Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Dr McCrea. The hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) is to be congratulated on securing this debate, not least because the A303 is one of the few strategic road links down to the far

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south-west, and particularly to Plymouth. Its importance therefore cannot be overstated. The recent extreme weather in the far south-west shows how vulnerable we are; we lack rail and road resilience when major road routes are cut.

Anne Marie Morris: Is the hon. Lady aware that only last week, the A303 was closed at the same time that our wonderful railway was out of action?

Alison Seabeck: The hon. Lady knows the region very well. I will come to those issues a little later, but she is absolutely right that there are major problems when either the M5 or the A303 closes for one reason or another. We have had relatively little investment in the south-west, as recent weeks have shown. Across the south-west, we have less investment in transport per person than any other region in the country, with the possible exception of the north-east in some modes. We are now reaping the consequences.

I say to the Minister that I fully accept that there is no open chequebook—the shadow Chancellor would jump on me if I suggested that there was—but when we look at the Hindhead tunnel, which goes under the gorgeous landscape of the Devil’s Punch Bowl in Surrey, we can see what could be done if the finance were to become available. As the hon. Member for Salisbury made clear, the A303 has long been a subject of Department for Transport attention, and his predecessor was much admired by all parties for his persistence and the intelligent way in which he tried to find a solution to the problem around Stonehenge.

The South West Regional Committee, of which I was the Chair and which reported in 2010, made it clear that we felt it important that the Department for Transport should value the route in terms of the resilience that it provided to the region. We had instances during the recent storms—I will come back to this—when the A303 was partly closed due to falling trees and the rail line was closed for engineering works, as was the M5. Nobody had actually talked to each other. Business in Plymouth and further south ground to a halt. Fortunately, co-ordination between the Highways Agency and Network Rail is now a lot better, but as the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) pointed out, we have seen exactly what can happen if those roads close.

Tourism and manufacturing are hugely important issues in the south-west and Plymouth. Although rail usage is growing—when there is a line—we also need road links to bring visitors, freight and goods. Companies such as Wrigley, Princess Yachts and Babcock all need to ship products and supplies via road links rather than rail, due to the nature of the products that they are moving. The Heart of South West local enterprise partnership’s top priority is a faster, more resilient transport system, and it is pressing for improvements to the A303 as part of its key area of activity. It understands the need to move people around by road. Certainly, now that Hinkley Point C will be going forward, there will be a greater need for good road links, and improvements will be required.

The region’s transport planners have been grappling with the A303 for decades. What should be done with it? What should its status be? How can we better connect it with roads further west? The dualling argument to increase resilience is made by motoring organisations

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such as the RAC as well as local authorities. Dualling the road under the Blackdown hills, for example, would be a huge cost commitment, but it is undoubtedly what local people want, in the same way that tunnelling under Stonehenge is important.

Like many hon. Members here, I have driven along the A303. It is a lovely route winding through a number of counties. Judging by the Members here, it does not go through many Labour constituencies, but I say to Government Members that they have a strong, powerful voice. It is their coalition that is in government. I have seen Members from my party in areas such as the north-east make use of the strength of such a body of people. Government Members have a good opportunity, and they should ensure that they use it.

I will wind up, because I am sure that other hon. Members want to make similar points. I point out that the road does not have national status. Unfortunately, it has not been seen as important by this or previous Governments, but I hope that the Minister will now take a close personal interest in it, because it is important. We have seen the impact of weather on the south-west. If we fail to get a grip on the situation, not only will UNESCO look at Stonehenge—the hon. Member for Salisbury made that point clearly—but we will lose the important opportunity to grow the economy in the south-west. We have a lot to offer, including a lot of manufacturing companies that could do a lot more, but we cannot do it without the transport infrastructure. The A303 is a vital part of that.

2.56 pm

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): In my 17 years in Parliament—other than the period when I was a Minister, when I had to secrete references to the A303 in answers on other things—there has not been a single year in which I have not raised the issue of the A303, so I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) for securing this debate, and for introducing it so well. The A303 is a special road. It is a road of myth and legend, about which books have been written and films made. It is Britain’s mother road. Sadly, it is a neglected mother, because successive Governments have failed to put in the investment needed, and it is frankly unfit for purpose. That is the simple point that many of us have made year after year to Government.

The hon. Member for Salisbury concentrated, quite reasonably, on Stonehenge, which is the major difficulty along the whole road. I hope that he will forgive me for concentrating, despite the fact that we do not have megaliths to hand, on the portion of the road that runs through my constituency, the Sparkford to Ilchester stretch. We have a couple of listed world war 2 hangars turned into houses that are of interest, but they do not quite merit the same attention as Stonehenge. Nevertheless, they are very interesting.

Sparkford to Ilchester is a stretch of road that should have been dualled a long time ago. There are reasons why it has not been, and in my view, those reasons are unsustainable. Casting my mind back a little, I remember appearing at a public planning inquiry in 1996 on the dualling of that stretch of the A303. Those of us who

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were in favour of dualling won the inquiry—the inspector found in our favour—and construction was about to start, when suddenly, in 1997, with the change of Government came a moratorium on all major road construction, and the Sparkford to Ilchester stretch was left out. That meant that work did not start when we hoped it would.

Then the regional bodies for local government in the south-west brought together the so-called south-west regional spatial strategy; very few people shed many tears when it went. Those bodies decided that the A303 should not be considered the second strategic route to the south-west. That was an utterly perverse decision, but of course the Government at that time, with many other demands for investment—

John Glen: In the north-east.

Mr Heath: In the north-east, as the hon. Gentleman says, or elsewhere. The Government were very happy to grasp that and say, “Well, the local people don’t think this is an important road, so why on earth should we invest in it?” So the road was still not dealt with at that time.

There were other knock-on effects. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Winterbourne Stoke, where I have spent many happy hours queuing in traffic over the years, and the effect of the surface noise from the road there. That problem also afflicts my constituency; around the Wincanton area, there are houses that are close to a busy road. We had a commitment 15 years ago to replace that road surface with a low-noise road surface, but guess what? The plans to do that were cancelled and the money was specifically moved to the A1(M), which was considered a higher priority.

The A303 has been constantly neglected. Also, the best has sometimes been the enemy of the good: sometimes the difficulties to do with Stonehenge and the Blackdowns—difficulties that undoubtedly exist—have been allowed to prevent anything being done along any part of the road. I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman said about Stonehenge; it is essential that we find a solution.

Alison Seabeck: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way—or should that be the right hon. Gentleman?

Mr Heath: No.

Alison Seabeck: Sorry, I am not doing very well with titles today. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if a solution is not found on Stonehenge and the Blackdown hills, dualling other bits of the road and encouraging more traffic on to them will simply cause further problems at bottlenecks? There is almost a case for sorting Stonehenge and then working backwards.

Mr Heath: Well, the same volume of traffic will be on the road, so I am not entirely sure of that. However, I agree that Stonehenge is a priority; we have to find a solution to the problem there.

The problem with the Blackdowns is that it is extremely difficult to conceive of a road scheme across the area that will meet the environmental requirements. In the case of the Blackdowns, there is an alternative, in the use of an enhanced A358 connection. I know that those

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in south Devon, including the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), will not see that as the ideal solution. Nevertheless it is a viable alternative, at least in the meantime, until we can find a better solution.

Let me return to the reason for dualling the parts of the A303 that can be dualled relatively simply. I would like the schemes for Winterbourne Stoke, Chicklade and Sparkford to Ilchester to be taken off the shelf; it is utterly absurd that we have not made progress on those. I am hugely relieved that this Government have finally decided that they want to do something about the A303 and have commissioned the feasibility study. I hope that it will be in the hands of the Minister relatively soon, so that decisions can be made, hopefully in time for big announcements in the autumn spending review this year.

There is every argument for doing something about the A303, but they are in three main areas. First, there are the economic arguments. We have already heard from various hon. Members that the economy of the south-west needs this connection, and ample evidence has been produced by the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the local enterprise partnership and the local authorities in the area to say that this work needs to be done to unlock the economy of the south-west peninsula.

Secondly, there are perfectly sound safety arguments, certainly in relation to the area that I represent. One of the problems is that there is a relatively fast—I say “relatively”, because too often it is clogged up—dual carriageway that suddenly becomes a single carriageway, then a dual carriageway again and then a single carriageway again, just at the point when people travelling from London are at their lowest ebb and most tired. They have probably not taken a break before that point, and therefore the accident record is of some concern to me. That problem could be avoided by simple online improvements.

Thirdly, there is the point about resilience, which was eloquently made by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton). It is simply ridiculous that we often have only one viable route to the whole of the south-west peninsula; it is ridiculous that one of the longest peninsulas in any country has such limited access to it. People in London and elsewhere sometimes do not understand just how big the south-west is. I remember that when we were talking about regional police forces, I said that the northernmost point of the so-called south-west regional police force, which was at Tewkesbury, was nearer to Scotland than to the tip of Cornwall. That is a fact. People have no conception of the distances in the south-west, yet we are served by one motorway. When that motorway is closed for any reason, as it was, sadly, by the accident near Taunton in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) a little while ago, the result is chaos for the inadequate A303. Similarly, the A303 was flooded at Christmas. Perhaps that was because of freak conditions, but nevertheless we had, yet again, an example of the area’s lack of resilience.

We have to couple that with our inability to travel by rail in such circumstances, which all of us will remember from just a few weeks ago, when Paddington station was like a ghost station, because there were no trains running from it, or no trains running to anywhere that people wanted to get to. I beg the pardon of my hon.

