2.59 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I appreciate the opportunity to say a few words. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing the debate for us all to participate in. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), who delivered her speech eloquently despite her current impediment, and we thank her for that.

Personal independence payments are of great importance to me and my office. One member of my staff now deals with nothing else besides benefit claims, which includes claims for disability living allowance, employment and support allowance, income support and the whole raft of benefit claims. I suspect that that situation is replicated in hon. Members’ offices across the United Kingdom. Many of us have a staff member who is tasked with dealing with such matters every day, because of all those difficulties. In the few minutes that I have, I hope to illustrate the situation through the experience of my office.

We understand the reasons for the changes, and the Government have set out their stall when it comes to reducing benefits through universal payments to ensure that changes will be made. We are aware of cases of people receiving payments when it is questionable whether they qualify for them, and we understand that that issue must be tackled. However, the people whom I will speak about today are those who clearly should have the payment and are feeling the difficulties of the new system.

In the same way as DLA did, PIP helps towards some of the extra costs that arise from long-term ill-health conditions or disability, and it is based on how a person’s condition affects them rather on the condition that they have. Every time someone comes to me about the benefit, I always say that it is about the help that they need, not entirely about their illness. It is about the help that they need in the house, how the illness affects them and

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whether they need people to come in and help them. When they get their head around that, they understand the importance of explaining their condition and highlighting the symptoms or problems associated with it. Every person is different, and they are affected in different ways. The previous system fell down many times, and the new PIP system unfortunately has the potential to do likewise.

The individual assessment for PIP is much stricter than the assessment for DLA, but the aims are the same: to ensure that people with health needs or disabilities can lead an independent life, while getting some extra help along the way. The stricter measures are intended to ensure that the system cannot be abused, in view of the budget constraints we all face across the United Kingdom. The changes from DLA to PIP will involve a face-to-face consultation with an independent health professional as well as regular reviews to ensure that an individual gets the right support. I welcome the face-to-face consultation, because I hope that it will better enable assessors to determine an individual’s circumstances. I often wonder, “Have they ever met these people? Do they understand their circumstances? Do they know what it is like to be unable to move about in your own home, to have restricted movement or to be dependent on someone else to help you?” The face-to-face consultations have the potential to lead to improvement.

To receive PIP, an individual will be assessed against reliability criteria to test whether they can carry out certain activities safely, to an acceptable standard, repeatedly and in a reasonable period. I can relate so well to the words of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View. Someone may be able to walk 60 yards, but they will be in pain. Most of the people who come to me about DLA are in pain with their first step, but they endure the first 20 or 30 yards and then they have to stop. We need to have a system that adequately takes that into account. I hope that under the new system of PIP, it will be easier to ascertain and understand the problems that people are experiencing and resolve them urgently. We are having this debate because, quite honestly, the issues are not being resolved urgently; indeed, the opposite is true.

As PIP is being rolled out, some strange delays are occurring and some of the most vulnerable are not receiving any help. I want to highlight some of the delays that are affecting my constituents. First, they are anxious about their health. They become anxious about their PIP, and then they become anxious about all the other benefits that swing off that. Perhaps the Minister could give me some indication of how we can hurry or quicken the system. As a result of all the anxiety and concern that they experience, people’s health often deteriorates. They sit in an in-between world between today and tomorrow, almost hanging in space, hoping for their claims to be processed. All the time, it affects them greatly.

In February this year, only one in six people who had made a claim for PIP had received a decision. As the hon. Member for Bolton South East mentioned, the National Audit Office stated that poor early operational performance had led to long delays and uncertainty for PIP claimants. The right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said that the implementation of PIP had been

“nothing short of a fiasco”.

That reflects the opinion of many of us.

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We are not here to give the Minister a hard time, but we are here to highlight the shortcomings in the process. Many of us feel that the process is not built in such a way as to take on board the difficulties that we see our constituents facing. I am here to express those, as other hon. Members have done and others will do. Out of the 220,300 disabled people who applied for PIP during the period from 8 April 2013 to 31 December 2013, only 34,200 have received news of their claim. That is totally unacceptable, and it must be addressed.

One of the statistics associated with first-time PIP claims—those who are moving from DLA to PIP—is truly worrying. For those people, there is around an 85% chance that a final decision has not yet been made, so they are sitting in limbo waiting for everything to be sorted out. Because PIP is not counted as income, those who are eligible for PIP may also find that they are eligible for ESA, income support, jobseeker’s allowance, pension credit or housing benefit. There is a real challenge there, because housing benefit and tax credits are great benefits when they go right, but when they go wrong, they are a nightmare. Delays in PIP may mean that because someone’s income changes—they have to notify Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs of that—their housing benefit and rent payments are put on hold and their tax credits go up the creek, and they find themselves becoming increasingly anxious and concerned.

Alison Seabeck: As usual, the hon. Gentleman is giving a thoughtful speech on a serious subject. Are his constituents, like mine, having to find their way to food banks simply to feed their families in an attempt to fill those gaps?

Jim Shannon: In Newtownards, where my main constituency office is based, the food bank would say that the greatest number of referrals are of people who are on benefits, and delays in benefits compound that problem. We are all genuinely grateful to have food banks, and they have become a way of life. I have it on good authority that most of the referrals in my constituency are through my office, and I see lots of people coming into my office who are referred to food banks. We thank the Lord for the food banks and for the good work that they do, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right that food bank use is one consequence of the problems with PIP.

It was estimated that changes to mobility benefits could eventually lead to as many as 428,000 claimants losing their entitlements. Those changes have included the reduction of the requirement for claimants to be able to walk 50 metres right down to 20 metres, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View has mentioned. Unlike DLA, PIP will not have a lifetime award option. I am aware that under DLA there was the right to review a lifetime decision and that sometimes happened, but many people on lifetime awards were not reviewed, and it is a very random check to do at other times. I am concerned that there will no longer be the option to make a lifetime award. Let us be honest; if somebody has muscular dystrophy, unfortunately, they are not getting better. They are going to get worse. If somebody has severe chronic joint pain, they will not get any better. Their prognosis is for the worse. The prognosis for many such people is restricted mobility for the rest

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of their lives. That is not what they want, but it is what they are stuck with. Will the Minister, in his response, give us some indication of what he thinks about that?

I want to ask the Minister about a further issue on which I am keen to get some feedback. How many terminally ill people apply for the award—I do not have the figures, but I am asking this question to put it on the record—and how long does it take for their claims to be processed? I am aware of only two people over the years—this was under the DLA system, not PIP—whose applications were not processed quickly enough, so they passed on from this world. I am keen to hear what the Minister has to say about that.

Waiting times are not reserved for England alone—Capita Business Services Ltd is responsible for Northern Ireland, central England and Wales. Charities in Northern Ireland, such as Disability Action, have complained about the longer waiting times for assessment. Charities and my constituents are telling me that there are problems, so clearly we have to address them.

The move to PIP seems to be logical. Physically meeting a person along with a health professional is a great idea, but it is time-consuming and the waiting times make the process long and complicated. All new schemes must be put into action and tweaked to ensure they run efficiently and properly. That must happen with PIP to guarantee a smooth transition from DLA. All of us speaking today think that the delays are unacceptable and that changes must be made to the system. I hope that today’s debate will give us the opportunity to hear a positive statement from the Minister. The Government must ensure that the system is tweaked as soon as possible to bring assessment waiting times down.

I understand the reasons for the move to PIP, but I can also see the problems for the people waiting to be assessed. Elements of the system clearly need to be fixed, such as waiting times and the appeals process, which at the moment is overwhelming. I have constituents who have waited for 10 or 11 months for an appeal. That is unacceptable—it is almost a year between the start and the end of the process—but I am sure that other hon. Members have constituents who have waited longer. To say that problems are inevitable because the system is new only explains some of the issues, and it is no consolation to those who lose out. The Government must address these issues urgently. The waiting times are not fair, and improvements must be made now.

3.12 pm

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): I apologise for not being here at the outset, Mr Crausby. I was keen to be here, but as a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, I also wanted to hear the statement on universal credit to find out whether there was anything new in it.

I find it surprising that, on the one hand, the Secretary of State takes great pride in having a safe and slow roll-out of universal credit—for the past two years, we have been told that it must be safe and slow, and consequently only 17,000 people are on it after all that time; perhaps that is the right way to do things, but it seems astonishingly slow—but on the other, the Department has presided over the roll-out of personal independence payments and, for the past year and a half, has turned the initial applicants into guinea pigs for a system that was not properly piloted or tested.

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At the outset, the Select Committee was concerned that the Department’s ambitions and the speed with which it implemented the change were unrealistic. There are unresolved tensions between its desire to give people a longer and more thorough assessment than the much-criticised employment and support allowance assessments and its desire to get through a large number of people. I suspect that some of the problems encountered are due to exactly those tensions.

