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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 16 December 2015

[Mr David Nuttall in the Chair]

Community Transport

9.30 am

Maggie Throup (Erewash) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of community transport.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I am delighted to have been successful in securing my first Westminster Hall debate on such an important issue. Community transport lies at the heart of our community and is greatly valued by many of our constituents. It occupies a unique central ground between the passenger transport industry and the voluntary sector, providing innovative solutions to the otherwise unmet transport needs of local residents.

When we think of community transport, our thoughts immediately turn to the elderly and disabled as the two main user groups, and in large part that is true. Services such as community bus services, hospital transport and dial-a-ride help the elderly and the disabled to lead independent lives and participate fully in their communities on a daily basis. However, community transport services extend further to support other user groups such as schools, working people and scout and guide groups with schemes such as wheels to work and minibus hire. Community transport fills the gap when conventional transport services cannot fully meet the needs of the public.

I am pleased to say that last year, Erewash Community Transport in my constituency celebrated 30 years of service to local residents. Sadly, last month we learned that Derbyshire County Council is to cut Erewash Community Transport’s funding from next April, which will see the group lose nearly £150,000 and will spell the end of both the dial-a-bus service, which transports people to shops and supermarkets, and the active travel service, which takes people to medical appointments.

Erewash Community Transport, together with other Derbyshire community transport groups, organised a petition to request that the county council review that decision. However, the council simply refused to listen and instead reverted to its default position of blaming the Government. The truth is that at a time when the Government have committed to invest £25 million in new community transport minibuses, Derbyshire County Council continues to waste vast sums of taxpayers’ money while cutting vital public services.

Information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act shows that the council has spent more than £150,000 with a London-based public relations company run by a former assistant general secretary of the Labour party, and it paid £219,000 to get rid of its former chief executive. The new post of assistant chief executive costs £83,000, each cabinet member has received an allowance rise of £3,000, and 107 council employees are accredited to take time off for trade union duties at the local taxpayers’ expense. The list goes on.

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This is a council that mismanages its finances for political gain while the elderly, vulnerable and disabled of Erewash are left to suffer, yet its accounts clearly state that it has more than £55 million stashed away in general reserves. The Government back anyone who wants to save, but, when it comes to the loss of services such as community transport, surely it is far more prudent either to use some of those reserves or, better still, cut some of the waste, so that Derbyshire’s community transport schemes can be supported at least until other funding streams can be secured.

We should consider two other key factors when discussing the loss of community transport services: the cost to the local economy and the impact on service users’ physical and mental health. Schemes such as dial-a-bus are used frequently by our elderly and vulnerable people to access local town centres, supermarkets or even pubs, helping them to retain their independence. In turn, they contribute to the local economy and provide a welcome boost to many of our high street shops. If the service were to stop suddenly, that income would be greatly missed by our small retailers, many of whom rely on regular, loyal customers to survive.

When it comes to health, community transport helps local health and wellbeing boards to deliver their obligations under the Health and Social Care Act 2012, which cannot and should not be ignored. We have not even considered the benefits to the many community transport volunteers, who are often the newly retired, such as helping them to keep fit and active with a purpose in life.

I understand the need for organisations such as Erewash Community Transport to diversify their funding streams, but the pace and scale of Derbyshire County Council’s changes concerns me. With effectively just a four month notice period for a dramatic cut in funding, Erewash Community Transport does not have the time or capacity to look for alternative funding streams, which are out there for it find if Derbyshire County Council would give it a longer stay of execution.

Recently, as a member of the Select Committee on Health, I visited Halifax as part of our primary care inquiry. I was able to learn about the diverse funding streams that Community Transport Calderdale has managed to develop. That organisation lost its local authority funding a number of years ago, yet it is now thriving. It works closely with Calderdale clinical commissioning group to help deliver its vanguard project, as well as with other third sector organisations such as Age UK. It gets funding from the CCG to provide transport for emergency visits to hospital for respiratory patients, which prevents the need for in-patient stays.

Community Transport Calderdale also provides “home from hospital”, a free-of-charge service that helps elderly and vulnerable residents in Calderdale and greater Huddersfield with transport home after a stay in hospital. The service provides a safe, supported, wheelchair-accessible journey home from hospitals in the region. Patients can also be met at home by Age UK, which offers immediate help and arranges further support for those who need it. I am sure that Community Transport Calderdale will be viable for many years to come.

Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. Her example demonstrates that community transport is not just for rural areas, but

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for urban and suburban areas. Does she agree that examples from across the country, such as Norwich Door to Door and its hard-working volunteers, should be included in the debate because they serve many different types of communities?

Maggie Throup: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Community transport services are valuable throughout the country, whether in rural, urban or suburban areas. It is a shame to see them being put under such pressure and cut, taking away vital services. She gives a good example from her community.

Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady accept that part of the reason for the changes, and the pace of those changes, is that her Government have imposed budgets on Derbyshire Country Council that take something like £60 million from its budget, while she has identified only tens of thousands of pounds of potential savings in areas such as the chief executive’s salary?

Maggie Throup: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but it is not just tens of thousands of pounds from getting rid of or changing the chief executive—

Neil Coyle: Sixty million pounds.

Maggie Throup: But we are talking about £150,000 for Erewash Community Transport, so the council would not need to manage its finances much better to pay for that service. I therefore disagree with the hon. Gentleman. It is quite well within Derbyshire County Council’s ability to fund the service for longer.

I conclude with a short story provided by the Community Transport Association, which does fantastic work in supporting local community groups and lobbying Government effectively on their behalf. It illustrates perfectly the impact the services in question have on people’s lives and why we should do everything we can to support them. Jenny from Green Community Travel, which operates in South Gloucestershire, says:

“We had a passenger who did not have any family living locally to him, when his spouse was admitted to hospital it was very difficult for him to visit her. I know we all think about getting older but I can’t imagine how difficult it must be after spending every day with someone for over 50 years then having to find ways to see them or not be sure if you can see your spouse on that day!”

That was at Christmas, and the gentleman was anxious about not seeing his wife on Christmas day—it would have been the first Christmas they had spent apart in 50 years.

Jenny mentioned the situation to a volunteer called Stuart, who said he did not mind taking the gentleman to see his wife on Christmas day. On Christmas morning, he took the gentleman to visit his wife for a couple of hours. Community transport therefore plays an important role in not just medical appointments but all such hospital visits—it is about going above and beyond. Jenny went on to say that the generosity of people in this line of work never ceases to amaze her. Hats off to Stuart for going the extra mile and for making that couple’s Christmas a happier one than it might have been.

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Up and down the country, such stories are typical in the community transport movement. There are many Stuarts going above and beyond to make a difference to those who might otherwise be isolated from society, and I am sure other Members present will have their own stories.

In Erewash, I have had many pleas from residents to do whatever I can to save their community transport—their lifeline. Connie Clark is no exception, and nothing would give me greater pleasure than being able to tell her that her community bus has been saved and to see the huge beaming smile on her face. I am sure it would be the best Christmas present ever for her. I therefore thank the Government for their continued support for community transport, and I commend the motion to the House.

9.41 am

Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I thank the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) for securing the debate, although I disagree with some of her critique of Derbyshire County Council, which is obviously responding to significant budget changes. That is a direct result of her political choices in the House and her support for the budgets that we will see over the next three years, which will mean £60 million disappearing from the council’s resources.

The hon. Lady mentioned the £25 million that the Government are setting aside for community transport, which should be welcome. Part of that funding is for the community transport minibus fund, which should be a very positive scheme. In March 2015, not long before the May election, 400 organisations across the country were told they had been awarded community transport minibus funding from the Department for Transport. One was Lewisham and Southwark Age UK, which is a fantastic organisation serving my constituents. Nine months ago it was told it would receive support, but it is still waiting—it is yet to receive funding or a vehicle from the Department for Transport. It gave the Department for Transport its specifications some time ago, but it has no idea what has caused this significant delay, which obviously affects its ability to serve older and disadvantaged people in my community.

It would be helpful if the Minister could outline what has happened to the community transport minibus fund. What is causing such significant delays for Lewisham and Southwark Age UK and the rest of those 400 organisations? Is the delay being caused by a centralising tendency, with the Department trying to commission 400 identikit minibuses? Has the Department considered the impact of delays on such organisations? Should it provide additional resources to mitigate problems that have been caused during the period when organisations thought they would have support that has not arrived? It would be brilliant if the Minister could answer some of those questions.

9.44 am

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall? I think this is the first time I have served under you in Westminster Hall. I congratulate my colleague from Derbyshire, my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash

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(Maggie Throup), on securing what is a very important debate, particularly in Derbyshire. She mentioned many of the things I was going to say, but I will repeat some of them.

I want to talk specifically about the provision of community transport in my constituency. Despite its name, Glossop Community Transport serves not only Glossop, but residents across my whole constituency, so people should not be taken in by the name. The organisation was started in Glossop, and it is based there, but it looks after the whole of my large, rural constituency. A few years ago, I did a week out with different voluntary organisations, including a day with Glossop Community Transport. During that day, we did a variety of tasks. We went round picking up the elderly and vulnerable. We took them to the local shops and supermarkets. I was to be seen going round with trollies of food for the elderly and helping them with their weekly shopping.

As well as enabling people to get to the shops, the dial-a-bus service provides a valuable social benefit. When I was on the bus, I saw that there is a sense of camaraderie. It is almost like a social occasion; people go out and chat with each other. We talk a lot about exclusion; this is a great way of getting people together. There was a great sense of fun on the bus. A photograph was taken of me on the bus, and a couple of old ladies at the back were pulling faces behind me and stuff like that.

Chloe Smith: I bet they were.

Andrew Bingham: Yes, can you believe it? However, it is a fabulous service.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It was fear in their eyes.

Andrew Bingham: No, I do not think it was fear. Some may say it was lust, but I could not possibly comment.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Steady on.

Mr David Nuttall (in the Chair): Order.

Victoria Prentis (Banbury) (Con): At this point, I will ask my hon. Friend to allow me to intervene.

Andrew Bingham: Yes, I think I had better have a sit down—we are all getting very hot under the collar.

Victoria Prentis: The debate is going to places that community transport does not normally reach.

Andrew Bingham: I said it was a good service.

Victoria Prentis: I am grateful for the marvellous volunteers who operate from the town of Banbury. They provide a good service for those who, sadly, have to travel to hospital, particularly early in the morning, when other forms of transport are not available. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that other parts of the community also need services that are not provided by public buses, such as young people who have finished their education and who need to travel to work? People such as young apprentices also need to be able to take some form of public transport in rural constituencies.

Andrew Bingham: My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are so many potential uses for community transport, and she has remarked on just one.

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The door-to-door service that operates in High Peak is trusted, consistent and valued. When we took people home with their shopping, we did not just drop them off; I helped them to the door, as the drivers do every week. In addition, Glossop Community Transport does many other things, and the potential of these organisations has been highlighted. The organisation’s out-and-about club is for people who would not otherwise get out and about in the community. People are taken on day trips—the constituency is 80 or 90 miles from Blackpool, and they are taken to things such as the illuminations.

That work relies on funding from Derbyshire County Council, but it also relies heavily on volunteers. Constituents, including friends and colleagues—people such as George and Jean Wharmby and Chris Webster—give up their time to drive the buses around the constituency and beyond and to assist the passengers. In short, the funding is not just about money to make the service operate; it levers in so much more than just money, bringing together people in the community, so that they work as a community, for the community. The benefits are therefore huge.

