“a funky ethical Fairtrade store specialising in alternative…Fairtrade fashion…All influenced by Fairtrade practices”.

Yet that is where legal highs are readily and easily available. It shows how the issue has moved on.

My constituent also drew my attention to the way in which chemists who manufacture the product stay one step ahead of legislators. The Minister has I think described this as a “race with chemists”, and I am sure that he will discuss how society can start to win that race. After becoming aware of the situation their son was in, my constituents looked for support in the usual places. They went to the health service and looked at what was available through education. Much as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South found, support was lacking, absent or inadequate.

My constituent believes that much of the problem is that the people who use the products do not see themselves as victims in the way that the users of more conventional illegal drugs do. They are enjoying what they see as a recreational product and are often completely unaware of the dangers, or of deaths such as those we have heard about. They do not understand where use of the products may take them, and as a consequence they do not present themselves at more conventional drug treatment centres.

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): Is my hon. Friend concerned to hear that a constituent of mine who wrote to me on this issue said that it says on product labels, “not fit for human consumption”? No one seems to read that. People who are not users who go into the shop in Newton Abbot are horrified at the risk to their children.

Mark Pawsey: It is part of youth’s belief in its invincibility. People take those products, believing that because they are young, their bodies are resistant, and they can deal with those things without a massively detrimental effect. How wrong can they be?

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Another issue is the use of the term “legal high”, and the conclusions that it leads people to. If something is legal, they think it will perhaps do them no harm. If it is legal, why should they not do it? What should prevent them? The long and the short of it is that my constituent, frustrated at the lack of support available to his son, and concerned about others who might be dragged into using those products, identified a gap. He answered the question “What can be done about it?” by doing something himself: he set up his own company offering education and harm reduction advice. He set up five programmes, the first of which is called Legal Highs Game Over. It is a national awareness and harm reduction campaign targeting social media. It has a YouTube video and Facebook page, it is on Twitter, and there are posters. It addresses exactly the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South made about where young people now get advice and information.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about education and the role of the media. Does he agree that the media have a key role in making people aware of the dangers of such substances? My local paper, the Medway Messenger, ran a campaign on the effect and consequences of such highs, and other papers should do the same, to make people aware.

Mark Pawsey: My hon. Friend is right—we need to raise awareness; but we should not use the term “legal high” when we do so. In this place, and in all work that is done on the matter, we need to start using the term “new psychoactive substances” rather than an expression that includes the word “legal”.

Mr Buckland: I appreciate my hon. Friend’s valiant attempt, but I worry that that is a bit of a mouthful. I prefer the term “chemical high”, which sums up where we are and does not place undue emphasis on the word “legal”.

Mark Pawsey: I am more than happy to adopt the expression used by my hon. Friend. The issue that I am raising is the use of the word “legal”; we must get away from using it when we talk about the issue.

Toby Perkins: I do not want to engage in a debate entirely about semantics, but would the hon. Gentleman consider that the very fact that we allow products to continue to be legal when they kill people is shaming to us all? Should not that prick our consciences, because we have failed to take the action we should to make them illegal?

Mark Pawsey: That is a matter for the Minister, and it will be interesting to hear what steps the Government will take.

The second of my constituent’s projects is Street Aware, a programme of targeted drugs education in schools that draws attention to the danger of substance misuse. The third is called Times Up and it is about issues to do with substance misuse in criminal justice settings such as police custody suites, probation hostels and custodial institutions. My constituent draws attention to the use of such products in the night-time economy, with a project called Last Orders, dealing with their use in conjunction with alcohol. I think that there is a sense

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among young people that it is fairly normal to use them while out drinking, particularly given that the products in question are not illegal. Finally, Health Call is a health-based drug and alcohol education and awareness programme, designed for health services, so that health professionals who come across people who exhibit behavioural difficulties can identify whether the products we are concerned with have been used. I hope that the work of my constituent will improve understanding, and that the Minister will support his initiatives.

3.26 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I appreciate having had the opportunity to go the Backbench Business Committee, Mr Chope, to put my request for a debate on another subject, and the opportunity to participate in this debate as well.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on bringing the matter forward for debate. He said something that we can all support, which is that the issue exists in all our constituencies. My position on drugs and substances has always been clear and the issue of legal highs gravely concerns me. Urgent action needs to be taken and legislation is needed to stop young people being sold those dangerous substances from corner shops. It is outrageous that such harmful substances are so easily accessible to the vulnerable. Deaths from legal highs, which can be sold freely as long as they are labelled “not suitable for human consumption”, have jumped from 10 in 2009 to at least 68 in 2012, according to Britain’s national programme on substance abuse deaths. If any argument is needed, surely those figures are testament enough to how urgently action needs to be taken by the Government.

In fact, just a few days ago, on 27 June, two addicts passed out in a public toilet in Somerset after injecting themselves with legal highs. As if that was not bad enough, the toilets were close to a park that is full of children and adults during busy lunch times. I believe that the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) mentioned examples of such incidents happening in the day time. That has a detrimental effect on shopping, and on the activities of children and families. No arrests were made because the substances were not illegal. Where, then, are the deterrents? Perhaps the Minister can tell us what they are. Those are not the kind of scenes that we want our children to be subjected to; we do not want them to grow up thinking that such behaviour is normal and, furthermore, that it is okay to take such substances because they are not illegal. Clearly, although they are not illegal, they are still having harmful effects, and can lead to death.

I was pleased to hear that Glastonbury festival, which has been much in the news in the past week, has, along with several other festivals this year, taken steps to ban legal highs. That was done through the Association of Independent Festivals, which co-ordinates the campaign “Don’t be in the Dark About Legal Highs”. There is concern at every level about what legal highs do. If festivals are campaigning and showing their concern, the Government and the Minister’s response should reflect that.

Two or three months ago, I was on a Delegated Legislation Committee on legal highs. I supported Government policy at the time, as did the Labour party,

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but unfortunately it was not supported by the Lib Dems on the Committee. However, the majority of Members of Parliament supported the legislative change that was coming in.

It is fantastic to see such influential festivals getting involved in the campaign to rid our country of these potentially fatal substances, but more is required. Ian Rodin, a consultant psychiatrist and part of Glastonbury’s medical team, has pointed out:

“The problem with legal highs is people had assumed that if they were harmful they would be illegal, so people haven’t exercised the same caution as they would with an illegal drug.”

That is a clear policy direction from those involved in that and other festivals. They recognise the problem and are doing what they can to address it where they have responsibility. I understand that it is difficult for the Government to legislate against legal highs, given the nature of the substances and their ability to change quickly as new ones appear, but we must encourage and support community groups and police officers in tackling the problem.

I was delighted to see that mephedrone, once a legal high that was widely available and that caused grave concerns to parents in my constituency, has been made illegal. Unfortunately, whenever a substance is made illegal, other legal highs come in to take their place. There must be a policy like the one in the States to which the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) referred, which seems to take all that in. Maybe that is what we need to consider. We must be able to adapt to any other legal highs that suddenly come on the market.

The decision on mephedrone is certainly a step in the right direction. I hope that a similar decision will be made on AMT, a drug that appeared in the 1960s but that has been on the rise as a legal high across the United Kingdom in the past year or so. AMT can make users feel upbeat and excited. However, like all drugs, legal or illegal, it can cause hallucinations that can lead to paranoia, reduced inhibitions and, in turn, serious injury or even death. My greatest concern is that AMT is active in very small doses, meaning that it is all too easy to overdose. How can we allow that legal high to remain on the market? Again, perhaps the Minister will give us some indication of what is happening. A teenager from Southampton, Adam Hunt, died last year after taking AMT at his home, yet the drug is still available across the United Kingdom, even though it has been shown to have detrimental effects. Surely the loss of that young man’s life should be evidence enough that the drug needs to be banned.

According to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, AMT acts in the same way as LSD, and the council has called for it to be made a class A substance. Given the increasing number of young people having serious and, in some cases, fatal responses to such substances, that request must be met urgently. The ACMD agrees that along with AMT, another group of chemicals known as tryptamines, which includes 5-MeO-DALT, known as “rock star” or “green beans”, must be banned as well, as they are highly potent drugs that have become increasingly available over the past few months.

Just this morning, as I was on my way to Westminster to participate in business here today and tomorrow, I saw that my local paper, the Belfast Telegraph, carried a

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story, which I showed to the hon. Member for Chesterfield before this debate, with the headline, “Legal drug is linked to 19 deaths, inquest told”. The article reads:

“A drug involved in the deaths of 19 people in Northern Ireland is still unregulated, meaning it is legal to buy, sell and use…Forensic scientist Simon Cosby told Coroner James Kitson that there was very little known about 4,4”—

I will not say the next word, because I will probably get it all wrong, but it has about 20 letters—

“because it was a relatively new drug, and it is still not covered by legislation, therefore it is not illegal, and had been linked to 18 other deaths”

in the Province. Again, given that there have been so many deaths and there is so great an impact on communities not only across Northern Ireland but across the whole United Kingdom, we must do something fairly drastic to address the issue of legal highs.

We must be aware that although such substances might be considered legal, they often contain one or more chemicals that it is illegal to possess. Furthermore, the majority of legal highs have not been used in drugs for human consumption, so they have not been tested to ensure that they are in fact safe. Unfortunately, due to the lack of drug testing, the long-term health effects of the drugs are virtually unknown, as is the case with many other legal highs, but given what we know about the potential short-term dangers, the overall effect cannot be good.

