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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 9 February 2016

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Emergency Services: Closer Working

9.30 am

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered closer working between the emergency services.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. You and I share a passionate interest in the NFL and American football, so I am glad to see you here. I do not know whether you made it to the Super Bowl, but hopefully one day we will be at the Super Bowl at Wembley.

Today’s debate focuses on emergency services, and—by way of background—it follows a debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) on 3 November 2015 at the beginning of the consultation period. There were a number of contributions to that debate, and the Minister was rightly somewhat reticent to explain his beliefs on what the Government would propose—he was waiting to see what the consultation would say. I have looked at the Government’s response, and it is clear that there was widespread participation, with more than 300 responses from organisations across the country. Today is our first opportunity to raise questions with him on the specifics of the Government’s recommendations and to probe him for more details on the Government’s thinking and on his next steps to take the matter forward. This debate is also timely because we will shortly be having police and crime commissioner elections across the country, so this will be a live issue as people make their democratic choice.

In their response, the Government say that,

“the picture of collaboration around the country is still patchy and there is much more to do to ensure joint working is widespread and ambitious.”

It would be helpful if the Minister could point to some examples today to give us a sense of what he thinks the direction of travel in collaboration is likely to be. If it has been patchy, we do not want to go into a sort of organised patchiness. We need a sense of what the Government think are good ways to collaborate and of where they feel the case has not been made so significantly.

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate ahead of possible legislation. He mentioned where collaboration is already happening, and I think he will concede that Hampshire is a good example. Some 750 staff now work across shared services between Hampshire constabulary, the Hampshire fire and rescue service and Hampshire County Council in the innovative H3 programme. We think that we are doing many things right, and hopefully we are letting other areas learn lessons for the future, so would he concede that Hampshire is a place to see where collaboration is already starting?

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Richard Fuller: As a proud son of Bedford, and therefore Bedfordshire, I hate to give credit to other counties, but my hon. Friend is right that Hampshire is demonstrating a clear path, as evidenced by the fact that a significant number of Hampshire Members of Parliament are here today. One reason why I am pressing the Minister is that there are good examples. The PCC position is still new, and we should be honest about the record of PCCs across the country. Some have been very good and some—again, I speak from direct experience in Bedfordshire—have been less good, so we need a sense from the Government about what level of collaboration they believe makes sense.

The Minister will know—I do not—what is meant by

“a high level duty to collaborate on all three emergency services”.

That is what he intends to propose, so will he tell us today what it means? It would be helpful for us to know that before the Government introduce their legislation. What sanctions do the Government expect to impose on organisations that do not collaborate?

The Fire Brigades Union has spoken to me about same-service collaboration. For those of us who believe that we need to do more to reduce public expenditure to deliver public services more efficiently—I count myself as a fiscal conservative—a whole range of savings are available in the fire service through combinations of fire services across the country. One fear that the FBU and I have is that, by concentrating control through PCCs, the Government are giving up the opportunity for cross-border collaboration and the savings that will come from that. What is the Minister’s answer to the FBU?

One of my two main points is on the duty to collaborate with ambulance services. Other hon. Members are extremely disappointed, and I certainly am, by the half-hearted response of the ambulance services to this opportunity for them to participate in collaboration between the emergency services. On other issues raised in the consultation, page 19 of the Government’s summary states:

“By far the most commonly stated view was the need for ambulance services to engage more with the police and fire and rescue services.”

That is absolutely correct. There are many people in the fire and rescue services who believe that their humanitarian mission is much more closely aligned with those in the ambulance services, yet the ambulance services seem to drift along on their own thinking that it is okay to stay within their own silo and not participate in the Government’s positive and welcome change. Is collaboration by the ambulance services central to the Minister’s vision, or is it a “nice to have”? On the surface, it looks like a “nice to have.” If PCCs are to be the central organising point for emergency services, the Government have missed a step in not using this opportunity to propose measures to drag parts of the ambulance services into the overall responsibilities of the PCCs.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a characteristically passionate and well thought-through speech. I understand his point about the importance of ambulance services being better involved in the debate, but it could be argued that there are unique pressures on them. In Poynton, to the north of Macclesfield, there is an interesting model of co-location between fire, police and ambulance services in an emergency

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hub. Does he agree that there are options, maybe at the margins or on the periphery, where ambulance services could play a more integrated role?

Richard Fuller: Not only do I agree, as usual with my hon. Friend, but I would take his idea and move it another step forward. There are opportunities not only for co-location but for training, skills development and establishing career paths that enable people to join a fire and rescue service and an emergency medical responder service and then determine whether they want to have a pure firefighter career path or whether they want to have a career path that includes achieving medical qualifications that make them capable of being EMRs. Such opportunities are relevant to the vision that the Minister wishes to outline, but the Government’s proposals give a free pass to the ambulance services to continue thinking in their own silo. There is an imperative on the Government to bring that under the overall arch of their recommendations.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): I spoke to firefighters on the frontline in my constituency last week about that point, and it is not a difficulty—they have a pilot with the ambulance service. Last week alone, the fire and rescue service saved two people’s lives in Northumberland because of that joint approach. However, there is a huge difficulty with amalgamating with the police service, which is quite different.

Richard Fuller: I have a lot of empathy with what the hon. Gentleman says, which is another reason why the lack of effort, as it seems from the Government’s proposals, to try to bring in the humanitarian, ambulance and EMR capabilities will store up problems for later. There is a concern that it will be not a merger but essentially a takeover of the fire services by the police. I know that that is not the Minister’s intent—I am sure that as a former firefighter himself, he has a passion for the fire service and understands the unique skills it has better than many hon. Members—but unless the Government introduce stronger measures on collaboration requirements for the ambulance service, the fears outlined by the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) are likely to continue. It is the Government’s responsibility to try to cut them off.

A number of points in the proposals deal with governance and PCCs, and with management. When I read the consultation document originally, I thought that on governance issues, a pretty straightforward case could be made for or against, but that the management issues involved quite a lot of detail and potentially some weeds that we would not wish to get into. In their response, the Government rightly clarified the issues for chief fire officers, such as that the position of chief officer in a combined service is now open to them. It is now clear that they can take part in that way, but what about the terms and conditions for the bulk of the workforce in the two arms of the police and fire service? What will the single-employer structure mean for them?

The Government has rightly considered potential back-office savings. That is quite right, and we know all about co-location—those are the easy bits—but a single employer also has responsibility for human resource

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management, training and development, terms and conditions and pay. What is the Government’s plan on that? Can they give us some reassurance on terms and conditions that the changes are not a stepping stone to a substantial change in working relationships and opportunities for the fire service and police?

I am sure that there will be questions about force boundaries, as there were in the debate in November. As the Government have moved forward with their proposals, I can see instances working where multiple fire authorities are under a single PCC, because the PCC is the apex, but what are the Government’s proposals for the admittedly limited number of areas where the PCC is not the apex of the fire authority? It is not just that the boundaries are not coterminous; they go beyond the scope of the apex. Can the Minister address those issues? For example, Cornwall and Devon police forces are merged, but Devon and Somerset fire services are merged and Cornwall is independent. What does he suggest there? It is also proposed to merge Wiltshire and Dorset fire services, but there will be two PCCs for those areas. Can he give us some thoughts about that?

Steve Brine: The H3 project that I mentioned in Hampshire also now combines its back office with Oxfordshire County Council. Clearly, that is outside the county boundary and the PCC boundary, but it proves that if local collaboration happens without being forced, where there is a will, there is a way.

Richard Fuller: That is right, but sometimes there is no will; what is the way then? PCCs are democratically elected figures, and they have a responsibility to the people who elected them to maintain their range of services. The proposals in the legislation are not clear about how that will be managed. It would be helpful to hear that from the Minister, because it will not apply to the vast majority of places across the United Kingdom. The number of places affected is small, but they are important. The people of Devon, Cornwall and Somerset will want to know the Government’s intentions, because in a few weeks’ time, they will be voting for someone who may well have that responsibility if Parliament passes the legislation.

I would like to make a few points about PCCs, starting with finance. All Members of Parliament will be aware that chief constables have made the case for a number of years now about the financial pressure involved in maintaining the desired levels of policing. Many of us on the Government Benches have pressed chief constables and others to look for savings and, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes positively, they have engaged with us. Guess what? Effective policing can be delivered with lower budgets. Who would have thought that possible? However, there is admittedly still pressure across the board on public and police financing, which is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was right to maintain police budgets in the autumn statement.

I am sure that we all look forward to that maintenance of funding, but I was concerned, not for the first time, by comments made by the police and crime commissioner in my county of Bedfordshire. Just last Sunday, the Bedfordshire on Sunday led with a story headlined, “Takeover threat for fire service”. It began:

“‘Help us with our funding or be taken over’, is the warning to the fire service from the county’s cop boss.”