As we know, there have been necessary reductions in public spending, and Glossop Community Transport has played its part. In February, it joined forces with Bakewell and Eyam Community Transport, which is outside my constituency, but still in Derbyshire, to make savings. I am told that, since April, the new organisation has saved about £85,000, because the pooled resource has enabled a reduction in subsidy, and a move from two separate grants of £186,000.

Amanda Solloway (Derby North) (Con): I want to come to Glossop, too; it sounds like great fun on the community transport. Derby City Council outsources its community transport to private firms. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to promote close working relationships between councils and the private sector to get the best for the taxpayer?

Andrew Bingham: Of course we do. That goes across a wide range of services. I spent 12 years as a local councillor, and there are lots of areas beyond community transport where we can work with the private sector.

I was explaining that the two community groups each had a separate grant of £186,000. They have merged and now operate on a single joint grant of £285,000, so quite a big saving has been made of about £80,000. Only last week I met Edwina Edwards of the community transport service, to talk about it and how it was operating. She and her staff, as well as the volunteers, work tirelessly to keep the service literally on the road.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash has already pointed out that Derbyshire County Council has proposed removing the grant. There was a consultation in the summer that produced more than 1,000 responses. It was proposed to make the changes from 1 April, I think, but I am told that that has been put back to 1 July; I do not think that the council knows quite what to do. I am told that it intends to seek tenders for providing a service, but to date nothing has been published and there appear to be no firm published plans—and I am told that nothing has even been presented to Derbyshire County Council’s cabinet.

There is talk of a one-year contract for the provision of a once-a-week service. There were some workshops in the summer and agreement was widespread—almost

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unanimous—that once a week is not sufficient. In my view, a one-year contract is also insufficient. If we want an organisation to invest in a service, that does not provide enough certainty for long enough. I ran a small business for many years, and one thing that businesses or organisations like is certainty. A year goes by in the blink of an eye, and it is not long enough.

I admit—it is clear—that we have asked local authorities to make savings; but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash, I have great concerns about the way in which DCC is doing it. It has recently removed many of what, when I was a kid, we used to call lollipop men and lollipop ladies; they probably have a title now. I understand the need for that, but, to digress a little, the lollipop lady has gone from Furness Vale school in my constituency, although it is right at the side of the A6, one of the main arterial routes into the south of Manchester. I fear that those who are looking for savings are using the wrong priorities.

As has already been said, £150,000 was paid to a public relations firm, to do a range of things including advising cabinet members on PR. The chief executive was paid off when Labour took control in 2013, at a cost of almost £250,000. People have come to my surgery about the spending of, I think, £70,000 on some public trails, because of a single complaint, without consultation or proper discussion with the Peak District national park. That has been described to me as wanton ecological vandalism. That profligacy is becoming widespread in the county council. Yet the cuts that we are debating will affect the vulnerable. I understand the need to make savings and do not shy away from it; but the proposals on community transport in Derbyshire are ham-fisted. They are a blunt instrument that may save some money but will disadvantage those who are already disadvantaged, and mean the removal of what has become a valuable and much loved service throughout my constituency.

9.52 am

Dr Paul Monaghan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (SNP): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to consideration of the crucial issue of community transport provision. I congratulate the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) on winning the debate.

In many ways, the community transport service in Scotland is different from that in England. Many English operators have large fleets of minibuses and are fortunate in receiving large grants from their local authorities. Of course, they operate in areas where the population density is much greater than it is in most of Scotland—and certainly much greater than in my constituency, or that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). In England, much of the debate about community transport centres on encouraging providers to diversify services to reduce reliance on local authority financial support. They are also encouraged to obtain sponsorship, develop partnerships to promote joint working, reduce bureaucracy and overhead costs, and utilise smart technology to promote total transport solutions where passengers use technology to order a service.

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Mr Gregory Campbell: The hon. Gentleman elaborates on the differentials affecting community transport in the UK, and he is right that things work differently in different parts of the UK; but does he agree that the one overarching principle that seems to apply across the nation state is that mobility, particularly among the elderly, is greatly enhanced whenever community transportation infrastructure gets the support it needs?

Dr Monaghan: I agree with the hon. Gentleman and suggest that that is particularly important in rural areas. In Scotland, the defining feature of many community transport schemes is their size. They are small organisations that tend to operate in vast geographical settings, serving remote rural communities. It is vital in this debate to recognise the geographical challenges that community transport schemes in Scotland face, and to understand that remoteness makes partnership and collaboration between community transport schemes difficult.

To put that in context, I want to highlight the 10 excellent community transport schemes in my constituency. In Easter Ross, Alness heritage centre has one vehicle, Invergordon seafarers mission has one and Socialisation, Opportunities, Activities, Recreation, also in Invergordon, has two. None of those schemes receives any grant funding from the local authority. In Caithness there are two schemes. Wick and East Caithness church operates one vehicle, and Caithness Rural Transport operates four. In Sutherland there are five community transport schemes. Assynt Community Transport has two vehicles and covers the ninth most geographically challenged area in Scotland as measured by the Scottish index of multiple deprivation. The Bradbury centre in Bonar Bridge operates one vehicle, while Helmsdale Community Transport operates just two. The North West Community Bus Association in Kinlochbervie operates one vehicle, while Transport for Tongue, in north-west Sutherland, operates five.

All those schemes operate in areas recognised as among the most geographically challenging in Scotland. Perhaps for that reason, many of the people I meet who rely on community transport in the highlands consider the social experience on the journey to be as important as getting to the destination, and in Scotland more than 100,000 people use community transport each year—but never for a profit. The social experience is important, because the round trip from Wick in Caithness to Kinlochbervie in Sutherland is 233 miles on predominantly single-track roads. That is broadly comparable with the distance from London to Blackpool, but with a journey time of seven hours, compared with around four and a half hours if travelling to Blackpool from this place. I think that puts in context the geographical and organisational challenges faced by community transport schemes operating in Scotland, and the near impossibility of collaborative working.

As a consequence, community transport schemes in Scotland work hard to be resilient and self-sustaining. All the community transport schemes in my constituency provide services specifically to meet the needs of local communities where there are few public transport services and even fewer taxis. All the schemes operating in Scotland are excellent, and I applaud their work, which makes an invaluable contribution to sustaining rural communities. They are responsive, accessible and flexible, but they are also under threat.

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The Department for Transport is in consultation with the European Union on existing derogations that enable the UK to allow not-for-profit organisations to operate transport services without having to comply with public service vehicle regulations. The overarching legislation in respect of this derogation is in sections 19 and 22 of the Transport Act 1985, which allow community transport schemes to operate through what are known generally as section 19 and section 22 permits. There are restrictions on the services that can be provided, but the permits enable groups to fill gaps in public transport provision. The Scottish Government encourage section 19 and section 22 transport services to apply for a fuel duty rebate, implemented by Transport Scotland, called the bus service operators grant. Operators receive 14.4p per eligible kilometre. Community transport operators in Scotland achieve a great deal on very low levels of funding.

One of the biggest challenges for these small groups is having to pay 20% VAT when purchasing vehicles, because most have incomes falling far below the VAT threshold. Other problems are the high comparative cost of fuel, high maintenance costs because of poor quality roads, and high delivery cost of spares because of remoteness. The ongoing infraction proceedings appear likely to cause major problems for community transport operators by adding significantly to overhead costs. I understand that the outcome of the discussions might be a two-tier permit scheme that will allow only those groups not tendering for commercial contracts to continue in a similar way in future. However, no formal announcement has been made, and no timescale has been given for when changes might take place. As a result of the infraction proceedings, Derbyshire County Council, which previously allocated £1.49 million to six community transport groups in the county, will from next June withdraw all its grant funding to community transport schemes. That shift will significantly erode the ethos of community transport in the area.

In advocating diversification, partnership and reduced overheads, the Community Transport Association UK is adopting an English perspective, rather than a UK one. It talks of accessing sponsorship from local groups, but that is unlikely to be achievable for community transport schemes in Scotland. It also talks of tendering to take over service provision on a commercial basis, which I know community transport schemes in my constituency are against.

I urge the Minister to consider the value of community transport, and to argue for the adoption of a two-tier permit scheme as an outcome of the ongoing EU infraction discussions. I also urge him to reflect on the challenges facing operators in Scotland, to discuss with the Treasury an exemption from VAT for new vehicle purchases and, crucially, to look at how the rural fuel duty rebate scheme could be extended to allow community transport schemes to flourish. We are in real danger of losing all our community transport schemes by emphasising the price of everything and ignoring value.

10.1 am

Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Nuttall. I join other Members in congratulating my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup)

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on securing this important debate, which is timely: community transport services in Derbyshire are under great threat.

I start, as other Members did, by paying tribute to the work of the employees and volunteers in my local community transport provider, which used to be called Amber Valley Community Transport but now has the catchy name of Community Transport for Town and County—or CT4TC for short, which is a little harder to remember. It has initiatives similar to those that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) spoke about, in terms of trying to be more efficient and developing partnerships. It now covers not only Amber Valley but north-east Derbyshire and Chesterfield, and even provides a newish service in Bassetlaw, crossing the county boundary—we are getting into quite radical territory there, by bridging the divide between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

I do not think anyone could doubt the great importance and value of the service that CT4TC provides, or the value for money for the taxpayer. The county council’s contribution to the organisation is about £250,000 a year, but what we actually get is about £1.5 million-worth of community transport, so we get six times as much as we spend. The real risk is that we will lose not only £250,000-worth of valuable services but all the extra value on top of that; we will lose £1.5 million-worth of service. That would be a terrible loss from such a cack-handed and ill-thought-through approach to funding reductions. I am not sure how many services in Derbyshire deliver that kind of return on the money spent.

CT4TC provides a number of services, and not only the ones directly funded by the county council. It provides schemes for care home outings, group outings, lunch clubs, regular day trips and a school service, as well as a dial-a-bus scheme and a community car scheme. If we lost the community car scheme, what impact would that have? The scheme exists to help people get to medical appointments with their general practitioner or at the hospital. Those people will still need to get to their medical appointments, and they will have two ways of doing that: they will either have to pay for a taxi themselves, which I suspect they cannot afford or are not willing to do, or they will have to use ambulance transport, which I think is now provided by the East Midlands Ambulance Service, but was previously done by a private provider. That just moves a cost for the taxpayer from one part of the system to a different part—namely, a service that is already overwhelmed and is not particularly efficient, either. I am not sure we are saving any money there.

At a time when we are meant to be trying to join up health and social care, if we move costs around the system and make it harder for people who are quite excluded to get to their health appointments, all that will happen is that a larger cost will end up falling on social care from people not getting the medical treatment they need when they need it. That scheme is vital, and that funding ought to stay.

We can make the same argument for what would happen if we were to lose the dial-a-bus scheme, which helps people who are otherwise excluded or stuck in their homes to get out, socialise, get their shopping, go to important appointments and pay their bills. If that service ceases to exist, where do we leave those people? We leave them more isolated, more lonely and stuck at

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home, so they cannot get the shopping they need or reach the other services they need. What happens then? They will need more social care and more visits a day. People who are not yet in the social care system will perhaps need to go into it, which will have a much more significant cost than what we will save from making these budget savings.

We are in danger of being very short-sighted here, by looking at one particular cost and not thinking about all the knock-on effects around the system. I fear that if Derbyshire County Council proceeds as it is doing, and we end up losing all these services, that will create a whole load more costs in its already stretched social services budget. The value that it gets for the £250,000 that it spends is far more than that sum, and it risks spending a whole load more if it loses this service. There must be a better way of achieving these savings that does not involve risking what CT4TC says could happen: we might leave them with no option but a managed wind-down if these savings go ahead as planned.