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Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), because he could probably get to his constituency from Paddington, but we could not get to the south-west from Paddington. Resilience is a big issue.

My last point relates to something said by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View, namely that the south-west seems to be forgotten by every Government. A few months ago, I accused the Secretary of State for Transport of not knowing where the south-west is. He has proved me wrong; he knows where it is and has been there, as has my hon. Friend the Minister who is here today. However, in terms of Government investment in infrastructure, the south-west is still very much the poor relation of every other part of the country, and that is not good enough for me. I just do not see why we have to be the last in the queue for every single thing when it comes to Government investment. My plea to the Minister is this: for once, listen to the west country, listen to all the points that we are making, and do something about our wholly inadequate A303.

3.8 pm

John Howell (Henley) (Con): Let me apologise, Dr McCrea, because I may not be able to stay to the end of this debate, depending on when it finishes, as I have another meeting to attend.

I will make a short contribution picking up on the historical implications of this issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) mentioned. I declare two interests: first, I am a member of the all-party group on archaeology; and, secondly, I am a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. The economic implications of this issue have already been highlighted by Members; I will not go over them again. I just point out that Stonehenge is an important element of the economic case that they have made, and we need to take it into account.

Inevitably, the issue of the A303 bottleneck in the area of Stonehenge has been raised. We need the Government to look for a long-term sustainable solution to this problem, which reflects their full cultural, environmental and international obligations. With respect to the Minister, this is not solely a traffic issue; at stake is the integrity of one of the world’s finest prehistoric landscapes.

I intervened earlier to say that this was not just about the monument. I am credited with being one of those who helped to invent landscape archaeology. I stress that the landscape in which Stonehenge sits is an important archaeological site in its own context. This Government should explore what impact on this world heritage landscape would be acceptable. Particularly for the reasons set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, the Government should explore a long-bore tunnel option. That would add to the considerable achievement of the recent closure of the A344 next to the stones, which reduced noise and traffic pollution from the road, and that in turn moved us further in the desirable direction of allowing visitors to explore the entire world heritage landscape in its completeness.

John Glen: Although my hon. Friend makes a reasonable point about the wider heritage arguments, he must acknowledge that the closure of that road before a

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solution for the A303 was fully established caused enormous frustration to many local residents, some of whom are in the Public Gallery.

John Howell: I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I fully accept his point, but we cannot undo what has been done historically, and we have to take the major benefits that came out of it, in terms of reducing noise and traffic pollution. We would like to get back to the amount of noise and traffic pollution being reduced, so that people can explore the world heritage landscape in its entirety.

The aim of all the key heritage bodies involved—my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury listed them in their entirety—is to regain the tranquillity and dignity of this unique cultural landscape, as well as allowing the throughflow of traffic between here and the south-west, so that present and future generations can fully enjoy and appreciate the world heritage site as a whole. Anything that can be done to achieve those two objectives is to be welcomed as something that we should do now.

3.12 pm

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak in this worthwhile debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) for securing it and congratulate him on doing so. The number of hon. Members in the Chamber, especially from along the route of the A30/A303, shows how important a debate it is.

I want to quote Hansard first of all:

“The trunk roads from London to the West are quite inadequate for the traffic they have to carry. Queues up to 10 to 15 miles long are commonplace in summer on roads like A.30 and A.303. At many points there are bottlenecks, and the carriageways are quite inadequate.”—[Official Report, 14 May 1959; Vol. 605, c. 1558.]

This is from a speech made by Mr Edward du Cann, MP for Taunton, in an Adjournment debate held in May 1959. It shows that there has been quite a long debate about this road.

My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) mentioned the part of the road in Ilminster that was to be trunked in 1997, before the moratorium on road building by the previous Government. A project involving the A30, moving into the A303, east of Honiton, was also shelved. We nearly got there, but it was stopped.

I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), has agreed to drive on the road and see the A303 for himself, including where improvements can be made. That is welcome. I thank him for that. As he is a Yorkshire farmer, I am certain that we will get a truthful answer from him today, and that he will commit the Government to doing something about this quickly, rather than taking too long.

I want to take issue slightly with my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). Rome is one of the most historic cities in the world, with the forum and all the Roman remains, but dual carriageways go all around it, right close to the buildings. Yet that can be maintained. We have to be able to deal with the life that we live today and the need for dualling of the A303/A30, and not live in a prehistoric world. I am keen on history, but at the

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end of the day we have to find a way, acceptable from both an historical and financial point of view, to ensure that we dual the A30 right the way down to Cornwall.

In this Chamber, we are probably 300 miles from Penzance. I have not done the arithmetic, but I suspect that it is only a little further from London to Scotland. People have to remember that.

Alison Seabeck: The hon. Gentleman is right. The distances are not wildly out. It is distressing, when one visits Secretaries of State in some Departments, to find that they think that Plymouth is a bit like Hastings, in terms of its distance from London. Some education is needed in Departments.

Neil Parish: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Of course, when the Minister drives the route—he has probably already done so, but he will do it officially—he will see the length of the A30/A303 and will only probably get halfway along it. By some magic, he appears to be stopping at Honiton; I have no idea why. But seriously, we have to improve the road.

Hon. Members have said that we have few arterial routes into the west country. Bristol is not the west country; it may be part of the west country, but there is much after Bristol. To get to Devon and Cornwall, people need to cross Wiltshire and Somerset. We need to get that road done. A previous solution talked about in the spatial strategy—building on the A358 and dualling it out to the A303—is not a solution, because all that does is drive motorway and A303 traffic on to and off an already congested road. The west country—Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, and Wiltshire—relies a lot on tourism. We also rely on our businesses being able to be able to move their goods and services around. Come the summer, there are times when those roads are completely blocked. That has a huge economic effect on our businesses. Money for dualling the A303/A30 would be well spent.

I have made the point before in Parliament that, although I am 110% behind the Government taking action on our deficit—the huge sum that we have to borrow day in, day out, to pay the running costs of this country—there is an argument that says that, when interest rates are so historically low, we should borrow money to build infrastructure, because that builds up our economy and gives us a great future.

We expect our fair share of proceeds in the west country. Vast sums may or may not be spent on High Speed 2, yet we have railways that are falling into the sea. We are doing our best to make sure that that does not happen, and that railways are rebuilt. A second railway line needs to come down to the west country. All this is part of the infrastructure. Roads are also important.

On a slightly more controversial note, people say, “If you dual those roads, the traffic will go faster and it could cause more pollution.” However, in my view, it causes much less pollution. There is nothing worse than car engines ticking over for hours on end; cars do not run well when the engines are not running smoothly, and the amount of fuel and carbon monoxide that comes out of cars that are queuing for hours adds to pollution.

In my constituency, especially coming out of Honiton, several villages along the A30, which leads into the A303, have poor access to and egress from that road.

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There have been many accidents along it, so there are many good reasons, from a traffic safety point of view, for improving it.

People might think that I, as the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, would be telling the Government, “You must start by dualling the A30/A303 from Honiton eastwards,” but I am not saying that. I say that eventually we must dual the whole road. We must not be stopped by either Stonehenge or the Blackdowns in my constituency, because those are the expensive parts of dualling the road. In a former life, I drove around the whole south-west region. I often drove down the A30 into Cornwall. Short stretches of single-track road do not hold up traffic anywhere near as much as longer lengths of single-track road. My point is that we have to start the job. There is a saying that a job started is a job half done. There is no doubt that, once we break the logjam by starting to dual the road, it will be dualled the whole way.

John Glen: I accept my hon. Friend’s positive approach, but does he acknowledge that, for the large volume of people going all the way through to the furthest extremity of the south-west region, the economic advantages of spending money on the route will not be realised unless they can get through the significant bottlenecks near Stonehenge? We have to do something; otherwise people will not get down to the south-west quickly enough.

Neil Parish: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is fighting the corner for Stonehenge, but if we improve the roads either side of Stonehenge, we will solve the Stonehenge issue. We do not want to say, as the previous Government did in many respects, that we will not spend any money on the A30/A303 unless the Stonehenge situation is sorted. I will support him all the way in whatever he wants to do to get his piece of the road done, but we should not let that be the piece that holds up the whole road. I will not necessarily throw all my rattles out of the pram—I will throw only a few of them—when the A30/A303 at the Honiton end, going east, is not the first part to be dualled. I believe that the dualling will happen, and it is right that it does. We are considering the long-term strategy for the south-west. The A30/A303 has to be part of that strategy. Businesses, the local enterprise partnerships and councils are all pulling together, which is amazing in itself, so let us not say that it has to be Somerset, Devon or Wiltshire. It has to be all of us pulling together.

Mr Heath: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need the Government to commit to a strategic plan for the whole A303 corridor. What part is done first depends on how quickly things can be worked up, how long the regulatory and planning processes take and all the rest of it. We know that some bits will be difficult and some bits will be easy, but we want the Government to commit to a comprehensive plan.

Neil Parish: The hon. Gentleman is right. The improvements are set up in five pieces for five different areas. Some of those pieces will be easier to start than others. I urge the Minister to get on with it. We have talked for an awfully long time, and people want to see something happening on the ground. We could do with a bulldozer or a JCB sometime before 7 May 2015. I do not know what is happening on that day, and the Minister cannot possibly comment.

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Sarah Newton: My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. He makes a powerful case, because we have a long-term economic plan. From the Isles of Scilly up to Bristol, we are all united. A key part of the Government’s long-term economic plan is to rebalance the economy so that every region contributes to the success of our nation. Every LEP has identified that this infrastructure is mission-critical.