What worries me even more is the fact that children can buy such drugs easily and cheaply. Before mephedrone was made illegal, children in my constituency could buy it for just £5, which was well within the buying power of almost any young child in my constituency. It was of great concern to me at the time, and it still is. Not only can teenagers buy some of those substances from local shops, they can purchase them easily online, often without anyone knowing. That gives rise to the question of whether there is a greater role for parents as well, and I am sure that the Minister will say that there is. Parents have a role in being aware of what their children are doing and keeping them safe. I appreciate, as always, that it is very difficult to watch everything that children do, particularly as they get older, but I urge parents to be aware of where their kids go and what they do after school or in the evenings, and to monitor their activities online.

As legal highs become increasingly available, more young people experiment with them, which leads to peer pressure, causing even more young people to feel obliged to fit in by doing what everyone else is doing. It is important that young people have somewhere safe to hang out with their friends, whether it is a local youth centre or a sports club. At least such places give parents peace of mind, and it means that they can monitor their children’s activities to some degree.

In conclusion, I urge the Government to ensure that AMT, the legal high that I mentioned earlier, is made illegal immediately, and that the various other legal highs currently on the market, including tryptamines, are also banned. We need to rid our society of these vile substances to prevent any other illnesses or deaths of the kind described in the newspaper article I read from destroying the lives of our young people, and ultimately those of their families as well.

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3.36 pm

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I have already paid tribute to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) for securing the debate. I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) about the need for my hon. Friend the Minister to act on the recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on tryptamines. I know that he has had the report for a few weeks now; I think it was issued in the middle of June.

My hon. Friend knows of my continuing concern about AMT as a result of the tragic death of 23-year-old Christopher Scott in my constituency last year. Since that tragedy, Christopher Scott’s parents have been campaigning assiduously for the drug to be banned, and I have been working closely with them to achieve that. More than that, they, I and everybody in this room and beyond want a change of approach and culture. We want phrases such as “legal highs” consigned to the dustbin. We should be talking about “chemical highs” and reminding people that often, such drugs are mixed with already illegal substances, so they are not legal. Above all, we must emphasise that “legal” certainly does not mean “safe”.

My involvement with this issue spans my many years as a barrister prosecuting and defending in drugs cases and dealing with the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and its limitations. More latterly, as the Member of Parliament for South Swindon, I worked closely with Swindon police on an issue relating to mexxy, or methoxetamine, a so-called legal high causing severe problems to users in my community back in 2011. I thank the Government for changing the law to create temporary drug banning orders, which have now been used hundreds of times to ban such chemical substances. Mexxy was one of those substances, but as a result of the early warning system and police intelligence provided to the Home Office, the Government took action to ban it within the short period of 28 days. The supply of that drug was made unlawful, and it is now a controlled drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

The Government have therefore already taken action to keep step with the rapidly changing scenario of chemical highs, but as is clear from this debate, more needs to be done, which is why the review that my hon. Friend the Minister is conducting is so important. I echo and adopt all hon. Members’ concerns about the situation, and I commend to my hon. Friend the work of charities such as the Angelus Foundation, which have done much to highlight the issues involved with legal highs and campaign hard to influence policy makers. Here are a few ideas for the review that I commend to him. They are the product not just of my thinking and representations but of organisations such as the Angelus Foundation.

I have mentioned the US Federal Analogue Act, which I commend to my hon. Friend. The Act bans chemicals that are “substantially similar” to any controlled drug listed in the schedules if they are for human consumption. At a stroke, it deals with the problems of definitional limitation inherent in including anything in classes A, B or C under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. We clearly need a massive public awareness campaign that is national and reaches out into our schools and colleges.

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We need to reverse the legal presumption on synthetic psychoactive substances. Instead of playing whack-a-mole, we now need to make illegal the supply of such substances. That could be done by making it a civil offence to sell them, with clear exemptions for alcohol, tobacco, medicines and some specified consumer products. Any establishment selling banned substances could be issued with an order, and any breach would be a criminal offence with penalties attached. That is one idea.

Another idea is to make the misrepresentation and mislabelling of substances an offence. The sale of products that are clearly for human consumption but are labelled the opposite should be treated as a criminal offence. Let us use civil orders to target head shops both online and offline—I must make the point that 80% of chemical high sales take place online. We must acknowledge that the internet is a real problem and a real challenge when it comes to this issue.

We could allow injunctions to be issued to head shops and websites that seek to sell chemical highs, and then we could treat breaches as a criminal offence. The attraction of using a civil approach, of course, would be that the balance of probability test would apply, as opposed to the higher criminal standard. To draw an analogy with consumer law and trading standards law, we could then apply a series of presumptions, meaning that defences would be limited. That is already done under legislation such as the Food Safety Act 1990 and the Consumer Protection Acts of the 1990s. I myself have cited those Acts in prosecutions, and they are entirely human rights compatible if anybody is worried about burdens and standards of proof. We could boost the penalties for regulatory offences, because we are dealing with products that kill people—plain and simple.

We also need to look at some of the existing legislation that is underused. There is section 222 of the Local Government Act 1972, which allows local government to take any proceedings

“for the promotion or protection of the interests of the inhabitants of their area”.

I know that there are pressures on trading standards authorities. They have limited resources; local government is under the cosh, as we all know. However, that approach should be part of my hon. Friend the Minister’s review. We should also have a look at part III of the Enterprise Act 2002 (Part 8 Domestic Infringements) Order 2003, which provides that a breach of one or two of the general rules of law contained in it will be a domestic infringement. Those laws are:

“An act done or omission made in breach of contract for the supply of goods or services to a consumer”


“An act done or omission made in breach of a duty of care owed to a consumer under the law of tort or delict of negligence”.

In other words, there is a general power that could deal with the sale of dangerous substances such as the ones we are discussing. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to review those existing pieces of legislation, to see whether they could be used as a basis for stronger concerted action.

The National Crime Agency should assist in tackling websites that sell legal highs. There is some important work going on with extreme pornography; the NCA

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could take a similar approach in relation to legal highs. Leadership from local authorities is, as I have already alluded to, also absolutely essential.

We have done enough hand-wringing on this issue; we now need action. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is absolutely committed to seeing the sort of changes that we all want, and I look to him for leadership and the sense of purpose that I know he shares with me.

3.43 pm

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Chope, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on securing this debate on a very important issue. In his opening remarks, he set out the situation that we find ourselves in today and the specific problems that he has identified in his own constituency. I listened to his account of what is going on in and around the Reefer store, and it sounds absolutely dreadful. Also, his account of the effects of the substance called Clockwork Orange was particularly concerning. I had a quick look in my own local paper, the Hull Daily Mail, which recently ran a story about Clockwork Orange. The headline was:

“How £10 clockwork orange ‘legal high’ turned caring mum into deranged Longhill attacker.”

Clearly, that kind of substance is available all around the country and are causing problems for all sorts of communities.

I was also very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who is not in his place at the moment, was able to contribute to the debate, because I know that he is particularly interested in the issue. He hit the nail on the head about the importance of cross-Government working. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) spoke with great passion about the action that is needed now. He made two interesting suggestions: one was about the seizures that could take place at the ports, and the other was about putting the onus on sellers to show that what they are purporting to be bath salts really are bath salts and are not to be consumed.

Many Members across the country have seen a proliferation in the number of head shops opening in the high streets in their constituencies, and we know that those shops are selling dangerous drugs. Obviously, the correct term is “new psychoactive substances”. However, I take the point that the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) made that that term is a bit of a mouthful. His idea of calling them “chemical highs” has some merit, because the problem with them being called “legal highs” is that it causes young people, in particular, to view them as being absolutely fine and safe to take.

We know that there is widespread concern among parents and communities about legal highs. Many Members have spoken today about particular cases in their own constituencies. The hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) spoke about what was happening in her area, and the hon. Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) talked about their areas. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised the important issue of legal highs being used at festivals, which at this time of year is quite an important issue to try to address.

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All this activity has been going on for some time, but the Government have been very slow in coming to the table to sort it out. There is now genuinely a call for action from all parties in the House, and the Government need to do something. It was not until December last year that the Minister accepted that the situation was no longer under control, and he instigated the review that has been mentioned. The Opposition have been raising the matter with the former Minister with responsibility for drugs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), and the current Minister for the past three years. During that time, the UK has become Europe’s largest market for legal highs. We now have more than 500 internet sellers and at least 100 high street shops selling hundreds of substances. We have also heard that more than 650,000 young people in the UK are thought to have taken these substances, on some occasions with tragic consequences.

We know that the problem has been growing exponentially since 2009. In that year, 24 new psychoactive substances were identified in the UK and were linked with 10 deaths, but by 2012 73 drugs had emerged, which were linked to 68 deaths. We know that last year 81 new drugs emerged. I am glad that the Government have now recognised that they can no longer ignore the problem, and although the review is three years too late, I still welcome it. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us when it will be published, so that we can see what the Government’s plans are.

There are four issues about legal highs that I want to raise with the Minister. I want to highlight them and seek assurances from him that they will be addressed in the review and its findings.

