem inevitable and the solution readily and easily apparent. Not only can something be done; something must be done. In the name of Emily Challen, for God’s sake let us do what we were sent here to do and act now.

7.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) on securing this debate on the safety of young drivers. I am always glad to have the opportunity to discuss an important subject such as improving the safety of our young drivers. I was extremely sorry to hear of the tragic death last year of his constituent, Emily Challen, and I am saddened by the continuing toll of fatal accidents on our roads. Every one of them is a tragedy.

There are very few of us who have not been touched by such a tragedy. In my locality, there was a recent road collision involving an 18-year-old friend of my son. His car crashed into a tree and, sadly, he was killed. That shocked the whole year group at Malton school. We cannot be complacent about our road safety record, and we must continue to seek improvements and identify the changes that can make our roads safer for all. This is why it is vital that the Government strike the right balance, so that young drivers remain safe on our roads, but, at the same time, their freedom is not restricted. We

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feel that it is important that all views are considered and the right decisions are made. We will issue a paper when we have considered the matter further.

Britain’s roads are among the safest in the world. We are proud of that record, but we know that there is more we can do to make our roads safer. The latest figures for 2012 show another drop in the number of people killed on our roads. In fact, it was the lowest figure since national records began in 1926. It is a testament to the hard work and dedication of road safety professionals that we are able to make consistent progress year on year. However, I suspect that, like me, all hon. Members feel a mixture of emotions whenever such statistics are published, because every single one of them is preventable.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) on his powerful speech. Does the Minister agree that it is imperative, not least for their own self-interest, that insurance companies are involved in the process of guiding behaviour, given that most young drivers will be driving legally and that fixing insurance premiums to guide behaviour is an important part of changing behaviour in the long run?

Mr Goodwill: Indeed; in fact, many young people cannot drive because they cannot afford the insurance. However, I will come to some exciting developments in the field of telematics, which insurance companies are engaged with.

It is knowing that deaths are preventable that gives us such a strong incentive to carry on trying to improve what we do. For me, as road safety Minister, that means providing support to road safety professionals such as the police, the fire service and many other road safety organisations. That support may come through funding, policy or raising awareness of important issues.

As we have heard, young people are involved in about a fifth of all road crashes, but only about 5% of all the miles driven in Britain each year are driven by them. That worries us, and we know it worries parents and young people too. We know that young men cause more crashes than young women and that more collisions occur at night, when young people have their friends in the car or are on roads in the countryside. We also know that drivers of all ages are most at risk of causing a collision in the first six months after they take their practical test.

We are also conscious that this unfortunate safety record gives our young people some of the highest insurance premiums. As budgets in many households are tight, we want to do what we can to bring those insurance costs down. Estimates provided by the insurance industry suggest that drivers could expect discounts on a telematics policy of between 25% to 33%, with the highest being 50%, and that some young drivers have saved over £1,000 by using such policies. Such policies are cheaper because the claims history of the drivers using them is so much better. It is also worth mentioning that some studies suggest that parental viewing of feedback from telematics devices can improve young people’s driving further.

For those who are not conversant with the concept of telematics, I would liken it to having the electronic equivalent of a glass of water on the dashboard. Every

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time the water spills because of severe braking or cornering, the policy cost is loaded up. Indeed, there are currently 296,000 live telematics policies from a number of companies in this country. Only recently I met the insurance industry to discuss how we might consider commissioning research into how telematics can change the behaviour and attitudes of learner drivers. Like many things in life, the more someone practises, the better they become. We know that more practice before taking a practical test improves hazard perception and understanding of risk, and results in a lower collision rate.

The driving test has been steadily refined since it was introduced in the 1930s. We have recently made changes to the theory test, so that it is harder to learn the answers by rote, and we have introduced an element of independent driving—driving without instruction or direction—during the test to help to prepare for the real-life driving environment. The Government recognise that there are many voices calling for a graduated driving licence to be considered or introduced in Britain. We recognise that there is a significant body of evidence to suggest that a GDL regime would have a beneficial effect on British road safety. However, against that we need to weigh carefully the implications for the freedom of our young people, as any such change to the law would result in some difficult cases—for instance, where a young person is stranded, unable to drive home legally—or would limit the ability of young people to offer each other lifts and thereby reduce transport costs.

Caution also needs to be exercised before making quick comparisons between Britain and other countries with GDL regimes. British roads are among the safest in the world and Britain’s road safety record is considerably better than all the countries that have already introduced GDLs, with the exception of Sweden, whose record is similar to ours.

We are in the process of undertaking some face-to-face research with parents and young people to get a better understanding of the issues from their perspective. As I hope the House can appreciate, this is a difficult topic, as I have mentioned, and it is important that we get this right. Once we are confident that we have struck the right balance between driver safety and restricting the freedom of our young people, we will come forward with our proposals. In the meantime, there are other things we can look to improve.

We want to improve the quality and accessibility of resources to support road safety. There is a range of resources to support the process involved in gaining a licence, but relatively little information targeted at parents, at those who accompany learner drivers or even at young people themselves on the risks faced by inexperienced drivers after they pass their driving test. There are also initiatives like Bikeability, which operates in the cycling sector, that could be used at an early age to instil road safety behaviours.

There are technologies that could potentially reduce the crash and casualty risk among novice drivers, and we want to provide incentives for their take-up. Because young and inexperienced drivers’ decisions about the vehicles that they buy are influenced by their overall budgets and by the cost of insurance, new vehicles, which are safer but more expensive, are less likely to be driven by the drivers who are most at risk and who

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would benefit most from the technology. I expect that that will change over time as today’s new cars become tomorrow’s cheap bangers.

We recognise that if we tighten the processes of learning to drive and licensing, an unintended consequence may be that more young people choose to ride motorbikes or mopeds. We also know that powered two-wheelers are involved in a significant number of crashes, many more than cars. We therefore think it important to consider ways of improving the process of compulsory basic training so that that, too, is as safe as we can make it.

We are worried about the safety of our young people. It is simply not right that a young woman in Britain

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today is most likely to be killed while being driven by her boyfriend. The safety record of our young and inexperienced drivers has long been a topic of discussion among the road safety and insurance communities. I hope that the examples that I have given illustrate our determination to work with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham to improve road safety throughout our country. In the months ahead, our objective will be to ensure that we contribute to the reduction in the number of accidents and fatalities on our roads.

Question put and agreed to.

7.26 pm

House adjourned.