Neil Parish: My hon. Friend is right. The Government’s long-term economic plan is essential for ensuring that the west country gets its fair slice of the cake. We will contribute hugely to the economy, and we will help to build growth. People always want to come on holiday to the west country. Until we had all this rain, the sun did nothing but shine in the west country. I am surprised that we have managed to have such an amount of rain. In all seriousness, people come to the English riviera in south Devon, and they come to Somerset and Cornwall. They visit Stonehenge in Wiltshire, but they would like to be able to move on at a reasonable speed without being jammed for ever; if they cannot, it probably does not show Stonehenge to advantage. It probably sticks in people’s memory as that horrendous place where they were jammed in traffic. Improving the A303 will hugely help the national economy and the west country. The scale of the flooding has caused setbacks for people, businesses and property; now is the time for us to move forward positively.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. We have twice had statements in Parliament from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and others on money to be spent on the A303. That is why the situation is different now from in previous years: the Government have committed real cash to getting the road done. My one plea is for the Minister to get on with it. He should get the money out of the Treasury, which is a naturally generous body, as soon as he can; otherwise, it might take the money away. Let us get on with building the road, so that not only can there be a good future for our constituents and businesses, but all the people who come to the west country have a good experience and come back again.

3.27 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing this debate, which has attracted interventions and speeches from no fewer than eight speakers from both sides of the House. All of today’s speakers have made important points on this piece of road. It is difficult to talk about it as a “piece of road”, because it is so long. He described it as “the highway to the sun.” Coming from Birmingham, I know such highways well. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) describes it as “Britain’s mother road”. Both of those descriptions are accurate.

Many hon. Members have talked about the economic importance of the A303. Most notably, it was a major part of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck). There has been unanimity today on the need to invest in creaking parts of the road network to cope with demand, improve safety, relieve congestion and secure jobs and growth. There is also an understanding that, however we do

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that, it has to be done in a way that improves our communities and quality of life. Protecting the environment is an add-on to that and has to be part of the process.

The A303 is a road that has tested the ability of successive Governments to deliver those objectives. We have to be honest about that. There is a clear need to improve the route, which is vital for the entire south-west’s connectivity to the rest of the UK. Incomplete dualling over the years has resulted in a number of bottlenecks, about which we have heard today. Those bottlenecks cause road safety problems and cost trade and tourism. There has been a range of continuing reviews, public inquiries and policy changes from the 1990s to the current day. They have demonstrated just how contentious delivering some crucial road upgrades can be in practice. Any solution to this matter will be difficult, but I am concerned—some of the issues put to the Minister are real ones—whether the Government’s approach fully learns the lessons of the past. I have a number of questions for him to tease that out. The recent floods have underlined just how important it is to improve strategic transport connections to the south-west more generally. It is no good just looking at roads, although they are important; we need to take into account all the transport networks of the south-west—that point has been made by a number of Members today—and improve transport resilience across the piece in the region.

I will not attempt to hide the fact that, like this Government, we faced challenges in delivering a second arterial road to this part of the country when we were in government. As Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) committed to improving the A303 in 2003. Our process was subject to lengthy public inquiries and the cost of the proposed schemes rose significantly during that period. When we left office, however, the Highways Agency had a costed and timetabled plan to improve the A303. That included—it has been contentious for some in the Chamber—dualling the A358 from Ilminster to Taunton, which avoided some of the problems with the area of outstanding natural beauty at Blackdown hills. What is the status of that plan now?

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) spoke about money, and we need to press the Minister on that. When the Government entered office, nearly £4 billion of planned investment for our roads network was cut. Those are not my figures, but those of the National Audit Office. The Highways Agency budget for capital investment in roads has been cut from £1.6 billion in 2010-11 to just £877 million in 2013-14. That has had a big impact on specific road slippages.

A lot has been said about delivering major progress. Things were said about that in the autumn statement, but the truth is that most of the road schemes that are being talked about were started under the previous Government. I do not say that just to make a political point, although I am making something of a political point. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) wanted to be here today, but was unable to come. He has said that the Government’s failure to invest in infrastructure has made the reality of improving the A303 further away than it could be.

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On this side of the House, we are pleased that Ministers are finally talking about the need to invest in our country’s long-term transport infrastructure, but the important thing is to start delivering it. In the spending review of June 2013, the Government committed to producing a feasibility study on solutions for an alternative road route to the south-west, and I have a number of questions for the Minister on that. Will he clarify the study’s intended publication date? There has been some talk about that being spring 2015. I am sure that all of us are looking to spring 2015 for all sorts of things, but I suspect that the constituents of Members who have spoken today, seized though they will be by events in spring 2015, want to know what the significance of that study will be for the road scheme.

John Glen: The real lesson of the past is that publishing reports near general elections ensures that nothing happens for another five years. It is absolutely imperative that we have a clear proposal from the feasibility study much sooner than spring 2015. Does the shadow Minister not agree?

Richard Burden: The hon. Gentleman is ahead of me in many ways. It is important that the Minister is clear about the issue. If we are talking about publication in spring 2015, is the bottom line that it might not even be published before the next general election? If it is published before the general election, when does he, whichever Government are elected, see the study being put into operation in practical terms?

Neil Parish: I want to ask the shadow Minister a direct question. The A303 was about to be dualled in 1997. If the British people do not make the right decision and elect a Labour Government in 2015, can he assure us that, if it is in place to go, that road will be built and not shelved as the previous Labour Government did in 1997?

Richard Burden: I will make a number of points to the hon. Gentleman, and the first is that I would love to have a Tardis, for this issue and for many other things. I would love the result of the last general election to have been different. I am sure that the Conservatives would have liked to have won the last general election, but they did not quite manage that. There are lessons to be learned by all parties on this issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View said, we have committed to a review, but the fact is that the finances of this country are opaque and what is going on is not clear. We will and are going to have to go through everything before the general election to work out what can be done.

The points raised by the hon. Member for Salisbury were well made. This issue has been subject to delay. Whoever is elected next year, we need to know the timetable for discussion and for those decisions to be made and put into effect, one way or another.

I fully admit that the decades of delay have been under different and successive Governments, but perhaps the Minister can explain why it was only in January of this year that he wrote to the relevant Members—I quote his response to a question from the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey)—to

“set out a brief synopsis of our proposals for the study.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 356W.]

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Is that the only practical progress that has been made by the Government since the summer of last year? If not, will the Minister set out what else has been done? If the study is to take nearly two years, when does he expect a costed and timetabled plan to be in place? That is what is needed for delivery. The hon. Member for Salisbury has rightly said that a new feasibility study needs to take into account things that have happened so far. A number of Members have talked about the previous south-west and south Wales multi-modal study, which was published in 2002 and took an integrated approach to tackling transport problems in the region. Does that have any status in the Government’s thinking, and if so what?

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View has talked about the work done by the former South West Regional Committee. Regional Committees did some excellent work in their short life, including on this issue. Will that work form part of what the Government do and say on the feasibility study? Given that the congestion problems on the road have remained broadly similar, is there not a case for updating what has already been done, rather than simply commissioning a new study? There seems to be some confusion on that point. If I have misunderstood what is happening, perhaps the Minister will tell me. What action are Ministers taking to ensure that the feasibility study will not just result in an A303 proposal again being subject to further public inquires and further legal challenge?

Recent events have underlined just how important it is to improve transport connections to the south- west. At a debate last week on weather events in the south-west, Members from across the House spoke about the devastating impact the floods have had on their communities. Our thoughts are with all those communities that have been affected. Labour party candidates from that area have been on to us, saying that investment needs to be prioritised. Those points are made to us by our people in the south-west, as well as by those in this House. It is not only about restoring rail services, important though that is, but ensuring that the transport network as a whole to the south-west can cope with future pressures and be resilient. I therefore want to press the Minister for more clarity on the Government’s plans for future investment.

The transport network in the south-west is increasingly under threat. There has been significant concern among local authorities trying to improve resilience on the peninsula. Can the Minister confirm whether the funding that he is talking about on the rail network, apart from anything else, is the same money that was pledged in 2013, or is it new money? If it is not, where will it come from and what cuts will be made elsewhere?

Equally, I welcome Network Rail’s proposals for an alternative to the Dawlish line, which is expected to be published in July. After two attempts by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) to raise this question last week, I ask the Minister again to clarify how a Dawlish avoiding route will be funded. Will new money now be available from central Government? It is important that we have clarity from the Government on both the rail and the road situation. It is important for the Government to consider the needs of the transport system, as well as land management and flood defence, holistically. That is partly what today’s debate is about.

First, the report on options for the Dawlish avoiding line should clearly be developed in conjunction with the A303 feasibility study to ensure that they come together

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to ensure needs are met. If that is going to be the case, can the Minister confirm whether they will be parallel processes that do not link up? Secondly, will the Minister think again about the new national networks policy statement proposed for the future of our road and rail? This planning document, which is open to consultation at the moment, does nothing to ensure that our existing transport networks are flood-resilient. I understand that, privately, his Department is aware of this and aware that the policy statement requires major work to ensure that it reflects future planning policy properly and that it is climate-resilient. If that is the case, it needs to be revised. So I think we need to hear a little more from the Minister about that one.

If the NPS is meant to be the Government’s vision for future transport, and the omission of flood resilience remains, that is highly concerning. In the light of all this, will the Minister clarify what consideration is being given to climate change and future weather shocks in the A303 feasibility study?