It is not right for us to stand here and oppose every cut that county councils have to make, when we are making the necessary funding reductions to them; that is not fair. We elect councils, and they should make decisions based on their priorities, but it is right for us to ask, “Have you really thought this through? Is this really fair? Is it a sensible system? Are you giving these organisations a chance to reorganise their funding and find a different way of doing this? Are you going to deliver the services that you are legally obliged to?” We are saying, “Why do it so quickly? Take longer over it; think about what you are losing and see how we can replicate it.”

I am sure there is scope for these organisations to be a bit more efficient and to have some more partnership working and perhaps some further merges, to avoid a repeat of leadership costs, management costs, trustee costs and premises costs. We can perhaps make maintenance costs a bit more efficient and get some more efficient routes by not having services split across boundaries. There is a challenge for these providers to become more efficient, but we cannot say that that is a solution to losing the £1.5 million of services that CT4TC provides across the whole county.

It is worth thinking about the other money being spent on transport services around the county. We have a valuable but quite costly bus pass gold card system. I have never been able to work out exactly why we can put someone on a commercial bus service that makes a profit, on which they can use their gold card to travel for free in Derbyshire, yet when they catch a community transport service, they cannot use that gold card, or they can use it but have to pay some of the fare. Is there not a way of thinking more logically about how we merge those two services? Is it sensible for subsidised, profit-making private bus companies to run routes with not many people on them, while we cannot provide a community transport service that is probably more efficient and takes the most disadvantaged and most excluded people where they really need to go to a planned timetable, so that there is a group to make the service viable?

Is there a way of using the money we are spending on the bus pass and on subsidising those services to get better, more inclusive provision that targets the people

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who really need it? I am not saying we should not have buses going to housing estates that otherwise have no service, or that we should in any way change the gold card or the national bus pass system, but is there a way of linking those uses with community transport, to get better value and provide the better service that our constituents really need? We will then be able to deliver for people who cannot get out of their house if they do not have such a service. That is what we face losing in Derbyshire.

I will conclude by reading CT4TC’s mission statement:

“No one regardless of age, ability/disability, financial status or domestic location should be prevented from enjoying a full life because of lack of access to private or public transport.”

I do not think any of us could disagree with that as a mission, and I hope we can find a way through this funding issue so that that does not become a reality for some people.

10.9 am

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall, and I thank the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) for securing today’s debate. I shall make some general comments about the policy in England and the UK and then turn to specific points on Northern Ireland, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) did for Scotland. Community transport is a massive issue for my constituency and it is always good to make a contribution on its importance.

Whether we are talking about voluntary car schemes, community bus services, hospital transport, school transport, dial-a-ride, wheels to work, group hire services or anything else, community transport is an essential service for many in the United Kingdom, and not least for the people in my constituency. It reaches vulnerable people, such as the elderly, and if ever we needed a reason for having it, that alone should be enough.

In 2013-14, more than 15 million passenger trips were provided by the 2,000 community transport organisations in England. It is clearly a huge sector and a credit to those who make it happen, as we have said. We have the opportunity to assist the unsung heroes in that sector and I welcome today’s debate.

The Government have made various single-year funds available for community transport—£20 million for 2011 and 2012 and, most recently, £25 million for 2015. I welcome the previous Government’s record on those funds; it is good to see the sector getting the recognition that it deserves with the increase in the single-year funds.

The bus service operators grant is also paid to community transport operators, and part of the BSOG that was devolved to local authorities in the last Parliament included an amount for their in-house community transport operations. I am very conscious that that has been devolved to the regions and that, for us in Northern Ireland, it is a devolved matter, but none the less, I would like to see it maintained across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I urge the Government to work closely with the devolved regions, so that community transport providers and those who avail themselves of community transport can get the best deal possible wherever they are in the United Kingdom. We should have a similar system

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across the whole of the UK. The Department for Transport also provides £200,000 a year to the Community Transport Association, which is a great organisation providing representation and assistance to community transport providers. That funding should continue and even be increased if appropriate.

Given the Government’s greater knowledge and experience of local transport issues, they believe, I understand, that

“it should be for local transport authorities, working in partnership with their communities, to identify the right solutions that meet the economic and environmental challenges faced in their areas and deliver the greatest benefits for their area.”

That is commendable and, hopefully, very achievable.

It may be a fair argument. Decisions about local issues are often made best at local level, but when it comes to funding and national attention, we have the clout to make a difference, as we should remember today. Local authorities that make payments to community transport operators must abide by the EU state aid rules, for example, and I am sure that there are other areas of red tape that make provision of community transport harder than it should be. Where possible, we should be cutting the red tape for local authorities to make their lives easier in providing and funding those important organisations and their services.

Again, this is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, as the Minister knows. The Community Transport Association Northern Ireland has a record of 89 community transport organisations throughout Northern Ireland, ranging from those whose main purpose is to provide transport services to the local community, as well as those where transport is an ancillary service to the organisation’s main objectives. The types of groups include rural community transport partnerships, local community-based minibus operators, schools, churches and youth groups. The figures, as well as being important statistically, show the help that people are given.

In 2009-10, slightly fewer than 1 million passenger trips were recorded for community transport in Northern Ireland. We are a small region with a population of 1.8 million, which gives an idea of how important those community organisations are and the role they play in communities. It should be noted that less than a third—29%—of the organisations surveyed had access to such data, meaning that that is not entirely representative of the true figure, which we believe would be even higher than the almost 1 million that I mentioned.

The total fleet size across all vehicles in Northern Ireland, according to data collected by the Northern Ireland Assembly, is approximately 700 vehicles. In my constituency of Strangford, community transport is essential, and so important in the Ards peninsula that I live in and in the hinterlands of Ballygowan, Saintfield and Ballynahinch. There are two different council areas: the Ards and North Down Borough Council represents the peninsula and the Ards town, and part of Comber, and the Newry, Mourne and Down District Council represents another portion. That rural community transport is run out of Downpatrick and reaches out to all those parts of the constituency, almost like the lifeblood that flows through someone’s body. Its importance cannot be underlined enough.

Approximately 100,000 volunteer hours were recorded by the 18 organisations who responded to the Northern Ireland Assembly consultation. As this matter is devolved,

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the Assembly has responsibility and has recognised its importance. It really is vital to rural communities, as other Members have said. If the total of 100,000 volunteer hours is scaled up from 29% to 100% of respondents, the total number of hours provided by volunteers would equate to more than 350,000 hours. I am ever mindful of the volunteers—where would be without them doing all sorts of work in charitable organisations, helping people and caring for them? All these things come together. I believe that we are a good nation of people who help others and look compassionately at how we can do that better. The total benefit to society of 350,000 volunteer hours is worth £2 million—that valuation is based on the national minimum wage rate.

We realise that, in Northern Ireland, community transport is under certain pressures, as, indeed, we all are at this time, as we try to live within our budget. Other Members have referred to that but, at the end of the day, we cannot take away from those people the door-to-door transport that they have. It directly gives a lift to the elderly and takes them to the shops, who perhaps have their only social interaction and communication with anybody through that trip—on that bus that picks them up and takes them to the shopping centre or to the day centre, where they meet people of like mind. That is so important. The hon. Member for Erewash set the scene very well in her introduction, as others have as well, and in Northern Ireland, that is critical.

There have been concerns in recent years, notably from the same Community Transport Association that is funded by the Government, that community transport has been under pressure to replace local bus services that have been cut as part of wider local authority funding reductions, and that the resources are not available to compensate for all the cuts. For example, the Campaign for Better Transport told the Select Committee on Transport that

“community transport can only fill between 10% and 15% of former supported transport provision”.

There is a gap, therefore, and perhaps the Minister will address that in his response.

There are two types of community transport licence. Section 18 of the Transport Act 1985, as amended, provides an exemption from public service operator and driver licensing requirements of vehicles used under permits. There are two types of community transport permits, both granted under the 1985 law. Twenty years on, surely we need to have another look at that. The debate is long overdue, and today we have had the chance to address that. Clearly, there are areas in which the Government are succeeding, such as the increase in the single annual payment. I warmly welcome that and hope to see more of the same, but I hope that 20 years is not an indicator of how long we will leave it until there is more serious legislation to assist this essential and undervalued sector.

In conclusion, community transport in my constituency and across all of Northern Ireland is critically important for people and their lifestyles, for their quality of life and for their interaction with people. I welcome this debate and thank all the Members who have participated, and particularly the hon. Lady for her introduction. I look forward to the responses from the shadow Minister and the Minister.

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10.18 am

Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. Let me also thank the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) for securing this important debate.

We have shed a lot of light today on the benefits for all our communities from community transport. Let me also thank the five Members who have spoken in this debate and briefly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) on raising the important issue of VAT exemption for vehicles, which I hope the Minister will address. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) on his comments. He made a very good point that the cost of cutting funding may result in additional costs elsewhere for our councils, as indeed, did the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) with his last point about the effect that community transport has on people’s quality of life.

However, as we have this debate on the cuts that may happen to community transport, I cannot help but reflect back on the election campaign and what the Scottish National party said: that there was an alternative to austerity and that we wanted Government spending throughout the UK increase by £140 billion. That sensible, pragmatic approach would have seen the budget deficit shrink to 2% of net national income by 2020, relieving some of the pressures on councils. I appeal to Conservative Members to accept the sense of that. We should approach the Chancellor to see what he is doing to relieve some of the pressures on our councils.

I want to reflect on some of the issues affecting the highlands and islands, which my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross mentioned. In my constituency and throughout the highlands and islands, community transport provides a lifeline to thousands of people in a vast number of communities. Many remote rural communities suffer from lack of access to services through the absence of public transport, which has a negative effect on their sustainability and economic viability.

The lack of public transport is often linked with lack of other public services: schools, medical facilities, shopping facilities and so on. Lack of resources can lead to a declining population, and within that an ageing population that is increasingly isolated. Providing access to transport is something the Scottish Government take seriously, although responsibility for funding services was made the full responsibility of Scottish local authorities from the 1 April 2008.

The Scottish Government recognise the important role community transport services play in providing accessible transport options as part of the transport network in Scotland. They play a major part in reducing isolation and increasing social inclusion. It is right that responsibility for such activities is in the hands of local authorities, which are the appropriate bodies to understand the needs of those in their communities. In this case, I recognise that Highland Council has sought to be proactive in working with others in the highlands to deliver effective solutions.

There is a question of what can be delivered through public transport and what is the inter-relationship with community transport. The Community Transport Association states:

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“Community transport enables people to live independently, participate in their community and to access education, employment, health and other services. It uses and adapts conventional vehicles to do exceptional things—always for a social purpose and community benefit, but never for a profit.”

Transport Scotland, with the Community Transport Association and independent consultants, collaborated on research into the community transport sector in March 2015. A survey asked respondents to list three main purposes for which their services are used. It found that 71% listed social outings as the main purpose, 56% listed care centres and day centres and 47% listed health-related purposes. That is clear evidence of the positive impact on the wellbeing of users from being able to access community transport.

Highland Council spends around £15 million on public and school transport. Separately from the public transport, the council currently supports 23 community transport projects. For some years its funding has been renewed annually, but it has now invited new applications for three-year grants, which is very welcome. The challenge is a 10% reduction in the budget. To put that in context, Highland Council has a budget of £416,961 for community transport. The council states:

“Community Transport provides a flexible, economic service to many people who are not reached by conventional transport, and its coverage could be usefully increased, given the right operating conditions.”

We understand the financial pressures on councils, but in the light of the evidence of the benefits of such spending and the grim reality of isolation that can occur if such links are cut, spending in this area must be protected. Given that the Highland council states that these services could be usefully increased, I am calling on the council today to protect this budget.