The first issue is about information. It is difficult to address a problem when we do not understand or know the full scale of it, but at present we do not have a clear recording system to identify the spread of legal highs. There is no record of those presenting at A and E with complications resulting from legal highs. We do not know how often legal highs are implicated in mental health referrals or in adolescent mental health figures. There is even confusion about the drugs that have been identified as being available in the UK, with the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which is informed by the NHS’s National Poisons Information Service, consistently publishing a much more comprehensive list of substances than the list that the Home Office has on its forensic early warning system. There is a discrepancy in the numbers. Why does the Home Office not use the National Poisons Information Service as its source of information, since its list is more comprehensive? We need a co-ordinated Government strategy. It appears that at the moment one half of Government does not know what information the other half is publishing online. That would be the first step in establishing the baseline of the problem.

Secondly, the Opposition supported the Government in introducing temporary banning orders for new psychoactive substances, but in three years that power has been used just five times, while hundreds of drugs have emerged on the market. The ACMD has been clear that it is not able to assess more than three or four drugs a year. The Minister will say that he has used generic bans to outlaw whole classes—families—of drugs, but I

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am not convinced that that has worked, as hon. Members have highlighted. We need a new approach to tackling these substances.

Thirdly, it is not just about banning the substances; we now need to tackle an entire industry that has grown up to distribute them. We have heard how head shops behave, particularly the bad example in Chesterfield. Many are deliberately targeting young people, and drugs may be marketed as bath salts or plant food, but that is a thin veneer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness indicated, people will soon recognise that mislabelling when they seek a description of the drug and information about it from those selling it.

Jim Shannon: Perhaps the hon. Lady will comment on online purchasing of legal drugs, which I mentioned. Although they are available in shops, as we all know, they are also available online and people can buy them without anyone—their parents or their family— knowing. I regard that as a matter of greater concern.

Diana Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is right. Online sale of these substances is worrying. Just this morning I read a description of a drug on pills4party.com:

“DEX powder–new generation of legal high”

produces a

“pure dose of euphoric energy and keeps you charged for all night long. DEX powder is perfect alternative to cocaine that gives you more than the Snowman Experience without any hassles.”

I am sure, Mr Chope, that you are fully aware of what the snowman experience is, although many of us find that rather baffling. That shows how these substances are being marketed for consumption by young people. Nobody can be under any illusion that they are not being marketed as recreational drugs. I have heard of internet sellers sending out free samples of new drugs that have emerged on the market. It seems to me that they are treating our children as guinea pigs.

Until a little while ago, Amazon was selling legal highs on its site, but due to work by the Angelus Foundation I think that it has removed them. Many local authorities have attempted to use trading standards legislation to close head shops down where there is a problem, but such attempts are rarely successful. Indeed, last year a prosecution was thrown out by the judge, who, although sympathetic to the need to close such shops down, said that the legislation simply was not fit for purpose.

One idea, which was used in Leeds, involved solvent legislation, but of course that applies only to selling solvents to someone who is under 18. By extending the solvents legislation, as has been done successfully in Ireland, we could give local authorities the powers they need to close head shops down. I should be grateful if the Minister said what he thought of that idea, which was proposed in an amendment tabled by the Opposition to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. The Government saw fit not to support that amendment.

I was struck by the menu of ways to tackle the problem that the hon. Member for South Swindon proposed. I hope that the Minister will respond to some of those ideas.

My final point, which I have raised in many debates, is that there should be a proper drugs prevention strategy. The lack of one is the Government’s biggest failure.

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Legal highs have emerged as a new phenomenon, and the Government have done little to tackle the myths that have allowed those substances to take hold in the past few years. Even after a number of deaths, and the horror stories that we have read about and heard about today, some people still think that “legal” means “safe”. That misconception needs to be tackled head-on.

The Minister will claim to have invested in relaunching the Frank website and even to have launched a public awareness campaign last year, but it was too little, too late. In four years, just £67,000 has been spent on a one-off, limited campaign that generated just 75,000 web page views. That is feeble, when we consider that more than 650,000 young people have tried these substances.

Mr Chope, can I just check that the time for this debate has been extended to 4.15 pm?

Mr Christopher Chope (in the Chair): For the avoidance of doubt, it continues until 4.14 pm.

Diana Johnson: I am grateful, Mr Chope. I did not want to eat into the time available to the Minister.

I pay tribute to the Angelus Foundation, which has done its best to get educational materials into schools and communities. It feels frustrated that the Government have not taken up the mantle on education in schools, in particular, which I think most hon. Members would think is important. Will the Minister talk to Public Health England, which also has a job to do in getting a message out?

A two-pronged approach is needed on prevention and education in schools, giving children the life skills they need. I know that it has been a long-standing commitment of the Liberal Democrats to have compulsory personal, social and health education in schools and, as a Liberal Democrat Minister in the coalition, I hope the Minister might be able to persuade the Education Secretary that that is a good idea.

Those are the four points that I want the Minister to address. I look forward to the review being published shortly, so that we can finally have a policy that gets to grips with this dreadful problem, which is growing and developing in all our constituencies.

3.57 pm

The Minister for Crime Prevention (Norman Baker): I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) on securing this important debate. I recognise that hon. Members in all parts of the House feel genuine concerns about these matters and, in particular, we have all had constituents contacting us with their concerns about what has happened to their families, so the hon. Gentleman is right to bring the debate before the House.

I agree with hon. Members who have expressed concern about the term “legal highs”. That is not an abstract matter; it is quite important, because, as hon. Members have said, using the word “legal” implies safety, and that is a misconception. Therefore, I am keen to get away from the term “legal highs”, and I try not to use it myself, except to disparage it. I am particularly attracted to “chemical highs”, which I have been peddling recently, but there are other options, such as “untested highs” or “danger highs”. We need to find an alternative phrase that conveys accurately the fact that these substances are not tested and not approved, and are probably not

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safe. I want to get some consensus on that, although the newspapers are attracted to the phrase “legal highs” and it is difficult to move them.

This is a global problem and no country has solved it—it is important to say that. The review process, which is under way, considered experiences in other countries to find out what works and what does not work, and why it was right to do those things. It is not fair to characterise the Government as not having done much on this matter. We have been pretty active on it, but I stress that there is no obvious silver bullet that cures all the problems that hon. Members have correctly identified.

We recognised the emergence of new psychoactive substances and the trade as serious threats from the beginning and have taken multiple and decisive actions to address them. We consulted the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to inform the action plan published in 2012 to tackle the trade from all angles. We have improved the UK’s drugs early warning system to enable real-time information sharing on emerging drugs between health and law enforcement, the advisory committee and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. We also created the Home Office forensic early warning system to detect and monitor the emergence of those substances in the UK, inform our response in legislation and provide support to the advisory committee and UK law enforcement. We have introduced temporary drug control legislation so that, together with the advisory council, we have been able to take swift action to protect the public from emerging new substances that we know have the potential to cause serious harm.

As one colleague said today, we are in a race against the chemist. The reality is, as in the rest of the world, we are chasing behind what appears on our streets, almost on a weekly basis, from chemical laboratories that are outside our jurisdiction and outside our control. We have tried to be swift in identifying substances as having appeared. More than 350 new psychoactive substances and their derivatives are now banned in the UK, mainly through our use of generic definitions banning entire families of drugs and related compounds under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Bizarrely, we have even banned substances that do not exist, because we have anticipated where the chemist will go next.

As a result, the majority—about 80%—of new psychoactive substances seen in the EU for the first time are already controlled drugs in the UK. Working with UK law enforcement, including trading standards, to support the use of existing powers to disrupt supply in our communities and online, we have seen some successes. For example, a week of concerted action last November resulted in 44 arrests and, I think, 73 seizures, including large amounts of those substances.

We have issued guidance to local authorities on the use of existing powers. I will not pretend that those powers are comprehensive and that everything that is available is all that we need, but there are powers that have been used successfully by local authorities. The General Product Safety Regulations 2005, which should not be underestimated, have been successfully deployed in Northern Ireland. There is also trading standards legislation in relation to misdescriptions. If somebody markets something as bath salts or plant food, that is a misdescription and trading standards can take action

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on that basis. That might be more difficult if something is called “research chemicals”, but if it is wilfully misdescribed action can be taken.

John Woodcock: Is the Minister still actively considering our suggestion to allow the police and trading standards officers to confiscate first and then have the legal process? If he is not, will he explain why that is not a good route to go down?

Norman Baker: I will come to the steps that are being taken, but I want to stress at this point, since the hon. Gentleman has raised it, that a process is in place. We have appointed an expert panel based on the best brains in the country from various disciplines: law enforcement, those who have knowledge of drugs, those from the health regimes, those who understand the psychiatry of those who might use drugs and so on. The panel has been charged by me with finding the best way forward to minimise harms from those substances. That is its objective. It is therefore not for me to second-guess what the panel will come up with. The clear objective is to minimise harm, and I look to the panel for recommendations. I will come to the process in a moment. It would be wrong for me to rule anything in or out until the panel has had an opportunity to reflect and take professional advice as it is doing so. No doubt the hon. Gentleman’s points will be considered by the panel, along with everything else.

Diana Johnson: Will the Minister give us a time scale for when the review will report, because time is pressing in this Parliament?