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The PCC may well be jumping the gun, because he does not have those powers yet, but I think that many of us would be alarmed to hear such an aggressive statement from a PCC who might be given responsibility for the fire service. The fire service is not a piggy bank for police and crime commissioners to raid for their budgets.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): But it is.

Richard Fuller: The PCC ought to know, and have responsibility for knowing, that he must—

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): Order. If Front-Bench Members want to intervene on the hon. Gentleman, they can, of course, but otherwise, they should be quiet.

Richard Fuller: I am not sure whether the shadow Minister was speaking out in support of the PCC raiding fire service budgets. Perhaps she was; perhaps that is new news. Who would have known? Perhaps she would like to clarify.

Lyn Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify, and I congratulate him on securing this debate and on the tenor of his contributions. I was merely agreeing with his suggestion that some PCCs may well see the fire service as a piggy bank from which to fund the police service, and I wonder whether that was the Minister’s intention.

Richard Fuller: I am grateful to the shadow Minister, who came to my constituency last year just before the general election. She was very welcome in Bedford. The issue is not so much that some PCCs may be incapable of managing their budget effectively and who therefore think that this is an opportunity to take money from our firefighters—as the Bedfordshire PCC appears to think—but that they should not be permitted to do so. On that, I think she and I agree. We want to ensure that the funding for our fire service cannot be raided by PCCs such as the one for Bedfordshire, who wishes to get his hands on it.

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice (Mike Penning): Judgment is an important issue for PCCs, especially as they come before the electorate in May. I would argue that the judgment of the Bedford PCC has been flawed—I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees—in that, with huge reserves, the PCC still went to the electorate and asked for a 15% increase in the precept, which was rightly rejected. He was trying to raid the piggy bank of the electorate, rather than that of the fire service. Perhaps he should concentrate on his own financial situation.

Richard Fuller: I am tempted by my right hon. Friend to go further and talk about the PCC for Bedfordshire, but that is a bit parochial. I have one final point, which I think is relevant for all Members of Parliament. In Bedfordshire, we consider the fire stations that exist around the county. In my constituency, we have one in Bedford on Barkers Lane and one in Kempston. My concern is that the PCC will close that station. If he is already firing the gun and saying that he wants to take money from the fire service, that could mean real reductions in fire service coverage for my constituents.

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Can the Minister tell us a bit more about the financing for the new arrangements that he is seeking? In particular, council tax is in separate precepts at the moment. Will a single precept be charged? Secondly, what accountability will there be within the PCC organisations to ensure that one budget is not raided for another? If there is no clarity that people are being charged separate precepts for fire and police, and there is no oversight in the service about how that money is used between fire and police, that is of great concern.

In their response, the Government say that they are quite rightly considering the issue of an inspectorate and how that should roll. My personal view is that that inspectorate needs to have a very strong mandate and, in particular, needs to see itself as maintaining the correct financing for both the fire service and the police service. That should be a specific requirement in the inspectorate’s brief and it should not have an overall brief to ensure that money is being used effectively by the PCCs. If we do not maintain that idea of separation, the predations of certain PCCs will be too strong.

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): I will be very careful what I say, because Dorset’s PCC is a man who I respect a lot and he does a very good job within his remit, but it would be fair to say that this whole argument is made even more difficult by the fact there is still a lot of doubt about the role of the PCC. Personally, I have always thought that we politicised the police force in one straight swipe and now there is a danger of doing so with the fire service. Does my hon. Friend agree that this issue is adding angst to an argument that is very difficult to resolve?

Richard Fuller: That is a fair comment, but there is no better person to alleviate angst than the Minister himself and I am sure that at the end of this debate the angst will be significantly lessened.

Overall, I hope that Members welcome both the consultation process undertaken by the Government and the broad thrust of their proposals to take these measures forward. There is a lot of good stuff in these recommendations and I think that all hon. Members want to help the Minister identify where there are perhaps ongoing concerns, so that he can consider them and refine his thoughts before he introduces legislation, and to encourage him on the path that he has set, which is most welcome for the people of Bedford and—I am sure—for many people across the country.

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): It is my intention to call for the two winding-up speeches no later than 10.40 am and I have seven Members who have indicated they wish to speak. My arithmetic tells me that means about seven minutes per person. I do not want to impose a time limit because that is not my way, but I ask Members to bear that guidance in mind.

9.52 am

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Bone, and I thank the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) for setting the scene very well, as he always does, with his knowledge and experience. We thank him for that.

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We look forward to hearing the responses from the Minister and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown). There is no pressure on the Minister whatsoever—he just has to absorb all the angst in the room and come up with the answers. Knowing him as we do from when he was a Northern Ireland Minister, we know that he has a great interest in his job and a passion for it.

I look forward to giving a Northern Ireland perspective. I know that the issue has been devolved to us in Northern Ireland, but it is always good for the House to hear about experiences from across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and in this particular case from Northern Ireland. I know that the Minister will encompass that in his response.

Just last September, a poll commissioned by the Police Federation of Northern Ireland was released. It found that 96% of those who took part believed that morale was at its lowest. That indicates how the pressures of budgets, the pressures on jobs and the changes in police officers’ circumstances have all lead to a reduction in police morale. The significance of the survey cannot be overstated. Some 2,527 serving police officers in Northern Ireland, which is just over a third of the total number, responded to it. Budget cuts, pension fears and internal changes have been blamed for the slump in police morale. We have also seen the hard-pressed Northern Ireland ambulance service declare major incidents, as it has been unable to cope with a combination of rising demand and cuts to funding.

What we are considering in this debate is closer working between the emergency services. I want to give a perspective from Northern Ireland, where the three services can work together, do better and respond to events because of some of the things that we have done in the Northern Ireland Assembly, to which power in this area is devolved.

We live in tough times economically, and all Departments are being asked to tighten their belt, but the statistics on police morale, and issues affecting the ambulance service and the fire service, are all causing concern. It is good to discuss how we can use co-operation between the emergency services to help those affected by the tightening of the purse strings to do more with less.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): My hon. Friend is coming to a point that will hopefully command widespread support across the House and the nation. People want to see a pragmatic, sensible and practical series of co-operations between the emergency services, not just to raise morale among the staff in those services, important as that is, but, even more importantly, to deliver a more efficient and effective service to people across the United Kingdom.

Jim Shannon: As always, my hon. Friend and colleague makes a very focused intervention. Yes, we need to have that co-operation, and that is what this debate is about. It is not about attacking anybody or giving anyone a hard time; it is about considering how better we can have that co-operation. In Northern Ireland, we have done some things better than elsewhere, and some things have been done better on the mainland. We can exchange views, and it is important that we do so.

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The answer lies in innovation—learning to do things differently. Reducing bureaucracy and red tape is a simple measure that would make co-operation between our emergency services easily obtainable. It is the attractive thing to do and the right thing to do, and if we encourage that process we could see some real results.

I know that the issue of how the three services can come together and help each other when it comes to training is a different one for a different debate. A previous debate in Westminster Hall addressed such training. However, in Northern Ireland we have taken some steps towards achieving that joint training. A location has been identified for it, but we do not yet have the training school to bring the three services together. I know that the Minister is aware of that approach, because I think he will have overseen it during his time in the Northern Ireland Office. Once again, there are some good steps being taken forward.

We have already seen what innovative approaches can do in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland fire and rescue service adapted to a tighter budget rather than simply doing things as it had always done them before. Reallocating shift patterns, having less bureaucracy and providing more autonomy for local stations and fire service men and women are just a few of the steps that the command of the fire and rescue service in Northern Ireland has taken to adapt to the challenging financial environment.

The most interesting part of all the changes that have taken place, and of those that will be made shortly, is that they have come from those within the fire service themselves. They have acted rather than waiting for Government. The initiatives came from people within the fire service—they want to provide a better fire service, as they are part of it. If we can do things better, let us do so.

In Northern Ireland, fire stations that would otherwise have closed are now staying open, and fire service personnel who would have otherwise been out of a job are part of a fire service that is looking forward, despite the challenging circumstances. There is real innovation and there are real ideas, and people are working together. Replicating that innovation in the other emergency services, and sharing the methods by which improvements can be made, will surely go some way toward alleviating the pressure of cuts to our emergency services.

We do not have any Scottish colleagues here today, but I always say that we are better together, in every sense of the phrase, and we want to stay together. However, we also have emergency services across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that do a good job. If we are doing things well in Northern Ireland, let us share that, and if there is something in Scotland, Wales and the rest of the mainland that we can learn from, let us do so.

However, while it is encouraging to see what canbe done, there is no replacement for funding. Cuts have been made to our front-line services, and particularly our emergency services. We have to look at those cuts again—surely there are other areas in which the Government, and indeed the Northern Ireland Assembly, should focus attempts to save money. Greater co-operation, while always desirable, cannot be a smokescreen for cuts. The people will not be distracted, and the figures cannot be swept under the carpet.