Neil Coyle: The hon. Gentleman focused on leisure need. Is he aware that it is not a statutory duty on local authorities to provide that? What is his party doing to improve social care legislation in the absence of central Government funding to ensure that the leisure needs of older and isolated people are better taken into account under the statutory provision of services?

Ian Blackford: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point and I agree with him. It is one reason why the Scottish Government have integrated social care into health care. We understand the importance of bringing the two together. We have made enormous steps to deliver on that and will continue to do so.

Neil Coyle: What about leisure?

Ian Blackford: Social care certainly has a leisure element. Transport needs are associated with that and it is important that community transport plays its part. Important discussions are taking place and include, for example, hospital transport to the new hospital in Broadford. That is part of the mix we are discussing.

In remote and sparsely populated communities there are enormous hurdles in ensuring that we deliver. A sense of isolation hampers community cohesion, connection to social and health services, which the hon. Member for Amber Valley mentioned, and acts as a barrier to people settling in sparsely populated communities.

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I represent the largest constituency in the country, with a land mass of 12,000 sq km. It is by far and away the most sparsely populated constituency in the country. Whether we are talking of public transport or other forms of transport connectivity, we suffer from being in the slow lane. Let me take air connectivity as an example. In the 1930s, it was possible to fly from Skye from either Skeabost or Glenbrittle, as indeed my wife’s grandmother did. Today, we have no regular air link to Skye, although we have a perfectly accessible runway at Broadford.

We need regular passenger services to be resumed to benefit local communities, tourists and businesses. An economic assessment is taking place on re-establishing air links, and although it will go to the Scottish Government in the first instance, I ask the Government in London to do what they can to ensure that Skye and the western highlands are connected to the outside world. There is much debate about an additional runway for London. I want just one functioning runway for Skye and the north-west coast of my country.

There is a challenge in providing transport capabilities throughout this vast region, but whether you live in a metropolitan area or a highland township, transport connectivity is a basic need. I applaud Highland Council for being imaginative in developing solutions. For example, a research project looking at rural transport options for the Glenelg area was carried out by Robert Gordon University. A pilot scheme was established and provided a capped sum of £3,000 to the Glenelg community for the scheme to run for 12 months. It procured a local taxi service for a fixed fee and sold tickets to travellers for £3 with the balance being provided to the taxi through the community group. It was a low-cost scheme that brought enormous benefits to the community of Glenelg and it has been continued. It is a good example of a locally driven solution with the community working with the local authority and a university with proven skills in the area of community transport.

One community that I know particularly well is Waternish, which is on a peninsula at the north end of Skye. It has a resident population of several hundred people, 35% of whom are retired, often with no access to their own transport. There is no shop in Waternish and those who live in Geary in Waternish and want to get to the nearest shop must travel 11 miles to Dunvegan. There is no bus to the peninsula, which is 7.5 miles long. There is a school bus but it is not licensed to carry anyone other than school pupils out of Waternish. This is something that needs addressing because it just adds insult to injury when a public service could be provided.

For Waternish and other communities, it is a question of how community transport can fill the gap and how we can connect them to the rest of Skye and beyond. We must rise to the challenge because if we do not we will leave communities at the margin, isolated and witnessing decline.

There is a willingness to tackle those challenges, often with the resourcefulness and drive of those who live in rural communities. They tend to want their communities to be sustainable and there is cause for hope. When I look at such places, I see entrepreneurialism and many people starting their own local businesses, often providing the highest quality products. Local food suppliers and outstanding craft producers, often working with others, want to interact with the local authority to fashion their own community-based transport solution.

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If we are to reach out and deliver connectivity, the kind of example that I described in Glenelg needs to be experienced in other areas. A partnership of local authorities and communities working together can fill in some of the remaining gaps, but there is a desire to recognise that budgets have to be protected to allow this to happen.

10.28 am

Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) on securing this debate. I am glad she recognises how essential community transport services are, particularly at a time when her Government are destroying bus services across our country. The shadow Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), visited the hon. Lady’s constituency last year and met a group of residents from the Fields Farm estate who have a bus stop but no bus. I have exactly the same problem in my constituency, so I know how it feels.

We have heard a series of powerful and passionate accounts from hon. Members about the importance of community transport. It seems to me that all hon. Members want to support community transport, but I did think that a political attack on Derbyshire County Council was perhaps inevitable. I understand the motives of the hon. Member for Erewash, and I am sure that equally, she will understand that I have to make a few points for the sake of balance. The council informs me that it is facing cuts of £157 million before 2018. She mentioned the level of reserves, and my understanding is that the council is managing to continue to support bus services by digging into those reserves, which will not be able to go on forever. It tells me that it has had an in-year cut in its public health budget, and of course, like every other shire county, it has a huge problem with the adult social care budget. I understand why an impassioned debate is going on in Derbyshire, and I am sure that it will continue, but I have every sympathy with my colleagues who are trying to deal with a very difficult situation in that county, as they are in other shire counties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) made a powerful point. I have to say that I was unaware of the Government’s largesse just before the election: £25 million was suddenly available from a Government who had no money. Excuse me for being cynical, Mr Nuttall—I would not want to say anything unparliamentary. I just hope that the Minister can assure us that some of the promises will have been delivered on by Christmas time. That would be a good thing to do, particularly for such worthy schemes as my hon. Friend outlined.

The account given by the hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) corresponds exactly with my recollections—in a former life, I was a councillor in very rural Norfolk. Again, I think we all understand just how important the social aspect of community transport is. I would also reflect that if the good people of eastern England had services that were remotely at that level of those in Derbyshire, they would be amazed, because in rural East Anglia we have not seen many such services for a long time.

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Having made my political points, I will be charitable and suggest that all of us in this Chamber probably have the same goal—to ensure that everyone, no matter who they are or where they live, is able to connect with their community and get to school, shops, work, hospitals, friends and family. That is why buses are vital, especially for disabled people and those from low-income households. Indeed, almost half of the poorest households in the country do not have access to a car, and people in the lowest income group use the bus almost four times more often than those in the highest income group. Moreover, about 60% of disabled people live in a household with no car, and disabled people uses buses about 20% more frequently than people without disabilities. I am sure that the Minister is familiar with those statistics; I suspect that he quotes them too.

We can therefore agree that we need buses, but the current situation just is not working. In many areas, private bus operators have abandoned bus routes and services that they have found to be commercially unprofitable, leaving many people isolated. Of course, local authorities, as I have mentioned, face deep cuts, leaving them unable to step in. As hon. Members have suggested, those responsible for various modes of community transport have valiantly attempted to perform the vital connective role that buses should play. Community transport serves areas that the bus companies have turned their back on.

However, there is something on which we cannot agree—the Government and Government Members continually refusing to take any responsibility for what is happening and blaming local councils for having to make cuts to transport funding. The Government are passing the buck and forcing local authorities to take the blame for those cuts, while keeping their own hands clean. It is estimated that central Government funding to English local authorities shrank by almost 40% between 2010-11 and 2014-15. The bus service operators grant, which subsidises bus fares for all, was also cut, by 20% in the previous Parliament. It is therefore no surprise that since 2010, 70% of local authorities, stuck between a rock and a hard place, have been forced to cut funding for bus services.

To suggest that councils are playing politics with these community services is slightly unworthy. The Government have been talking the devolution talk on one hand while taking funding away with the other, leaving councils and councillors in a near impossible position. That is not localism; it is a con. Furthermore, the Minister told us in July that he believes that decisions about funding to support local bus services are best made at local level, but in their comprehensive spending review the Government quietly included a further reduction of almost a quarter in central Government funding for local government over this Parliament. When local authorities face funding cuts that are that severe, it is really the Treasury making the decisions about which services to fund, not local authorities, whatever the rhetoric.

Against the backdrop of reduced services, community transport is more crucial than ever in helping people to get around, but as the Campaign for Better Transport has shown, community transport can only fill between 10% and 15% of the gap left by formerly supported transport provision. That suggests that although community

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transport has a very important role to play, it is only a partial solution to plugging the growing gap left by the Government’s policies and the subsequent cuts to services. We believe that the Government should be much more ambitious for the sector and should aim to develop and expand the role of not-for-profit bus operators, giving them the power to take up routes and services in all areas of the bus market and not only in unserviced and unprofitable areas. Expanding community transport could challenge the virtual monopoly of the bus market enjoyed by just a handful of conglomerates and, most significantly, put passengers before profits. Indeed, the People’s Bus campaign says:

“By keeping routes open and fares low, community transport operators are enabling people to access work and education, tackling social exclusion and loneliness, and can be the lifeblood of isolated communities.”

That is because unlike private operators, community transport operators reinvest profits in services, refocusing bus services on the shared interests of communities rather than shareholders.

A shining example of successful community transport is Hackney Community Transport. Formed more than 30 years ago, it has since expanded into Yorkshire, Humberside and the south-west. That social enterprise provides an aspirational model for community transport and a symbol of just what can be done. It provides more than 20 million passenger trips each year and delivers a variety of transport services: mainstream bus services, school transport, social care transport and more. The bus operator recently raised a £10 million investment—the largest growth capital investment in the UK impact investing sector. That demonstrates the potential of community and not-for-profit transport providers to ensure a fairer bus system by breaking the stranglehold that private bus operators retain over the market and giving communities a voice over the transport that they need to be delivered.

Clearly, buses face huge challenges in our country, and we want to give local authorities genuine power over their bus services. Local authority budgets have been decimated of late, and the Government need to stop wilfully ignoring both the financial pressure that authorities are under and the value of investing in subsidised transport.

We eagerly anticipate the Government’s forthcoming bus legislation and hope to see within it local authorities being given both power and money to deliver much-needed services, as well as a recognition of the huge economic and social potential of community transport. Devolution for Nottingham and Derbyshire is being long drawn out and delayed, and we want discussions to give way to real local powers. We just hope that when that legislation is on the table, it provides for authentic devolution. We will not settle for more of the same. We need a better bus system, but also a community transport system that can flourish and prosper in its own right, rather than propping up ever diminishing bus routes as the Government withdraw support. What an irony that the Prime Minister pledged to retain the bus pass, but neglected to keep the bus.

10.38 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Andrew Jones): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate my hon. Friend

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the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) on securing this debate on the important subject of community transport. The community transport sector has for many years stepped in and provided services where traditional public transport services have not been available or not been suitable for passengers. These vital, lifeline services enable people to live independently, participate in their community and access education, employment, health and a range of other services. The key point is that they are always provided for a social purpose and community benefit, not for profit. The range of services provided includes voluntary car services, community bus services, dial-a-ride and wheels to work, making use of every type of vehicle from mopeds to minibuses. Community transport is responsive, accessible, flexible and local. Services are often run by volunteers, who help communities merely out of social kindness without expecting anything for themselves, on which they must be congratulated.

We have heard from Members some great examples of local services, and we have heard how well valued they are and how significant their impact is. There is real scale to the sector: tens of thousands of volunteers deliver millions of passenger journeys. The House might be interested to know that the Community Transport Association has done some analysis of who its customers are. It found that 98% of those who use community transport are older people, and 85% of passengers are people with disabilities or restricted mobility. The figures showed that 78% of community transport services take people to social outings, 73% carry out health-related trips and 64% take people to day centres. The CTA found that 31% of community travel services are provided in mostly rural areas and a further 21% in exclusively rural areas. It is helpful to quantify the points that hon. Members have made, because of the scale and importance of the service. It deals with the some of the more vulnerable people in our community, and the social element, which hon. Members from Scotland particularly emphasised, is most important.