As a result—perhaps this is hearsay, but the Minister may have something to say about it—the number of face-to-face assessments has already been rolled back. At one point, about 85% to 90% of new applicants were given face-to-face assessments; I understand that it has fallen to 75%. That may be a good or bad thing, but it shows a lack of pre-planning. This really matters to a lot of people. Most new applicants—I will come to the reassessments in a minute—have no money to cover the particular need for which they are applying. Although the payment is backdated for successful applicants, the longer they wait, the harder it is for them.

It is important to realise how important this issue is. Although the Department has overcome its initial problems even with what are regarded as terminally ill cases, a lot of people have serious conditions that do not fit under the special rules provisions but nevertheless leave people in a difficult position. I have a constituent with motor neurone disease who was in exactly that position. Sadly, his condition developed quickly. He went from being a normal, fit, healthy young man in his late 20s to needing help to get places in only a few months.

Alison Seabeck: My hon. Friend speaks with a great deal of experience and knowledge. On her point about the time it takes to get a decision, like her, I have a constituent whose condition deteriorated over a long period. Although our constituents may have just scraped through to one side of the fence when the assessment was made, their conditions were much worse by the time the decision was made, and they should therefore have been assessed differently.

Sheila Gilmore: People in that situation find it very hard to deal with that problem.

Jim Shannon: That is a very interesting point. Under the old DLA system, going back two or three years, there was an enablement provision. If a person’s condition got worse, that could be taken into consideration in their application and the appeal process, but now it cannot. Does the hon. Lady feel that the Minister should respond to that point?

Sheila Gilmore: That is a very interesting point, and I hope the Minister will give us some details on it.

The other group who seem to suffer less from long delays are those who are undergoing reassessment. If a person asks for a reassessment because their circumstances have deteriorated, previously they would have reported that change to receive DLA, but now they must make an application for personal independence payment. They will receive DLA even if there is a long delay, but if they are entitled to a higher rate of DLA, it will not be backdated under the new system. They do not have no money during that period to help them with the needs that their disability or illness brings, but they do not

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benefit from the increase. If it takes six, seven or eight months for their DLA reassessment to become PIP and they are eligible for a higher reward, it will not be backdated, even if their condition has clearly deteriorated —and they would not have made the application if it had not.

If the process were working smoothly and quickly, that might not matter. Perhaps at the outset it was thought that there would be no need for backdating because the process would be quick. People would be reassessed and would get the new benefit or not, but at least they would not be waiting for months with a much worse condition. If the claiming process is to be this long permanently—I certainly hope not; the Minister can tell us if it is—perhaps he should look again at that.

I am concerned about another aspect of the way that PIP is processed: there seems to be a substantial variation across regions. I hope that the Minister is at least looking at that issue and monitoring it. I find it hard to understand why, among new claims—but not those relating to special circumstances, i.e. terminal cases—the award rate varies so much; it is as low as 25% in Ealing Southall, but it is 63% in Kilmarnock and Loudon. Perhaps Kilmarnock and Loudon residents are substantially less well, and more disabled, than those of Ealing Southall, but the disparity seems substantial.

The published statistics, the most recent of which bring us to, I think, September, show quite wide variation both in the number and proportion of cases that have reached clearance—meaning a decision, whether positive or adverse, for the claimant—and in award rates. That variation may be explicable, and not a matter for concern, but it would be helpful to know that the Department is monitoring those things and will report on them in due course. The rates will never be identical; areas differ, and there are some where endemic ill health has been a serious problem. That is why the number of people in receipt of employment and support allowance and DLA has been higher in some areas than others; I do not have a particular problem with that.

The question is why an award rate should vary so much and be so low in some places. Presumably people apply only if they have an illness or condition. They will read the forms. Unless it is suggested that in some areas an awful lot of people with no real prospect of success apply, and that that explains the low award rate, the variation seems somewhat baffling. The number of applications varies considerably, as one would expect. One of the examples I gave was Ealing Southall, where the award rate is 25%. There were 660 normal registrations there, not made under special rules. In Kilmarnock and Loudon there were 980 registrations, and in Knowsley there were 1,780 registrations, with a 52% award rate.

Our questions are not only about the length of time being taken, although that is the major issue that most of us have had to deal with. They are also about other aspects of the way the new benefit works: how it compares with the previous situation, which people perhaps do not receive an award, and what the circumstances are. Owing to the length of time being taken, it is still quite early to know how many people are successful on appeal, and to judge the efficacy of the assessment process. From my experience with constituents, it appears that the assessment process, when they get to it, evokes fewer complaints than before, although someone recently came to tell me that their assessment took only 20 minutes,

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after which they received an adverse decision. That person had been profoundly deaf for some considerable time, so I was slightly baffled.

I hope that in the rush to solve the problem of longer assessment periods and to speed the process up we shall not lose some of the possible advantages of the new system—a more thorough assessment process that would obviously be better for people in the longer term.

3.23 pm

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, in this welcome debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing it, and extend my thanks to all the hon. Members who spoke this afternoon, particularly for the constituency experiences that they highlighted.

It is clear that there continue to be substantial problems with the personal independence payment, yet it is an important benefit for disabled people and for disability equality. It addresses the additional costs that living with a disability entails. We have heard today of continuing delays and problems with access to the benefit, and of poor service, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck). The cost to the public purse is also rising, so there are several causes for concern, and we look forward to hearing the Minister address those. Interestingly, all those who spoke this afternoon commented on the fact that the benefit was brought in without piloting or experimentation. Early on, MPs and Members of the House of Lords, and organisations such as Citizens Advice, suggested that it would be a good idea to pilot the benefit from the outset. However, Ministers refused to do so.

Of the problems and difficulties that disabled people are experiencing with the benefit, it is the delays in getting an assessment and a decision that are of the most immediate concern. The latest statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions, which go up to September, showed that 529,000 people applied for PIP between April 2013 and July 2014, but just 206,000 had received decisions by that time. That leaves 323,000 waiting in the queue, including 540 in my constituency, many of whom have contacted me to report the distress and problems that that has caused them; other hon. Members taking part in the debate have also had such experiences.

In February, the National Audit Office reported that the DWP had expected decisions to take 74 days, but that the average time for a decision was 107 days. Some delays have been considerably longer, as we have heard. I have constituents who have waited the best part of a year for an assessment for PIP. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East, among other hon. Members, gave several examples of delays that her constituents have experienced. Colleagues also spoke of horrific experiences that resulted from delays. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was right to highlight how delays compound disabled people’s health problems and anxieties and sometimes contribute to a worsening of the condition. We should be very concerned about that.

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I have been told of the deeply distressing case of a 51-year-old woman in south London who applied for PIP in September 2013 and was still awaiting an assessment after a year. She had a brain tumour removed in May 2014, and covering the cost of weekly travel to her hospital appointments meant that she had to cut down on food. She simply could not afford non-essentials such as buying clothes. Other claimants who have waited months for a decision have had to borrow from friends and family, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East pointed out, or use food banks, as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View, said.

Generally, we would expect the personal independence payment to be backdated in the event of an award being made, although I was interested in the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), who suggested that that might not always happen. However, in the meantime, when delays are very long, disabled people are being left without financial support to help cushion some of their additional costs—the cost of equipment, transport to appointments, special diets or additional heating bills. That is happening at a time when many face a reduction in income—and perhaps not just their own, but that of their partner, who may be forced to give up work or reduce their hours to provide care.

What is more, people may also be prevented from accessing other support to which a PIP award may be a passport, such as blue badges and disability premiums on means-tested benefits and working tax credits; carers’ entitlement to carer’s allowance might also be affected. Although the PIP award may eventually be backdated, claims to such passported benefits might not. In other words, claimants might never recover that lost period of entitlement. The Multiple Sclerosis Society reports that some claimants in PIP reassessment areas who were previously in receipt of DLA and who have since reported an increase in needs may lose nearly £3,500 due to delays, as their payments are not backdated. That situation was also highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore).

I acknowledge that both the present Minister and his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), are concerned about the delays. The previous Minister initiated a number of steps to address delays both in the activities of the assessors and in the Department for Work and Pensions, but it has been interesting to hear today that there are still claims of staff shortages among the health care professionals who are carrying out the assessments, and I hope that the Minister can update us on that situation. In a written answer on 7 July, the previous Minister told me that, as a result of the steps he was taking:

“By the autumn, we expect no one to be waiting for an assessment for longer than 26 weeks and by the end of the year, we expect no one will be waiting longer than 16 weeks.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2014; Vol. 584, c. 109W.]

The present Minister has committed to honouring that promise, although he might like to acknowledge that it represents a rather less ambitious target than the 12 weeks for a decision that we were originally promised.