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I return to my comments about the police service survey. Of those surveyed, 96% said that morale is low in what has to be one of the most important institutions for Northern Ireland’s future. We need law and order in place, and it is good that we have it, but we also need the emergency services to work together better. The fire and rescue service, the ambulance service and the police can do that. Co-operation is desirable and always beneficial, but it will not always be a good enough smokescreen to cover the fact that our emergency services are facing cuts to their budgets. What matters is how those cuts happen, how budgets are then brought together and how we deliver a service that our people can depend upon.

9.59 am

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on securing this interesting debate. I shall ask my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) to bash me when I get to six minutes; I would be most grateful if she could do so.

I will quickly touch on the overall picture in Dorset, then I will give the views of four representatives in Dorset—the chief constable, the police and crime commissioner, the chief fire officer and the chief executive of the south-western ambulance service, Ken Wenman. I asked my team to tell them that I was going to participate in the debate and that I wanted to hear from the coalface, as it were, exactly what people in Dorset thought.

In Dorset, we already have close collaboration between the police and the fire service—it is already a fact of life. The Dorset police and fire services already share seven buildings and facilities, and two years ago Dorset police and fire became the first 999 blue light street triage service—I think that is the jargon—in the country, with police officers, fire officers and mental health professionals working together. First-aiders with in Dorset police advanced training will respond to life-threatening emergency calls on behalf of the ambulance service if the latter’s attendance is unduly delayed and police resources are closer. That is the overall picture in Dorset.

The view of Chief Constable Debbie Simpson is that blue light collaboration is not helped by the ambulance service being regional. The police and fire services are not regional, so who partners with whom? That is a question for the Minister. The chief constable says that although there will be some efficiencies, the majority of those working in each emergency service train for entirely different functions, and that

“we struggle to put together teams across forces, let alone across different blue light disciplines.”

She would prefer the police to look at the criminal justice family—courts and probation—as an area for closer collaboration. She thinks that the police have a closer affinity with those organisations than with the other blue light services.

Martyn Underhill, who I mentioned in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford, is the Dorset police and crime commissioner and also the national representative for PCCs to the Government. He says that there is a natural synergy between the police and fire services nationally, and that the idea of the PCC being responsible for fire and rescue services is

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good. However, he feels that in Dorset it will not work. We already have the combined Wiltshire and Dorset fire services, which will merge on 1 April 2016. The merged service will be associated with two police forces and two PCCs, for Wiltshire and Dorset, but they are not coterminous—that is a dreadful word, but I think you understand what I am trying to say, Mr Bone. Will the Minister comment on how that situation can be resolved in the interests of further “efficiency and effectiveness”? In Dorset’s case, the PCC supports the chief constable’s view that collaboration across the criminal justice system might be more fruitful.

Darran Gunter, our excellent chief fire officer, and the new authority that has been formed—the shadow Wiltshire and Dorset fire authority—unanimously reject the proposal that the fire service should be governed by the PCC. They are concerned about over-complexity, but they support localism, local democracy and accountability. The fire service’s first priority is prevention and behaviour change, and only then responding to save lives. Joining up should not be viewed solely in operational terms.

Darran Gunter is not sure that there is any proven evidence of efficiencies from combining the blue lights, which have different vehicles, equipment, competencies, conditions of service, personal protection kit and so on. His view is that closer control of fire services in the past has failed. I cannot remember how many millions it cost, but I know the Minister is aware of the disastrous case of the past attempt to regionalise the fire service. The fire and rescue service area is shared by two PCCs—Dorset and Wiltshire—so how will overall responsibility be addressed? The PCC posed the same question. If the PCC takes control of the fire service, how will the fire authority, which is already elected and has a duty to the community, be consulted? What about the views of the community? There should be a demand-led culture.

Mr Gunter says that the fire services does not want to alienate other public services, such as those for children, families and adults, and health partners, by exclusive collaboration with other blue light services. It is disappointed that the duty of collaboration is limited to the three emergency services. He says that local authorities, clinical commissioning groups, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the voluntary sector and others should be included.

Responsibility for the fire service has now moved to the Home Office, which is responsible for the police. How will future funding work? Police budgets are protected, while the fire service is to be reduced by 30% over the next four years. In Dorset, 85% of operational vehicles are crewed by retained firefighters—one of the highest levels in the country. Some fire services are still in county councils, some are in combined fire authorities and some are in metropolitan fire and rescue services. Further changes could come with the new arrangements for mayors. There are significant challenges in combining services, so does the Minister agree that that is one area in which the Government should offer a blueprint?

I turn to the views of Mr Wenman, who is the chief executive of the South West Ambulance Service Trust and a trained paramedic who still goes out today. He is an extraordinarily nice man, and an affable and very able paramedic. His view is that the ambulance service

“is the emergency arm of NHS, not the medical arm of the blue light services.”

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There is a big difference. Each regional ambulance service deals with anything from 750,000 to 2 million calls a year—10 times the activity of the fire service. The ambulance service provides a broader response than conventional fire and police services, with its responsibilities including the 111 and 999 services. Its services are aimed at “hear and treat”, with clinicians giving advice over the phone and pointing patients in the right direction. Some 85% of the response is urgent rather than emergency care.

I will make a few final points, so as not to go over my seven minutes and interfere with colleagues’ time. As far as first aid is concerned, the fire service is currently trained to “plug holes” and “manage airways”, backed up by paramedics from the ambulance service. Mr Wenman can envisage there being fire service paramedics, with three years’ training, and understandably many firefighters are keen to do that. In 2006, the ambulance service saved a significant amount of money through the reduction from 34 ambulance services to 10 statutory NHS ambulance trusts. Money could also possibly be saved through localism in services.

That was a quick sketch, covering the views of four professionals who deal with the very business we are talking about, and right hon. and hon. Members will see that their views are mixed.

10.6 am

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on his great speech. He has given so much support to the firefighters and the fire service. I declare that I chair the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group, so I have a real interest in the issue.

First, I want to point out how disappointing I found the announcement in January that responsibility for the fire and rescue service was to be transferred from the Department for Communities and Local Government to the Home Office. That is no reflection on Home Office Ministers, or the shadow Minister. I was in the Home Office way back when the fire service was the responsibility of that Department, and if anyone spoke to my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), who was the Fire Minister at that time—at the beginning of the century—it would have been clear to them that fire not only got a minimal share of resources but suffered a kind of neglect. It was very much the little bit of the Home Office, and that was characterised by the big issues, such as immigration and criminal justice, getting so much more priority.

Mike Penning: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Kate Hoey: Yes, I will give way to the Minister—he was not around then.

Mike Penning: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. In those days, in the Home Office, the Fire Minister was separate from the Police Minister, and that is exactly why the Prime Minister has made me the Police and Fire Minister, to ensure that the mistakes of the past do not happen again.

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Kate Hoey: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be a very good Minister, particularly given his background. He was an FBU representative at one time, I think. For me, however, this is about all the emergency services working together, and somehow the ambulance service and the whole medical side have been left out. That will genuinely affect the very good work that firefighters do in prevention and protection. The level of that work is already falling, and there will be fewer school visits and that kind of thing—I can see that that is the way it is going.

I am also a little disappointed in the consultation. There is no substantial evidence in the document for bringing about the change, and it has the usual kind of civil servant feel to it, with questions being asked to get an answer that coincides with the preferred outcome, because the decision had already been taken. The document did not ask the crucial question, whether having a single employer for the two services is a good idea. I do not think it is. The public have great trust and confidence in firefighters, even when, unfortunately, they occasionally have to withdraw their labour. Support from the public has been enormous, unlike in many other areas where strikes have led to huge public dissatisfaction. There is huge confidence in them, and they are seen as independent and impartial lifesavers. The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) have left, but firefighters in Northern Ireland had to work hard for all the communities during the many years of difficulty, and there was confidence in them.

I have a lot of confidence in my local police, particularly Commander Richard Wood, but there is no doubt that the public do not feel the same way about the police as they do about firefighters. I genuinely think that the reforms could damage the reputation that firefighters have built up in their neighbourhoods over decades, so I am concerned. Co-operation will come about if people want it to happen, not because it is made to happen from the top down. The Hampshire examples are good, and the system works there because everybody wanted to work together.

The example that my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) mentioned of the fire and ambulance service working together shows that it can work, and that it does not have to be just about saving money. Of course we all want to save money, but I am keen to hear from the Minister what is really at the bottom of the reforms—unfortunately, I will have to leave slightly early.

I particularly want to pick up on the point that the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) made about the role of the PCCs. They are not popular, as the turnout at their elections showed. It is crass to try to lump the two services together. It means we will lose accountability, which is very important in London. We need democratically elected people who have an overview and a link into the community. We need to be able to feel that people can be got rid of, which I do not think people feel at the moment.

There are many questions I could ask the Minister, but I do not have time. The Minister should look at this matter again. As enforcers of the law, the police do not have the universal access that the fire service has to people’s homes and to the many hard to reach communities.