We have heard from hon. Members about services such as Bakewell and Eyam Community Transport in Derbyshire. Such services help to sustain and develop local economies and social integration, and we can see the real value of the organisations that run them. Evidently, so can the people of Derbyshire; I understand that a recent petition opposing the possible withdrawal of funding by the county council received strong support from local residents.

The Government recognise the importance of the sector, as we do the importance of all types of bus services. We recognise that buses are of enormous social and economic importance. They are at the heart of a modern transport system. The number of bus passenger journeys in our country is 5.7 billion a year, compared with 1.65 billion journeys on our railways. Bus services do the heavy lifting in our public transport system. That is why we have supported them and will continue to do so. The Government protected the bus service operators grant in the spending review to ensure that vital bus services continue to run.

We have created a £25 million fund for the purchase of new minibuses by community transport operators, so that they may continue to run those vital services. We have started delivering those to organisations, and the number will steadily increase over the next few months.

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The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) asked about the Lewisham and Southwark Age UK minibus. Let me provide a bit more information for colleagues. Each vehicle is being individually built to meet each organisation’s needs. The number of successful organisations was actually 310, not 400. When officials from the Department for Transport liaised with community bodies around the country, they found fairly clear consistency in the types of vehicles that those organisations sought. We therefore bunched them into different groups—we had perhaps 25 organisations seeking a 16-seat minibus with a lift, for instance—and those groups are now being dealt with under the procurement framework. The procurement portal has been launched. It is important that we deliver the procurement through a portal, because it will result in better value for taxpayers. The pace is picking up—some vehicles are out there already, and some grants are being made to individual bodies locally. The scheme is an important and popular one, which has my personal attention to ensure that it happens as quickly as possible. That is a quick update, and I will keep the hon. Gentleman informed about progress on the order for his constituents.

I recognise that the sector is working in challenging times, with changes to local authority funding and reform of the bus market. The Government are committed to balancing our country’s finances and reducing the deficit, and I recognise that many local authorities are facing reductions in budgets and difficult decisions about where to spend their money. That is not easy for local councils. However, I gently remind Labour Members that they too stood on a manifesto platform of cuts in budgets, with Health, Education and International Development being the only Departments that would be protected. They should not pretend that they have no mandate on this, because they stood on a manifesto of some cuts and, of course, we all know that it was the Labour party that crashed the economy in the first place.

I cannot comment on decisions made by Derbyshire County Council, but I encourage local authorities to think innovatively about the decisions that they take on public transport funding. Transport is vital to keep the country moving and to continue the economic recovery. Connecting people is a key Government transport objective, and we all understand the social, economic and environmental benefits of effective transport systems. That is why we have provided £196.5 million to the D2N2 local enterprise partnership, provided Derby City Council with £4.9 million for better ways to work as part of the local sustainable transport fund, and given £2.95 million to Derbyshire County Council to repair its local roads.

Many colleagues spoke about access to healthcare. Whether they are visiting a GP or a hospital, people need to make essential journeys and they rely on transport to get them there. A scheme in the Department that is of real interest is the Total Transport pilots. We believe that Total Transport can help. The idea is to integrate transport services that are currently commissioned by different central and local government agencies and provided by different operators. Such integration may deliver improved passenger transport, particularly in isolated communities, by ensuring that existing resources are allocated more efficiently. That might entail, for example, combining conventional bus services or dial-a-ride

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with hospital transport. The objective is to meet individual transport needs; it is not about what is written on the side of the vehicle.

Some £2 billion of public funding for transport services is provided each year by a number of agencies, in addition to £1 billion for concessionary passes. To break that down, £350 million is provided for local authority support of socially necessary bus services, £1 billion for home-to-school transport provided by local authorities, and at least £150 million for non-emergency patient transport provided by the NHS to individual local clinical commissioning groups. However, that funding is not generally co-ordinated or integrated at a local level, which sometimes results in duplication and wastage of public money—wastage that we can ill afford.

That is why, in April, the Government allocated £7.6 million to 37 schemes run by local authorities to pilot Total Transport solutions in their areas. The pilot schemes will run for a maximum of two years. That is a small amount of money, but a very big idea. It is about integrating services. It has the capacity to make a real difference in meeting the transport needs of every community.

Nigel Mills: Would the Minister care to comment on whether community transport providers can access concessionary fare money? I believe that those who run a for-profit service that is open to everybody can access that scheme, but those who run a targeted community transport scheme cannot get the refund on some of the fares. That seems a bit unfair.

Andrew Jones: What my hon. Friend says is correct. There are different types of schemes under different types of permits, which may therefore attract different levels of fares. I will look into the matter and respond more fully to him.

Let me mention buses, which Members have highlighted. As everybody knows, the Government are committed to devolution. Bus services are inherently local and must take full account of local circumstances and needs. It is right that areas that have ambitious plans to grow and develop their bus markets should be given the powers they need to achieve their aims. We have signed groundbreaking deals with several local authorities, in which we have committed to providing them with powers to franchise their bus services. Franchising continues to form a core part of ongoing devolution deal conversations. Our devolution plans go beyond Manchester, Cornwall and Sheffield; if other areas want to come forward with attractive devolution deals that include bus franchising, they will be considered.

The future of bus services in each area will depend on how well local authorities, LEPs and operators adapt to local conditions. Not every place will adopt the same bus strategy, nor should they. It is about what works best for each area. That could be partnerships, franchising or, where bus services are working well, the status quo. What matters is that local authorities, bus operators and LEPs sort out what will be best for them locally and get on with it. In all that, the aim is to grow the bus market. I am a great fan of buses, and they are a key part of our transport mix. The buses Bill will present us with the opportunity to give local areas powers to make things even better.

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As I have described, the Department provides several pots of funding to help provide strong transport and social connections in our communities. It is true that reductions in funding to local authorities have been tough. I was a cabinet member in a local authority for five years, with responsibility for its finances, so I know that these are difficult, big decisions, but the funding has been set at a sufficient level to deliver effective services.

It is up to Derbyshire County Council where to prioritise its funds and whether it ought to be making cuts to community transport. It has significant reserves—I understand that they could be up to £200 million—and it will have to consider what to do. It is the council’s decision, and as hon. Members have said, it is not easy, but the key priority must be to focus the money on where it will make a difference. Community transport really makes a difference, as everybody knows and has been so clear about. I am sure that the council is watching the debate and will listen to hon. Members.

I look to community transport operators to be part of the changing public transport picture and to work closely with their local authorities, and I look to all parties to consider how they might best contribute to providing services.

Ian Blackford: Will the Minister address the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) and I made about VAT exemption for community transport vehicles?

Andrew Jones: I was just about to come to some of the points made by the hon. Members for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan). VAT exemptions are obviously a Treasury matter. I will take that up with the Treasury and write back to the hon. Gentleman.

The contribution of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross was powerful, particularly as it highlighted the social experience of journeys and how big some of those journeys are in his part of the world. It is a fantastic part of the United Kingdom, but the journey distances are unrecognisable to other areas. Low population density areas face greater challenges with transport.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the infraction case. That is an ongoing case, and as it is not resolved it would not be appropriate for me to comment on it. I assure the House that we will continue to work closely with colleagues in Scotland and Northern Ireland as the case progresses.

I confirm that the Government recognise the importance of community transport. It is clear that that view is held right across the House, and that there are no political divisions at all on the matter. I will work to ensure that community transport has an even stronger future.

10.52 am

Maggie Throup: Thank you very much for your chairmanship today, Mr Nuttall. I think the debate was about to get a bit raucous at one stage, but you brought us back under control. I thank the Minister for his response, for his and the Government’s commitment to community transport, and for acknowledging that it plays such an important part in all our constituencies.

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I thank all hon. Members who have made valuable contributions to the debate. I feel like I have had quite a good bus tour around the country. We have been to the very north of Scotland to Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, and to the west of Scotland to Ross, Skye and Lochaber. We have been over the waters to Strangford and down to Bermondsey in London. During the journey, we have been through the rest of country from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) to that of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham), whose experiences we heard about. We have taken in Banbury, Derby North and Amber Valley. It has been an interesting tour around the country.

Although Members may disagree on some points, particularly about funding cuts, we have all come to the consensus—whether we represent a rural, urban or suburban constituency—that community transport plays an immensely important role in supporting the elderly, vulnerable and disabled.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) quoted the mission statement for his constituency’s community transport service, and indicated very well that it is not only the elderly and disabled who benefit from community transport services but a wide variety of service users across the board. As my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak did, I encourage other Members to spend a day with their local community transport service, experiencing at first hand what it does and the pleasure it brings to so many people.

We have heard about several community transport organisations that have already diversified their funding, and about the added value that community transport brings to our communities. It is important that community transport organisations, including those in Erewash and others across Derbyshire, look for alternative funding streams. However, I ask the Minister, as well as taking on board the issues raised by other Members, to do whatever he can to ask Derbyshire County Council to give community transport across Derbyshire a stay of execution until alternative funding streams can be found. I am sure that once that has happened, our community transport services will benefit from having control of their own funds and the freedom to develop services in the way they really want, so that they can benefit an even wider range of local user groups.

I would like to finish by acknowledging that Erewash has good bus routes. In fact, constituents in some areas think that we actually have too many buses—an oversupply. There is not a lack of buses, it is just about how those bus routes are delivered. I disagree with the shadow Minister, because it is his colleagues at Derbyshire County Council who are playing politics with people’s lives. They are always blaming the Government for their poor decision making. Erewash Borough Council is under the same pressures, but it is thriving.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the provision of community transport.

10.56 am

Sitting suspended.

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Sale of Ministry of Justice Land: Gloucester

11 am

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the sale of Ministry of Justice land in Gloucester.

Today’s debate is about the agonising detail of pushing forward one aspect of the regeneration of the ancient and small city of Gloucester. It is, as I will explain, a story of our time—a story of complex partnerships—and, hopefully, it has a happy ending. I will start with the context of today’s debate. The regeneration of Britain’s big cities has ploughed ahead successfully for some time. The previous Labour Government did it through Government-funded or private finance initiative-funded projects, especially in the north of England; the coalition Government did it through growth funds and bids via local enterprise partnerships; and this Conservative Government are continuing that process with the additional features of devolution, local powerhouses and more pressure on the public sector to release unused and unneeded real estate—I will return to that last point in a moment.

At the same time, inevitably, there has been a process of consolidation in both the public and private sectors in that part of the west of England bordering the west midlands, the River Severn and Wales, which is Gloucestershire. The Government, like the Crown Prosecution Service, have been tempted to retreat to Bristol, and some businesses have done likewise. A city such as Gloucester, therefore, has to paddle very hard to attract new businesses, growth and jobs, and as the Minister knows, paddling hard is precisely what Gloucester does. The turnaround in global aerospace demand and the Government’s support for Britain’s technology and innovation advantages in aerospace have benefited the M5 corridor from Bristol to Gloucester and Cheltenham, and our subcontractors have benefited from the Government’s support for research and development, apprenticeships and capital allowances.

If I may list a few more areas of growth that are relevant to the importance of the car park in question, I highlight the huge rise in the importance of cyber that has driven interest in the cheaper real estate and convenient location of Gloucester for a new cyber- centre. The importance attached to nuclear energy is a huge boost for EDF Energy’s nuclear operational headquarters in Barnwood and has brought Horizon, which is going to build two new nuclear power stations, to the edge of our city. The waterside location of Gloucester Quays has attracted tidal lagoon power, which will surely be approved before long to create Britain’s new tidal energy hub and will be a huge contributor to the production of our green energy. At the same time, through Peel plc, we have been able to become a major shopping and leisure destination, with more than 5 million visitors a year to Gloucester Quays, and we have benefited from hosting the rugby world cup this autumn, using sport as a catalyst for regeneration.