The Opposition take investment in our long-term infrastructure seriously. It is not about rushing to announce long lists of schemes or studies without considering future risks and shocks. It is about properly considering the options and future pressures, and establishing clear and costed plans for delivery. It is about looking at our transport network in an integrated way so that we can meet the needs of the future. I hope the Minister will be able to clarify some of the issues raised, because the A303—Members have alluded to many problems along the line of the route—is not and cannot be a stand-alone issue. It is indicative of a need to deliver an effective strategic transport network for the south-west in future. I hope that when we leave the Chamber today, the Minister will have provided us with greater clarity, rather than greater confusion.

3.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing this debate on the future of the A303. I know this subject is of great importance to him and to other hon. Friends and Opposition Members. I am aware that he has raised issues about the performance of the A303 at Stonehenge and details of the Department's feasibility study during business questions.

The A303 is an important trunk road that passes in close proximity to the Stonehenge world heritage site, and the issue of improving this road has been considered by successive Governments, as we heard. I very much recognise the strategic importance of this corridor and therefore of finding solutions to its problems. Before I respond to the points raised by my hon. Friend, the Member for Salisbury, it is perhaps worth taking the opportunity both to set out this Government’s position on investment in the strategic road network, but also the history of proposals for major improvements to the A303, as well as setting out how my Department will consider options for future investments. Indeed, I hope that I can make progress where even Mrs Thatcher failed.

Before I go on, I will respond to a couple of the points made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). He recognised that the

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previous Government had been engaged in a degree of stop-go—mainly stop in terms of the A303. Although he recognised that fact, there was no straightforward apology, and I was rather perturbed to hear him say that when they left office, they had a costed plan. Nothing was costed when the previous Government left office. The public finances were in a catastrophic state. Indeed, when they had some money in 1997, when they took office, they announced a moratorium, so I will take no lessons from the Opposition on how to organise a road investment programme.

We have controlled spending so that we can increase genuine investment, and we will build on the previous work done in planning the feasibility of this route. On timing, we have set ourselves an ambitious programme, and we hope to have some news in the autumn statement. Indeed, when the announcements are made in the autumn, it will be interesting to hear what the shadow Chancellor says about following through on the promises when the Labour party writes its manifesto.

Alison Seabeck: The Minister is talking about financing and the envelope in which we are all working. Has consideration ever been given—this will not be popular in some parts—to tolling a tunnel and paying for it that way?

Mr Goodwill: I made it clear in front of the Select Committee last week that we are certainly not going down that route. The decision on the A14 Huntingdon bypass makes that very clear indeed. In fact, I was reported as saying we have drawn a line in the sand on that one.

As part of the progress we are making, Department officials met local stakeholders in Taunton on 24 January to discuss the scope of the study, and officials are working to incorporate the views of stakeholders when finalising the scope.

I said that it may be useful to set out the historical background in terms of the previous proposals for major strategic improvements to the road. Proposals to complete the dualling of the A303 were made in the 2002 London to south-west and south Wales multi-modal study, and, together with improvements to the A358 between Ilminster and Taunton, they could have created a second strategic route to the south-west. However, by 2007, with the cancellation of the Amesbury to Berwick Down scheme owing to increased costs and the south-west region’s conclusion that some schemes could not be funded from the regional funding allocation, the Highways Agency was no longer able to progress the proposals.

My hon. Friend may also be aware that Somerset county council held a summit with other relevant stakeholders in 2012, the outcome of which was a commitment for further work on the relative prioritisation of potential interventions and consideration of possible funding avenues. A grouping of local authorities and local enterprise partnerships produced an initial analysis and business case for future improvements to the A303 corridor, to reiterate the importance of investment in the corridor. This work provides a useful starting point for more detailed work into the consideration of possible solutions to the problems along the A303.

On this Government’s commitment to infrastructure investment, we have already announced increased levels

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of Government funding to deliver improvements all around the strategic road network, targeted at supporting economic growth. Our commitment to deliver a step change in future investment in transport infrastructure was made clear by the Chancellor in his statement of 26 June last year, which announced the conclusions of the Government’s 2013 spending review.

The Treasury’s Command Paper, “Investing in Britain’s Future”, set out that the Government will invest more than £28 billion in enhancements and maintenance of both national and local roads, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) mentioned. This includes £10.7 billion for major national road projects and £4.9 billion for local major projects. More than £12 billion has been allocated for maintenance, with nearly £6 billion for repairs to local roads and £6 billion for maintenance of strategic roads, including resurfacing 80% of that network.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury is aware, for future investment planning, the Highways Agency is conducting its route-based strategy process, which involves local stakeholders in the consideration of future priorities. It might be helpful to say a little more about the agency’s approach, because that is the mechanism by which we will consider the investment needs of the entire strategic road network.

In our May 2012 response to the recommendations of Alan Cook’s report, “A fresh start to the strategic road network”, we agreed to develop a programme of route-based strategies to inform the identification of future transport investment for the entire strategic network. Route-based strategies will provide a smarter approach to investment planning throughout the network and see greater collaboration with local stakeholders to determine the nature, need and timing of future investment that might be required on the network. We will produce a uniform set of strategies for the entire network, including the A303, as part of the south west peninsula route-based strategy.

The Highways Agency completed a series of local engagement events last autumn to help identify performance issues and future challenges. I welcome the enthusiasm with which stakeholders in the south-west, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency, have participated so far. The agency and the Department will use the evidence to prioritise and take forward a programme of work to identify indicative solutions that will cover operations, maintenance and, if appropriate, potential road improvement schemes. Route-based strategies therefore provide an opportunity for stakeholders to provide evidence about problems on the A303, so that the need for improvements can be considered and a plan for future investment developed.

My hon. Friend highlighted the issue of congestion on the A303 and the problems experienced as the road passes the Stonehenge world heritage site. The Government very much recognise such issues and the importance of transport infrastructure to support the economy. We are committed to identifying and funding early solutions to the longstanding problems on the A303-A30-A358 corridor, initially by undertaking a feasibility study.

Richard Burden: The Minister was rushing through different things—the route-based strategy and the feasibility study—and I may have missed something, but will he clarify when he expects the route-based strategy to

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be completed and how it will feed into the feasibility study? Given the estimates that I have heard, the report of the feasibility is due in the spring of 2015. Is that what is intended?

Mr Goodwill: No, we hope to make better progress than that and to be in a position to make an announcement based on that study in the autumn statement this year. The good news is that that study is one of six on the strategic road network. The A303 is already in the final of that competition.

Mr Heath: The Minister should be aware that making such an announcement in the autumn statement, and it including the Sparkford to Ilchester stretch of the A303, will enable me to retire a happy man.

Mr Goodwill: I wish for no less for the hon. Gentleman, I am sure.

It might be useful to say a little more about the approach we are taking, as the feasibility study is the mechanism by which we will identify early solutions to the problems on the A303-A30-A358 corridor. The aim of the study will be to identify the opportunities and understand the case for future investment solutions on the corridor that are deliverable, affordable and offer value for money, including noise mitigation where appropriate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury suggested. Much work has been carried out, but agreement has not been reached on a set of solutions. It is therefore important for us to carry out this study to ensure that we understand the priorities for the corridor and that proposals for investment demonstrate a strong and robust economic case for investment, as well as value for money, and are deliverable.

John Glen: Does the Minister accept that the Stonehenge case will require not only a value-for-money approach, but a perspective on the wider heritage interests? What work is he doing to engage with other colleagues in government to take account of the particular concerns at Stonehenge?

Mr Goodwill: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. A number of issues associated with the route-based studies up and down the country include environmental or heritage considerations. It is important not to take the view that, because they are sometimes too difficult, they should not be considered properly.

The study work will be conducted in stages, with the Department initially looking to identify the current and future challenges along the corridor. We are keen to ensure that we have the most up-to-date and relevant information available to inform the study. The Department has asked stakeholders to furnish us with any additional study work or analysis that they might have commissioned. The next stage will be to identify the range of solutions or measures that could address the problems identified along the corridor. Again, we will look to build on previous work, rather than starting from scratch, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield suggested, but we will not rule out other potential investment proposals that may emerge from the first phase of the route-based strategy process, as well as potential investment proposals on the A358.

We will look to engage with a range of stakeholders throughout the life of the study, including local highway authorities, local enterprise partnerships and local

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environmental groups. A stakeholder reference group will be established to ensure a mechanism through which the views of stakeholders may be incorporated in the study work. The views of hon. Members will also be important in the deliberations. The outputs of the route-based strategy and of the six feasibility studies will inform the Department’s roads investment strategy, which is being developed and which we have committed to publish by the end of the year.

I fully understand the Stonehenge concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury. As is well known, the single carriageway section of the A303 can cause congestion during traffic peaks on bank holidays and through the summer. I am aware that local lobby groups have been established, such as the Stonehenge traffic action group, of which I understand that my hon. Friend is aware.

The new Stonehenge visitor centre opened in mid-December 2013 and is situated at Airman’s Corner on the A360. In terms of traffic to the centre, the car park fails to meet demand at busy times, and this leads to traffic that is queuing to enter the visitor centre backing up along the A360 and blocking it to other users. In extreme cases, the traffic has reached as far as the A303 at Longbarrow roundabout, causing congestion on the A303. In support of the new visitor centre and closure of the local road, the Highways Agency has carried out extensive improvements to the Longbarrow roundabout at the junction of the A303, with significant investment of more than £3 million to support the Stonehenge attraction.