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It is vital that the fire service retains its distinctiveness to ensure continued trust in it. That is my most crucial point.

Ian Lavery: Does my hon. Friend agree that the fire and rescue service and the ambulance service could do a lot of business together? Those services are humanitarian services that have the confidence of the people in their communities. The police service, which seeks out crime, is not a life-saving organisation, and it does not have that same confidence of communities. Further integration will jeopardise any community spirit in the places we are trying to secure.

Kate Hoey: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. He sums up why I feel so unhappy about this move. It has been rushed through, and I do not think it will work. Even people who felt that there was a role for PCCs are now beginning to say that their introduction was a mistake. If the reforms go ahead, I think we will be back here in a few years saying that they were a mistake.

10.13 am

Mrs Flick Drummond (Portsmouth South) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on securing this debate. It is a great pleasure to praise the example that we have in Hampshire of how the emergency services and the local authority—Hampshire County Council—can work together. We already have some of the finest services in the county, with Hampshire Constabulary leading the way in efficiency and focusing on the priorities of policing. I was sad to hear of the departure of Chief Constable Andy Marsh, and I know other Hampshire MPs will want to join me in paying tribute to him. His successor will inherit a strong and effective force, which I will be pleased to support in Parliament.

However, I must sound a note of concern about the plan that the police and crime commissioner has unveiled to close police stations in Portsmouth. I am going to be parochial for a couple of minutes to illustrate a point. The city faces unusual challenges of geography. We have only three main roads on to Portsea Island, and they lead into the most densely populated space outside London. It is unthinkable that we should be left without a fully supported police station and I hope that Mr Hayes will reconsider his options. The first that any of us heard about this plan was through our local newspaper, which is no way to manage a service that we all depend on for public safety. In the light of the proposals for the police and crime commissioners to take on greater responsibility, it is a real cause for concern. I know from my postbag that the closure plan is alarming to constituents, and I will continue to oppose it.

However, to get back to positives, in the fire service we have had the recent consultation on its future as a service in Hampshire, and how it can adapt to a changing physical environment and capitalise on a steady improvement in fire safety. We know that over the past 10 years, the number of call-outs to domestic incidents has halved. Call-outs overall are down by almost a third, and Hampshire fire and rescue is in the best-performing quartile in the country for response times.

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As has been mentioned, in Hampshire we already have a highly evolved co-operation between the emergency services. It is called H3: Hampshire fire and rescue, Hampshire County Council and Hampshire Constabulary. The sharing of facilities between Hampshire fire and rescue service and the police has been achieved without radical surgery to governance; it is all about common sense. The fire service works with the South Central ambulance service as a co-responder, and they share buildings in parts of the county, too. There is a genuine willingness to co-operate in Hampshire, which is perhaps at a more advanced stage than that assumed by the proposals to legislate. So I hope that any legislation does not impose unwieldy structures where there is flexibility at present. I know from the Hampshire fire and rescue service consultation response that that is of concern. It also makes the excellent point that there is the potential for co-operation nationally in bringing ambulance services into the mix. That is a very powerful argument from a service that already knows so much about collaboration.

Indeed, it is important that the differing roles and competences of our emergency services are respected when it comes to matters such as accountability for complaints and personnel. There are plenty of areas for potential integration, such as communications and service planning, and in outreach and safety issues of all kinds. Let us make sure we focus on what is practical first and keep that flexibility for our emergency services to design the best services for their particular region.

10.17 am

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), who demonstrates that some local authorities are ahead of the game on this issue. It is also a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on securing the debate and on the eloquent way in which he described the conundrums and dilemmas facing the Government.

I should declare an interest. I was a member of the London fire brigade for 23 years. It celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. I was a former Fire Minister. I am secretary to the fire and rescue service all-party group and am chair of Fire Aid. I am also a Member’s representative on the House’s Fire Safety Committee. If colleagues have not done their online fire training yet, go on to the intranet. Only 30 out of 650 Members have done the training for their own safety, let alone the safety of the staff and constituents who come in, and it takes only 10 minutes.

There are two key questions for me: governance and the question of operational issues. As has been mentioned, the Government recently changed control of the fire service back to the Home Office from the Department for Communities and Local Government. As the Minister has already said, it was there before. Government moves things around; I do not think that matters too much. We have had a national fire service and we have had local government controlling the fire service. In London we have had the London County Council, the Greater London Council, the Greater London Authority, the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, and now control is going to the Mayor. Do the public know? Do they care? I do not think it matters at all.

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The key question, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and others, is about accountability. Having someone to go to to make a complaint or to congratulate and praise is the most important thing. Given the state of the fire service in recent years with the disputes and strikes, we have hardly had a model of a successful operation of the fire service. I do not think the integrity of the service will be affected by a transfer to police and crime commissioners, although my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) made a powerful point about the integrity of the fire service, which was accepted by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall and which the Minister knows is out there in the public domain. I am not a big supporter of PCCs. Police and fire services would be better located with local government, along with some health matters, as many colleagues know, although I do recognise the points made about shared services.

More important for me is operational effectiveness. As the Minister knows, the fire service will always respond. A great recent example is its response to the floods. There is a suggestion that the fire service should have a statutory flood duty, allied to those of the Environment Agency and the water companies. The Government’s response so far has been that we do not need a statutory duty because the fire brigade will always turn up. Well, the fire brigade always turned up to fires before it became a statutory duty. The point is to make somebody responsible, and for it be somebody’s job to do the planning and argue the case to Government for the resources for a particular job. That is another question that is out there.

The fire service is a victim of its own success. The reduction in the number of fires, deaths and injuries has led to reductions in the number of fire engines, fire stations and firefighters. The service is being cut because it has been successful. The Minister knows all the reasons why that has been the case: better building construction, double glazing, central heating, and fewer candles and paraffin heaters. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall said, there has also been much better fire protection, with the fire service reaching out to communities. That is another important factor, which goes back to the Fire Precautions Act 1971.

Ian Lavery: We need to be clear about the suggestion that there are now fewer fire deaths. That is generally the case in some regions, but regions such as Merseyside have seen a huge increase in fire deaths, and the trajectory is likely to go up over the next couple of years.

Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend makes a good point. If we cut services when the service has been successful, at some point it hits rock bottom so it has to start bouncing back. The statistics demonstrate that we do not have enough police officers or firefighters, but they show that only after there has been a rise in crime or in the number of fire deaths.

The hon. Member for Bedford made a powerful point about the number of fire brigades. One reason why the last Labour Government’s botched attempt at regionalising the fire service failed was the intrinsic opposition of so many fire empires throughout the country. The Minister knows only too well who I am talking about.

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This is a missed opportunity: it is not until question 15 of the consultation document that the ambulance service is even raised. That is despite the successful operation of combined fire and medical services in most states in the United States of America and the fact that most European Union states have combined fire and emergency medical services. That is despite the greater need for first-aid skills in firefighters; despite the arrival of idiot-proof defibrillators—I am not saying that they have to be idiot-proof for my fire colleagues to be able to operate them, but it makes it easier for us all; and despite the 2013 report from the Government’s fire adviser at the time, Sir Ken Knight, called “Facing the Future”, which looks mainly at the more developed area of co-working with ambulance services. That ought to be a key recommendation.

The fire brigade in London has been cut because of its success. We see the London ambulance service under pressure, with a rising number of calls. It is criticised for not making its call times and is under budget pressures. More lives could be saved in London through the more efficient use of the emergency services, particularly the ambulance and fire services—frankly, if the Minister wants to add the police to that list, that is not the most important issue to me. More savings could be made in London through co-location, the disposal of property assets and closer worker. I have not seen any of the candidates for the mayoral election bring that up, but I have been feeding it out to them and am still hoping.

In conclusion, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bedford again. He says that the Minister intends a higher level of collaboration. I look forward to hearing what both the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), and the Minister, with his excellent knowledge of the fire service, have to say. I am interested to hear whether the ambulance service and the fire service can be brought together.

10.24 am

Amanda Milling (Cannock Chase) (Con): It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on securing the debate. At this time on a Tuesday morning we would normally be sitting in the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, so this makes an interesting change.

Since I was elected to this place, the issue of closer working between emergency services—particularly police and fire—has been a priority for me, so I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to speak today. Since I secured a Westminster Hall debate on closer working between the police and fire services in November 2015, there have been some welcome developments. In December 2015, Staffordshire fire and rescue agreed to undertake a review of how it could work more closely and collaboratively with Staffordshire police. That was welcome news, as it was something for which I, along with some of my Staffordshire colleagues and our police and crime commissioner, had been calling for some time. I was, however, disappointed that it took around six months to reach that point.