Importantly, alongside all those major developments, we have seen a huge increase in the number of new businesses created in Gloucester—I call them new Gloucesterpreneurs. We are ranked in the top six in the country for the creation of new businesses. Last, but by

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no means least for this MP who studied history, thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund, forward-thinking trustees of different charities and, I hope, strong political support, we have made much more of our heritage to win bids for funding to improve and highlight our destinations, and to host new festivals that, in turn, are bringing more visitors; the cathedral has a critical role in that. Should the Minister have the chance, I would be delighted to show him our city—not just the car park in which he is playing such an important role, but a city where heritage comes alive and new businesses thrive.

A common theme for all such growth is, of course, transport. On the edge of the M5 between Bristol and Birmingham, and two hours by train from London, one of Gloucester’s key attractions for inward investors is our transport links, which also support those living in neighbouring constituencies such as Forest of Dean, Stroud and Tewkesbury. Gloucester’s growth means that the most recent railway passenger statistics show an increase of 4% in passengers from Gloucester, which is a third more than the national figure of 3%. That will increase and, as the Minister may know, trains will shortly be running every half hour from London towards Gloucester and Cheltenham, which in turn will increase the number of passengers using our station and, inevitably, the station car park. In turn, of course, that will put significant pressure on existing facilities, which is precisely where the Ministry of Justice comes in—this is the crux of today’s debate.

Almost 10 years ago, the previous Labour Government bought land for new courts in Gloucester. We will return to that theme another day and, before the Minister gets nervous about the scope of today’s debate, I assure him that I will not be raising the issue of a new justice centre in Gloucester today. The land acquired on Great Western Road, a former car park, lies beside platform 4 of the station, although it is currently without access to it, and opposite Gloucestershire Royal hospital, which employs many thousands of people and, of course, has many more patients every year. The car park has sat empty and unused for a decade, ever since the Labour Government changed their mind about new courts for Gloucester. In October 2014, I launched a campaign to bring the car park back into use as a new long-term car park for the station, with new access to the station from that side.

The ingredients for that project, or “stakeholders”, if we prefer that term, were many. I needed support in principle for the idea, above all, from what was then First Great Western and is now Great Western Railway—a name resonant from my younger days in Gloucestershire and my many school journeys from Moreton-in-Marsh to Colwall. I needed the Department for Transport’s support for Great Western Railway’s proposal in its seven-year franchise extension. Both Great Western Railway and the Department for Transport, led by the Secretary of State for Transport, who visited Gloucester, responded magnificently. I needed support from the county council, which it also gave, not least because there is a spin-off benefit in relieving some of the traffic pressure from the station forecourt on to Bruton Way from the current car park. And I needed support from the city council for the potential planning application, which it gave in principle, noting the huge added convenience

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for Gloucestershire Royal hospital staff and patients and the regeneration implications for the site, the road and the city.

Lastly, but by no means least, as the Minister knows, I needed support, both in principle and in practice, from the Ministry of Justice in disposing of the land and being the catalyst for something that, although modest in itself, will have much wider transport, traffic and growth implications, enabling a virtuous circle of easier access for travellers, more trains, better experience, more visitors and more jobs from the economic boost.

The Minister and the then Secretary of State for Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), could not have been more helpful, and I wish to put that on the record. Everything was agreed in principle in March 2015, but of course the business of process, transfer to a Government entity to avoid any question of state aid, legalities, price and the number of entities involved—the Ministry of Justice, the valuers, the independent valuer, the city council, Great Western Railway, the Department for Transport and Network Rail at one point—plus the summer holidays meant that progress during the middle of this year was somewhere between modest and slow, but the pace has picked up in the last few weeks, which is perhaps in part due to the Chancellor’s determination that the Government should make much greater use of their real estate assets as soon as possible. My understanding of the current situation is very encouraging, and part of today’s objective is to hear whether the Minister shares my understanding.

First, I believe that the Ministry of Justice has agreed in principle to sell the land to Gloucester City Council, and I understand that a recommendation on the price and an agreement goes to a Ministry of Justice real estate board in early January 2016. Secondly, Great Western Railway has agreed in principle to lease the land from the city council and intends to submit a planning application in January. Thirdly, Great Western Railway and the Department for Transport are holding talks to ensure that the land is retained as a station asset way beyond the current franchise. Fourthly, the city and county councils have submitted a bid of almost £5 million for various station improvements, in line with my recommendations of October 2014, to the Gloucestershire local enterprise partnership, and that bid is likely to be high on the LEP’s list of priorities.

I hope that I have laid out that never was an empty car park so important to the development of transport in our city, or to our city’s regeneration; its value as a catalyst for change is much greater than its commercial value. A year and a bit on from a series of proposals laid out by e-news to my constituents, I believe that the public sector—Government and local government—working together with the train operator means that we are close to bringing this opportunity to reality.

Today, I hope that the Minister can confirm his understanding of where things are, and that he will continue his key role in urging that the most important of Government responsibilities—the implementation of decisions already made in principle—be carried out, so that early in the new year, the city of Gloucester can have certainty that ideas on paper will become reality.

In the bigger scheme of things, this car park is at the very fringes of the Minister’s empire of responsibilities and goals to deliver, but I hope that it is a project—small

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as it is—about which he and his Department will be able to say shortly, “We reviewed this proposal. We agreed with it in principle. We promised to make it happen. And we have now delivered.” If that is the case, Gloucester will be very grateful, but it will also set a magnificent precedent for other opportunities involving MOJ real estate around the country.

11.11 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): As always, Mr Nuttall, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this debate on a subject that is vital for the residents of Gloucester. I also take this opportunity to put on the record the huge amount of work that he has done for the people of Gloucester, not only regarding this particular piece of land but more generally. As far as this issue is concerned, he has engaged with me on a regular and active basis, and he has also been instrumental in ensuring that the many other stakeholders and key players involved in the whole of this transaction have been engaged with one another. He has been instrumental in ensuring that all the threads are woven together to make one canvas, so that hopefully in the new year we will be able to arrive at an agreeable solution.

Of course, my hon. Friend and I have met on a number of occasions to discuss this issue and we have also corresponded about it. He has a terrific vision for Gloucester. My officials have engaged extensively with representatives from the many other interested parties on how the land owned by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service in Great Western Road can form part of the wider regeneration of the city.

Let me explain at the outset that the piece of land in question was purchased quite some time ago with the intention of building a new Gloucester court. The freehold interest in the site was one of a number of magistrates courts and other properties transferred to the Courts and Tribunals Service under the Transfer of Property (Abolition of Magistrates’ Courts Committees) Scheme 2005. Since that time, the site was used temporarily as a car park by the national health service and was later used as a store to facilitate works to the adjacent railway. As my hon. Friend indicated, for quite some time it has not been in use.

Following an approach by Gloucester City Council, the Courts and Tribunals Service considered a request to transfer the land. In support of its request, the council asked that we take into account the wider economic development of the area and its importance for the city as a whole. My hon. Friend will appreciate that the Ministry of Justice and Gloucester City Council have a duty to achieve best value for the taxpayer at large and for the citizens of Gloucester. As part of that duty, the Ministry of Justice is obliged to work within Her Majesty’s Treasury guidelines for managing public money. That means that, when disposing of surplus property assets, we must always seek best value for the taxpayer. The council, for its part, has to consider the potential return on its investment in a future lease arrangement.

After careful consideration of the representations made by my hon. Friend, the council and others, it was decided that the land was no longer required for a court

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or tribunal building. That cleared the way for the Courts and Tribunal Service to move towards a sale of the land, at market value, to Gloucester City Council.

I understand that the council intends to enter into an agreement that would see the site being used as a car park, which, as my hon. Friend highlighted in his speech, would improve access to the nearby railway station. The redevelopment of the land is an important part of the vision to regenerate the city. Of course, the use of the site as a car park also has broader implications for the highways and traffic management within the area. This is not a simple issue but one that is complex and that involves a number of other agencies.

The Ministry of Justice has been in regular and constructive dialogue with the council, and I am pleased to say that much progress has been made. However, both parties have produced their own valuations of what the property is worth. Nevertheless, we may now be nearing some sort of agreement. I hope my hon. Friend will appreciate that, for reasons of commercial confidentiality, I cannot divulge the final details of the valuations or the negotiations. He will understand that, as is the case in almost every transaction of this kind, there are many aspects of the proposal to discuss, including the future development potential of the site; the current and future planning status; whether there should be any conditions attached to the completion of the sale; the timing of any such conditions; whether any overage or clawback should be applied, and if so, how much and over what time; what price should be paid; and whether that price should be paid in one lump sum or in staged payments.

While there remain technical details to resolve, I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for seeing the matter settled, and both parties continue to work towards achieving a deal that is acceptable to all concerned. I emphasise that there is no lack of willing on our side to achieve a mutually beneficial sale.

I turn briefly to the wider changes that we are making to courts and tribunals in England and Wales as part of our court reform programme. We have conducted a consultation on the possible closure of 91 courts and tribunals across England and Wales. The HMCTS estate is a major asset, but many buildings are underused. Indeed, around a third of our courts are used at less than half their capacity. Our proposal is to close the less efficient buildings and to transform the way that courts and tribunals operate and deliver services to the public in the future.

Those improvements cannot be secured without some difficult decisions having to be made, but I genuinely believe that the court reform programme offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a modern, user-focused and efficient Courts and Tribunals Service.

Richard Graham: The Minister is kind to give way. I promised him that I would not extend this debate to cover the issue of the future of the courts, but I just thought it would be helpful to him if I were to put on the record the offer that Gloucester has made to the Ministry of Justice. Effectively, it is to provide land free of charge in the wonderful central area of Blackfriars, very close to the current Crown court, the families courts and the magistrates courts, to create a single

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justice centre for all the courts and tribunals in the city, which will provide justice for the people of Gloucestershire. I hope he will consider that offer.

Mr Vara: In his usual eloquent way, my hon. Friend has managed to sneak into this debate another angle, which obviously also involves his speaking up for constituents in Gloucester. I commend him for that. I am mindful of the submission that he and the people of Gloucester have made, and we are reflecting on it. No decisions have been made so far regarding the wider consultation.

As far as the court reform programme is concerned, we must recognise that the world outside of the courts is changing rapidly. In the 21st century, we expect to be able to transact our business online, quickly, efficiently and at a time that suits us. Cheques and paper forms have been replaced by contactless payment cards and smartphone apps. The Courts and Tribunals Service has already established alternative ways users can interact with its services, such as the use of video links, and it is looking to expand the provisions to provide more choice than is currently available. That includes exploring whether appropriate use can be made of civic and other buildings for certain types of hearings. My hon. Friend is aware that Gloucester magistrates court is included in the consultation. The proposal is for criminal work from the court to be transferred to Cheltenham magistrates court. As he is aware, we are analysing all the responses to the consultation, and we have not made up our mind or made any decisions so far.

For the sake of good order, I assure my hon. Friend that the sale of the land at Great Western Road does not impact in any way on the decisions that will need to be made following the consultation. He will understand that I cannot give him notice of the finalised transaction, for the reasons I have given. I very much hope, however, that he and his constituents will be in no doubt that I support the positive vision that is regeneration in Gloucester—a matter that he has so forcefully put across. The Ministry of Justice is keen to be a part of that vision, and we are taking steps to ensure that we do not stand in the way of progress. At the same time, he will appreciate the importance of my Department faithfully discharging its duties to taxpayers and ensuring that we deal with valuable assets responsibly.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I very much hope that, in the new year, there will be some resolution to all the hard work that he has put in on behalf of his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

11.21 am

Sitting suspended.