In addition, drivers have been using the nearby byway and lay-bys to get a good view of the stones, which has further exacerbated congestion on the A303. The Highways Agency has worked with Wiltshire county council and the police to prohibit certain movements and to prevent drivers parking illegally, guiding them by the designated route to the visitor centre. I assure hon. Members that while we await the outcome of the feasibility study, the Highways Agency will continue to monitor and respond to congestion at this location. Wiltshire police have invited some local representatives to a meeting with key agencies, including the Highways Agency, the county council, English Heritage and the National Trust, to look at the short-term issues likely to arise this summer.

Given the flooding that we have seen over recent weeks and months, I emphasise to my hon. Friend that the strategic road network in the south-west has performed well, although there was a closure one weekend. By and large, the network has been kept running, keeping the south-west open for business during this difficult period and allowing the replacement buses to run. The importance of the A303 has been emphasised in light of the issues experienced on the rail network.

Flooding occurred at two locations on the A303, at Ilchester and at Deptford, which was due to adjacent water courses and groundwater run-off from fields. Flooding at Ilchester meant that the A303 was closed in both directions for 20 hours. The diversion route was utilised to keep the route into the south-west open. The flooding at Deptford saw the eastbound carriageway affected for 12 days, although within two days a contraflow was put in place, enabling traffic to get through.

In conclusion, I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury on securing the debate. I have been clear that the Government are committed to and

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have set out plans for large-scale investment to improve our strategic road network in the relatively short term. We are also committed to developing a longer-term programme of investment through the route-based strategy process. Through the A303-A30-A358 corridor feasibility study, we will work closely with local stakeholders to ensure we consider current and future transport problems and the range of possible solutions that could deal with them. As I said, it is important that proposals for future investment are clearly supported by the local stakeholders and that there is a clear consensus on what is required. Ultimately, any proposals for future investment need to be able to demonstrate a strong business case and the delivery of both transport and wider economic benefits.

Every cloud is said to have a silver lining, and the weather in the south-west this year has emphasised the importance of a resilient road network when we have problems on our rail network. The fact that big investment is going into north-south rail connections makes an even stronger case for investment in roads in the south-west. I look forward to my road trip to Tiverton and Honiton—a road that I have travelled before. Having heard the points made today, I think that I need to set off in good time.

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): I thank hon. Members for their participation in that important debate. I wish the Minister well on his road journey.

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Domestic Violence (West Essex and Harlow)

4 pm

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Dr McCrea. I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this debate on an important matter that affects thousands of men and women up and down the country. I want to give special recognition to Safer Places in Harlow, Essex county council, Nick Alston, who is police and crime commissioner for Essex, ManKind and Women’s Aid for the assistance they have given me in preparing for this debate. I also welcome the work done by the TUC on domestic violence training and education.

For six months, I have put in for this debate because of the particular problem of domestic violence in Harlow and because of two tragedies that have afflicted our town. That is why I must pay tribute to Mr and Mrs Blunnie, who are in Westminster today. They have been incredibly strong throughout their ordeal since their daughter’s death, and continue to astound me with their campaign to prevent any other families from going through similar tragedies. I am hugely grateful to the Minister, who has agreed to meet the family after the debate.

This debate is much needed. Nationally, crime survey statistics suggest that 31% of women and 18% of men have experienced domestic abuse, with two women being killed per week by a partner or former partner.

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): My hon. Friend makes an important point about male victims of domestic violence. Female victims are more numerous and sometimes more vulnerable, but we should not overlook male victims, who can fall victim to domestic violence in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Often they are unable to talk about the issue or to find resources available for victims of their gender.

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Domestic violence is evil, whichever sex is afflicted by it.

As I said, crime survey statistics suggest that 31% of women and 18% of men have experienced domestic abuse. Today I want to focus specifically on west Essex and Harlow, where there is an above average amount of domestic abuse incidents. I am incredibly proud of my town. I love living there and am very proud to be its MP, but we cannot sweep the problems we have under the carpet and so it is important to set out some of the problems that we face. In Harlow alone domestic abuse makes up 10% of all crime, a statistic that has increased by 2% in the past year; 32% of all offences are assault with injury. Across Essex, police deal with 80 domestic incidents per day. As I mentioned, we have sadly lost two Harlow residents to domestic violence recently, Eystna Blunnie in June 2012 and Claire Parrish in July 2012.

I therefore want to raise three issues this afternoon. First, what the situation is in west Essex in relation to domestic abuse; secondly, what steps are already being taken to improve how domestic abuse is dealt with; and thirdly, what needs to be improved and how that could be achieved.

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As I have already mentioned, there are two tragic cases I would like to discuss that really typify some of the problems that we face. The first is the distressing case of Eystna Blunnie. Before she met her ex-fiancé, Eystna was a happy young woman who had a close relationship with her family. During her relationship with her ex-fiancé she became withdrawn, and had little contact with her mother and father. In April 2012, she was taken to hospital after being strangled and falling unconscious. She was pregnant at the time, with a daughter called Rose. She made the decision to leave her ex-fiancé, and returned to live with her family. But two months later, and just days before her baby was due, she received a text from him saying he had a surprise for her. She was found by the roadside with over 50 injuries, and died shortly afterwards from severe head injuries. Her ex-fiancé was found guilty of her murder and of causing the death of their unborn baby, Rose. He was jailed for a minimum of 27 years. I was due to see her in my surgery just a few days after she died. During the court case, it transpired that her ex-fiancé had previously been arrested for assaulting ex-girlfriends.

The second tragic death is that of Claire Parrish, a mum of four living in Harlow. Her partner murdered her just hours after she told him that she wanted to end their relationship because of his domestic abuse. Like three in four victims, Claire was sadly one of the many who felt unable to contact the police.

Of course, those cases are horrific examples of the terrible tragedies that can occur. But they unfortunately also reflect the wider problem of domestic abuse in west Essex, which has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country. Between 2003-04 and 2011-12, recorded incidents of domestic abuse increased by nearly 88% across Essex; they increased by 25% between 2010-11 and 2011-12. The cost of domestic abuse in Essex alone is £86 million per year. It represents a substantial amount of police work.

Those statistics can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, we know from studies that the incidence of domestic abuse is higher in areas of deprivation, and that is sadly reflected in Harlow wards. Toddbrook, Little Parndon, Hare Street and Netteswell are in the top 30% of the most deprived areas in England; unfortunately, they also have the highest rates of domestic abuse in my constituency. On the other hand, it is good that Essex police are recording incidents of domestic abuse thoroughly, and it has been acknowledged that changes in how records are kept and county priorities are one of the reasons why domestic abuse figures in Essex are so high.

Yet that must not stop us acknowledging that there is a clear problem with domestic abuse. In the aftermath of tragedies such as the deaths of Eystna Blunnie and Claire Parrish, it is worth remembering that Essex police and Essex county council have taken important steps forwards in how they treat domestic abuse. They have created a new domestic abuse strategic board, and I praise them for that. I am glad for the enormous amount of work done by the Minister, who is taking a zero tolerance approach and is extending Clare’s law across the United Kingdom. I am hopeful that that will prevent victims from being sucked into a cycle of abuse that is difficult to break. I also recognise that the east of England has the best conviction rate in the country for

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cases of domestic violence, with Essex having the second highest conviction rate of all the criminal justice areas in 2011-12.

That does not minimise in any way, however, the significant failings that led to a lack of help for Eystna and Claire. There are three main problems that I wish to discuss. First, current training regarding domestic abuse for people working in key public services is inadequate. There were a number of occasions where better training for front-line staff might have provided Eystna with the help she so badly needed. For example, she was under the care of midwives and housing officers. She was also seen at A and E, and had reported to the police that she was being abused. Despite coming into contact with all those services, she received little support.

Eystna’s case is echoed in the review by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary of Essex police’s handling of domestic abuse cases in 2013, which reported that

“most staff were not able to demonstrate a broad understanding of the wider approach to domestic abuse, and of how dealing with it effectively can enhance the confidence of victims and ultimately prevent homicides.”

Nationally, training has also been identified as a priority, and a recent report said that there is a need for improved training and awareness about domestic violence and abuse for GPs and healthcare professionals. The training also needs to extend to the Crown Prosecution Service, which acknowledged that it made a mistake by not initially charging Eystna Blunnie’s ex-fiancé when he tried to kill her in April 2012. Healthy relationship education should be extended in classrooms. Victims of domestic abuse tend to be women in their early 20s, and education will hopefully give them the skills to deal with a bad relationship and encourage them to speak up if they are in an abusive one.

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I also represent a constituency in Essex, and we have many issues with domestic violence. My hon. Friend touched on the issue of training in the CPS and the health and social services. I, too, have experienced horrifying cases. Does he agree that in addition to improving training we must integrate the services better to co-ordinate the services and support for the victims of this awful abuse and to create stronger support structures and signposting for those vulnerable individuals?

Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am proud to have her as a near neighbour in Essex. Sharing information and safeguarding are crucial issues, which I will come on to. She makes an important point, and I hope the Minister is listening to her.

Gareth Johnson: I want to build on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel). I used to practise in the criminal justice system in Essex, in which I saw both good and bad practices. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) agree that it is incumbent on HM Court Service to play a role, so defendants and victims are not left alone together, for example? In my experience, the witness service does a fantastic job in preventing that kind of thing. Nevertheless, it is important that courts ensure that the interests of both parties are protected while they are going through the criminal justice system.

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Robert Halfon: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am sure the Minister is listening carefully to what he has to say.