We remain in the dark about exactly what progress is being made. Macmillan Cancer Support has suggested that it would be helpful if waiting times could be made entirely transparent and publicly advertised. In a written answer on 17 November, however, the Minister told me:

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“Departmental statisticians are continuing to develop measures around clearance and waiting times”.

I hope the Minister will be able to update us on performance as regards addressing delays, and will tell us when official statistics will become available.

The right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead also took steps to address delays in dealing in special-rules cases for terminally ill claimants, which was welcome. From what we have heard this afternoon, I regret that the problems with such cases do not seem to have been wholly resolved. Problems remain, for example, with the rigid application of the six-month prognosis rule, which was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East and the Motor Neurone Disease Association, which has suggested that, although it is possible in some circumstances for the DWP to take account of an overall diagnosis, that is not always happening. I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that.

We have heard about some assessors’ lack of knowledge about, for example, muscular dystrophy. There appears to be a particular and very disturbing anomaly in relation to existing DLA recipients who become terminally ill. If they wish to request an increase in benefits due to their terminal illness, they have to make a claim for PIP. When such claimants make a change of circumstances request, the DWP makes an enhanced award under the care component 28 days after the form is submitted and not, as is the case for DLA claimants and new PIP claimants, from the day of the form’s submission, which means that that very particular group of claimants is being denied 28 days at the enhanced care rate that new claimants who have not previously been in receipt of DLA would receive. The Minister may be aware that I wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about that a couple of weeks ago, for it seems to us that the way in which the regulations have been drafted has created an apparently unfair anomaly. Will the Minister undertake to look at that matter? It surely cannot be right that people already in receipt of DLA who become terminally ill should be denied immediate access to a higher award of PIP, if appropriate.

The delays are not only causing great hardship for individuals; they are also piling up costs for the public purse. In 2010, the Government suggested that PIP would have 600,000 fewer claimants than DLA by 2018, leading to a £3 billion cut in departmental expenditure, including a £780 million spending reduction by April 2015, but in February 2014, Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, noting that early operational problems had delayed the programme’s roll-out, said:

“Because it may take some time to resolve the delays, the Department has increased the risk that the programme will not deliver value for money in the longer term.”

Those costs continue to mount. The NAO estimates that £127 million per annum is spent on assessment costs, and in total it will cost £2.9 billion to clear all new claims and migrating cases.

Meanwhile, the Office for Budget Responsibility has noted that the number of claimants who have secured awards is higher than the Department anticipated, and there is uncertainty about whether the pattern will change and the numbers will reduce in future. Additionally, some claimants are receiving compensation for the delays they have experienced, which has further increased costs.

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Sheila Gilmore: In the original consultation paper in 2010, one of the justifications for throwing all these things up in the air and putting many disabled and ill people through a great deal of anxiety was that too many people were getting the benefit and that PIP would be different. Some 50% of DLA claims were unsuccessful, but in some cases the award rates for PIP appear to be well in excess of 50%. That may be very good for the applicants, but it suggests that the whole thing was premised on a lack of proper research. The change has made many people extremely stressed and anxious over the past few years.

Kate Green: My hon. Friend puts her finger on the issue. We may be seeing some sort of cohort effect, because the cases that went through early may have been more likely to have attracted awards, or higher awards. It may be that initial departmental assumptions were simply wrong or over-optimistic about the savings that could be achieved. It may be that the situation will become even worse, because delays in processing claims and making decisions must be suppressing expenditure on the benefit. If, as the Minister intends, those delays are reduced and, hopefully, eventually eliminated, we will see the costs of the benefit increase. Whether the Government’s ambitions to reduce costs will be achieved is very uncertain. As my hon. Friend rightly says, the real problem for disabled people in that context is the huge uncertainty and anxiety. Disabled people are very uncertain about whether they will be awarded the benefit, which creates great anxiety and alarm.

I have mentioned that there appear to be additional costs for the Department due to the payment of compensation for delays. My constituent, Mr W, received £100 compensation for delays that he had suffered, yet when I asked the Minister how much such compensation payments are costing the Government overall, he told me in a written answer on 23 October that the Department does not record such information. What we do know is that spending on DLA and PIP is set to be £1.4 billion more than projected in this financial year. What is his assessment of the continuing trend in the figures? What impact will that have on the Government’s overall welfare cap? Obviously, any significant increase in expenditure will put that cap at risk.

Given the way in which we have seen costs rise, it is surprising that, in a written answer on 14 July, the Minister’s predecessor told me that the Government remain on course

“to make savings against earlier forecasts of £2.8 billion by 2017-18.”—[Official Report, 14 July 2014; Vol. 584, c. 587W.]

Given all the circumstances that we have heard about in this debate, will the Minister again confirm that expectation and tell us what the Government will do if they do not get spending back on track?

Overall, it is clear that the system is working far from smoothly. The picture for the future remains uncertain, and things remain well off course. In June, the DWP confirmed that it expected 752,000 PIP decisions in this financial year; the latest statistics show that about 37,500 decisions a month were made in the most recent months available, and about 30,000 to 40,000 claims a month were made. At that rate, it seems that the DWP will be unable to clear the backlog of 323,000 cases still awaiting a decision, yet bizarrely, the DWP apparently continues

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to add more areas where existing DLA claimants are being transferred to PIP, including, in the past couple of weeks, my area of Greater Manchester.

In the circumstances, adding yet more pressure to the system seems inexplicable. Claimants will be deeply worried that the Government are pressing ahead while the programme is manifestly still subject to extreme delay. It does not make sense, it is not fair and it is causing deep uncertainty and hardship to thousands of claimants. I am glad that this debate gives us time for the Minister to respond fully to the concerns that colleagues have raised, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

3.41 pm

The Minister for Disabled People (Mr Mark Harper): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on securing the debate and on allowing other Members to raise their concerns. She started her contribution with some general points. I will touch on them only briefly, as I want to deal with the specific cases that she mentioned and the specific points raised by other Members.

The hon. Lady made a point about judging the Government on their overall approach. I can confirm that we spend £50 billion on disability benefits. The latest unemployment statistics show that our “Disability Confident” campaign has been successful in that more than 250,000 more disabled people are in work, increasing the employment rate for disabled people. Overall, we are supporting disabled people to get back into work and participate successfully in society. However, I will not dwell on that, as I know hon. Members want to focus on the details of personal independence payments.

The hon. Lady mentioned some specific cases, which I will deal with in the order she raised them. She raised the Booth case with my predecessor on 7 July. We had made a backdated decision on that case just before she wrote to us. One point arose out of that case that I wanted to mention, because it was also raised by another hon. Member—I forget whom. The hon. Lady mentioned that the person in the case was out of work. It is worth putting on record that the personal independence payment is designed, as many hon. Members said, to deal with the extra costs of being disabled. It is not an out-of-work benefit. Those who are unable to work owing to their disability or health condition should claim either jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance. Just to be clear, those are income-related benefits; PIP is not. Some hon. Members in previous debates have elided the two, although I am sure she has not done so.

Sheila Gilmore: Obviously, the Minister is right about the distinction between the two benefits, but many people do not get out-of-work benefits because they have a working partner or because they have run out of contributory out-of-work benefits. The extra costs of their illness or disability still apply, so the household income decreases considerably over that period. That must be borne in mind.

Mr Harper: I accept the hon. Lady’s point. I mentioned it because some hon. Members have raised cases in which there have been two issues: a decrease in income

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because someone has been out of work, and extra costs. I am simply making the point that, in those cases, it is reasonable to expect PIP to cover the extra costs, but it is not a benefit designed to deal with the fact that someone is not working.

The hon. Member for Bolton South East wrote to us about the Booth case, but I do not think she has written to us on the Pope case at this point, so I do not have the specific details. If she wants me to consider it, I am happy for her to drop me details after the debate. The third case, about which she has written to the Department, is the Syddall case. I put on record my apologies for the delays in that case. When someone has a terminal illness, which was not the case or was not known about in this instance, we obviously prioritise their claim. As the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) mentioned, my predecessor put in place those changes to the process, and we are currently dealing with cases involving people with a terminal illness in about the expected time period of 10 days. In cases such as the one raised by the hon. Member for Bolton South East, when the person does not know that they have a terminal illness and dies while awaiting a decision, we deal with the claim based on the evidence we have. Any arrears of benefit, if applicable, are paid to the estate. A decision has now been made in that specific case. It will be communicated to the family shortly, and I will write to her shortly after that to give her the full details. I hope that is helpful.

Yasmin Qureshi: I thank the Minister for the letter that is on its way to my constituents and me regarding the position on Mr and Mrs Syddall. There is a fast-track procedure for people who are terminally unwell. Is it possible to extend that fast-track procedure for people who may not be terminally unwell, but who are obviously disabled and in need of benefit, such as those who have had a stroke? Perhaps the concept of a special fast-track procedure could be extended to slightly different categories of case.