More recently the Minister, whom I am pleased to see in his place today, published the Government’s response to the “Enabling Closer Working Between the Emergency Services” consultation. I was particularly pleased to see

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the Government’s proposals, which include two matters that I shall discuss further: a statutory duty for blue light services to collaborate to improve efficiency and effectiveness, and police and crime commissioners’ taking over responsibility for fire and rescue services, where a local case is made.

First, I welcome the proposals on a statutory duty for blue light services to collaborate, because, as has been mentioned a few times, collaboration has been patchy to date—Sir Ken Knight highlighted that in his 2013 review of fire and rescue authorities. That is not to say that there are not some excellent and successful examples of collaboration. We have heard examples from Dorset and Hampshire from my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), but sadly that is not the case universally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford said, there has not always been the will locally to collaborate. That is a challenge that must be overcome.

It is absolutely right that blue light services have a statutory duty to investigate where they can share control rooms, back-office staff, offices, human resources, payroll and procurement—I could go on. It is just common sense, as my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South described for Hampshire. Eradicating duplication, which often exists at a local level, even within towns, will mean better outcomes for the public and taxpayers, and will ensure that funding can be targeted to front-line services.

Secondly, in the Westminster Hall debate that I secured in November 2015, I expressed my concerns that PCCs would take responsibility for fire and rescue services only where a local case was made. As the Minister may remember, I called for it to be mandatory. My concerns were based on the potential for resistance to considering such a transfer—again, there is the issue of patchiness and the possible lack of will locally. Although I look forward to seeing more detail, I am reassured to some extent by the Government’s proposal to enable cases to be put to the Secretary of State where parties are not in agreement about the transfer. It will then be up to the Secretary of State to make a final decision based on local consultation and an independent assessment of the business case. It is important that local priorities drive decision making, but equally important that decisions can be scrutinised if necessary.

Ultimately, I am keen to see police and crime commissioners universally develop into a broader role, potentially becoming public safety commissioners. In the first instance, they should incorporate fire services, but over time things could go further—for example, we have been discussing ambulances. That said, I do recognise that there are some complexities, and that the regional structure of the ambulance service makes things more complex.

As the role of PCCs develops, might there be a need to consider whether their title should evolve? There are several reasons for that: we need to ensure that there is no perceived police takeover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford said earlier, and that the public are clear about the role of these individuals. In terms of the latter, it will be particularly important to build on the benefits of the electoral accountability of PCCs. They, like Members of Parliament and local government councillors, are directly accountable to the public, and members of the public can express their satisfaction or

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dissatisfaction with them at the ballot box. To date, such direct, clear accountability has been lacking for fire authorities. Although I appreciate that elected councillors serve on those authorities, they are appointed to those positions, rather than elected by members of the public. We must ensure that the public are clear about who and what they are voting for. I think the name “police and crime commissioner” can cause confusion; are there any plans to create a new title for the commissioners in recognition of their broader remit?

I am a keen advocate of greater collaboration and I welcome the positive steps that have been taken in recent months to ensure more collaborative working across the blue light services, but I recognise that we can go much further. I look forward to seeing more detail when the Government’s proposals are brought before the House.

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): Before I call the shadow Minister and the Minister, I remind Members that it is now tradition that the Member who moves the motion gets a couple of minutes to wind up.

10.31 am

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. We have had an excellent, well-informed debate and hon. Members have made many good points.

Labour supports close collaboration among the emergency services, but we fear that these proposals come with significant risks and are being carried out in a cavalier fashion. The consultation exercise that preceded the proposals gives us the distinct impression that the Government decided that they would make radical changes before they spoke to the key stakeholders. In any serious consultation, stakeholders would be asked what they think of the substance of the proposals. Instead, they were merely asked to comment on the process by which PCCs will gain control of their local fire service, not on whether the process has any merit, and they were asked a litany of leading questions.

The proposed process by which a PCC takes control of a fire service is rather authoritarian. Although they must seek agreement from the local fire authority, if agreement is not forthcoming the matter will be arbitrated by the Home Secretary, who will decide whether a change is

“in the interests of economy, efficiency and effectiveness or public safety”.

That is a recipe for hostile takeovers.

Ian Lavery: In Northumberland, the police and crime commissioner was opposed to further integration with other blue light operations. Will my hon. Friend comment on the position there?

Lyn Brown: That one passed me by, but I will come to Northumberland and have a conversation about it. I am sure the Minister has an answer.

The Government are ignoring the advice of the 2013 Knight review. When Sir Ken Knight considered expanding the role of PCCs, he recommended that, if such a policy were pursued, it ought to be trialled through a pilot,

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rather than be rolled out immediately. Why did the Government choose categorically to ignore that key recommendation?

I fear that these proposals carry a number of serious risks, and I worry about the continuation of the successful, locally driven collaborations that have been talked about at length in recent years and have saved lives. When I was shadow fire Minister, I visited a number of fire services, including Northumberland’s, and I heard of collaborations with ambulance services. I was particularly impressed by the Lincolnshire fire and rescue service and the East Midlands ambulance service, which ensured a swift, comprehensive service to isolated parts of the county. Firefighters responded to medical emergencies and took patients to hospital if they could do so more quickly than the ambulance. It really did save lives; it was an exceptionally good collaboration.

Only yesterday, we heard that the ambulance service has missed its targets six months in a row. Our paramedics work hard, but they cannot be everywhere at once. Our fire and ambulance services recognise that, and they work side by side to be part of the solution. What will happen to such innovations in the brave new world of combined police and fire services? Will PCCs be charged to continue that work, or will it simply fall by the wayside? What guarantees do communities have that such innovations, which are important to them, will be top of PCCs’ agendas?

To save money and be more efficient and effective, local services successfully share back office functions. A good example is the North West Fire Control project, which set up a single control centre for services in Cumbria, Lancashire and greater Manchester. It works really well. What will happen to such collaborations? Will those services be disaggregated? I do not know. Perhaps the Minister does. I worry that there is a danger that such locally driven projects will be crowded out as energy is spent on responding to an agenda that has been dreamt up in Whitehall.

I also worry that dismantling the existing structures of accountability will cause a democratic deficit. The next PCC elections are in May, and the major political parties have already selected most of their candidates. Does the Minister expect the candidates to detail in their manifestos their intentions about fire services? Should that be a central issue in the election debates? I gently say that I do not believe that the Home Secretary or the Minister expect the fire service to be a central plank in the PCC elections. Is that not worrying in itself? It is as though the Government see the fire service as a secondary concern to policing.

Peter Murphy, director of public policy and management research at Nottingham University Business School, said that,

“if the current plans are implemented there is a very strong chance that the fire and rescue services would go back to the “benign neglect” that characterised the service from 1974 to 2001 when the Home Office was last responsible for fire services. Police, civil disobedience, immigration and criminal justice dominated the Home Office agenda, as well as its time and resources.”

If the fire service becomes the lesser partner in a merged service,

“the long-term implications will include smaller fire crews with fewer appliances and older equipment arriving at incidents. Prevention and protection work, already significantly falling, will result in

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fewer school visits and fire alarm checks for the elderly, not to mention the effect on business, as insurance costs rise because of increased risks to buildings and premises.”

I think his assessment is right. There is a real danger that fire will become an unloved, secondary concern of management—a Cinderella service. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how he will ensure that the service is improved, that we invest in the best equipment and training, that vulnerable people continue to have fire alarm checks and that schools are visited and children educated.

I want to ask a basic question about reorganisation. The Government appear to assume that it will be easy for fire and rescue services to reorganise to suit the PCCs’ boundaries, but to talk simply about transferring responsibility from a local authority belies the complexity of the situation. Fire budgets are very integrated in some councils to ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of the service, so it will be difficult to unravel them, as has been shown by previous attempted mergers of fire services. Has any work been done to assess the complexity? What conclusions has the Minister come to about the difficulties he might encounter? What concerns have county and metropolitan councils raised with him about disaggregating budgets and the effect on important emergency services?

Finally, on funding, fire and rescue services have already had to reduce spending by 12% over the course of the last Parliament, which is a cumulative cash cut of some £236 million, and further projected reductions are to come. When I met some fire services, I was told that their service would not be viable in future as a result of the cuts. That is the reality of the tough financial context in which PCCs are being asked to take on fire services.

There are alarming signs that the front-line service is beginning to suffer. Response times are creeping upwards. As the Minister knows full well, every second counts when people are stuck in a car wreck or a burning building. What risk analysis has the Home Office done to ascertain how PCCs will be able to reduce fire spending without increasing response times and reducing resilience and safety? I ask him to publish that risk assessment so that we can all evaluate it. It is not as if police forces have spare money to pass to the fire service, as we heard in the effective speech by the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond). They are still absorbing cuts of 25% to their funding from the last Parliament and face further real-term cuts. They have done amazingly well in such tough circumstances, but one has to wonder whether PCCs are happy that the Government are handing them another Whitehall-imposed funding crisis to deal with. Again, does the Minister expect PCCs to cover the shortfall in funding by introducing privatisation into the fire and rescue frontline? The last time I asked that question, the Minister shook his head but offered no verbal or recordable assurances whatsoever. Will he allow PCCs to end the full-time professional fire service or to sell it off bit by bit? What assurances can he give the House that those paths will not be followed? What control will remain in Whitehall to ensure that our fire services are not privatised or sold?