Perpetrators tend to come from families in which there is a history of abuse. Studies show that nearly a quarter of young people in the UK think that abuse or violence is sometimes okay. It must be stressed to young people that abuse in any form and for whatever reason is never acceptable. I am pleased that Essex county council is working with schools to develop a programme to help students recognise abusive relationships. However, abuse should be tackled nationally, and the curriculum should focus on altering the creation of violence through targeted education. That could include training on self-esteem and values; learning about the help that is out there, such as Clare’s law, and how to access it; and special training for tutors in schools.

Victims have identified that how they are supported needs to be reformed. Following the terrible death of Eystna, Mr and Mrs Blunnie told me that despite good help being available from individual police officers, they felt let down by Victim Support. They received little follow-up, always had to be the first to make contact and had to speak to different people each time. Ultimately, they came to rely upon a charity called Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse for support, to which I give huge thanks for all it has done. The situation is disappointing, and I encourage Victim Support to review what it can do for victims and their families.

Finally, one of the major problems that was identified in the handling of domestic abuse in Essex is the lack of cohesive information sharing across services, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) referred. It is shocking that despite the fact that Eystna was pregnant and was known to many key services to have a fiancé with serious mental health problems and a history of abusing women, a sufficient safeguarding plan was not put in place. The HMIC review strongly criticised Essex police for failings across the force in that area. It said:

“We found poor communication between those providing victim care, investigators and voluntary sector support workers…The force needs to intensify its work with other agencies across Essex to develop a more co-ordinated approach to domestic abuse.”

That view has been expressed to me privately, with the suggestion that there needs to be a stronger emphasis on mental health and substance misuse issues. It is essential that services work together and share information when people’s lives are at risk.

If we are to avoid tragedies such as those that happened in Harlow and prevent such things from happening again anywhere, we must not only learn lessons but act on them. As I have said, that means providing education in schools, investing in and focusing on areas of high deprivation and significant domestic abuse, fully implementing Clare’s law, ensuring proper information sharing among services and safeguarding vulnerable people. The Government are making significant efforts on a national level, but we must ensure that they also work on a micro-level. Local areas—in particular, those with high levels of domestic abuse—should have everything at their disposal to deal with this ever-increasing tragedy. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

4.16 pm

The Minister for Crime Prevention (Norman Baker): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow

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(Robert Halfon) for the opportunity to debate this serious issue. I thank him for the measured way in which he presented his remarks. These are difficult issues to discuss without emotion.

Domestic violence is unquestionably a terrible crime, and I give my absolute assurance that the Government is committed to tackling it robustly. Getting a clear picture of the prevalence of domestic abuse is always a challenge because it is so under-reported; we must deal with that problem. The crime survey for England and Wales, which measures what people tell us, rather than crime recorded by the police, estimates that 1.2 million women were victims of domestic abuse last year. That is a huge number. The police and crime plan for Essex estimates that there were 44,000 victims of domestic abuse in the county, which has a population of 1.7 million.

I am aware that in my hon. Friend’s constituency and across Essex there have been some tragic cases, and domestic abuse is often fatal. As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, six people were killed by their partners or ex-partners in Essex in the three years between 2009 and 2012. That was against a national backdrop of 76 women being killed by their partners or ex-partners last year. Although we can take some comfort in the fact that that is the lowest figure since 1998, I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that anything more than zero is too many.

My hon. Friend mentioned the two particularly tragic deaths in Essex of Eystna Blunnie and Claire Parrish. Eystna was brutally murdered only days before she was due to give birth to her baby, Rose, in 2012. She was looking forward to being a mother. When she died, her profile picture on Facebook featured a recent ultrasound scan. She told friends that she “could not wait” to be a mother, and added:

“Only 17 days and counting”,

but her life was cut short when she and her unborn child were brutally murdered, as my hon. Friend described.

I want to take the opportunity to offer my sincere condolences to Eystna’s family for the loss of their daughter and granddaughter, and to the family of Claire Parrish for their sad loss. The Blunnie case was all the more tragic because there was a chance to prosecute Mr McLernon when he attempted to strangle Eystna two months before her death. Regrettably, the Crown Prosecution Service missed the opportunity to pursue the case. It has now rightly apologised for that unacceptable failing.

My hon. Friend also referred to the death of Claire Parrish, a mother of six brutally stabbed to death following a history of suffering abuse. She was a scared and vulnerable victim, again tragically let down by the agencies that should have been there to protect and support her. I want to reassure my hon. Friend and Members generally that I take such cases extremely seriously and I am determined that we all learn lessons from them, both inside Government and in the agencies involved that are on the front line to protect people.

I was pleased to see that the Essex police and crime commissioner, Nick Alston, has prioritised tackling domestic abuse in his police and crime plan. I was particularly encouraged to see his focus on learning lessons from Independent Police Complaints Commission investigations of the police handling of domestic abuse

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cases, and his plan to tackle domestic abuse through a multi-agency approach and the joint commissioning of victim services.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on some excellent examples of local services for victims of domestic abuse in west Essex, including the charity Safer Places, which offers accommodation and support to victims of abuse. I am also aware of the innovative Essex Change programme, which is an accredited programme that works with perpetrators of domestic violence to help them break the cycle of abuse. That is a very important aspect of our work.

The Government has supported a series of reforms to the handling of domestic violence by the police. The introduction of police and crime commissioners, the increased independence of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, and the establishment of the College of Policing are reforms that are working and, I think, are helping.

Police and crime commissioners provide an impetus for reform, innovate, and deliver policing more efficiently. They bring real local scrutiny of how chief constables and their forces perform. I am encouraged by the fact that the vast majority of police and crime commissioners across England and Wales have made tackling violence against women and girls a priority in their policing plans, and we are committed to ensuring that they have all the information that they need to make good decisions on how to deliver those priorities.

Specific training on domestic violence and abuse is included in the national police training curriculum. That training was updated this year to take account of the Government’s introduction of a new definition of domestic abuse. The new definition helps to prevent the escalation of abuse, which can end in tragedy, by dispelling the belief that domestic abuse begins and ends with violence. It places coercive control at the centre of determining whether abuse is taking place, and that is absolutely right. The College of Policing has committed to updating training on domestic abuse this year for its officers.

On top of that, the Home Secretary has commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to look at the performance of police forces across England and Wales in domestic abuse cases and identify where improvements need to be made. In just a few weeks’ time, it will publish its findings. The review will shine a light on police practice in each of the 43 forces. I am sure that my hon. Friend will read the report on Essex constabulary with particular interest. We will review the national recommendations with care and ensure that they are acted on as we strive for further improvements in this area.

Also of importance is the Government’s decision in April 2011 to place domestic homicide reviews on a statutory footing. Now community safety partnerships produce a report for each domestic homicide review that they conduct, and each report is quality assured by a panel of independent and Home Office experts. Each review results in a tailored action plan that must be delivered by the area in question to make sure that we learn from each individual tragedy that occurs.

The Home Office has also published a document collating the national lessons learned from those reviews and making recommendations to local areas to drive

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improvements in practice. That, in particular, flagged up the critical importance of effective information sharing. I understand that a domestic homicide review has been conducted in the case of Eystna Blunnie and will be published by the local community safety partnership in the coming months, following close liaison with the family, as is right.

However, in order for a victim to access justice, it is important that a professional police force is complemented by well-trained prosecutors who progress as many domestic abuse cases as possible, so that unnecessary deaths are prevented. The Crown Prosecution Service is currently refreshing its domestic violence policy. I understand that a revised version will be published for consultation in the next few weeks. I also look forward to the outcome of work between the CPS and the police to join up training to ensure that victims of domestic abuse are provided with a consistent and collaborative response.

My hon. Friend also raised the importance of the training of front-line professionals. I welcome the recent publication by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, better known as NICE. That guidance has been published and is directed at commissioners and front-line professionals, including the NHS, the police and social services. The guidance provides information for multi-agency professionals dealing with domestic violence and abuse. It includes evidence-based interventions to be used as best practice by professionals to identify and support victims and their children, as well as enforce the law and respond to perpetrators.

It is vital that our criminal justice approach is reinforced by support services for victims. This Government has ring-fenced nearly £40 million for specialist local domestic and sexual violence support services. Facilities funded with that money include 144 independent domestic violence advisers, who help victims of domestic violence get their voices heard, and 54 multi-agency risk assessment co-ordinators, who protect the interests of those who are most at risk by promoting information sharing. Up to 60% of abuse victims report no further violence following intervention by independent advisers.

However, we can and should do all we can nationally as well to reach out to those caught in cycles of abuse. The start of the national roll-out of Clare’s law, which my hon. Friend referred to, and of domestic violence protection orders is now just days away. Clare’s law, the domestic violence disclosure scheme, is a system in which anyone can seek disclosure of a partner’s violent past. Those with the legal right to know are provided with information that could well save lives, empowering them to make an informed choice about their futures.

Domestic violence protection orders offer respite to victims in the immediate aftermath of domestic abuse. Those orders have the power to prevent a perpetrator of domestic violence from having contact with the victim for up to 28 days. That offers both the victim and the perpetrator the chance to reflect on the incident. It provides an important opportunity for the victim to determine the best course of action to end the cycle of abuse. Together, those two moves significantly improve the reality for victims.

I am also keen to do more to challenge cultural mindsets, which need to be changed to eradicate domestic abuse from our society. That is why the Home Office relaunched the “This is Abuse” campaign in December.