Mr Harper: I will come to that in a minute, because I will discuss the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) about paper-based reviews, meaning assessments made based on the paperwork without having to call someone in.

The general point arising out of the specific cases raised by the hon. Member for Bolton South East and other Members is on delays. I have been frank that delays are not acceptable since I made my first appearance at questions; when I gave my evidence at length to the Work and Pensions Committee, on which the hon. Member for Edinburgh East serves; and during the summer when I dealt with Members’ correspondence. The top priority when the Prime Minister asked me to do this job was to get the delays dealt with. That is my priority. I have been spending a considerable amount of time with my officials and meeting with both assessment providers to put it right. A new team of officials have taken over the work and are driving improved performance. We are working with the assessment providers and working with the oldest cases to improve it.

The hon. Lady asked for specifics. Between them, the two assessment providers have doubled the number of health professionals working through recruitment and training, and have increased the number of assessment

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centres—I will cover specifically the points raised by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) in a minute—and extended their opening hours.

We have increased the number of paper-based assessments, so in many cases it should be possible, based on the paperwork that people produce, to make a decision without having to call them in for an assessment. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East is right that, at the beginning of the process, the number ran very low and below where we expected it to be. We have improved the process. I hope she will be pleased to know that, when claimants have been unable to work and have gone through the work capability assessment, we are joining up the process, so that we take the ESA85—the report from the work capability assessment—and put it with their PIP form and any other evidence they have provided. That is enabling us to make more decisions based on the paperwork without needing to call people in for assessments. I hope that is sensible.

Jim Shannon: Those are admirable steps in the right direction, and we appreciate them. Might it also be a good idea to set targets to reduce those figures within a certain period, given all the things that are happening? Sometimes if things are emphasised with targets, they are delivered.

Mr Harper: I will come to that in a minute, but let me deal with the point I was going to make on the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and Northern Ireland. These issues are, of course, devolved, so all the points he made about his constituents and the welfare system, although perfectly reasonable, should be addressed not to me but to the Minister responsible in the Northern Ireland Executive. I have no responsibility for such issues in Northern Ireland; they are devolved.

Jim Shannon: Will the Minister give way again?

Mr Harper: I will let the hon. Gentleman intervene once more, but I want to deal with the issues for which I am responsible, rather than ones for which I am not.

Jim Shannon: We know where the responsibility lies, but we also know that Capita is the company responsible not only for Northern Ireland but for central England and Wales. I am conscious that the system came in because the Government drove through the new PIP system. That is universal, so there is, in effect, a policy in Northern Ireland. The Minister is not the person responsible—I understand that the Minister in Northern Ireland is responsible—but the debate was secured for the purposes of illustrating where the PIP system is falling down across the whole of the United Kingdom.

Mr Harper: I am pleased to deal with the issues in Great Britain, but in Northern Ireland this is not my responsibility; there is a separate contract for Northern Ireland. I am happy to be accountable and to have people beat me up—figuratively speaking only, hopefully—for the things I am responsible for, but I am not responsible for the welfare system in Northern Ireland. That is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Minister for Social Development. The hon. Gentleman’s points are perfectly well made and I will deal with them as best I can—he has raised the same issues as Members

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from Great Britain. However, for Northern Ireland, I am afraid he needs to direct his points to the Minister and the Executive.

The initiatives I was setting out have meant that providers have quadrupled their output since January. Hon. Members quoted the latest published statistics, which were published in September. They gave the statistics for July, showing that, by then, we had increased the number of decisions to more than 35,000 per month, and there will obviously be a new set of statistics published in December, which will bring the figures up to date to September.

The Department was referred to by a couple of hon. Members. Changes to our processes, our IT systems and the work we do with providers have improved the process.

The hon. Member for Bolton South East referred to claimant communications, emphasising the need to be clearer to claimants. We have improved the communications at the front end of the process so that claimants know what the best evidence to supply is. We have also been clearer with people to let them know how long their claim may take. I know that it is not great when people are told that their claim will take a long time. I will go on to say a bit more about what we are doing about the delays, but at least we are being clearer with people, so that they know what to expect, which is better than their not knowing and having to keep chasing up progress reports.

Since April, we have been confirming to people, by sending a text message, that we have received their PIP form, so they know it has been received and not lost. I cannot remember who asked me about that—I think it was the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View. I do not have the data to hand on the number of people who have reported that they have sent a form back that has then been lost, but I will go away and consider it. I do not know whether we have that data, but I will investigate and write to the hon. Lady. In fact, I will write to all hon. Members attending the debate so that they are aware of the data.

Alison Seabeck: Of the nine cases I listed so that they could be discussed today, a third involved files being lost.

Mr Harper: That was why we put the text message system in place—so that, when claimants send their form back, they receive a confirmation that we have received it, and therefore do not have to wait and make inquiries later before say, “We’ve never had your form.” They receive that confirmation at the beginning. The assessment providers also provide claimants with improved information about where they are in the process, how long a claim may take and who to contact at each stage of their claim.

Face-to-face consultations are a key part of the assessment process for most individuals, enabling a proper look at their circumstances and giving them an opportunity to put across their views about the impact of their health condition on their everyday lives. Of course, PIP is not based on the diagnosis of a medical condition; it is based on the impact of that medical condition or disability on someone’s daily life. However, if we have enough evidence to make an assessment or recommendation, individuals do not have to come in

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for a consultation and we will do it on paper. As I alluded to following a previous intervention, we can currently make far more decisions on paper than we could make in the earlier part of the process because we have the information. When we can do so, it clearly makes sense for us not to put somebody through an assessment.

Of course, it is worth saying that part of the purpose of the change from the disability living allowance to PIP, to which the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston referred, is dealing with the conditions that DLA was not very good at dealing with. The PIP assessment process is better than the DLA assessment process at dealing with people who have mental health problems, cognitive impairments or fluctuating conditions. The fact that the DLA assessment process was not good at recognising those conditions was part of the reason for the change to PIP.

Let me deal other specific issues that came up in the debate. There is one issue that I will touch on only briefly because the Secretary of State dealt with it in the Chamber earlier. I was getting mixed messages from Opposition Members about the best way to roll out PIP. Before the hon. Member for Edinburgh East came into the Chamber, the hon. Member for Bolton South East said that we should roll it out more slowly, be more careful and thoughtful, and that sort of thing. Of course, that is exactly the process we are following on universal credit. I am guessing—probably accurately—that, when the Secretary of State was in the House earlier, the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), was beating him up and saying he was not going fast enough. That is what the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said in the debate—she believes we are going too slowly.

The Opposition cannot have it both ways. I accept the point about the problems, but we have adopted the test-and-learn approach to universal credit and been criticised for that, too. That is simply the point I was making.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Harper: I am spoilt for choice. Let me take an intervention from the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston before taking one from the hon. Member for Edinburgh East.

Kate Green: I merely wanted to point out that, in part, it is a matter of expectations. We were assured throughout the process by the Secretary of State that universal credit would come in without difficulty, and in full, by 2017, and each time he has been called to the Chamber to report on its progress we have heard something to that effect, but obviously reality has not borne him out. On the other hand, we are very early on in the process of PIP. MPs, Lords and outside groups suggested that it would be sensible to pilot the programme first, but Ministers chose not to do so. We are merely saying how important it is that Ministers not only adopt the right process, but communicate what they are going to do and then do it.

Mr Harper: I have been clear about communicating what I have been doing to improve the process.

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Let me just try to make progress on responding to the issues raised in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View on battling through the effects of her dental treatment. I am not sure how painful it was, but we got her point on terminal illness. Just to be clear, it is not only in cases of terminal illness that we can make decisions on paper. That can be done in any case in which the position is clear. We have a separate process for terminal illness, which is about speeding up the assessment process to 10 days. She also asked about existing DLA claimants. That point has been raised personally with me by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). I am considering those cases and I will report to the House in due course on whether we can make a change. However, she made a good point, and it has made to me previously.

Under-staffing is a problem. As I have highlighted, both providers have made considerable progress in hiring new members of staff.

There is a problem with some work capability assessment centres, but all PIP assessment centres are accessible—no PIP assessment centre is on the first floor. In Plymouth, a new six-room centre was opened in September to boost capacity, building on two centres in the Atos supply chain in Plymouth. We have new centres opening in Chelmsford, Edinburgh and Newcastle. In addition, Atos opened a large 18-room assessment centre in Manchester, and there are further plans for centres in Liverpool, Wakefield, Preston, Blackburn, Wigan, Carlisle and Lancaster. Providers are increasing not only the number of staff they have, but the size of their estate.