Norman Baker: Time is pressing. I have been in post since October or thereabouts. The review panel was appointed in December and has almost concluded its work. I expect to have its final report on my desk in a couple of weeks’ time. The Government will reflect on the conclusions and we will publish our intentions shortly thereafter. That is our intention. I want to get a move on. There is no intention to delay matters. However, there is also no wish to end up with bad legislation that is rushed and might have unforeseen consequences. I stress that no country in the world has cracked the issue successfully. We have to look across the world at different practices to see what might apply best to our own situation.

John Woodcock: Will the Minister give way?

Anne Marie Morris: Will the Minister give way?

Norman Baker: I want to make progress, because a lot of points have been raised, then I will try to take one or two interventions.

I want to correct a point made by the hon. Member for Chesterfield. He said that the UK is the biggest market in the EU for these substances. I believe the shadow Minister said that as well. The advice I have received from officials is that the recently published preliminary results of the 2014 Eurobarometer study show that the UK was not the biggest market. There are three countries ahead of us: Ireland, interestingly; Spain;

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and France. It does not give me great satisfaction to say that we are fourth, but, for the record, that is what the latest survey shows.

Anne Marie Morris: My question concerns labelling. There might be mechanisms to deal with incorrect labelling, but if a label states, “Not fit for human consumption”, that is almost a “get out of jail” card. How will we deal with that?

Norman Baker: As I said, the expert panel is looking at a range of matters, including descriptions and how substances are promoted and sold. If they are wilfully misdescribed—if the label states “bath salts” and the substance is not bath salts—action can be taken. If the label states, “Not fit for human consumption”, that is no doubt accurate and therefore more difficult. I assure my hon. Friend that that is not the only way into the issue.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred in complimentary terms to the action of festival organisers. I want to say for the record that I wrote to festival organisers to ask them to take that action, so if he was implying that the Government was not taking action that would not be accurate. The festival organisers responded positively to the efforts that we made in writing to them. Indeed, my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), wrote last year—successfully—and they took action as a consequence of his letter. We are taking action where we can on those important fronts.

Border Force has enhanced its capability to detect those substances—the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness made a point about ports—coming into the country with the introduction of new portable FirstDefender devices.

I absolutely take the point made by Members about prevention and education. I have given a strong steer to the expert panel that it should consider very carefully what can be done on education and prevention. I look forward to the panel’s recommendations on that particular front. Even so, in the meantime, our prevention message, especially to young people, that the products cannot be assumed to be safe has been consistent and clear. Our FRANK website messaging continues to be updated with information on the risks, consequences and harms of those substances, using the best and latest available information and advice.

We have researched user trends to inform further work on reducing demand, including online. In summer 2013, the Home Office ran targeted communications activity over the festival period to help to prevent the use of those substances and to raise awareness of their risks and harms. That was aimed at particularly 15 to 18-year-olds. With the media involved, we think that more than half of that age group got the message that we sent out last year.

There were 74,000-plus unique visitors to the campaign page on our website, and we saw an 84% increase in website traffic as a consequence. A survey of visitors to the website showed that our social marketing campaign has been effective in shifting attitudes and that a new campaign could achieve similar results, so we are planning to run similar activity again this summer.

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We have worked with the Department for Education and UK law enforcement on guidance issued to schools so that drug education includes those substances, along with other harmful drug use, but I want to see what more we can do on that front.

John Woodcock: I thank the Minister for giving way a second time. To go back to the review, when he says nothing is ruled in or out and that he is looking abroad, does that mean he has not ruled out the option of licensing head shops, which I asked him about in my speech?

Norman Baker: I want to make it plain that I am not taking the decision to rule things in or out. I have given the panel a challenge to come up with what it believes to be the best way to minimise harms. It would be an odd remit if we started telling the panel in advance what it should conclude. It has looked at the various options; none is without problems. I think the hon. Gentleman refers to the New Zealand position, where having a regulated market has caused problems. There are problems in the US with the analogue system, which is potentially becoming a lawyers’ paradise, and there are problems in Ireland, where the trade has largely gone underground.

4.09 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.23 pm

On resuming

Norman Baker: I have one more general point to make, then I want to pick up on some of the points made by Members. For the record, it is unfair and inaccurate to say that the Government has not been active in this area; we have been very active, including at the international level, with the adoption of new UN resolutions on the early identification of emerging substances, and with concerted action across our agencies. More recently, we have led the call for the international control of mephedrone. In fact, we are recognised as a world leader in dealing with that particular threat, and we have used our presidency of the G7 to deliver international action, and to promote successful engagement with source countries such as China and India on the challenges that we continue to face.

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): I support the Minister on that point. It is unfair and inaccurate to say that the Government have been doing little in this area. However, the young person who died at Glastonbury this weekend, and the one who died at the Boomtown festival in my constituency last summer, had taken ketamine, which the Government have banned. Banning things is important, but it does not necessarily protect young people.

Norman Baker: Sadly, that is true, and it is a well made point. I was horrified by the description from the hon. Member for Chesterfield of what was happening in his town. He listed some of the problems; one of the options that his council might look at is using the Government’s antisocial behaviour legislation, which has potential to deal with the consequences outside the

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shop. That is not the full answer, but it provides potential for the police and the council to come together to use existing powers.

Toby Perkins: I am happy to make that suggestion to the council. I am joined here by one of our councillors who has taken a leading role in this debate. I was going to respond to the Minister’s point about the council having a role under general product safety, and his suggestion that the enfeebled trading standards might use misdescriptions legislation. I hope that when he has finished his review—I appreciate that we have to be a bit more patient on that—we will be able to give local authorities a little more for their armoury, so that they can tackle this important issue.

Norman Baker: I hope that that is the case. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) was absolutely right to refer to the uncertainty about long-term consequences. The need to ensure that they are properly evaluated means that we should not rush into what might be the wrong answer, but should nevertheless try to ensure that we get the right answer as soon as possible. He was absolutely right to say that much more needs to be done on prevention—he said education was key, and I entirely agree. I also agree that there is a strong argument for having compulsory personal, social, health and economic education in our schools.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) listed some helpful initiatives taken in his constituency. I pay tribute to those who took that action, which was public-spirited and helpful. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) made some helpful suggestions, which I will pass on to the review panel. It has almost concluded its work, but those suggestions remain useful. I share the shadow Minister’s endorsement of and thanks to the Angelus Foundation for its superb work in the area; I am pleased to have been able to meet with people from the foundation on a number of occasions to discuss their work.

The shadow Minister referred to a number of issues, including information. I assure her that the expert panel that I have appointed has had a working group on the sharing of information and has also been identifying the need to ensure that it is shared with the health environment. We are therefore looking at information available from accident and emergency, to which she referred, and wider health service treatment. I expect recommendations in that area as part of the expert panel’s work. The hon. Lady also mentioned the National Poisons Information Service, which I assure her that the Home Office uses. The service is particularly important when we are gathering evidence for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs; it informs ACMD’s advice and, subsequently, our decision on drug control. The service is used by and valuable to the Home Office.

On the figures for deaths, Members are right to draw attention to the increase to 68. For the record, that is 4% of drug-related deaths. Sixty-eight too many have died, but we must not take our eye off the ball: a lot more deaths from drugs have to be dealt with as well, whether they involve heroin, crack cocaine or other substances. I hope that that has been a helpful response to the debate. If there are any outstanding questions, I am happy to answer them individually.

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Personal Independence Payments (Liverpool Wavertree)

4.28 pm

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Chope. I am grateful to have been granted this debate on the time taken to process personal independence payments in Liverpool, Wavertree. Concern in my constituency is significant. The cases that have been brought to my attention are appalling in their number and their nature. I am in the Chamber today to represent constituents who have come to me, some in real despair, and to ensure that their stories are heard. I am also grateful to the organisations that have contacted me to share their national experience on the issue: Macmillan Cancer Support, Citizens Advice and Mencap, to name but a few.

As the House heard yesterday, delays to personal independence payments are a problem not only for the people of Liverpool, Wavertree, but for people the length and breadth of the country, who are facing unacceptable waits before receiving money that they are entitled to and that they desperately need. PIP is a non-means-tested, non-taxable benefit available to people suffering from ill health or with a disability. It is intended to help the recipients cover the additional costs arising from their condition, whether in or out of work. Additional costs can include a taxi to the hospital, higher utility bills and equipment that is essential for independence.

PIP is replacing disability living allowance for people of working age. In February last year I opposed the Social Security (Personal Independence Payment) Regulations 2013, which legislated for the introduction of PIP, and I opposed what is now the Welfare Reform Act 2012 on Third Reading, but I am not in the Chamber to debate the ins and outs of PIP itself. I am here to highlight the ways in which the appalling handling of its introduction has brought distress, hardship and unnecessary pain to too many of my most vulnerable constituents. The debate is about individuals waiting months and months for a decision; terminally ill people being passed from pillar to post; and the sick and vulnerable being forced to use food banks, because the money that they are entitled to has not appeared. The debate is about common human decency, treating people with dignity and respect, and how the Government have failed to protect such fundamental principles.

In the limited time available, I would like to share with hon. Members some of my constituents’ appalling stories. We know that the phased introduction of PIP began back in April 2013, but six months later, in October 2013, the Department had made only 16% of the decisions it had expected to make by that time. The decision on my constituent, Mohammad Shafieian, should have been made, but was not. He originally made his claim in September 2013 and had to survive without the help he needed for eight months.