In conclusion, we genuinely support closer and more effective working between the emergency services, which we have seen work really well, but we have serious concerns about the inherent risk in the Government’s proposals. If the Minister is convinced that they are the

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way forward, he should publish a risk assessment and be confident that a rigorous pilot will demonstrate their merits. Until he commits to that, I feel that the risks involved are too great and pose too much of a threat to our communities for us to be able to support the proposals.

10.43 pm

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Criminal Justice (Mike Penning): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, not least because the Northamptonshire police and crime commissioner is one of the best in the country, offering the sort of innovation that we have heard about during the debate. It is sad that he is not standing for re-election in May.

I welcome today’s debate and the opportunity to bust some myths, which is important and can provide confidence going forward. I am generally a friend of the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), and we get on 99% of the time, both inside and outside this Chamber, but some of her comments frankly amounted to scaremongering. I will address the points that have been made during the debate, but, as always, I will write to colleagues if I cannot cover everything.

Like the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), I have a passion for this country’s fire service. I was a member of it for a short time but nowhere near as long as him. The fire service that turns up to our homes and factories to protect us is a public asset and will stay so—let me throw this privatisation thing out of the window once and for all. However, when my constituency was blown to smithereens on 11 December 2010, I welcomed firefighters from anywhere, including the private sector, which has huge experience in the type of fire that we were fighting.

We must also get away from the London-centric perception that all fire stations stay open 24/7, because they do not. We have an absolutely fantastic voluntary service based on retained firefighters, who make up the vast majority of firefighters around the country. Brilliantly, we now have full-time retained firefighters—it was not allowed when I was in the job. I understand that there are retained London firefighters who live in my constituency, but I must be slightly careful about that as I do not want to get them into trouble. The Fire Brigades Union in London does not like retained firefighters. On Merseyside, there are only 25 retained firefighters for the whole area, even though many firefighters have told me that they would love to be retained when they go back to their villages and homes. We also have full-time day-manning, as I call it, with firefighters being retained and on call later. Only the other day, I was in Lancashire to congratulate firefighters on their fantastic work during the floods. They have just moved to a new system with no 24/7 stations, but the cover is safe and the unions have accepted it. We must therefore remember when looking around the country that one size will not fit all.

However, we must consider—the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse hit the nail on the head—that other countries often have emergency services that work together much more closely than ours and protect their public much better. Of all the countries that I could refer to, it is America, the nation of privatisation, where firefighters have paramedical skills vastly in excess of any fireman in this country. I am really passionate about that. I took five years to qualify as a military paramedic before paramedics were even heard of in

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civvy street. When I started the job in Essex after passing out, I was posted to the station in Basildon. I was given my trade union card—I had no choice in the matter—and I was then given my first aid certificate, because I was made to take a first aid course during my basic training. By the way, at no stage during my service was I asked to renew the certificate, which is quite fascinating.

We have moved on since then. The vast majority of firefighting appliances now have defibrillators, but so does the cashier at my local Tesco. It is fantastic that this life-saving kit is available to us. When I was in Hampshire the other day, I saw advances in skills for firefighters for which I have been screaming for years, and we could go further. The key thing is whether we can keep a person alive until the other professionals arrive. This is not about replacing the ambulance service or the police; this is about the fire service being able to save a seriously injured person when it is out on a job and an ambulance cannot get there. That happens in most other parts of the world. In Hampshire, I was chatting away with a fireman who had paramedical skills right up to just below being able to insert an IV. I think there are legal reasons behind him not being able to do an IV, but we will try to move on that as well, because, as I know from experience, getting fluids into the body is one of the most important things, alongside keeping the airways open. People have transferred from the ambulance service into the fire service and vice versa, because of their on-the-job experience.

The reason why legislation is so important is that this is not just about money. If it was, I would not be standing here. It is about whether we can get a more efficient service to protect our constituents’ lives day in, day out, 24/7, 365 days of the year. Are there things preventing us from doing that?

In some parts of the country we have gone forward in leaps and bounds, but in other parts we have not; in some parts of the country we have huge amounts of collaboration, but in others not. I freely admit—I will probably get myself in trouble with the Department of Health again—that when I was in opposition I was fundamentally opposed to regionalisation of the ambulance service. As a former firefighter, I saw problems with that. When the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse was the Fire Minister, I was fundamentally opposed to the regionalisation of the fire service control centres. Thirty-odd years ago, however, when I was a fireman, we had a tri-service control centre—only one of them—and it worked really well. Where such things are working in places around the country, issues such as contracts and job descriptions have been addressed, which is absolutely right.

On Thursday I was at the police control centre in London when the Syria conference was going on here. That was a hugely difficult and tactical job for the Metropolitan police, with the fire service, the Army, the ambulance service and the London boroughs all in that control centre together, but it was a brilliant operation. I pay tribute to those involved in the mutual aid that took place in London last Thursday. We had armed response and other police officers from throughout the country, including from the Police Service of Northern Ireland—the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) have now had to leave the Chamber for other business.

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Collaboration does take place, but what do we do when it does not? Do we simply sit back and say that that is acceptable? A locally appointed—not elected—fire authority might say, “No, we’re doing fine. There are 25 of us, and we turn up twice a month. We’re doing absolutely fine”, even though they know full well that in another part of the country collaboration is saving lives and doing the job. This is not about replacing a fireman with a policeman—that is clearly scaremongering. I know what the FBU has been saying, and I will try to work with it on the matter. It about delivering better care and value for money.

Why are the emergency services not all coming together on procurement? I now publish the lists of what police authorities spend, and I shall do exactly the same for the fire authorities. The accountability of PCCs is in place—they are elected. There are people who are seconded or appointed to different authorities, but at the end of the day the PCCs are the ones in the community who are elected, and the vast majority of them want collaboration.

Nearly every chief fire officer has congratulated me on my new position, although that is probably natural—they do not want to get on the wrong side of me straightaway. They welcome the fact that I am the Fire Minister as well as the Police Minister, so the fire service is not the forgotten body, which to be fair they have felt in the past. I was aware of the extent of that when I took office.

We want collaboration to be as voluntary as possible, but where there is complete belligerence about not doing it, we will take powers. The Bill will be published shortly. There will be evidence sessions, because that is the modern way we do things now, and we will look carefully at a lot of the comments made in the debate today. All of that, however, has to be about how to do things—the way we did things in the past is not necessarily the best one. Some of the work we are doing now I was pushing for 30 years ago, and I am pushing to go further.

I would like the ambulance service to work more closely with the others. That is much more complicated because of the regional structure, but we could do things locally. I know of at least one PCC—I will not name him, because I was told in confidence—who has been approached by the new commissioning group in his area to ask whether the PCC could provide emergency blue-light cover for ambulances. That is starting to come about not from the top down but from the grassroots.

We should listen not only to the chiefs, the PCCs or the unions—more unions than the FBU alone are involved—but to the individual firefighters, who have had the confidence to talk to me in the past few weeks, since I had this new job, and to say, “Minister, we are thrilled that you are an ex-firefighter and that our voice may now be heard above all the other chatter of people protecting their jobs.” That is the sort of comment I have been hearing.

Ian Lavery: With regard to the grassroots and the people on the frontline, who the Minister mentioned—he was one of those people himself—in the event of a single employer model, will he guarantee the people in the fire and rescue service their rights to unionise, to

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collective bargaining and to industrial and strike action? The police have none of that, so will the Minister guarantee that firefighters may retain their rights?

Mike Penning: That is an important point. The operational control of the individuals will always be by the operational officers. There is no evidence whatever that PCCs, since we have had them, have interfered in cases or in operational work. It is crucial that that does not happen.

What are we really saying? More than half of all fire stations—I think this figure is right—have a police station or ambulance station within 1 km of them. Although it is difficult to put a fire appliance into a police station—some ambulance stations could take them, but not police stations—the reverse is easy, and we have seen that in Winchester.

The new fire station in Winchester, which is a fantastic piece of kit, is fully bayed, and the police in there too. The two services are completely working together, without it affecting their operational control. Someone who dials 999 and asks for a police officer will not get a fireman—that is a ludicrous idea and will not happen. However, elsewhere in the country we already have, for example, police community support officers in Durham, I think, carrying first aid kits. They might even have short extension ladders. They have had the training and are doing that because of the sheer geographical issues involved.

One size will not fit all, and that gives us an opportunity. There are complications, and I am not shying away from the fact that doing something might be difficult, but nor will I shy away from the fact that we need to protect our public better than we do now. Where collaboration works, I will not have belligerence and bloody-mindedness blocking that sort of care in other parts of the country. That is why we are bringing it through.