On statistics, I am sure that few Opposition Members, with the possible exception of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, are assiduous readers of the PIP statistics website on the gov.uk page. If they are assiduous readers, they will know that, last week, we set out that we will publish the PIP clearance times statistics, and waiting or outstanding times statistics, for the first time in March, which is before the election. The release will be pre-announced in line with the UK Statistics Authority release protocols. My statisticians have been working on getting figures that will give a proper and rounded picture, without leading to any perverse incentives. I will not go into that now—I have set out my views on it clearly and at length for the Work and Pensions Committee.

The hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston and for Edinburgh East mentioned success rates, which the Department is looking at. The priority has been ensuring that we not only deal with the delays but keep the quality of the assessments high. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East said that the problem is delays—admittedly, she said she had only anecdotal evidence, but evidence has come from elsewhere. When people have had their assessments, generally the experience has been a positive one. I am not saying that every single case has been positive, but generally speaking the experience has been positive. It is important that we do not lose sight of that.

Finally, in response to a point made by a couple of hon. Members about our forecasts for the cost of the system, they will not be surprised to learn that I will not pre-empt what the Chancellor will set out next week in the autumn statement, when further forecasts will be published—not mine, but those of the Office for Budget Responsibility.

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London Transport Zones (Croydon)

4 pm

Mr Steve Reed (Croydon North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Crausby. I am delighted to have this opportunity to make the case for moving East Croydon and West Croydon stations from zone 5 to zone 4, or more precisely to zone 4/5, saving local commuters up to £336 on the cost of an annual travelcard into central London.

I hope to make the case for change by establishing, first, that these stations are closer to central London than other stations that are already in zone 4; secondly, that there is ample precedent for stations being re-zoned when a persuasive social and economic case is made; thirdly, that re-zoning these stations will support the local Labour council’s ambitious £9.5 billion growth and regeneration bid that would benefit a large swathe of south London and south-east England; fourthly, that there will be a net financial benefit from making this change; and finally that there will be much-needed savings for people travelling into central London, but no increase in fares for people travelling into Croydon from further south.

Travel distances from central London are standardised by measuring from Charing Cross. On that basis, East Croydon station is 9.3 miles away and West Croydon station is 9 miles away. The two stations, serving areas that include the town centre, are both in zone 5 on Transport for London’s transport travel zone maps, but many London stations that are further away are included in zone 4, including Kenton, which is 9.7 miles from Charing Cross, Malden Manor, which is 10.3 miles out, Hounslow, which is 10.6 miles out, Abbey Wood, which is 10.7 miles away and Chigwell, which is 11.7 miles away from Charing Cross. There is clearly an anomaly when those stations, all further from central London than East Croydon and West Croydon, are all in zone 4, while the Croydon stations are in zone 5. On the TfL map it looks as though the zone boundaries carve out Croydon for no good reason, although it has the effect of costing Croydon’s commuters more in travel fares than other Londoners have to pay to travel greater distances.

There is strong support for making this change from commuters I have spoken to outside both stations. One or two people have asked whether it is actually possible to get stations moved into different travel zones. The good news is that it is not only possible, but it has happened on many occasions—I have mentioned some—and there is no reason why it cannot also happen in Croydon, given the strength of the case.

Jim Dowd (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab): Can I take my hon. Friend to the northern extremity of his constituency, where it shares a boundary with mine, to Crystal Palace station? Even though that station is in my constituency, a lot of his constituents use it. That station was re-zoned a few years ago—it was zone 4 and now it is zone 3/4—yet Penge East, which is a bit further away but has a much better service into Victoria and is in railway terms much closer, is in zone 4. People who want to get to Victoria quickly have to pay a premium for doing so. There are obviously problems with boundaries

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anyway, but there are huge anomalies in that part of London, and I wish my hon. Friend well in what he is trying to do.

Mr Reed: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution and I wish him luck in his campaign to secure a better outcome for Penge East and the many commuters living in his constituency who commute into London from that station.

I remember well that Crystal Palace station was moved into zone 3/4 in 2004. Similarly, in 2007, Roding Valley, Chigwell, Grange Hill, Hainault, and Barkingside were all moved into zone 4 from zone 5. Earlier this year Stratford, Stratford High Street and Stratford International stations were all moved from zone 3 to zone 2/3. These are just a few of many examples of London stations being re-zoned.

Re-zoning Stratford was estimated to cost around £7 million, primarily, I understand, in reduced fare income, but it is expected to bring at least £25 million in increased economic benefit to the area every year. Croydon would also, in all likelihood, cost a similar amount but would also generate vastly more in economic benefit than it costs.

Croydon elected a Labour council earlier this year on a promise to be “Ambitious for Croydon”. I am delighted that it has been as good as its word and has unveiled an extraordinarily bold but eminently achievable £9.5 billion regeneration and growth package for the borough that could bring in 16,000 new jobs, 9,500 new homes and around 2,000 new businesses. The effects will generate economic growth not just in Croydon, but across a wide swathe of south London and along a corridor stretching from Croydon to the south coast via Gatwick airport, whose own expansion plans are co-ordinated with Croydon’s. Re-designating Croydon’s two central stations in the heart of this regeneration zone as travel zone 4 would help underline how close the area is to central London, as well as making Croydon more attractive to investors, businesses, home buyers, workers and visitors.

There are some concerns that re-zoning these stations would lead to higher fares for people travelling into central Croydon from other parts of the borough that are currently in the same fare zone. In fact, that would not be the case. There is no extra cost for travelling from zone 5 into zone 4, and the pay-as-you-go single fares and daily caps are the same for travelling across zone 4 and 5 as travelling within either of the two zones. Commuters travelling from East Croydon or West Croydon stations into central London would realise considerable savings. An annual travelcard holder would save up to £336 a year if this change were made. At a time when many people have found their wages held down or cut in real terms, this saving in travel costs would be particularly welcome.

I pay tribute to people who have offered support to the Zone 4 Croydon campaign, first and foremost the hundreds of Croydon commuters who were quick to sign a petition in support of making this change that I will, in due course, seek to raise on their behalf with the Mayor of London. He is ultimately responsible for taking the decision, subject to approval by the Department for Transport. I should mention Sarah Jones, a local mum and campaigner, who has recently been selected as Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Croydon Central, who launched the campaign with me. I am grateful to

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Croydon Guardian

and the

Croydon Advertiser

for their support, and to the leader of Croydon council, who has personally backed the campaign and intends to seek the formal endorsement of the council within weeks. There is real, strong support in Croydon for making this change. I trust that we will hear today that the Government will also offer their unequivocal support.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge suggested, south London is poorly served by the current zoning arrangements, relative to other parts of the capital. This is not a problem that affects only East Croydon and West Croydon stations. Although I strongly sympathise with the other cases, I would not want any decision about East Croydon and West Croydon to be delayed while other worthy cases are also considered. Local commuters would not thank anyone who tried to put hurdles of this kind in the way of making this change. Re-zoning is not something that has to be implemented across a number of stations at the same time. It has always happened incrementally.

I believe the strength of the social and economic case, and simple fairness, demand that East Croydon and West Croydon stations must be moved into zone 4 as soon as possible. I look forward to hearing the Government’s view and hope very much that it is supportive and positive.

4.8 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): It is a joy to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) on securing this important debate on London transport zones and Croydon. I recognise that the zoning of stations has a real impact on the cost of travel in London, and I am aware that this is a matter of some concern locally. We do, as a Government, understand how important rail travel is for this country’s economy and for all of us who use these services to get to work, to visit family and to get around. That is why this Government are investing £38 billion over the next five years to improve the national network, generating faster, more comfortable and more punctual journeys. I understand how important it is to keep travel costs for hard-working people down. That is why last year we curbed the rail industry’s powers to increase fares. It is also why we will hold down rail fares next year to retail prices index inflation for the second year in a row.

We recognise the importance of investing in transport in London. That is why we have provided Transport for London with more than £10 billion during this Parliament, which has enabled upgrades to the tube network that have already increased capacity on the Jubilee line by 33%. We will also see a 20% increase capacity on the Northern line from next month. The investment will also bring the first air-conditioned walkthrough trains to serve customers on the Metropolitan, Circle, District and Hammersmith and City lines. We have also transformed major London stations including King’s Cross, St Pancras, Stratford, Blackfriars and Paddington. The Crossrail project is on track to deliver a brand new railway across London by 2018, transforming journeys across the capital.

We are improving rail travel in Croydon. The Government’s investment in London transport has enabled the Thameslink programme of upgrades, transforming

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the line, which serves East Croydon station. Capacity will dramatically increase by 2018. A fleet of 115 spacious new trains will run every two to three minutes through central London at peak times.

Mr Reed: It is fantastic to hear of the investment going into the system, but I was not seeking answers about investment in the system. I wanted answers on the zones in which East Croydon and West Croydon are placed. I hope that the Minister will address that point.