My constituent Thomas O’Donnell suffers from serious epilepsy, depression, arthritis and memory loss. He originally made his claim for PIP in August 2013. The months went on without him having an assessment, and he fell into financial difficulty. He was struggling to pay his rent and he could not afford his bills. By the time he came to me in March this year, Thomas was suicidal.

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Eight months on, he was still waiting for a decision. His epilepsy was causing him to have daily violent fits and he was surviving on just £30 a week. He did not have cooking or washing facilities in his home and he did not have any food. After months of my helping Mr O’Donnell navigate an impossible system and raising his case on the Floor of the House, he was eventually awarded the money he was entitled to, but eight months of waiting and the hardship and strain had taken a toll. His doctor confirmed that he was suffering from malnutrition. I am appalled that my constituent was suffering from malnutrition here in the United Kingdom in 2014.

Another constituent, Trudie Ann Birchall, made her claim for PIP on 20 November 2013, just after she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. The Department for Work and Pensions was aware of her diagnosis, but it took Atos five months, until 7 April, to get around to assessing her. She was told after her assessment that her claim would be decided by 5 June, but that came and went, and she had to wait almost another fortnight to be informed of her entitlement.

The Minister’s Department has said that people with terminal illness should have their applications fast-tracked and a decision made within 28 days. What concerns me is that Ms Birchall’s case is not exceptional. Since the introduction of PIP, thousands of cancer patients have been left in the dark, with at least 4,500 of them waiting six months or more to find out even whether they will be awarded the benefit.

Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who said in yesterday’s debate something along the lines that the debate is not about the philosophy of welfare reforms, but about the way it is delivered? We have all seen in our advice surgeries examples similar to those my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) is outlining. Does she agree that it is simply wrong for our constituents to pay the price of this Government’s incompetence?

Luciana Berger: I thank my hon. Friend for his emotional contribution, which highlights the challenge facing too many of our constituents who come to our constituency surgeries to highlight the process they have had to go through and the weeks and often months of waiting. That is not acceptable.

I was talking about the impact specifically on cancer patients. It is appalling that we should treat them in this way, which is why I am delighted to have secured this debate to ask the Minister to explain what he and his Department will do about it.

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Earlier this year on the Floor of the House, I raised the cases of two young women whose cases were brought to me by CLIC Sargent. They both have cancer and had been waiting seven months. One secured her PIP after my intervention. The other secured it because the Minister intervened when I raised the matter at DWP questions. The reality is that most people do not know that they can go to their MP, or that their MP can raise it with the Minister. Do we not need to sort out the system?

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Luciana Berger: I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. I am sharing with the Chamber a handful of cases on behalf of constituents who have given me permission to raise those cases. Other constituents have not given that permission because they are worried about the consequences and the impact it might have on their wait. He touches on an issue that was highlighted in a report by IFF Research, which was commissioned by Macmillan in late 2013. It investigated the impact of PIP on the financial status, standard of living and well-being of people living with cancer. It found that the majority of claimants had yet to reach an outcome and that they waited an average of just under four and a half months. A quarter of respondents in that study had been waiting at least six months.

Those delays are having a real and shattering impact on cancer patients. They mean that more than half of respondents had increased financial worries and 51% thought that the process had caused emotional strain. Two fifths were unable adequately to heat their homes and one in three thought that the delays had resulted in mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression. We are talking about some of the most seriously ill people in our communities, and I do not believe that people battling cancer should have to battle their own Government to obtain the financial support they need.

What about those who are too ill to fight for what is rightfully theirs? My constituent Tracey Lewis suffers from mental health problems and severe anxiety. She registered her claim for PIP in August 2013. She sent off her information in September and Atos confirmed receipt of it on 27 September 2013. She then heard nothing for six months—not a word. Tracey was too ill to battle against the system on her own, and only after an official complaint was made by the citizens advice bureau and I intervened was an appointment set up for her on 2 April 2014. Months down the line, Tracey is still waiting for a decision, and she is not alone.

My constituent Gillian Henderson submitted her claim in January 2014. Seven months later, she has still not had an Atos medical and still does not have a decision. Gillian suffers from severe sleep apnoea. Her disability is incurable and without the aid of her machine, which she must be hooked up to every night, she would stop breathing an average of 78 times an hour. Gillian was told by DWP a couple of months back that she would definitely be contacted for an assessment in June. It is now July, and she has still not heard anything.

Those are just some of the horrifying cases I have encountered from constituents who have given me permission to use their names and to raise their cases, but I am worried about those who have not given me that permission because they are too afraid. That is replicated in constituencies throughout the country, and it is unacceptable. Only a quarter of disabled people who have applied for PIP have had a decision. Statistics published early this month found that in the first 12 months of operation, DWP made decisions on 84,900 people who were seeking PIP. That is just under 7,000 decisions a month. DWP expects to assess 3.6 million people for PIP by 2018, but to reach that target at the current rate of 7,000 a month would take more than 42 years.

The situation does not seem to be getting better, and may be getting worse. We are now seeing delays of more than seven months for a decision, which is up from

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more than five months in December. People are facing major delays with both Atos and Capita to secure face-to-face meetings, and it is taking much too long for Atos and Capita to report back after assessments—sometimes three to five months.

The Department itself admitted in its annual report, which was published last week:

“The volume of assessments undertaken by providers on both contracts has fallen consistently below demand, with a detrimental impact on customer service and implications for forecast expenditure on sickness and disability benefits.”

The Public Accounts Committee inquiry, which reported earlier this month, also found:

“The unacceptable level of service provided has created uncertainty, stress and financial costs for claimants, and put additional financial and other pressures on disability organisations, and on other public services, that support claimants.”

The response from the Government to the distress that they have caused has been less than satisfactory. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions back in April highlighting my serious concerns about what appears to me to be a growing trend in long delays for PIP in Liverpool, Wavertree. The response I received did not commit to the action that I would have expected—in fact, it was pitiful, and it was the reason why I sought today’s debate.

I have some questions that I hope the Minister will respond to. What action is he taking to speed up all stages of the PIP process to ensure that benefit decisions are made on a timely basis? How does he plan to tackle the backlog of PIP applications that has arisen? What is he doing to ensure that his Department’s contractors provide an acceptable level of service to claimants? How does he intend to make the system easier for claimants going forward?

On behalf of Thomas, Mohammad, Trudie, Gillian and Tracey, and those who did not want their names shared with the House today, I have to say that the appalling delays that my constituents have faced, and the devastating impact that it has had on them, their families and their carers, echo a grim picture of what is going on right across the county. The chaotic handling of the PIP leaves serious questions about ministerial competence at the Department for Work and Pensions. I say that because anyone in the Chamber could need PIP in the future. I am ashamed to live in a country that is treating our most sick and vulnerable in this way. The state should be supporting people in their time of need, not making them feel worse, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister how he is going to put it right.

4.42 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mike Penning): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Chope, even if we have been somewhat delayed by proceedings in the House; I fully understand why that was. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) on securing the debate. She is joined in the Chamber by her colleagues from Liverpool, a city I have a great empathy with. I was there only a week or two ago with the mayor. He was very pleased to see me, simply because, I think, I created the cruise terminal in Liverpool, even if I did not save the coastguard station, but we cannot have everything and I did try very hard.

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I have been in this job some eight or nine months and my officials will confirm, probably by not nodding, that I am brutally honest about the problems we have with PIP. I have said time and again that the time it is taking the contractors to do the work we are asking them to do, and the time it is taking my Department to do things, is fundamentally unacceptable. I have put a series of measures in place, which I will discuss during the short time I have. If I cannot answer the specific points that the hon. Lady made, or if I forget—I am naughty in that way sometimes—I will certainly write to her with a more fulfilling set of answers.

I say at the outset that if any Member of the House has constituents who are waiting for PIP for an unacceptable length of time, then, like many colleagues in this House, they should write to me. The hon. Lady has done so, as has the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who is by her side. I cannot promise that that will resolve the situation instantaneously. I am not even certain at times that my intervention will give them the result that they want, but at least I will be aware of the situation, and we can look carefully into the detail of what has gone on. The point I want to make is that people should not be afraid. Nothing that they say to their MP, and nothing in the correspondence that comes to me, would have any effect on the speed or the decision, and that is absolutely crucial. If I put nothing else on the record today, that is very important.

I will touch on a couple of points that the hon. Lady raised, and then on the proposals. In the debate in the House yesterday, we announced how we intend to speed up PIP, and we have set specific targets for that. Thank goodness we live in a country where cancer is not, frankly, the death knell that it perhaps was when I was a young man. The fear of cancer is still there, but for so many people, cancer is curable, and they can go on to live fulfilling lives. When I am looking at decisions to be made on terminal illness, I rely enormously on the consultants and the fantastic work that Macmillan does.

I gave evidence to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions very soon after I came to this job, and it was put to me that it was taking 28 days to make a decision on PIPs for terminally ill people. I said to the Committee that that was unacceptable, and that I would like to get it under 10 days on average. I have done so. It is not the Department’s view that it should take 28 days. That is what it was taking, wrongly; it is inside 10 days now. I think we can drive that down more, particularly with the help of Macmillan and the work I have been doing with it. I do not agree with everything that Macmillan says, but on this particular issue, we work very closely together. We are working now on more technology and particularly on secure PDFs, which in the 21st century, you would think we would use much more widely in government than we do. However, secure PDFs will be used and we will get rid of some of the paper.