10.56 am

Richard Fuller: I thank hon. Members for taking part in the debate. In particular, I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), and the Minister for their contributions.

The Minister was kind enough to say that he would write to Members with responses to their questions, because he did not have time to answer everything specifically. The key message that he will have received today is that there is broad and widespread support for collaboration in principle, but some important questions remain about how it will be developed.

We heard about some strong examples in Hampshire from my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Steve Brine) and for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), and about the experience in Northern Ireland from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). As my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) said, however, there are still mixed opinions among professionals, so the Minister will have to provide guidance. He will have to lead on this, so that others may follow and get the best of the opportunities presented by collaboration.

As the Minister himself mentioned, there are continuing questions about where the ambulance service and the responsibility for emergency healthcare response sit in

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the review. We heard about that from the hon. Members for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), as well as from me and the shadow Minister. That issue will not go away.

Let me just say to the Minister that, in my experience, workplace culture matters—the culture that makes men and women want to work together grows and matters, because it is an ethos and a motivation for people. Nowhere is that more so than among members of our public service whom we ask to put their own personal safety behind the safety of our public. Clearly there is such an ethos among those in the fire service whom the Minister has met. They see themselves as having a humanitarian mission.

When the Minister says that he is minded to do more, therefore, he really does need to do more. We have to find a way to bring those responsibilities into the changes he is making. If he can put that in the Bill, or if the shadow Minister tables amendments to that effect, they will find widespread support from Members of Parliament in all parts of the House.

Mr Peter Bone (in the Chair): Before I put the Question, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their self-restraint, because every Member who wished to speak did so.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered closer working between the emergency services.

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Sports Clubs: HMRC Status

10.59 am

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered multi-sports clubs and HMRC changes to community amateur sports club status.

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Bone. In many ways the context of the debate is the rather disappointing Olympic legacy, with participation reducing in sports. In the past four years, the number of people doing more than half an hour of sports a week has declined from 25 million to 23 million; and as has been widely reported, obesity has increased by something like two thirds since 1993. In the context of joined-up government, it is therefore somewhat surprising that the Government have chosen to increase taxes on a number of amateur sports clubs, which will almost certainly lead to some detrimental impact on participation.

I will use Warrington sports club as my example, but I could have used many others. In particular, I have been contacted by a large number of golf clubs who are also being hit by the tax changes that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is in the process of bringing in, which will have an impact on participation. Warrington sports club has 750 members of whom 400 are junior members. That high ratio of junior members is one of the factors that has led it to fall foul of HMRC. Another factor is that it is a multi-sports club that does six major sports: rugby, cricket, hockey, squash, tennis and archery. The club was founded in 1852, so it has been going for a long time. It costs £220 a year for a multi-membership and £130 for a single membership, so it is not a major, lucrative money-making venture. The two issues that have taken the club the wrong side of the legislation are that it is a multi-sports club and that it has a relatively high number of junior members.

In terms of the club’s financials, membership brings in something like £50,000 a year and the bar brings in £290,000 a year of which £140,000 a year is from non-members. Non-member income is the issue that the Revenue is trying to address. One of the reasons for the large non-member income is that the club has a significant number of junior members, so parents take juniors to play rugby, cricket, hockey and whatever and have a drink while their offspring are playing. That counts as non-member income, which is the crux of the HMRC requirements. In terms of profit and loss, in the past two years on a turnover of about £300,000 a year the club has made a total profit of just under £2,000. The club is run to break even; it is not a profit-making club.

The legislation from which the club and many others have benefited was introduced in 2002 to attempt to increase participation in sport by making concessions for amateur sports clubs. The concessions were: an 80% relief on rates; some corporation tax relief; and gift aid status if they registered to be a community amateur sports club. Something like 6,000 sports clubs registered as CASCs. The valuable part of that concession for Warrington is that it saves about £14,000 a year in business rates, which may not be huge in terms of its turnover, but that is a reasonable chunk for a club that broadly breaks even. It comes to something like £20 a member, which is about 15% of the membership fee.

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The legislation brought in by the Government in 2002 had numerous sensible criteria. The club had to be open to the whole community—it could not be a private, restricted club—it had to be amateur and its main purpose had to be the promotion and participation of an eligible sport. Clearly that was the case for Warrington and up until now that has worked fairly harmoniously.

In 2013, HMRC started a consultation. Its concern was apparently that the existing legislation was complex and confusing. There was clearly potential that organisations that are not really sports clubs whose primary purpose is not sport could register for CASC and take the benefits, which would not be fair to aspects of the hospitality industry. I can see that and the people at Warrington sports club can see that. If abuse was taking place, it is reasonable that HMRC should look at how it might wish to stop that. That seems to me an easier loophole to close than some of the other issues it grapples with on our behalf, such as double Irish, Facebook, Google and all that goes with that, but the focus in 2013 was amateur sports clubs.

HMRC sent out a consultation with a number of options and I think it would be fair to say—I am sure the Minister will agree—that it was trying to develop quantitative criteria by which it could judge whether an entity should be CASC-registered. It would not be a judgment on whether something was a sports club; HMRC could say, “It is a sports club because of these quantitative criteria, so we can tick a box. This one clearly passes and that one doesn’t.” One can only imagine that it was trying to remove uncertainty and dialogue, with people arguing, “His club should be if mine is” and vice versa.

At the time of that consultation, there was no mention whatever of state aid being one of the drivers of what HMRC was trying to do. At no point was the reason given that there was concern that some sports clubs might have an issue with state aid, but I say that because recent correspondence with HMRC has given that as the reason for not changing some limits. The consultation ran its course and at the end HMRC decided to impose two quantitative criteria. One was a £100,000 a year maximum on non-member income. As I said, the club had £140,000 non-member income, which put it outside that limit. One reason why the club is outside the limit—this is why the debate is about multi-sports clubs—is because the club runs six sports, so it is a relatively big club. If it were six separate clubs, they would be beneath the limit, but that structure would be onerous to go to and difficult to achieve. The £100,000 limit discriminates against multi-sports clubs.

The other quantitative criterion that HMRC imposed was that 50% of members had to participate actively in a sport. I guess the reason for that is that it wants to ensure that CASCs are real sports clubs and that people are not joining just to enjoy the benefits of the £14,000 a year that the club enjoys. That has caused Warrington an issue, because roughly speaking—it is only an estimate—its non-member income is about £140,000 because it is a multiple sports club. The other point is that because it has a large junior membership—400 of the 750 members are juniors, which I would submit is a good thing—parents will sometimes join the club socially or whatever. Those who have to take their children to the club will have a

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drink. They may or may not be members. If they are members, they may not do sport 12 times a year, so they would fall outside that criterion. In any event, the criterion appears to be a complex one, with 16 measurements for participation.

The impact on the club is £16,000 a year. I do not suppose that that will close it. It is a material issue, but it will not break it. HMRC tells the club that if it wants to it can set up a trading subsidiary. That would involve accountants and lawyers, and all the rest of it. Obviously, the bar income would go into the trading subsidiary. The estimated cost would be several thousand pounds, and the trading subsidiary would pay corporation tax. Perhaps that is what the Revenue wants, but it is quite onerous, and it is unclear what the saving would be. The other possibility would be to split the sports club into six separate sport clubs—one for each sport. There would clearly need to be a method of checking which club people who bought drinks were in, and so on, because of the de minimis limit. The consequence would probably be something like a 20% increase in membership fees—£25 a year. Presumably, because everything in economics happens at the margin, that would cause a reduction in participation, which is not really what the Government want.

The club put a request to HMRC. It said, “Okay, we kind of understand the direction of what you are trying to do. We understand the abuse that you are trying to tighten up on, and the clarity that you want. Let’s change the £100,000 de minimis thing, given that this is a multi-sports club, to £150,000.” Obviously there is self-interest there, because the Warrington club would be under that, and would save £14,000. We got the answer from HMRC that—I paraphrase—it would be happy to help, but its hands are tied by state aid rules. That is the first mention we have had of state aid rules, and you would not think Warrington sports club was the first entity to create a state aid issue for the Government—a Government, by the way, while we are on the subject of state aid, who have difficulty in stopping the German Government reducing electricity prices for their heavy industry by a factor of two so that their steel companies do not close while ours do. Nevertheless, Warrington sports club was informed that HMRC could not help and that £100,000 was the highest the figure could be, because of state aid rules.