Mr Goodwill: The hon. Gentleman need not worry. As he has left me plenty of time to speak, I thought I would put the debate in the context of the unprecedented investment that the Government are putting into rail, not only in London, but across the country.

Croydon receives an excellent and frequent train service. Someone would be hard-pressed to find an area in zone 5 with better services to central London than Croydon. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that Croydon is closer to central London than other stations in zone 4. Ultimately, there will be winners and losers in any simple zoning system, as stations near the boundary of a zone will be closer or further from London stations than others. Distance is only one factor in determining the zone in which a station falls.

The hon. Gentleman’s arguments for re-zoning Croydon stations are interesting, and it is important to have these debates, but there is an established process for re-zoning stations, which works as follows. The travelcard map, which shows the zone in which each station falls, is set out as part of the travelcard agreement made between the train operating companies and TfL. The Government are not a signatory. Any changes to station zones must be proposed by a signatory to the agreement; the Government are not able to do that. The proposal must then be agreed by the remaining signatories. The Department for Transport can approve or reject the change proposals. The decision is made by the Secretary of State for Transport on the basis of the business case. If the proposal does not represent good value for money, it is unlikely to get approval. The Government cannot and should not promote or back any proposal outside that established process.

Mr Reed: I thank the Minister for his explanation. On the basis of what he has just heard and the link to the dramatic and bold £9.5 billion regeneration bid being proposed for Croydon through a regeneration and growth bid—we hope the Chancellor of the Exchequer will endorse it in the autumn statement—does he personally think that the proposal should be supported?

Mr Goodwill: As I made clear, it is a matter for TfL and the train companies. In passing, I point out that eight stations in East Croydon’s zone are closer to central London. Indeed, one is only nine miles away, while East Croydon is 10.25 miles, or 10 miles and 34 chains, I think, from Victoria. There is no official rule about where distances are measured from. By convention, some measure London distances from Charing Cross, but we are not aware of any reason why that should be the overriding rule. Generally the distance from the terminus station would seem to be the most sensible choice. That is Victoria in this case, although London Bridge is slightly nearer.

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If one of the train operating companies running stations in Croydon wishes to formally propose the change, a number of factors would need to be considered. First, changing the zone of a station does not come free. A season ticket for zones 1 to 5 costs £2,136. The season ticket for zones 1 to 4 costs £1,800, so the difference between them is the figure of £336 that the hon. Gentleman drew attention to. Reducing the cost of travelling from a station reduces the revenue brought in by that station, and that can add up to millions of pounds a year. Ultimately, those costs would be covered by the taxpayer. A loss at Croydon might need to be compensated by raising fares elsewhere. At a time of intense financial pressure, is it fair to ask taxpayers as a group to pay for travellers in Croydon to have cheaper fares? It might be.

Mr Reed: I am grateful to the Minister for his frequent kindness in letting me intervene. In looking at the cost of making the change, does he take into account the net economic benefit, as was the case with Stratford? The Greater London authority estimated that, although that change cost £7 million, the net economic benefit was £24 million, which is multiples more than the cost of making the change.

Mr Goodwill: I understand the sensible point that the hon. Gentleman is making, which contributes to the debate. It is possible that the economic benefits to the area would outweigh the costs, but the question cannot be answered without some serious consideration. How would re-zoning impact businesses in the area? How would it impact residents? How would it impact surrounding stations and the areas that they serve? For example, passengers who live slightly closer to a station that was in the next zone might decide to change their journey plans and travel to East Croydon to save on their season ticket. The change could put increasing pressure on the station, which is already very busy.

The train operating companies would need to investigate all those issues. The argument for re-zoning would need to be demonstrated in a robust business case. The effects of re-zoning a station are not only financial; there would also be changes to demand at the stations. If it is cheaper to travel from one station in an area than another, people will choose the cheapest journey. That is the logical response, but a change will also make stations more crowded. East Croydon is already one of the busiest stations in the UK outside central London, and re-zoning it would make that worse.

Jim Dowd: A constituent raised the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) kindly allowed me to mention earlier. The Minister said that passengers will choose the cheapest option, but that is not true in every case. It is also about the service. In the case that I highlighted, Crystal Palace is eight stations from Victoria, but Penge East is a mere five stations away. It is a much faster service from Penge East, although it is more expensive. People choose to go from Penge East; they do not necessarily go for the cheapest option.

Mr Goodwill: The hon. Gentleman is right. The current zoning seems to as much be down to historical reasoning as anything else, but it is the basis on which the franchises

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have been let and the basis on which the train operating companies have calculated their revenue. In cases of re-zoning, compensation might need to be paid to those train operating companies to allow for the difference in income.

Is increased congestion at their station a trade-off that commuters are willing to make? Is it a trade-off that provides value for money? Finally, what consideration has been given to commuters who travel into Croydon for work? As the hon. Member for Croydon North has said, Croydon’s economy is flourishing and there are many jobs in the local area. If Croydon is re-zoned, travel costs for people living in London’s outer zones could increase significantly.

Mr Reed: I hope that I established in my speech that re-zoning Croydon stations as zone 4/5 would not increase the cost for people travelling into Croydon from further south.

Mr Goodwill: Yes, if the stations moved into zone 4/5, but if they just moved into zone 4, there would be an increase in cost, which would be a consideration for fare revenue. The re-zoning could have an impact on train operating companies. All those things need to be carefully considered.

As we have heard several times during the debate, Croydon is not the only place where calls for re-zoning are being made. A formal proposal has been submitted requesting that the Stratford stations should be re-zoned, and my Department has received correspondence asking for stations to be moved into the London zonal fares area. Other hon. Members have made similarly passionate arguments in favour of re-zoning stations such as Kingston, Surbiton and Epsom. I am sure that there are many others for which local arguments could be made.

Clearly, a wholesale transfer of stations into lower zones would not be affordable. It is, of course, important that the station zoning is reviewed and that re-zoning can take place when there is a strong case. The established process for re-zoning a station ensures that value for money and the impacts on other transport users are considered. That is what will need to happen with the proposals to re-zone Croydon.

In summary, I hope that I have been able to clarify the process for considering proposals to re-zone London stations. As discussed, it would not be appropriate for the Government to comment at this stage on the merits or otherwise of re-zoning Croydon. We will reflect carefully on the points made in today’s debate but can make no promises. The proposal will need to go through the proper channels and the proper process, and there will need to be agreement between the train operating companies and Transport for London. We would want to satisfy ourselves that any re-zoning proposal for stations in Croydon represents value for money. The Government are committed to ensuring that value for money is maintained to allow us to keep transport costs affordable for the travelling public—a key part of our wider commitment to improving the transport network both in London and across the country.

4.21 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Furniture and Furnishings (Fire Safety)

4.30 pm

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. The Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1988 set out the levels of fire resistance for domestic upholstered furniture, furnishings and other products containing upholstery. Between 7 August and 7 October the Government ran a consultation on proposed changes and, subject to its results, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills proposed implementing the changes in April 2015.

I have called for this debate because employers in Pendle have expressed to me their deep concerns about the proposed changes. Pendle’s local economy relies heavily on manufacturing, and a sizeable proportion of people work in the furniture sector. Silentnight in Barnoldswick employs around 800 people, sofa manufacturer Buoyant Upholstery in Nelson 800, and Furnico in Pendle around 400. Many other companies are also involved in the sector. Clarkson Textiles, based in Nelson, represents about 25% of the fire-retardant or FR coating market in the UK.

Silentnight was one of the companies that helped with the creation of the existing regulations, implemented 26 years ago. When people such as Iftikhar Mirza, Silentnight’s quality assurance and laboratory manager, who was involved in the original process, express concerns, we know that those concerns are not simply a knee-jerk reaction but are based on decades of research and experience.

All those companies are proud of how our fire regulations save lives and help to prevent fires. As the BBC 1 “Fake Britain” investigation into sofas and mattresses back in January showed, if the regulations are not adhered to, the consequences can be deadly. Silentnight even took the opportunity to mention the importance of the regulations to the Prime Minister when I took him to visit the company back in May. I, too, have expressed concerns about enforcement over the years with Ministers, Lancashire trading standards and the Lancashire fire and rescue service.

The Government’s consultation on the proposed changes to the regulations sets out some laudable aims, namely to improve safety, to make UK furniture greener and to bring savings to the industry. I will take each aim in turn to explain why I and the businesses that I represent feel that the proposals fail in each and every regard.

On improving safety, the existing test method is a simple pass-or-fail test, and one that I have observed being carried out by local businesses. Fabric arrives at a coating company such as Clarkson Textiles and is treated and certified, or it arrives already treated at a furniture manufacturer and is tested before it is used. The new test introduces a two-tier system, with the additional clause relating to the size of the hole formed during testing.