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Benefit Sanctions

[Mrs Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I beg to move,

That this House has considered benefit sanctions.

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to lead this short debate this afternoon. Members will be aware that I have debated this topic with Ministers several times in the past, and that I have been at pains during those debates to raise concerns about the impact of conditionality on vulnerable claimants. At the forefront of those debates has been the disproportionate level of sanctions imposed on people with mental illness. I met the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People not long ago to discuss some of the ways in which the Government might address the acknowledged shortcomings in the regime for those with serious mental illnesses and other fluctuating conditions. However, I am glad that the Minister for Employment is responding to today’s debate, because I think the wider issues sit far more appropriately in her portfolio.

As I have argued before, one of the reasons why the sanctions regime is failing vulnerable people so badly is the underlying problem with the work capability assessment. High levels of sanctioning among people who are ill or very disadvantaged is, in part, symptomatic of people being found fit for work when they are not really fit for work. Until that gets fixed, I fear we are destined to go round in circles. But that is not the whole story. Although I do not think anyone would dismiss the value of conditionality in the benefits system per se, the conditions that the Government set need to be proportionate and fair, and I do not think we can say that at the moment, particularly for the more vulnerable claimants.

The Government’s announcement a few weeks back that they intend to pilot a so-called yellow card scheme for sanctions in the new year is, I think, an acknowledgement that the system is not working very well at present. I hope the Minister will take the opportunity today to set out in more detail how that warning system will work in practice, and, specifically, what protection there will be for those who are identified as vulnerable.

My main call today echoes the calls I have made previously, and that the Work and Pensions Committee made in the previous Parliament, for a full independent review of the benefit sanctions regime. That is necessary and long overdue. I fear that tinkering around the edges of the system will not resolve the systemic weaknesses, and this afternoon I want to highlight a growing body of evidence that sanctions are not only failing to support claimants into work, but are actually having a counterproductive effect, undermining the Government’s policy objectives and causing unacceptable levels of hardship and destitution to vulnerable and disadvantaged people.

Last week the homelessness charity, Crisis, published a major piece of research undertaken at Sheffield Hallam University into homeless people’s experiences of welfare conditionality and benefit sanctions. It is a significant and timely piece of work; it is the largest study of its kind ever carried out, and it provides a robust qualitative

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evidence base for how sanctions are affecting vulnerable claimants. The researchers drew on the experiences of more than a thousand people who use homelessness services in England and Scotland, and looked specifically at the impact of sanctions on their lives and employment prospects. Distressing individual stories are documented in the report, and I urge the Minister and other hon. Members to read it. It deserves to be widely read.

There are many reasons why people become homeless or precariously housed. Often in the past, relationship breakdown has been cited as the single biggest reason why someone will end up homeless, but more recently that has been overtaken by problems with benefits, particularly among those who have been sanctioned. In many cases, though, homelessness is itself a symptom of underlying vulnerabilities. Young people leaving care; people with long-term mental health problems; people with addictions; and people with borderline learning disabilities who have trouble with literacy or numeracy—those are all high risk factors for becoming homeless, but what the Crisis research found was that the most vulnerable claimants were those at the greatest risk of being sanctioned. They also found that, far from pushing people to secure work, sanctions were actually pushing people further away from the labour market. To my mind, that is an extremely serious finding, because it undermines the Government’s assertion that sanctions are helping to bring down claimant numbers and are playing a positive role in getting people into work.

As far as vulnerable claimants are concerned, that is simply not where the evidence leads. Research from the University of Oxford and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, published earlier this year, found that

“Sanctions do not appear to help people return to work. There is a real concern that sanctioned persons are disappearing from view.”

Similarly, the Economic and Social Research Council has questioned the effectiveness of conditionality in getting people into work, and the Department for Work and Pensions’ own evaluation of Jobcentre Plus in 2013 concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that knowledge of jobseeker’s allowance conditionality led to actual movement into work. However, there is mounting evidence that sanctions are a key driver of the growth in demand for food banks and are causing unprecedented hardship, and now there is evidence that they are fuelling homelessness.

The number of people being sanctioned has fallen from its peak in the year to October 2013. Since that time, the labour market has improved significantly, and the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance or its successor benefit, universal credit, has fallen by 41%, so we would expect to see a corresponding fall in the number of people being sanctioned. What is more revealing is that we have also seen a smaller, underlying downward trend in the proportion of claimants being sanctioned, which has fallen to 4.92% a month in the year to June 2015, from a high of 6.77% a month in the previous year. That, however, is still dramatically higher than the pre-2012 rates prior to the introduction of the new regime, and a staggering proportion of sanctions—more than two thirds—are now overturned on appeal, where claimants challenge the decision. I know from speaking to colleagues in Citizens Advice that it now urges people who are sanctioned to appeal against that

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first sanction. If people do not appeal against that first sanction, there is a real risk that if they are sanctioned again, the consequences will be devastating for their incomes.

Research carried out by Dr David Webster of Glasgow University highlights a couple of very important statistical limitations of the data that we have on sanctions. First, the recorded stats show sanctions only after reviews, considerations and appeals, so there is a time lag in the data, and the figures do not tell us how many people actually had their benefit money stopped in the first place. Also, and more significantly, as the DWP has been making the transfer to universal credit, new single claimants of unemployment benefits are going on to that benefit instead of on to JSA, and absolutely no data have been published on universal credit sanctions. This is now having what researchers describe as a “significant distorting effect” on analysis, because the number of those at risk of JSA sanctions is being reduced. Moreover, the young single claimants now more likely to be on universal credit—almost half of them are under 25—were previously twice as likely, statistically, to be sanctioned under JSA, so the distortion in the data could be amplified by that, but without hard data, we simply do not know. So we need that data on universal credit.

Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She has made an interesting point about jobseeker’s allowance, but there are data to show that in the past couple of years there has been a significant increase in the number of disabled people in receipt of employment and support allowance who have been sanctioned, up from 1,400 in March 2013 to 5,400 in March 2014, according to the Crisis figures that I believe the hon. Lady was citing.

The hon. Lady made comments about improving the work capability assessment. Even if the WCA were improved, what is her solution to the sanctions on disabled people on employment and support allowance?

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (in the Chair): May I remind hon. Members that interventions are supposed to be short and pithy?

Dr Whiteford: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about employment and support allowance. I was particularly addressing the universal credit figures, on which, at the moment, the data are lacking, although I believe that in August the UK Statistics Authority called for those data to be published, along with data on actual numbers of sanctions applied. Will the Minister tell us when the Government plan to publish those figures?

The wider issue about the move to universal credit is that it introduces critical differences to the conditionality regime that applied for JSA. First, under universal credit, sanctions run consecutively, not concurrently, so they will potentially be much longer. Also, any hardship payments made are repayable, so if, for example, someone is repaying a hardship payment at the rate of 40% of their benefit, their sanction will effectively become three and a half times longer in real terms than its nominal length. That seems unduly punitive. Moreover, the 80% hardship rate for vulnerable claimants will be abolished

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under universal credit. Again, given what the Government have already said about recognising the needs of vulnerable claimants, they really should go back to the universal credit changes and look at how they are going to impact on people.

Hardship payments are not made automatically. People need to know that they exist, whether they are eligible for them, and how to apply. My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) has introduced a ten-minute rule Bill, which we are due to debate early in the new year, that would make hardship payments automatic and non-repayable. In the wake of the Oakley review, the Government accepted in principle the need to: make hardship payments available from day one of a sanction; remove the requirement for those who are vulnerable or have children to complete a separate application process; and extend vulnerability markers. Given that acknowledgement that there are vulnerable people in the system, that people are being sanctioned who are not really in a position to comply with the conditions placed on them, and the growing evidence that those claimants are at much greater risk of sanctioning, will the Minister look at this again as universal credit is rolled out more widely?

The rate of sanctions for those in receipt of ESA is very much lower than for JSA, but it is nevertheless a serious issue. We would expect ESA sanctions to be less prevalent, but one of the deeply worrying issues that emerges from the figures released by the DWP in November is that around half of the ESA sanctions imposed between April and June this year were on claimants who had previously been sanctioned. That makes it crystal clear that sanctions are not having a deterrent effect on sick and disabled claimants; rather, it suggests that people are simply unable to comply with the conditions imposed on them. That echoes case studies in the Crisis research, which showed that when sanctioned claimants on ESA had support from professionals, they were subsequently assigned to the support group.

One of the key issues that emerged from the Crisis research with service users was that overall, 21% of respondents who had been sanctioned said that they became homeless as a result of the sanction. The Government have to take that extremely seriously. If someone becomes homeless, it becomes significantly more difficult for them to find work. Communication becomes difficult if someone does not have a stable address, reliable internet access, and cannot present themselves in a smart and work-ready way. It also puts untold pressure on relationships with family and friends. Indeed, it puts financial pressure on family and friends who are trying to support loved ones but might not have the means to do so. It also has a very costly knock-on effect on local authorities, which have statutory responsibilities in such circumstances but also face significant financial pressures.

A critical and perennial problem is that sometimes when a person is sanctioned their housing benefit is also stopped. I know that it is not supposed to happen, and the Government claim that it no longer happens, but very recent research makes it clear that it is still happening. The issue was highlighted in the Oakley review back in 2014, and the Government responded by advising claimants to keep local authorities informed of their situation.

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They also said that they would implement an IT fix. When the previous Employment Minister appeared before the Work and Pensions Committee in February, prior to the election, it was suggested that the problem had been resolved, but it had not. In early October, DWP issued an urgent circular to local authorities confirming that sanctioned claimants should continue to receive housing benefits without interruption.

It is clear that there has been an ongoing problem that has not been resolved. That is backed up by the evidence in the Crisis report: more than a third of those it surveyed who claim housing benefit reported that it was stopped when they were sanctioned. That rate rose to 38% for those in the ESA work-related activity group—that is, those people currently not fit for work and in an inherently vulnerable situation. It is clear that not all councils’ systems have caught up with the new guidance yet, and it is still a bit of a lottery. This has been happening for a long time now, and the Government really need to get a grip of the issue. Will the Minister update us on that, and tell us what the Government are going to do to protect vulnerable claimants who face housing benefit cuts?

It is important to understand that for many people in rented accommodation, housing benefit or local housing allowance will not cover all their rent in the first place. Many people in private rented accommodation make up the rent out of their JSA or ESA, and some folk in social housing will be liable for the bedroom tax—although thankfully not in Scotland. In a lot of cases, sanctioning is pushing people into arrears, even where the system is working as the Government intend it to.

It is abundantly clear that the sanctions regime is causing real hardship for the most vulnerable people. The Crisis report lays out in very stark terms the extent to which some claimants find it immensely difficult to comply with the conditions placed on them. It is really notable in the research findings that the overwhelming majority of claimants want to work and have every intention of meeting their responsibilities, but simply cannot always meet the demands placed on them. Sanctions need to be reasonable, proportionate and fair, but for those who face the biggest hurdles, the current regime is none of those things.

No one should be made destitute because of the conditionality regime. That is not an acceptable outcome in a civilised and wealthy society. Neither is it a proportionate response to minor infringements, which are often the result of circumstances beyond the control of individuals. Only one in 50 people who are sanctioned is sanctioned for refusing a job. That seems like a heavy burden for people who have made minor infringements. They can potentially lose their homes and any means of supporting themselves. All Members know that we are witnessing destitution in too many communities. People are simply falling through the safety net, and at this stage we have no way of quantifying how many people simply fall out of the system altogether. I have seen them in my constituency, and they tend to be sick people who have long-term health conditions, but we have no systematic information. It is clear that we need a root-and-branch review of the sanctions regime and, as a matter of urgency, we need hardship payments to ensure an accessible safety net.