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It is particularly aimed at young people who think that violence can be okay, which is a point that my hon. Friend rightly referred to. It is aimed at stopping teenagers from becoming victims and perpetrators of abusive relationships by encouraging them to rethink their views on controlling behaviour and violence in their relationships.

We have also developed a “This is Abuse” discussion guide in partnership with voluntary sector experts, designed to help teachers, parents and youth workers lead discussions about abuse in teenage relationships. The guide has been quality assured by the Personal, Social, Health And Economic Education Association and is available to download on the website. I welcome the work that the Department for Education is doing to establish a personal, social and health education subject expert group to ensure that teachers have the support and resources to deliver high-quality teaching and give the issues the same prominence as national curriculum subjects. The group will look at school-based programmes on domestic abuse and other key areas. I am committed to helping work with the DFE on those matters.

West Essex and Harlow have seen some extreme examples of appalling abusive behaviour in intimate relationships. The local area is to be commended for its efforts to learn lessons from individual tragedies and strive for improvements in the services offered to victims of domestic abuse. Through our violence against women and girls action plan, which will be updated and relaunched in a few days’ time, this Government has made significant strides towards a better reality for victims of domestic abuse.

We know that there is still much to do, and our refreshed action plan will capture that and outline the steps we will take to deliver further improvements. I look forward to working with local areas to ensure that actions identified by HMIC are driven forward. I will update Parliament, of course, on our continued progress in tackling domestic violence in the coming months, and I assure my hon. Friend and Parliament that this remains very much a priority for the Home Office, and for the Government as a whole.

Dr William McCrea (in the Chair): I would like to thank the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and the Minister for the sensitive manner in which they debated this important issue of domestic violence. We now move to the debate on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs inquiry centre closures. It is a pleasure to call Ian Lavery.

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HMRC Inquiry Centre Closures

4.28 pm

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. This debate focuses on the Government’s proposals to close all HMRC inquiry centres in the UK. Inquiry centres provide a vital public service, allowing taxpayers to access free expert advice from highly skilled HMRC staff. In 2012, some 2.5 million people visited those offices, where they could take advantage of free phone and internet access, and 340,885 of those customers made a face-to-face appointment to get help complying with their tax duties and receive advice on their benefit entitlement.

Last month, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs announced that a “needs enhanced support” service model would be rolled out, resulting in the closure of all 281 HMRC offices by the end of June 2014. The taxpayers most likely to be prevented from accessing the proposed new service as a result of the cost are the unemployed, those on low incomes such as migrant workers and pensioners, and child benefit and child tax credit claimants. Such taxpayers rely heavily on the free service currently provided by HMRC staff at inquiry centres.

The closures will also put the 1,300 jobs of those who work in the centres at risk as a result of compulsory redundancies. Staff in the offices are faced with an impossible decision about their future as the Department rushes to implement the closure of the offices in four short months.

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): I apologise for coming in to the Chamber a few minutes late. My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. One of the offices affected is in Leicester, where a number of staff jobs are now at risk. Does he agree that the Government must put in the time to negotiate properly with the workplace unions, particularly the Public and Commercial Services Union, and do all they can to ensure that if they insist on closing the offices—although I hope they do not—the staff will be redeployed?

Ian Lavery: I fully agree, and I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that closing 280-odd offices—the service is provided up and down the country—will cause huge problems, mainly for people who are least well off but also, of course, for the staff themselves.

Graeme Morrice (Livingston) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He will be aware that my constituency has an inquiry centre due for closure. I have been approached by constituents and members of PCS expressing concerns related to job losses and the impact that they could have on members of the public, particularly the most vulnerable. Does he agree that if the Government are serious about addressing the problem of underpaid and undercollected tax, the proposed closure programme is the wrong way to go about it?

Ian Lavery: I agree that the Government are going about it in entirely the wrong way. PCS, the union representing the HMRC workers, has agreed with HMRC that all members should have the opportunity for a formal one-to-one to help them consider their options.

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However, HMRC has withdrawn from that agreement in an attempt to pressure people into making decisions without information about applying for jobs and voluntary exits. That shows contempt for staff and puts huge pressure on people to leave by demoralising the work force.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I have four constituents who work at the Aberystwyth office and who will be affected in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. Before he moves on from customer service, does he agree that there are particular concerns about how the new service, in so far as it is a new service, will be delivered in rural areas? Access will be denied to many of our constituents by virtue of the fact that huge tracts, in my case of rural west Wales, will be covered by a diminished service, and arguably a more costly one.

Ian Lavery: I will certainly come to that later in my speech. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point.

I am fairly positive that the Minister—perhaps he can indicate that this is the case—met PCS representatives this morning.

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke) indicated assent.

Ian Lavery: The Minister nods positively. I am pleased: perhaps he can assure me that support will be given to staff who are uncertain about their future and that compulsory redundancies will not be made.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): We are all grateful that the Minister met the union, but let us be clear: he met the union only after this debate was announced. There has not been full transparency in the sharing of information with the union by management about the various options going forward. The Government introduce changes, but it is best to do so in a negotiated way rather than by imposing them, as this management seems to have done.

Ian Lavery: Again, I thank my hon. Friend for a positive intervention.

The pilot scheme has been rolled out not just in my constituency, but in my region—the north-east area. In June last year, 13 offices in the north-east of England were closed, including Royal Sovereign house in my constituency, in Morpeth. They were closed as part of a pilot of the new needs-enhanced support service model. If the closures of all 281 offices throughout the UK go as planned in June, I hope that HMRC does a better job of letting the public know than it did in our region last year.

I have heard examples of people travelling miles, only to find their local office no longer open to the public. In one prime example, an 85-year-old man used two buses to get to Scarborough, only to find the inquiry centre closed. Staff were actively prevented from assisting him: I repeat that they were actively prevented from assisting an 85-year-old gentleman. Another member of the public was trapped inside Gilbridge house in Sunderland, while trying to look for the inquiry centre, which had been closed. Many taxpayers decided to travel outside the region to inquiry centres that were still open, just so they could get face-to-face advice.

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A recently widowed elderly woman turned up at Gilbridge house office for assistance with a tax form she needed to complete on behalf of her late husband. She told a member of HMRC staff that she simply did not feel that she could discuss her affairs over the phone, that she was afraid of completing it herself, just in case she did anything wrong, and that she could not grieve properly while she had this worry on her mind. I use this specific example, because staff are particularly concerned about the prospect of mainly older customers getting the support they need to complete the R27 form over the telephone, as these appointments need time. They not only need time; they need empathy, understanding and a common touch. It is common for staff, so they tell me, to keep a box of tissues handy on their desk for such occasions. It is hard to see how this kind of personal service can be replaced over the phone or on the internet. What assurances can the Minister give that such people, who will be in a particularly vulnerable state, will not be disadvantaged by the new service?

There are also problems involving equality issues. It is clear that the pilot scheme could not possibly identify the equality impacts on customers and staff, due to the demographics of our north-east region. For example, migrant workers make up 25% of all inquiry centre customers. However, the percentage of these customers is much lower in the north-east of England than it would be in other regions, such as London, which is a prime example. The consultation carried out by HMRC last year did not present equality data about customers. The document was not produced in different languages, which is of particular concern considering the high number of migrant workers who use the service. Only 11% of staff work part time in the north-east, compared with a national average of 36%. For example, 45% of workers in Wales and Scotland work part time. Only 7% of staff declared a disability in the north-east, compared with 27% based in Wales. Some 30% of inquiry centre staff in London and south-east are black, Asian and minority ethnic, compared with just 2% in the pilot area. How can the pilot area possibly identify the equality impact these closures will have on the country as a whole?

It is also worth mentioning, while considering the equality implications of this decision, that in October 2013 three appellants supported by the Low Incomes tax Reform Group won their appeal against the HMRC’s requirement that they must file their VAT returns online. A tax tribunal found that HMRC’s regulations that required online filing of VAT returns without providing exemptions for older people or disabled people, many of whom live in parts of the country that are too remote for broadband access, breached the appellants’ human rights and were unlawful in EU law.

If we consider the intervention of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), it is important that ordinary people can access those services. It does not matter whether those people live in London or in rural areas where access is extremely difficult. It was identified early in the pilot that a significant number of customers will not be able to call contact centres or interact with the website owing to the cost and low mobile or internet access in many parts of the UK. The taxpayers who are most likely to be prevented from accessing the proposed new service owing to the cost are the most vulnerable members of society. They are not able to afford a

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landline or a mobile telephone, and even if they own a mobile telephone it is often on a pay-as-you-go facility with a minimum amount of credit reserved for emergency calls only. Those taxpayers include the unemployed, people on low incomes, migrant workers, pensioners, people on child benefit and child tax credit claimants. Those taxpayers rely heavily on the free service that is currently provided by our inquiry centre network because their tax queries are often complex.

Low earners, for example, often work in multiple jobs to provide for their family, which means that the tax code is often incorrect. They visit the HMRC inquiry centres to use the free phones and free internet facilities or to receive face-to-face support and advice. HMRC agreed that an alternative access solution needed to be found if the new model was to be rolled out nationally. It is therefore concerning that the decision to move to the new service model and to close the inquiry centres has been made despite HMRC not having found those solutions.

Can the Minister reassure me that solutions have been found? If not, why has a decision been made without the Department having been able to resolve those important issues? Even in areas that have decent mobile phone coverage, taxpayers need to be reassured that contact centres will be sufficiently staffed to handle their calls. If the closures go ahead, people will no longer be able to walk into their local inquiry centre and receive face-to-face assistance on tax issues that are often complex. Instead, they will have to call a contact centre. A member of staff will then vet them and determine whether to refer them to another adviser. Only if that two-tier adviser deems it appropriate will a taxpayer classed as needing enhanced support be given access to face-to-face advice. Call handling levels have consistently been criticised by the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office. There are figures that prove conclusively that people will find it extremely difficult to contact the centres.