Offering a choice of tests does not lend itself well to the supply chain in the industry and will make the job of trading standards officers almost impossible. How can trading standards police and prosecute with so many variables in the new test method, such as filling 1, filling 2 or the size of the hole produced on burning? The existing method offers a simple, worst-case test

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because the foam underneath the material being tested is also flammable. Replacement of that with fire-retardant foam reduces the severity of the test. Inclusion of the polyester fibre in filling 2 goes some way to increasing severity, but it is still not as robust a test, and it therefore runs the risk of leading to less safe furniture.

Proponents of the changes will, I am sure, say that the new regulations, by insisting that all internal components are fire retardant if the size of the hole produced by a flame is over a certain level, will mean that overall the item of furniture will be safer. With respect, however, that is simply not true. The existing regulations provide for a flame-retardant barrier over the furniture against small ignition sources, such as a cigarette or a faulty electrical item. By the time a fire has been able to burn through 40 mm of fabric and foam and got all the way to the internal components of a sofa, we have lost the battle anyway.

It is also worth remembering that when fabric is sent for treatment, it is likely that it will be treated for stock, so it would not be known what kind of furniture that fabric would be used on, or even who would purchase it. Fabrics are not precision-engineered products; variables in yarn type, dye stuff, fabric weight and add-on treatments must all be accounted for. Testing over non-FR foam, as the current test does, gives extra tolerance to allow for such variables.

There is also concern about the removal of the cigarette test on fabrics that have passed the match test. As the European Flame Retardants Association pointed out, it was great to see in the 2012-13 fire statistics report a clear downward trend in fire fatalities, but the report also stated that smokers’ materials have caused the largest share of deaths in house fires. With that in mind, is it not a gamble to change the status quo at the very time when the UK can congratulate itself on its fire safety achievements and can continue leading and being an example to other European Union countries?

Concerns have been raised about enforcement of the current regulations—concerns that I have been raising for some time, and which were covered in the BBC “Fake Britain” programme. Introducing new variables, however, and a situation in which sofas would have to be purchased and pulled to pieces to test internal components are unlikely to improve enforcement by trading standards departments, which already have limited resources.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): My hon. Friend is making an important case, and one that I am sure Formulated Polymer Products in Ramsbottom, which makes such chemicals, would support. Does he agree that what we need is better and more rigorous enforcement of the existing regulations by trading standards?

Andrew Stephenson: I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point. The existing regulations are incredibly effective and have saved many lives; they could save more lives if they were enforced effectively. We should be enforcing the regulations, rather than playing about with them and trying to come up with a new test that I do not think is as robust as the old one.

The second aim of the changes is to make UK furniture greener. Again, that is a laudable aim, and it is based on reducing brominated FR usage by around

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50%. Those to whom I have spoken, however, feel that the total level of brominated chemical use quoted by BIS is greatly inflated by the method of calculation. No figures from the chemical or coating industry have been quoted, but it estimates that a total of 12 million to 16 million metres are coated in the UK, not the 65 million metres quoted by BIS. The BIS figure includes leather, loose covers and inherent fabric, which are not treated, so at best the documents exaggerate the level of chemical use in the industry.

Furthermore, with the new test, the application level of chemical per metre will remain the same on many fabrics, as shown by recently published research from FIRA, the Furniture Industry Research Association. In some instances, the application level could increase, and the requirement to make every internal component of the sofa fire retardant if a hole appears during the test means that the likelihood is that far more brominated chemicals will need to be used. A small reduction can be achieved on some simple, lightweight synthetic compositions, as shown by the test results offered by BIS, but, to take us back to the safety point, no fabrics tested included common add-on treatments such as fluorocarbons.

Clarkson Textiles also feels that the changes would hamper innovation and development as it and other companies explore ways to reduce the use of brominated fire retardant. The new test removes the scope for final composite testing. With careful selections of fabric and interlinings, it is already possible to produce a flame-resistant item without FR chemicals, but without final composite testing it would be illegal, because the cover may not pass over foam and fibre as specified in the new test.

We also need to consider the impact of the new regulations on the re-upholstery industry, which is easily overlooked because most of the companies involved are small. They might not even be aware of the changes proposed by the Government. At the moment the re-upholstery industry facilitates furniture recycling and reuse, helps reduce landfill and therefore helps the environment. As drafted, the proposed new regulations could destroy the sector, because many fabrics that produce a hole when tested could never be used again. The choice would be either to throw the furniture out, which is not good for the environment, or for companies to increase significantly the back coating of the fabrics with far more chemicals, which again is not good for the environment.

The third aim of the changes is to bring savings to the industry—again, a laudable one. The estimated savings projected by BIS, which were calculated on the reduction in chemical application and the removal of the cigarette test, look impressive. However, the unanimous message from the businesses I have spoken to is that the cost savings on fire regulations testing are minimal and are therefore totally outweighed by the introduction of the testing of internal components.

In its consultation response, Buoyant Upholstery clearly sets out why it does not believe the changes will save the industry money. Simply applying 50% less FR coating, even if safe, would, it estimates, save it only something like 10p per metre, whereas ensuring that every internal component is FR treated would impose massive costs on a company that currently has 120 different models in its range and uses over 1,170 different fabrics. Not only would its products need to be redeveloped, but all its

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floor models in furniture retailers across the country would need replacing. To put that in perspective for a company like Buoyant, the three largest retailers it supplies have 1,186 floor models between them, which have often been supplied at discounted rates. The cost for UK furniture manufactures of replacing all those floor models will be significant. Companies such as Buoyant will be hit with costs for product redevelopment and alternative components, increased supply-chain auditing and due diligence costs, increased material costs and so on.

Clarkson Textiles tells me that chemicals represent only around 33% of the coating price—£1.20—meaning that savings to customers would be only between 8p and 20p per metre. If Clarkson Textiles represents 25% of the coating market in the UK, and its total consumption of FR compound is only £1.5 million, it will be impossible to make the savings to industry of £17 million to £50 million that have been quoted by BIS during the consultation.

I turn now to what trade organisations say about the changes. In responding to the consultation, industry representative bodies have been clear: neither the Furniture Industry Research Association nor British Furniture Manufacturers think the proposals will achieve the aims set out by the Department. They see no evidence that the changes will make the industry greener, save money or, crucially, make furniture more fire safe, and do not think that the changes are viable. The National Bed Federation agrees, saying it cannot be sure that the proposals will save money or improve safety, although it recognises that making UK furniture greener is possible and that reducing FRs is becoming ever more important.

Those groups are not resisting the changes for the sake of resisting change. As FIRA makes clear in its consultation response, the industry itself has been calling for a revision of the regulations for many years. As far back as January 2010, meetings were taking place at BIS and a plan was agreed for fully revised regulations to be introduced by 2012. The industry sees change as overdue, but it sees these particular changes as inadequate and incomplete, given the many other amendments that are required and will need to be addressed in future.

I called for this debate after receiving a reply from the Minister, dated 11 November, responding to concerns raised by Joel Rosenblatt, chairman of Buoyant Upholstery. That reply said that the Department was analysing responses to the consultation, but very much implied that the changes were pretty much a done deal. However, as recently as last Thursday, BIS officials were e-mailing invites to meetings, at short notice, to select parts of the industry only, along with technical documents showing that the proposals have changed again and the reasons for the changes have altered. It would appear that as of last week the changes are no longer about saving fire retardants, but are now about safety; apparently the current regulations do not work. However, no evidence has been presented for that idea in terms of fires or deaths, and there is no evidence for what the savings will be.

The altered proposals seem to ignore the report by the Minister’s own Department into the effectiveness of the regulations, which was commissioned from Greenstreet Berman in 2009. That report suggested that between 2002 and 2007 the regulations saved 54 lives, and led to

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780 fewer non-fatal casualties and 1,065 fewer fires each year, with savings to the taxpayer valued at about £140 million per year.

I am very supportive of the Government’s drive to reduce unnecessary red tape and get our economy back on track. The effects can be seen in my constituency, and Pendle businesses in this sector, such as those I have mentioned, are employing hundreds more people than they were in 2010. However, we need to work with the industry and listen carefully to what businesses are saying. There is general amazement that the biggest review of the regulations since 1988 was conducted essentially by just two people. The review could and should have involved the material manufacturers, furniture manufactures and leading test houses right from the start. The UK’s two largest independent test houses, SATRA and FIRA, were not even properly consulted at the start of the process, and FIRA has only recently been able to present its own findings to its members. Most in the industry feel the whole process should be started again, involving the right people from the start, so that more effective proposals can be driven by industry rather than, as some feel, being imposed from above.