I am really conscious that it has been a balmy 12° to 15° here in London over the past few days, but I left Aberdeenshire this weekend in sub-zero temperatures.

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As winter sets in, those who cannot stay warm and cannot feed themselves properly are at the gravest risk. The Government are culpable if they do not protect our most vulnerable citizens. I urge them to listen and to respond to the specific points I have made. I thank the Members who have come to contribute to this very important debate so close to the end of term.

2.48 pm

Anne McLaughlin (Glasgow North East) (SNP): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) on securing what is possibly the most important debate that could be brought before the House. We heard from her some important and shocking statistics, which I will not repeat. I intend to look at the principle of sanctioning people’s benefits, share a few stories about people in my constituency who are currently being crucified by sanctions, and say a little about what I think the Government’s motivation is.

The idea is that if we punish people for not wanting to work, or for not wanting to work hard enough, and really make them suffer, it will teach them that they cannot always rely on the Government to take care of them. I would challenge the idea that there really are people who do not want to work. Yes, there are plenty of people who struggle to find work, but there are many reasons why they cannot, such as a lack of jobs, a lack of confidence, no self-belief, an experience of applying over and over and getting nowhere, and generational unemployment in the area where they live.

I also want to challenge the idea that people get comfortable on benefits and on the Government’s largesse. Jobseeker’s allowance is about £73 a week, and people struggle to pay their living costs on it. Being cash poor is incredibly time-consuming. People have to be very creative to get by, but it is not a fun creativity. It is stressful, depressing and, for many people, never-ending. I am sure we would all argue that we could live on £73 a week, and I agree that we probably could for one week, but try doing it week in, week out, month in, month out—for some people, it is year in, year out—with absolutely no respite. There are no bonuses for people who live on benefits.

Seventy-three pounds a week means that, if your washing machine breaks down, you’ve had it. Nobody is going to fix it for less than £50, so where will you get the money? It means always being the one who turns up to family weddings and parties in the same outfit and with a cheap present that you know they do not really want but is all you can afford. It means having holes in the bottom of your shoes and getting used to soggy cardboard underfoot. It means keeping up the facade so friends do not pity you. It means being in job interviews trying to focus on coming across well, but spending far too much time worrying that they can hear your shoes squelching. Being poor can be really embarrassing. Nobody gets comfortable on benefits.

The money people are given does not stop them looking for work. Yes, low pay is a problem that we need to tackle, but we need to acknowledge that pay is not the only attraction to work. There is the purpose that work gives; it is somewhere to go and a reason to get up in the morning. Most importantly of all, there are people to interact with on a daily basis. Whether you like them or not, interaction is important.

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We all know that, but not everybody does. There are areas in which whole generations have been unemployed for long periods. If someone does not remember their parents, aunts and uncles working, how can they know that jobs are about more than money, and how do they therefore garner the enthusiasm to apply for very low-paid jobs?

Michael Tomlinson (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con): The hon. Lady is making some important points about the most vulnerable in society, as, indeed, did the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), who secured the debate—I apologise for being late. Does the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) agree that we should welcome today’s jobs figures, which show that more people are in work than ever before, and that we, as Members of Parliament, have a responsibility to promote those who are in work and the benefits of work that she is highlighting?

Anne McLaughlin: I represent Glasgow North East, which has the 17th highest rate of unemployment in the whole of these islands, so my constituents have got very little to cheer about today, although I hear that the Prime Minister was most gleeful about the fact that we have managed to cut unemployment a little overall.

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): Is the hon. Lady aware that, although more people are in work than a year ago, the number of hours that we are working as a country has gone down, which indicates the sort of jobs that people are getting?

Anne McLaughlin: Yes, I am aware of that, and I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting it.

I grew in the shipbuilding town of Greenock in Port Glasgow. I often tell a story about when I was at Port Glasgow high school—I am not going to tell Members what year it was. Every Monday morning in my first year at high school we had a 15-minute registration class, and the teacher would ask, “How did you get on at the weekend?” I remember a long, long period in which several people in my class—it felt like dozens, but it could not have been—said, “My dad got made redundant”, “My dad was a fitter, and he’s lost his job”, “My father was a welder” or “My mother worked in the canteen.” Not many women in those days were time-served tradespeople. For so many of my classmates, both their parents lost their jobs. For many of them, the last time they could remember their parents working was when they were 12, so they have very little memory of working parents. Where there is generational unemployment in an area in which expectations are low, surely our job is to raise people’s expectations; give them confidence and self-belief; work with them, not against them; give them additional support, not less support; and certainly not punish them.

Let me turn to what I believe lies behind the Government’s sanctions agenda. I will start with what they say lies behind it. They say it is to teach claimants that they cannot expect something for nothing. I will refer to a few of my constituents, and perhaps the Minister will tell me what each of them was supposed to learn. Sara was late—not very late—for an interview

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and was sanctioned. She was late because there was an accident on the road and her bus was stuck in traffic. It was not her fault. What is she to learn from that?

Another constituent was told that she had to go to an interview at the jobcentre. She was given a week’s notice, and they said, “We want you to come next Wednesday at 3 pm.” She said, “But I pick up my six-year-old from school at 3 pm.” “Well, that’s just tough”—her parents lived 100 miles away—“You either come to the interview or we sanction your benefits.” What is she to learn from that? Should she have abandoned her child at the school playground or take her child out of school? That is what she did, and her child missed an hour’s education.

I have two constituents—a couple—who live in Roystonhill. The wife went into labour—not the party; she was having a baby. [Laughter.] I do not know why I said that. The husband unsurprisingly went with her. He had no credit to phone and say that he would not be signing on that day, so he went the next day. They were sanctioned for six weeks. Welcome to the world, tiny baby; your parents are getting no money for six weeks, and not even a single milk token. What is that couple to learn from that sanction? Did they learn that the husband should have abandoned his wife and left her to it? Before anybody starts thinking that they were long-term unemployed, let me say that their daughter is two and they are both working now. They were both working up until six months before she had the baby. They are not people who do not want to work. They learned nothing from that experience, except that the Government do not care about them.

I have a constituent who has mental health problems and a visual impairment. He has severe panic attacks. A condition of his ESA is that he attends an office in the city centre either once a month or once a week. It takes him hours because he gets lost and distressed. He was asked, “What is it you do when you get there?” He said, “I just sign a bit of paper and leave.” Why? What is the point of that?

Michael Tomlinson: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Anne McLaughlin: That would be very helpful.

Michael Tomlinson: I want to be helpful, but I also want to make a point. The hon. Lady is raising some tough, interesting cases, but does she recognise that there is a test of good reason that can be employed where there is good reason for sanctions not to be imposed?

Anne McLaughlin: I recognise that, but, as one of the most active welfare rights providers in Barmulloch in my constituency told me, most people do not ask for a mandatory reconsideration. That couple with a baby did not know that they could apply for a mandatory reconsideration. No doubt they were given a leaflet, but they were so distressed and busy working out what they were going to do with their baby—they had absolutely no money for six weeks—that they did not do it. I am sure everybody here will agree that those cases cannot be justified and that those decisions were wrong, but they are not exceptions. Those people are losing money for unacceptable reasons.

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I want to look at the exception of the people the Minister will no doubt argue should be sanctioned—those who are deemed not to be doing enough to find work. I can tell him a little about that, because I was one of them, apparently. I recently spent a significant period looking for work. I started off confident. I was certain that I would find something fulfilling and reasonably well paid, and I was prepared not to limit myself. I spent days putting my heart and soul into applying for jobs that I knew I would be offered an interview for. Rejection is very hard to take, but no acknowledgment is even harder. When someone has put their heart and soul into something, to be treated as if they do not exist—as if they are invisible—is soul-destroying. Some weeks, I confess, I could not face it. I could not pluck up the energy to try to write in the confident manner that is necessary to impress a potential employer. Should I have been sanctioned? That is what is happening to people now. Should I have been punished, or should I have been given a bit of additional support? We should acknowledge that finding a job is a stressful, extremely low-paid, full-time job. Is it really so difficult to understand why claimants sometimes need to clear their head and build their confidence again?

It is clear that what lies behind the benefit sanctions regime is an ideologically driven determination to drive people further into the ground, to show them who is boss, to pander to the red tops that tell people about layabouts living the life of Riley, never having worked a day in their lives and never having wanted to because the poor, downtrodden workers are doing it for them while they get paid way too much to sit about on their backsides all day. That is utter nonsense and anyone who argues it should be ashamed of themselves.

Michael Tomlinson: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Anne McLaughlin: If the hon. Gentleman wants to argue that, carry on.

Michael Tomlinson: The hon. Lady is being generous with her time, particularly with my interventions. I cannot let her get away with the accusation that Government Members are determined to drive people into the ground. It is the exact opposite. The intention is to drive people into work. For SNP Members to accuse Government Members of wanting to drive people into the ground, not into work, is to miss the point entirely.

Anne McLaughlin: We are not missing the point. Most of us have been there ourselves. Most of us have been unemployed and looking for work. None of us was born with a silver spoon in our mouth. None of us has had a job for the boys. Most of us have experienced living on benefits. I am telling the hon. Gentleman that the way to get people into work is to support them, understand them and build their confidence, not to attack or threaten them and certainly not to take away the means by which they feed and clothe themselves and their children.

Neil Coyle: Does the hon. Lady share my concern about the despicable comments that we just heard? We are talking about disabled people with mental health conditions or learning disabilities. A quarter of a million people on employment support allowance have been

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found unfit for work. It is disgraceful to be pretending that this is about supporting them back into work. This is about taking money from disadvantaged people.

Anne McLaughlin: I will finish by completely agreeing with the hon. Gentleman. I have had a constituent—a grown man—crying to me on the phone. He once had a lot of self-respect. He once had a tough job that he worked really hard at. He became ill, but he has not been believed. He is now talking to me about ending his life. I do not know what to say to him. The hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) pretends that this is all about getting people into work, but why does he not listen to what we are telling him? Why does he not listen to the evidence? He may believe something else, but he needs to open his ears and start listening.

3.2 pm

Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP): I do not know how to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin). She was excellent.

I want to discuss the Crisis figures, highlighting a few that were not mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) earlier. Some 77% of those who were sanctioned skipped meals and 64% went without heating. As was mentioned, someone can just about get away with that in this weather down here in London, but not in a cold granite tenement in Aberdeen. It is horrendous that people are having to decide whether to spend their last £10 on the prepayment meter for electricity or on food for their children. It is ridiculous that people are being put in such positions.

Returning to the figures, 60% found it harder to look for work after being sanctioned. That does nothing to encourage people into work. It is an attempt to take money away from people. In a Citizens Advice survey, nine out of 10 people who had been sanctioned said they did not know why they had been sanctioned or how to stop it happening again. If they are supposed to be encouraged into work and to learn from the experience, which is presumably an attempt by the Government to prod them in the right direction, why are they not learning? Why do they not know how to avoid being sanctioned in future? Why have they not gained knowledge from the experience?

I also want to mention the link between sanctions and food banks, which has been discussed at length previously. Research carried out by The BMJ found that areas with the biggest increase in benefit sanctions saw the biggest increase in food bank use. The link is clear. I represent Aberdeen North. Aberdeen is the oil capital of Europe. It has the highest proportion of Rolls-Royces outside of central London. It is a very rich city, but we have so much poverty.

3.5 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.14 pm

On resuming