The fact that we are removing HMRC offices from local communities is one of the most important issues. HMRC is effectively moving its presence away from people who are supposed to pay, which will make closing the tax gap even harder. It will make tax compliance more difficult, both for those who want to comply but cannot get access to the information they need and for those who intentionally want to slip under the radar because they are disengaged with the tax authority at a local level. Those concerns have been raised by a large number of stakeholders in the public consultation exercise, including by the Association of Taxation Technicians, Citizens Advice, Gingerbread, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, Lancaster city council, Milton Keynes council, TaxAid and a number of individual taxpayers. What work has HMRC done to estimate the amount of money that could be lost in uncollected tax owing to large numbers of taxpayers being prevented from engaging with the Department?

I conclude simply by asking the Minister to reconsider the decision to close the offices. There is a real danger that if the plans go ahead, some of the most vulnerable people in society will lose their access to HMRC’s services. Hundreds of quality jobs will be lost, and the Government’s attempts to tackle the tax gap will be

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seriously set back. It would surely benefit society and the economy if the Government would concentrate on closing the tax gap, not tax offices.

4.45 pm

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on securing this debate and putting across his points with characteristic clarity and force. Although I can understand his and other Members’ concerns about the new HMRC service, particularly the plans to close its network of inquiry centres, I hope to provide reassurance that the changes will in fact provide better support to customers who require extra help to get their taxes and payments right. I want to focus on three areas: the impact on HMRC staff, whether there will be continued provision of face-to-face service and what the changes will really mean for those who currently use the inquiry centres.

First, let me begin, as the hon. Member for Wansbeck did, with the impact of the proposals on existing HMRC staff. Members will be aware that HMRC has recently written to all MPs about the introduction of the new service. That letter includes confirmation, which I would like to stress again today, that the plans are no reflection on the dedication and commitment of the 1,300 staff working in the inquiry centres. It is simply the case that HMRC can better support customers if it uses its money and staff in other ways.

Since the original consultation on the proposed new service began last year, HMRC has been discussing the impact of the changes with staff in inquiry centres and trade unions. As the hon. Member for Wansbeck pointed out, I met PCS representatives this morning to discuss the changes. Staff have been advised of the options and support available to them, dependent on their personal circumstances. The options include opportunities to apply for one of 450 roles in the new service.

A voluntary exit scheme has been opened for inquiry centre staff who wish to leave the Department on favourable terms, and HMRC has good reason to expect that a significant number will take the option to leave and pursue their futures elsewhere. HMRC will also, of course, do everything possible to redeploy as many staff as possible within HMRC or to help them to find other roles within the civil service. For those who go into the redeployment pool, the offer of a one-to-one meeting is still in place—it has certainly not been withdrawn.

It is worth bearing in mind HMRC’s history as an employer. It has reduced in size significantly over the past nine years, but there have been only 35 compulsory redundancies. Although I cannot provide any guarantees that there will be no such redundancies, HMRC’s record in avoiding such eventualities is strong.

Secondly, I would like to address the concerns of those who have suggested that the closure of the inquiry centres marks the end of HMRC’s dedicated face-to-face advisory service. Let me reassure them that that is definitely not the case. A face-to-face service is about people; it is not about bricks and mortar. What is important is that HMRC provides an accessible and flexible face-to-face service that meets the needs of customers. Such a service is at the heart of the new system, which will provide face-to-face meetings where

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that is most convenient to customers. Today’s customers increasingly want to access services online, by phone and face to face when they need them. That is what the new service will focus on providing.

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

Mr Gauke: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who has just arrived.

Grahame M. Morris: I apologise for being late; I have been tied up in a Committee. The Minister mentions the responsibility to maintain customer services. Does he feel that it is sufficient merely to put posters in the windows of the offices that have closed? Is that sufficient notice to give the public, particularly when the feedback from the pilots was that that was not an effective method of communicating with the public?

Mr Gauke: It is important that HMRC communicates the closure of inquiry centres. It has written to all Members of Parliament on the matter and will take other steps to ensure that our constituents are aware of the changes.

Inquiry centres are not universally distributed across the country, and large parts of the UK are not even served by them. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who is no longer in his place, raised the position of rural areas. Rural areas do not tend to be well served by inquiry centres at present. There has been a sharp decline in the use of inquiry centres. Visitor numbers have halved from more than 5 million in 2005-06 to just over 2 million in 2012-13, and the number of face-to-face appointments also dropped by four fifths to 140,000 last year.

Ian Lavery: Is it not the case that individuals who wish to have a face-to-face meeting will be vetted on the telephone, and then someone will adjudicate whether they need one?

Mr Gauke: I will turn to how the new service will work in a moment, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me. HMRC’s in-depth research further revealed that nine out of 10 of those who visited an inquiry centre last year did not require a face-to-face appointment and would have been able to resolve their queries through a phone call or by visiting the HMRC website.

Ian Lavery: On that point, will the Minister give way again?

Mr Gauke: I am keen to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I will give way.

Ian Lavery: Where on earth did that information come from? Surely, people who wanted a face-to-face meeting had one and thought it beneficial. Where do the statistics that the Minister has just mentioned come from?

Mr Gauke: They are the result of research undertaken by HMRC. Matters can often be resolved over the telephone rather than in a face-to-face meeting. The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted a case in which an 85-year-old gentleman caught two buses to attend an

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inquiry centre. If it is possible to drive that service more easily over the telephone, so be it, but there are circumstances in which a face-to-face meeting will be appropriate, so that will be provided.

HMRC’s research has highlighted that up to 1.5 million customers need extra help with their tax and benefits affairs. Many of them need help only for a specific event in their lives, such as when they approach retirement. Others may have low literacy skills, or a mental health condition may make it difficult for them to cope with their affairs. The new, more accessible service will be tailored to the needs of customers who require extra help. Specialist help will be provided over the telephone by extra support advisers who have the time, skills, knowledge and empathy to handle customers’ inquiries at a pace that suits them, and who can identify when a customer needs extra help. If a customer’s query cannot be dealt with over the phone, they can arrange a face-to-face meeting with a team of mobile advisers based across the United Kingdom. Such meetings can be arranged at a time and place convenient to the customer, and extra help will be delivered through HMRC’s voluntary and community sector partners who have been provided with extra funding so that they can support more customers and refer them directly to the new service.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): The Minister says that the service will be more accessible, but can he guarantee that? More than 280 offices will be closed. It is very difficult for the ordinary man and woman in the street to see how the service will be more accessible than it is now. I am sure that he will use the phrase, “Taking the service to the people, rather than people coming to bricks and mortar.” The advantage of bricks and mortar is that it cannot be closed down or moved. Services that go into the community can disappear: lorries, vans or whatever vehicles are used for mobile services can disappear.

Mr Gauke: The point I was making is that, yes, 281 inquiry centres are being closed, but there will be something like 350 venues that will be used for face-to-face meetings under the new regime. HMRC fully acknowledges that there is a need to deal with those people who require enhanced support and face-to-face meetings. It has been clear about that.

John McDonnell: The problem with call centres is that in order to secure a face-to-face meeting, someone has to get through on the phone. At the moment, the Public Accounts Committee has set HMRC a performance target of 90% of calls for 2013-14, but performance, as at December 2013, was 76.2%. So HMRC is significantly failing its existing call centre targets already.

Mr Gauke: It is worth making the point that HMRC has recently gone through one of the biggest peaks for telephone calls during the year, which is the self-assessment deadline at the end of January, and it met the 90% target even on the last day of January, so there is some progress in terms of HMRC’s contact centre performance.

In the time that I have available, I will turn to the consultation and pilots. As many hon. Members will be aware, in developing and refining the new service, HMRC undertook a wide-ranging consultation on its proposals last year. It also piloted the new service in the north-east of England from June to December 2013, closing 13 inquiry

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centres including, as we have heard, the Morpeth inquiry centre in the constituency of the hon. Member for Wansbeck, so as to run the live trial. Feedback from customers and staff has helped to shape the service that will now be rolled out nationally, which includes introducing alternative routes for deaf, hard-of-hearing and speech-impaired customers to contact HMRC online, and making it easier for a friend or family member to contact HMRC on behalf of a customer to arrange a face-to-face appointment.

Customers who have used the new service have liked it. Independent research has shown that the new service has delivered an improved service for customers who need extra help, compared with their previous experiences with HMRC. Some calls, particularly those about tax credits, can also be handled effectively by HMRC’s contact centre advisers. I know that concerns have been raised about the ability of contact centres to cope with the increased demand, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said. However, as I

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have said, even in the self-assessment tax return peak in January, HMRC handled almost nine out of 10 calls first time.

I conclude by reassuring hon. Members that HMRC is making these changes for two main reasons: first, to better meet the needs of those 1.5 million customers who need more help with their tax and benefits; and, secondly, to ensure that the services it provides represent the best value for money for taxpayers. Many inquiry centre staff will have the opportunity to apply for roles in the new service; many others will choose to leave HMRC through a voluntary exit scheme, or will seek redeployment to other roles within HMRC or in other Government Departments. In short, HMRC is doing the right thing for its customers and for the country, and as a responsible employer it is treating its staff with consideration and respect as it implements this important new service.

Question put and agreed to.

4.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.