It should not surprise the Minister that the upholstery industry is unhappy with the situation. Most businesses are unaware of the further technical changes that are now being discussed, before the results of the public consultation have even been published. As I said, no one is anti-change, but there is deep concern about the way the Department has gone about this process. Despite all the flaws, the opposition of industry and the clear evidence that the changes fail to achieve any of the intended objectives, the Department still seems keen to press ahead in order to have something implemented by April next year. The current regulations have been in force for 26 years. They are simple, effective and have saved lives. Let us not put that in jeopardy.

4.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, in this important debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) for raising this issue in the House. The debate is particularly timely because, as he noted, the Department has recently held a consultation on the issue; at the moment, we are considering the consultation responses and thinking about our next steps. I will simply caution in advance that although I will try to respond to some of the issues he has raised today I will not be able to set out a definitive view on exactly what those next steps will be, as that matter is still very much under consideration. However, as I say, that makes today a good time to have this debate, because all the points and arguments he has raised can be considered as part of that process.

I recognise that there are a number of manufacturers in my hon. Friend’s constituency who are clearly knowledgeable about and deeply invested in this matter, not just financially but in terms of the wider safety issues. It is useful that he can bring his expertise to this debate, having spoken to them as their constituency Member. As he set out, in the proposals that we have consulted on we are aiming to achieve better safety and

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environmental benefits; if there is a benefit to business in the form of savings, that is also helpful. I think we all share those objectives, and I understand the concerns he set out with regard to them. The end result that not just he and I but probably the entire industry want to achieve is a robust, safe system that is not overly burdensome, but in which everyone can none the less have confidence, and excess chemicals do not need to be used. The challenge for all of us is to work out the best path to that; that was the purpose of our consultation on the issue.

In general terms, we have an excellent record on fire safety in the UK, and as the Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs, I am keen to ensure that our enforcement regime and fire safety rules remain fit for purpose. Earlier this year, my hon. Friend got in touch with the Department about imported furniture products that do not properly comply with fire safety regulations, and the concern that some of that furniture might not always have the anti-flammability properties and protections needed for UK safety standards. Not only does that lead to significant safety concerns, but such importers are able to undercut UK businesses that have very high standards and are scrupulous about adhering to our important safety rules.

The matters we are discussing are important and serious. As I explained in my responses to my hon. Friend’s earlier inquiries to the Department, we have been through many of the issues carefully with trading standards, which is responsible for enforcing the rules on safety. It is true that non-compliant imports do find their way into the UK in a range of ways. Trading standards is obviously involved clearly and closely in stamping down on that, and it has expressed concern about various issues with enforcement and fabric treatment, including some in the UK, in terms of treatment companies processing fabrics not to an acceptable standard. Many reputable companies do a brilliant job, but there are concerns about some where that is not the case.

To help to improve enforcement practice, we are funding a £25,000 project led by Rhondda Cynon Taf trading standards, which is working with five other trading standards departments around the UK to look at compliance of upholstered furniture with the fire safety regulations. They will gather important evidence about enforcement and deliver a series of recommendations to help us to target that enforcement effectively throughout the furniture supply chain.

A second relevant issue, which has been discussed in the other place, is the Consumer Rights Bill. My colleague Baroness Neville-Rolfe announced that there will be an independent review of product recalls across a range of product safety legislation to consider what information systems exist to inform consumers about product recalls and how well they work in practice. That gives a flavour of how we are looking to improve the enforcement regime, which is a key part of ensuring that the regulations work. However, that depends on the basic safety rules in place, which brings me to the review of fire safety regulations covering furniture and furnishing.

The regulations have generally been a big success, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle said. They have ensured that as the furniture market has grown to provide more choice and variety at a range of prices that ordinary people can afford, furniture has stayed safe. He mentioned the statistical report that was

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commissioned in 2009, which showed excellent safety benefits from the regulations; they have saved around 54 lives a year and prevented nearly 800 casualties and over 1000 fires. UK domestic furniture is probably the safest from fire in the world, which is a record we all wish to maintain.

The regulations are 26 years old, and we recognise that technology and manufacturing processes change and move on, so four years ago, shortly after the election, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills started a project to look at the rules in depth to ensure that they are still fit for purpose in the context of technological and manufacturing change. It became clear that, as well as modernising the rules, there were several other big issues to address. One was concern about the high use of certain types of chemicals used as flame retardants to meet our stringent flammability tests. They include the most common brominated flame retardant used in furniture, deca-BDE, which has been banned in the USA and is restricted under REACH, the EU regulation on registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals.

Concerns were identified about how the current test is working, and about the fact that it might not always do what it sets out to do: to prove that the cover fabric being tested will form a barrier to protect the foam or filling underneath. The consultation we launched in the summer had two main aims. We wanted to see if we could find a way to reduce the reliance on dangerous flame retardants, and to find a new test that would not have the problems that we had identified with the current test, particularly because it fails to take account of how fabrics actually perform in furniture in the finished product. If savings can be generated for business, all well and good, although I am sure that hon. Members always want safety to be uppermost in our minds when discussing such issues.

Andrew Stephenson: I am heartened by much of what the Minister is saying. She cited what has been done in the USA in banning the use of certain chemicals. There have been reports, and evidence has been produced in the USA, particularly in California, showing a significant increase in the number of domestic fires. I hope that as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills moves forward with the proposals, it will look at examples in other countries where banning some chemicals has, unfortunately, undermined consumer safety and led to more fires.

Jo Swinson: Clearly, that outcome is the opposite of what we want to achieve. We are analysing carefully the consultation responses, and are happy and keen to look at evidence from around the world, where changes have been made to rules on chemicals, on the impact on consumer safety. If my hon. Friend has specific information, I would be happy to receive it from him.

When we undertook the consultation, we looked at the match test, which is a key test to assess the ignitability of cover fabrics. I want to make three points about the proposal, but we are still considering the responses. We proposed to make the test set-up much more like the way furniture in the home is constructed. Currently, the cover fabric is laid directly next to a highly flammable foam filling—a kind of foam that is now illegal for use in furniture, to which my hon. Friend alluded—and that is believed to be a worst-case scenario. Most modern

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furniture has a lining material between the cover and the filling, so the test conditions are different from the finished product. My hon. Friend suggested that the current test is a worst-case scenario, and that if something passes it, it will be fine, but in practice, when fabrics are placed over linings, they may not always be fitted tightly, so air may be present between the fabric and the lining, which means that it may be more ignitable. There is a danger that something could pass the existing test, but when the fabric is in situ in a piece of furniture it may not comply with what was being tested. We must understand that, and the proposal was to have a test that represents much more how a piece of furniture would be used in the home.

The proposed test includes other materials that are now commonly used in furniture below the surface, such as webbing and fibreboard. They are not tested independently at the moment because it is assumed that if the cover passes the match test, it will stop a flame getting into the furniture and setting something on fire. However, our research work to investigate the existing test method suggests that that is not always the case in practice, which is why we want to correct that by introducing a test for other materials. It is important to note that that is intended as a one-off, so the material will be tested, and when it has passed, it will be published in a list of extra materials that can be classified as exempt, whereas the cover fabrics would still have to be tested regularly. We are trying to make the test more realistic and comprehensive.

The third point is to try to make the enforcement challenge for trading standards easier. The problem with the current set-up is that it does not allow for all the variations that can occur in testing because of the interactions between covers that are treated with flame retardants and the foams used in the tests, and the chemical differences that arise because the foam interacts directly with flame retardants on the cover fabrics. Those variations may mean that while doing enforcement activity, trading standards can find covers that have been passed when they should have failed. My hon. Friend pointed out that the variations in fabrics is an issue that make this a challenge. Trading standards has said that the proposed test will be easier to enforce because the pass or fail will be clearer, with a smaller grey area.

As my hon. Friend is aware, the consultation closed just over a month ago. We received a substantial number of responses, and we are continuing to digest everything that has been put to us. I think we all agree that furniture safety is essential. It is great that we have a good record in the UK, and we want it to continue. I understand his concerns and those that various parts of the industry have raised through their Members of Parliament or in the consultation. I am considering them very carefully because we want to get this right. Not every ministerial decision comes with the responsibility that people’s lives are at stake, but this is one about which I feel keenly. It is complex and there is a significant need to weigh up the different factors to ensure that we get the right course of action.

I have set out what we want to do on the enforcement side, but the fire safety rules are vital to ensure that the enforcement operation can work. My basic aim is to ensure that any changes that we ultimately make improve the safety regime and deal with some of the difficulties that have been identified with the current tests. That is

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an area of genuine concern. We must ensure that we understand the concerns that have been raised, and that we move ahead with new regulations that everyone can have confidence in and that will provide the safety that everyone wants.

We will listen to the views of my hon. Friend and those who responded to the consultation, and work closely with fire services, trading standards, test houses

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and the industry to ensure that that happens. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising all these concerns. I am sure he will follow the next steps with great interest.

Question put and agreed to.

5 pm

Sitting adjourned.