Someone having cancer does not, thank goodness, mean that they are terminally ill, though I fully understand the real concerns of someone who has had that diagnosis; but if the consultant or Macmillan tells us that information, under exactly the criteria that were there under the previous Administration, we click into a completely different different system so that we can get the payments out as fast as we can. The length of time that has been

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taken for a PIP is unacceptable. I am working very closely with providers and my officials at each end of the process to make sure that it is sped up, and to make sure that the contractors—both Atos and Capita—fulfil our requirements as regards quality and have enough capacity in their systems to ensure that they do that. That is something that we are working on. As I have said before, this means that I will be paying the contractors more to deliver the services that we are asking from them quicker. That has an effect on my departmental expenditure limit—I fully accept that—but the most important thing is that we get the payments to the people who deserve them and need them so much, and that people who do not need them do not get them.

Steve Rotheram: Will the Minister give way?

Mike Penning: I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind. I did not intervene on the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, so that I would have enough time, because this is a very short debate. I have to finish soon and there are some really important points I want to make. If I get towards the latter part of my comments and I have made the points I want to make, I will naturally give way to the hon. Gentleman.

We said in the Chamber yesterday that we expect that by the autumn, no one will be waiting for an assessment for more than 26 weeks and by the end of the year, we expect that to be no longer than 16 weeks. The previous Administration did not have a disability living allowance target, but we have set out that by the end of the year we expect that the waiting time for assessments will not be longer than that. That means that we are investing. We are putting people alongside the contractors from my Department, so we are shortening the journey time. Perhaps they are concerned about certain methods, or whether we can do as many paper-based assessments.

One of the biggest issues that has occurred with the PIP is that under DLA, only about 7% of people applying would ever have had a face-to-face assessment. I think we all accept that that was too low. If there is anybody in this Chamber who does not accept that, I do not understand why. What was wrong is that we went to 97% face-to-face assessments—excluding, obviously, terminal cases—and I think that was unacceptable, and we will drive that down. Within the contract agreements, we would like it to have been 75% to 25%. That was what was set by Ministers in the previous Government. I would actually like to see it much lower—I think 60% to 40% is probably about where we should be. Interestingly enough, the face-to-face assessments that were done under DLA were done by Atos; it was doing the job before, and it is doing part of the job for us now.

I did make a decision, in parts of the country, to turn off natural reassessments for DLA. Let me give the reason why. Capita is doing natural reassessments, but in the other parts of the system that are dealt with by Atos, I was very conscious of people who had no money coming in from this sort of benefit—in other words, they did not have DLA previously and were not getting PIP—and I felt that we should ensure that new claimants were dealt with quicker. I will not turn on natural reassessment of DLA payments that are being converted into PIP—unless a person’s condition deteriorates—until we have got the backlog under control and we are getting the figures that we are talking about

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now. That is very important. I do not want people with DLA to think that that will suddenly happen tomorrow, and we will be talking to them. We will not. Their payments will stay—I repeat—unless their condition deteriorates.

It is enormously important that we work as fast as we can to ensure that the assessments are done correctly and that lots of people are not worrying about appeals. That is why the decision makers look at the decisions again—natural reconsideration, as it is called. Of course, individuals have the right to appeal, but although these are the early stages, it appears that we are making decisions correctly—not in every case; some still go to appeal, but certainly nowhere near as many are going to appeal as we expected, and there are more people getting more from the PIP decision than they did under DLA.

I can give an example of that. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, alluded to some of her constituents’ conditions, particularly in relation to mental health. It was ever so difficult, if not impossible, to get the highest rate of DLA with a mental health condition; people will do so under PIP. There are people getting that now, and that is right and proper. I will move on to another issue, but I did promise to give way to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) if I thought there was time. There is time, so I will give way.

Steve Rotheram: The right hon. Gentleman prides himself on being from an ordinary working-class background, unlike many of his colleagues. Does he not understand, then, that the fundamental issue is the hardship being caused to constituents, as has been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger)? It is no good just outlining what has happened to date. The Government need to do something to tackle the issue and to alleviate the problems that people are having. These are some of the most vulnerable people that any of us will ever come across in our lives.

Mike Penning: I am not talking about what has happened. I have said that what happened in the past was unacceptable. I repeat that we expect that by the autumn no one will be waiting for assessments longer than 26 weeks, and that by the end of the year no one will be waiting longer than 16 weeks. That is not the past; that is going forward. A whole series of measures, including contract negotiations, are being dealt with to ensure that we can do that. The hon. Gentleman knows me well enough; I would not stand up and say that unless I believed that it could actually happen. I am absolutely determined, perhaps because of my background, although this is not a means-tested benefit. Everyone who is entitled to it gets it, no matter what, but I also fully accept that if someone’s income is low, this is such a desperately needed amount of money.

There is other help that can be given. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, touched on the cost of taxis to the hospital and things like that. There are financial schemes whereby we can help with that, but what really should happen is that we should get the benefits sorted as fast as possible, and the measures that we are taking now—not what we did in the past—will allow us to do what we expect to do by the autumn, and to go beyond the 26 weeks and get down to 16.

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With regard to terminal cases, we know anecdotally of some cases that are taking three to four days. On average, it is about 10 days. That means that there are still some, sadly, that take more than that. We will drive that down with technology. We can drive it down by ensuring that part 2 of the form comes back in much quicker than it did. The benefit starts from when the person makes the phone call, or someone makes the phone call on their behalf. That is unlike the old DLA, which started only when the forms arrived. However, we are still struggling to get claimants to get the forms back in as soon as possible.

There is the question of whether we can work more closely—I hope that we can—with the relevant charities and groups that are often advising claimants. There is the question of whether we can work more closely with colleagues across the House to ensure that we get the forms and the information back. That does not mean that we need tons and tons of information. Very often, we get a large amount of information in weight and size terms, when what we really need is a consultant’s letter, a GP’s letter and an explanation of the condition. The assessment is not in any way, shape or form a diagnosis; that has to be done by experts elsewhere. This is a capacity decision as to what their needs would be. I think that we can do a lot more work on that.

One area that we are looking at, for instance, is whether we can share information across different benefits. I know that the previous Administration looked at that. It is quite a complicated area, but we would think it would be common sense. If someone has the higher rate of PIP, we could see where that would link across to what their employment and support allowance would be and perhaps vice versa. It may not give us all the information, but often it would give us more information than we had before.

No Minister, of any colour or persuasion, can say that mistakes will not happen. However, I am determined that we have as few mistakes as possible. Of course, anyone, when we get the decision wrong, has the right to go to appeal, to go to the tribunals. I sat in on some of those tribunals, and one of the things I found was that we just did not have the information, sometimes, that was being presented to the tribunal. If we can deal with that, we can explain things to people much better, and not only because of our reconsideration of the claim.

With PIP, we now make phone calls directly to the claimant to explain why the decision has been made and why it is within the rules. We have found that very helpful. I have sat in on and listened to those conversations. I was in Liverpool, where those calls are made; one of the PIP centres is in Liverpool. Any of the hon. Members here today are welcome to go in and talk to the staff and listen to the calls that are being made. I think that that would be very useful to colleagues, particularly as the centre is on their doorstep. I am not saying that every claimant they would listen to would be from the same part of the world as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, or the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton, but it would be useful to go there. We have made that offer to the Front-Bench team in relation to not only this benefit but others, and I hope that it will be taken up.

I am ever so aware of the concern and the unacceptable lengths of time that the claims are taking. I am doing everything I possibly can to shorten that process, and to

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get more people having paper-based assessments. That will speed up the process. When people have a face-to-face assessment, that should be done in an environment that is helpful to them, so that we can get the decision made quicker. We have committed ourselves: we expect the length of time to be 26 weeks by the autumn and 16 weeks by Christmas. That is a position that I think we would all be very happy to be in.

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Transport Infrastructure (Essex)

4.57 pm

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting the debate.

This Government have a strong track record on infrastructure investment to support economic growth. Despite the difficult economic circumstances inherited from Labour, record amounts of funding are being spent on crucial infrastructure projects. Our railways are receiving the biggest investment since they were built in Victorian times. Superfast broadband is receiving investment so that it can be rolled out in rural areas. The Davies commission is examining options for our long-term aviation strategy. Importantly, and specific to this debate, our road network is being upgraded. I particularly welcome the recent investment from the Government in roads to address potholes. That includes the £4.4 million of new money for Essex announced last month.

That shows that this Government, with their commitment to economic growth, understand that infrastructure is not just something that public money is routinely spent on, but that it is important that available funds are spent strategically to maximise the benefits of every penny spent. That is the purpose of today’s debate, because for me, it is about making the case for strategic economic investment in infrastructure in Essex. In my view, modest infrastructure investment will yield enormous economic returns.

By way of background, Essex is a dynamic and innovative county of entrepreneurs, as the House has heard me say on several occasions. We have some 52,000 businesses, the overwhelming majority of which are small and medium-sized enterprises, which add some £30 billion in value to the UK economy. Those firms are relentless in supporting economic growth. Last year alone, they helped to create new jobs that took more than 10,000 people off benefits and returned them to work. We have world-famous brands ranging from Wilkin and Sons, Crittall Windows and Hayman, all of which export internationally. Supported by the outstanding Essex chamber of commerce, firms in Essex have added more than £300 million in export orders alone. All our businesses are desperate to export more and to do more business, but to do that, they need the right infrastructure improvements to be made. Those improvements will enable our businesses to support more jobs, growth and prosperity not only in the county, but across the country.

Those companies can lead the charge when it comes to the export-led recovery that we all speak about. I am sure, Mr Chope, you heard the Prime Minister say in the Commons Chamber a fortnight ago that

“where Essex leads, the rest of the country follows.”—[Official Report, 18 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 1113.]

For us, despite the fact that we are experiencing tremendous population growth, those demands will always be there. Our population is among the fastest growing of any area in the east of England. We must be much more strategic about our infrastructure plans, how we work with our local authorities, upgrade our housing estimates and, importantly, plan to ensure that economic investment in our roads is strategic and in the right place.

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The excellent Essex chamber of commerce, through the Essex business, transport and infrastructure forum, at which my hon. Friend the Minister has spoken, has been at the forefront of driving forward the campaign and economic arguments in favour of investment in our roads and infrastructure in Essex. The forum’s research and surveys of members have highlighted the economic costs of our outdated highways and, significantly, the cost of delays and congestion. Comments from businesses noted that some firms are losing £2,500 to £5,000 a week as a result of aggregated delays of one to two hours a week. Other firms have reported losing £50,000 a year because each employee loses an average of two hours a week as a result of congestion. One firm has summed up how much poor infrastructure is holding it back:

“Road congestion is the fundamental barrier to future growth for my business—in particular key junctions and the last mile to my premises.”

Put simply, congestion costs money, jobs and growth, so improving road infrastructure is important to our economic future because key road links provide access to important economic hubs. In Essex, those hubs are Stansted airport, Southend airport, the brilliant new DP World London Gateway port and logistics park, and other ports including Tilbury, Felixstowe and Harwich.

The infamous A120 is a vital economic corridor, and the 12-mile single carriageway stretch that runs through the north of my constituency between Marks Tey and Braintree is in need of investment. Not only has the road been identified as one of the 10 most dangerous in the country, but it is congested daily because of the single-carriageway sections. Such congestion, or gridlock, has caused several accidents, and there is a history of road fatalities. The road connects ports such as Harwich with Stansted airport and is used daily by more than 50% of the companies across Essex, particularly by freight trucks, but it is virtually at a standstill.

The previous Labour Government abandoned a proposed scheme to upgrade the A120, but I believe that we must work towards securing a new investment package to carry out the crucial upgrade works and dualling that are desperately needed. The Highways Agency route-based strategy, the South East local enterprise partnership “Growth Deal and Strategic Economic Plan” and Essex county council all support the dualling of the A120 as one of the county’s most pressing infrastructure priorities. That is because we all recognise that upgrading the A120 could add more than £1 billion to the UK economy. I hope that the Minister will give a commitment to working with the relevant public authorities, the local authorities and the Highways Agency to place the A120 in the national infrastructure plan and to develop a suitable scheme along with an investment package that will deliver the most appropriate and relevant upgrade to the A120. Ours is a country that manages to deliver major infrastructure projects such as Crossrail, on which work is still taking place, the Olympic games and many other schemes. It is time we undertook not only to dual the A120, but to look more strategically in our counties—including, of course, Essex—at our roads to ensure that the necessary improvements fast become a reality.

Other roads that need investment include the A12, which runs through the heart of my constituency and links my part of Essex to the M25 and London. The road is used by 80% of the county’s businesses, and the

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problems on it are insurmountable. They include poor road surfacing, the impact of diversions caused by shut-downs—those diversions come straight through Witham town and cause congestion and misery in my villages—and access to and from the A12 using single-carriageway roads. In my constituency, there are serious problems with traffic and congestion in Kelvedon, which is the main access from Tiptree to the A12 and the B1023. That has not been fully addressed by the route-based strategy, and I would like the Highways Agency to look again at options for the area.

In recent weeks, we have had accidents in Hatfield Peverel, and their impact on traffic and congestion on the A12 led the county council to suggest that new road markings and signage be installed. I hope that the Minister and the Highways Agency give those proposals some consideration, along with the many other proposals that have been suggested. I have written to the Minister, and he has been helpful in responding, on the question of improving road safety and reducing congestion.

Another road in the county, which is not in my constituency but is an important strategic link for businesses, is the A127. As the Southend arterial road, it connects the M25 to Basildon into Southend airport, which is experiencing tremendous growth in passenger numbers as a result of the private investment made by Southend airport. The road is being used, quite rightly, by the county’s businesses, and it is particularly useful to great exporters such as CNH UK. Essex county council and chamber of commerce have shown great initiative, and the Minister will be pleased to know that they have set up a taskforce to look at the A127. I am sure that recommendations will follow, which the Minister will be interested in considering.

The bête noire for businesses in Essex is the Dartford crossing. The Minister is well aware of my sentiments about the Dartford crossing and the daily congestion from which it suffers. I sat there on Friday night for two hours while three lanes were closed and nothing moved. That is a typical experience of the sort that many users endure daily. Delays at the crossing are causing economic chaos, which has a knock-on impact on our economy because of the business time that is lost. Congestion and the average performance reliability of the crossing are the worst of any major trunk road in the county. Regular users of the crossing experience seemingly endless delays—not of 20 or 30 minutes, but of more than an hour—and we all want action to be taken to reduce those delays. We are optimists, and we look positively towards the introduction of free flow, which we can only hope will transform the experience and get things moving. I would welcome an update from the Minister on free flow.

I would also welcome an update on the decision making timeline for the new Thames crossing, which is another important network road for my constituents and a big piece of work. Last December, option B was eliminated, and businesses are eager to know when the Government will decide whether to choose option A, which is to develop a new crossing on the existing site, or option C, which is to link the M2 near Rochester with the A13.

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and pay tribute to the work she is putting into Witham and the whole

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county. She has mentioned the congestion at the Dartford crossing. Does she understand my objections to option A, which is to have a crossing next to the existing Dartford crossing into Thurrock, because it would not provide an alternative for the motorist? We are expecting a garden city to be built in my constituency, with some 15,000 new homes; a proposal for a new Paramount theme park; and the expansion of the Bluewater shopping centre. Does she agree that an alternative for the motorist is essential, rather than simply extra capacity next to the existing crossing, which is all option A would offer?

Priti Patel: My hon. Friend makes some relevant points. We need a strategic network and we must ensure that the strategic work and planning are done in the right way so as to address the problems. We must also future-proof those routes so that they can meet future capacity needs and ease the constraints in relation to congestion. The Minister will recognise what we are saying, because improvements to the Essex-Kent road links are so vital. Of course, such improvements would act as a turbo charger for the economy in the east and south-east as a whole, but the roads are also vital links that are currently gridlocked. The lack of future-proofing of our infrastructure has caused a lot of the problems.

In addition to the roads issues that affect the county, which I could go on about, I would like to touch on some rail issues. The Minister knows that last autumn the Chancellor of the Exchequer established a rail taskforce for the great eastern main line. The taskforce, of which I am a member representing Essex, is examining the strategic improvements to infrastructure and services required to unlock the economic benefits for the east of England—estimated to be close to £4 billion—by delivering faster and more reliable rail services. Progress is being made. The new direct award franchise to 2016 will lead to the deep clean and refurbishment of rolling stock—things for which passengers have been crying out for years.

The new post-2016 long-term franchise offers a great opportunity to get a better deal for commuters. I get correspondence from railway commuters every day, and they are desperate for the upgrade and for improvements to their commuting experience. I would welcome a brief update from the Minister about the progress on that. Rail users in my constituency are deeply unhappy. We have one opportunity to get things right, so we really must do so.

I want to make two final points. The first is on aviation. We have two incredible airports in Essex, both with ambitious plans to deliver new services to access new destinations. We obviously welcome the private investment going into those airports, which are creating new jobs and new growth. I encourage the Minister to look at ways to support those hubs, because they are economic gateways for trade, exports and investment. Of course, the road links to the airports must also be fit for purpose. My plea is for the Minister to look not just at Heathrow and Gatwick, but at Essex.

My final point is about how we can work at a local level to deliver investment and take a strategic approach to infrastructure. I am not sure whether this idea has been brought to the Minister’s attention and he does not have to respond here—he could perhaps take it away and consider it—but I would like him to look at

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county-based infrastructure delivery units that could help to map out developments. That way, all infrastructure developments—not just road and rail, but broadband and access to public services—would be planned in relation to where development was taking place or housing was earmarked. Ebbsfleet is a classic example of where extensive planning and work for new homes is going to take place.

We must ensure that our local authorities have an overview and think about the wider infrastructure needs—not just of communities, but of the county—and that they look at things from an economic point of view. I wonder whether those civil servants and Ministers who work on the development of the national infrastructure plan should have some kind of oversight too. Perhaps county infrastructure requirements could be looked at in conjunction with the local enterprise partnerships so that we could effectively future-proof infrastructure for coming generations. That way, every penny spent would give us greater bang for our buck, as well as greater leverage.

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce the debate and look forward to the Minister’s response.

5.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) on securing this debate on transport infrastructure in Essex. I was in Essex only this morning visiting the Ford Motor Company’s engineering research plant, where 3,500 engineers work at the very cutting edge of technology in Essex.

Today’s debate is the second on the subject since 2012, and I praise my hon. Friend for her tenacity in continuing to highlight the importance of good transport infrastructure in building strong and sustainable local communities and a successful local economy. I am also well aware of the excellent work that she does in her role as chair of the Essex business, transport and infrastructure forum. Indeed, I remember her addressing a meeting of the forum with the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). I heard some interesting points, many of which related to issues she has raised today.

The county of Essex has a resident population of just over 1.7 million and includes the unitary authorities of Southend and Thurrock. The county is rather fortunate to have a number of key transport connections. The nationally important M11, M25, A12 and A120 run through the county, as do major regional local roads, including the A13, A127, A130 and A414. Three main rail lines radiate from London, supplemented by a number of branch lines, serving more than 55 railway stations and, of course, the London underground extends to Upminster in the south of the county. The county also contains a number of international gateways, including Stansted and Southend airports—I have visited the former—and, of course, Harwich international sea port, which provides nationally important connections to Holland and Denmark. In addition, the port of Tilbury and the new London Gateway port development fall within the area. The port of Felixstowe is also nearby in neighbouring Suffolk.

Essex has a successful economy with an entrepreneurial work force, which makes the county an attractive place to live and do business. As my hon. Friend has highlighted

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this afternoon, the Essex transport network is critical to the performance of the local economy. Reliable connectivity enables Essex residents to have good access to jobs and allows local businesses access to the marketplace. The Government recognise that, which is why transport forms part of our long-term economic plan to ensure that our country’s infrastructure is improved and reliable.

On the Government’s commitment to infrastructure investment, we have already announced increased Government funding to deliver improvements to 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 spending review statement last year. The Treasury’s Command Paper, “Investing in Britain’s future”, set out that the Government will invest more than £28 billion in enhancements and the maintenance of national and local roads. That includes £10.7 billion for major national road projects and £6 billion for the maintenance of strategic roads, including the resurfacing of 80% of the network.

In May 2012, the widening of 16 miles of the M25 between junctions 27 and 30 was completed. Junction 30 is a busy intersection of the M25 motorway with the A13 trunk road, and congestion is experienced during key parts of the day. The improvement of junction 30 of the M25 is key to the development of the wider Thames Gateway area, to facilitate future growth in housing and employment. The Prime Minister therefore announced in November 2012 that work would commence on improvements to the M25 at junction 30 in March 2015. The scheme will be able to accommodate whichever option is selected as the location of the lower Thames crossing.

To ease congestion and improve journey times at the Dartford-Thurrock river crossing, the Highways Agency is introducing Dart Charge, as we heard. Dart Charge makes greater use of technology and introduces new ways to pay the charge to use the crossing. From October 2014, the introduction of Dart Charge will remove the need for drivers to stop and pay at a barrier, helping to speed up journeys for everyone. Instead, several new ways to pay the charge will be available to customers using the crossing, including online, by phone, at certain retail outlets and by post. The introduction of Dart Charge requires significant changes to the existing road layout and infrastructure, including the removal of the plaza and payment booths to provide four open traffic lanes in each direction. The main construction works will start following the introduction of Dart Charge and are due to be completed in spring 2015. The works have been carefully planned to minimise disruption, and I plan to visit to see how the work is delivered.

The Dartford-Thurrock river crossing is a vital transport link, and the Government are committed to improving the crossing experience for the millions of people who use it every year. However, we all recognise that congestion on the crossing not only causes frustration for those who use it but has an impact on the economy. That is why the Government have made it clear that a new lower Thames crossing continues to be one of our top 40 priority projects. The Secretary of State for Transport stated last December that further advice is being obtained to assist in weighing up the relative merits of alternative location options, which are referred to as options A and C. Any decision must not be taken lightly, as we need to

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consider all the issues. That said, we hope to make a further announcement on the consideration of options A and C, and on the impact that Dart Charge may have on the existing crossing, in the very near future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Witham continues to make the case for the Government to commit funding for improvements to the Highways Agency network in Essex, and she and I met on 2 April to discuss the case for improvements to the A120.

Gareth Johnson: Before the Minister moves away from the lower Thames crossing, I welcome the planned introduction of a free-flow system, which is the most efficient and effective way to address the congestion that we have seen on the Dartford crossing since the bridge was built in 1991. I impress upon him the folly of building another Thames crossing next to the existing crossing, which is the so-called option A. If there were any difficulties on the M25, either in Essex or in Kent, they would simply lead to the same amount of congestion and possibly more congestion. Building a crossing further down the Thames estuary surely has to be the best alternative for motorists.

Mr Goodwill: My hon. Friend makes a point that my officials and I will continue to consider before a decision is made.

The Government’s national infrastructure plan sets out the details of the specific projects that the Department has committed to deliver. As part of that plan more than £28 billion is for road enhancements and maintenance. The specific schemes identified in the plan are able to be completed, or to begin construction, in the next Parliament. Proposals for improvements to the A120 east of Braintree, however, are not yet sufficiently developed to be included in the Highways Agency’s pipeline of future projects.

On future investment planning processes, my hon. Friend the Member for Witham will be aware that the Highways Agency is currently carrying out its route strategy process. Route strategies will provide a smarter approach to investment planning across 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. I will be visiting the A47 in East Anglia on Friday.

A set of strategies are being developed for the entire national road network, with the A120 being considered in the east of England route strategy. The route strategies will be delivered in two stages. The first stage identified performance issues on routes, future challenges and growth opportunities, taking full account of local priorities and aspirations. Using that evidence base, the agency established and outlined operational and investment priorities for all routes on the strategic road network. The first stage is now complete and finalised evidence reports were published on 23 April.

The second stage will use that evidence to prioritise and take forward a programme of work to identify indicative solutions that will cover operational issues, maintenance and, if appropriate, road improvement schemes to inform future investment plans. I encourage my hon. Friend and relevant local stakeholders to engage with the Highways Agency’s route strategy process. The

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Highways Agency has also committed to starting work on a number of pinch point schemes to help reduce incident-related congestion on the A12 later this year.

Investment in transport infrastructure is important not only to strategic roads but to local transport. The Department has provided £63.5 million towards the A13-A130 Sadlers Farm junction improvements, which is a local major scheme promoted by Essex county council. The scheme is helping to reduce congestion and to facilitate the delivery of planned housing and job growth envisaged for the area. The main junction works, and works to the A13, were opened to traffic in time for the Olympics in July 2012, with the remaining works being completed in January 2013.

As part of that ongoing investment, the Government also announced plans to create a local growth fund from 2015 to 2016 that will be devolved to local enterprise partnerships and will incorporate all funding for local major transport schemes, including road schemes and schemes to enhance sustainable local transport. The fund has more than £6 billion of transport funding up to 2021. To secure part of that funding, the South East local enterprise partnership, which includes Essex, Thurrock and Southend as well as Kent, Medway and East Sussex, set out its growth priorities for the area in its strategic economic plan.

The plan includes the transport infrastructure that the LEP sees as necessary to deliver that growth, such as capacity improvements to the A127 and improvements to transport in towns such as Colchester and Chelmsford. The plan was submitted to the Government at the end of March and will be used to determine the funding that the LEP will receive. The plan and its transport interventions are currently being assessed by the Government.

No funding decisions have yet been made, but we expect to announce the outcomes before the summer recess. Government funding is not just about big schemes on strategic networks. In fact, smaller-scale investment can often make a big difference to our local communities. That is why this year we have granted Essex county council, Thurrock council and Southend-on-Sea borough

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council more than £37.9 million through highways maintenance and integrated transport block grant funding to allow them to maintain their local roads and invest in local transport improvements. Since March this year, we have also provided Essex county council with a further £3.1 million to help repair roads damaged by the wet winter, and two weeks ago, we announced that the councils will receive more than £4.8 million from the pothole fund announced in this year’s Budget, which is enough to repair more than 92,000 potholes.

I have a few brief comments on rail. From 2019, passengers from as far afield as Shenfield will benefit from the £15 billion Crossrail project, which will include brand new high-capacity trains, but Essex rail passengers can also expect shorter-term improvements. As part of its recently announced direct award, Abellio Greater Anglia has committed to a range of improvements to its network. Of significant interest to my hon. Friend and the people of Essex will be the commitment to undertake an internal refresh of the mark 3 rolling stock, which includes improvements to the internal look and feel of the coaches and the installation of at-seat power points, and so on. Abellio Greater Anglia hopes to make an announcement in the near future on the timing of those improvements.

I am also delighted to highlight the Department’s recent announcement of the awarding of the new Essex Thameside franchise to National Express. Key customer benefits of the new franchise include an additional fleet of 17 brand-new trains, which will provide an additional 4,800 seats—more than 25,000 additional seats every week for morning peak-time passengers—by the end of the contract.

I will draw to a close, as we are approaching the end of our time. I once again congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I have made it clear that the Government are committed and have set out plans to improve transport infrastructure in Essex as part of our long-term economic plan.

Question put and agreed to.

5.27 pm

Sitting adjourned.