I have good news for the Minister, however, because in the past few days I have read the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills state aid manual, which came out in July 2015. It is a rattling good yarn, and explains that there is a de minimis limit on state aid of €200,000 over a three-year period. In the view of BIS that would not distort competition in the European market. We thought we were home and dry, because obviously the £14,000 or €20,000 that Warrington sports club and other sports clubs enjoy is clearly a factor of three or four below that state aid amount. It would appear to me from the BIS manual that we have found a way out for HMRC. It will no longer have to be concerned about being dragged through the European Court on matters of state aid and the rest, because of the de minimis limit and its impact on Warrington sports club. I am informing HMRC of that point in this debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I have five questions for the Minister. Why does the correspondence that we have received from HMRC—most recently the Lin Homer letter of November 2015—rest

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its case on state aid, when state aid was not mentioned at all in the initial consultation? Given that we now have the BIS state aid manual and know that there are minimum state aid thresholds, can we incorporate what we know into HMRC policy? Presumably the handbook applies to HMRC. In the opinion of the Minister have the changes to the entire area that have taken place in the past three years, which will raise very small amounts of tax, if any, increased or decreased complexity? Does the Minister have an estimate of the number of clubs that are deregistering, and has there been any discussion with DCMS of the decline in sports participation that will be a consequence of that? Does he agree with me that instead of engaging in a drive to find a quantitative criterion for evaluating clubs it should have been possible, given all the value judgments that HMRC inspectors must make, to tell whether x or y is a sports club? That would not be beyond HMRC; it is something that could have been left to the judgment of tax officers.

11.16 am

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Damian Hinds): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone, and to have the opportunity to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) in this important debate. I commend and congratulate him on bringing it to Westminster Hall.

Successive Governments have recognised the benefits of sporting activity in improving people’s health and wellbeing, and in strengthening community cohesion. I welcome the opportunity to express the Government’s continued support for community amateur sports clubs, which, among other things, play an important part in consolidating our Olympic legacy, as my hon. Friend mentioned. It is right that the Government should use the tax system, as well as other forms of support, to encourage the benefits offered by those clubs.

There are about 7,115 community amateur sports clubs, and they certainly deserve the Government’s backing. The new regulations for CASCs continue to ensure that support through the tax system is correctly targeted at them. The community amateur sports club tax scheme provides a number of vital charitable tax reliefs to support local amateur sports clubs. Following a detailed review by HMRC of how the scheme was operating under the old rules, which showed that they were confusing and difficult to understand, the new CASC regulations came into effect on 1 April 2015. They included, as my hon. Friend said, a new income ceiling of £100,000 for non-member income.

Extensive consultation took place before the new rules were formulated. The Government formally consulted on outline proposals for reform of the scheme in June 2013 and published their response that November. Between November 2013 and September 2014 officials were engaged in regular and intensive dialogue with representative bodies individually, as well as establishing a forum for representatives of the sports sector.

The forum has a membership drawn from several sports’ national governing bodies and representative organisations. It met regularly during development of the new policy and the drafting of the new regulations. Particular issues of interest to members were aired at the forum and more detailed working group meetings ensured that HMRC understood specific issues for different

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sports as it developed the rules. As a result, changes were put in place to address the genuine concerns of some members of the forum, and the draft regulations were amended to increase the generosity of the social membership rule. Throughout the consultation process HMRC worked closely with officials from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and its agency, Sport England.

The new regulations have made the scheme more generous than it was, which makes membership more attractive. However, the scheme works by providing tax advantages only to those that need them, and it is of course important that taxpayers’ money should be spent wisely. To take an extreme contrast as an example, clearly a youth football club with a tuck shop should get the tax advantages, but a pub with a darts team should not. That said, the new rules were developed to enable as many clubs as possible to remain within the scheme. Eighty-five per cent of existing CASCs are not affected by the new rules as they operate fully within both the old and new rules.

It is worth noting that HMRC has not received evidence that the rules significantly increased the administrative costs for clubs within the scheme. However, some clubs inevitably are disappointed that the rules are not more generous. HMRC has continued to give help and guidance to clubs to help them remain within the scheme, and the dedicated HMRC charities helpline remains available to CASCs. If my hon. Friend or the club in his constituency wish to have a further conversation, they can do so by calling the helpline on 0300 123 1073. I would also be happy to arrange for either him or representatives of Warrington sports club to meet with officials to discuss the situation.

Some clubs may decide that complying with the new regulations is not financially viable and decide to leave the scheme instead. While we will not know the numbers involved accurately until after the 12-month grace period expires on 1 April 2016, we know that clubs are applying for CASC status at approximately the same rate as in 2014-15, before the rules changed.

The main purpose of a CASC must be the promotion of sport by providing facilities for the whole community. Clubs that generate a disproportionate amount of their revenue from non-sporting activities may be primarily social or commercial clubs. If a club’s main purpose is not sporting, it is obviously not eligible to be a CASC. It is important that the generous tax reliefs available only go to genuine amateur sports clubs. The Government recognise that many sports clubs raise funds from social functions and other non-sporting activities to subsidise membership fees and consider that the £100,000 income threshold provides sufficient flexibility to do that.

The consultation document was clear that the tax reliefs afforded to CASCs are not meant to support clubs that could be seen as competing with other commercial businesses such as pubs and restaurants, as my hon. Friend said. A higher limit could increase the risk of a state aid challenge because clubs could be seen to be engaging in economic activity. I must make it clear that in the event of a successful state aid challenge, HMRC would have no alternative but to seek to recover what would then be deemed underpaid tax from each club—a situation that all of us would want to avoid. The stakes when considering any potential state aid challenge case are therefore really quite high.

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When considering the state aid threshold of €200,000 over three years—my hon. Friend was right to raise this important point—the relevant rules require all forms of potential state aid provided to be taken into consideration. As well as the tax reliefs provided by the CASC regime, CASCs also benefit from lower business rates and may in addition receive grants or other forms of financial assistance. The amounts in question will vary from club to club. The income limit is set at a level that seeks to ensure the de minimis limits will not be breached once business rates and any other form of financial assistance are taken into consideration.

I reiterate that the main purpose of a CASC must continue to be the provision of facilities for an eligible sport or sports, and the encouragement of participation in those sports. If a club has a lot of non-sporting income, it is unlikely to be primarily a sports club. The new CASC regulations allow clubs to earn up to £100,000 a year from non-member trading and property income. There is no limit at all on the amount of income clubs can generate from members, apart from property income from members, which also counts towards the £100,000 cap.

During consultation, representations were made for a more flexible approach and perhaps a more bespoke income limit. However, that would greatly increase the complexity of the regime and regulations. Different rules for different sports or sizes of club would increase the administration for both clubs and HMRC, and that approach was rejected on these grounds.

If clubs that are already registered as CASCs have high levels of non-member trading income and/or property income and do not want to be deregistered, they may choose, as my hon. Friend said, to consider setting up a trading subsidiary in the same way as many charities have trading subsidiaries. This is important: any income generated by a trading subsidiary will not count towards the club’s income threshold.

Trading subsidiaries should be owned and controlled by the CASC, allowing the subsidiary to trade but not be entitled to CASC reliefs. However, the trading company may gift-aid its otherwise taxable profits to the CASC and not pay corporation tax. Similarly, separate supporters’ clubs may be set up to assist clubs with high levels of junior membership—another important point that my hon. Friend raised—in meeting new rules for participation levels where it is a requirement that a non-sporting parent or guardian is also a member.

HMRC cannot register clubs that do not meet the income condition. It expects all clubs affected to take steps to reduce their level of non-member trading and property income, and in many cases that will be by

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setting up a trading subsidiary. The new income condition provides a sound regulatory foundation for the CASC scheme going forward that is fair and in keeping with one of the founding principles of the scheme: to support small volunteer-run community amateur sports clubs.

David Mowat: I listened carefully to the Minister’s point on state aid. The fact that the de minimis limit applies to all forms of aid is, of course, reasonable. I make the point again, though, that my local club—I do not believe there is any reason to think Warrington sports club is atypical—would be under the current de minimis state aid limit by a factor of four or five. It is hard to see that the figure of £100,000 is, in fact, responsive to that de minimis state aid limit.

Damian Hinds: To reiterate, the de minimis limit is €200,000, which applies over three years.

David Mowat: To actual aid?

Damian Hinds: To actual aid, in all its forms. Officials had to, appropriately, make a judgment in designing a scheme that would apply across the sector on the safe level of non-member income, as a generally applicable rule that would keep clubs safely under that limit. The figure they arrived at for the limit was £100,000. In the particular case of my hon. Friend’s local club, which he rightly and ably represents today in Westminster Hall, I would be happy to arrange for further discussions on appropriate avenues forwards.

The vast majority of clubs currently in the scheme have been unaffected by the new income condition, and detailed guidance is available to them and to those considering joining the scheme in the future. That means the tax reliefs available under the CASC scheme continue to be a vital element in supporting small clubs within the scheme to deliver the benefits of participating in sport.

The new non-member income threshold continues to encourage and support community sports clubs. The Government believe the cap is set at an already generous level and strikes the correct balance between the interests of the CASCs to raise extra funds and the interests of local businesses. The scheme should not provide tax reliefs to clubs that derive significant amounts of income from non-member social and commercial activities, as that was not what it was designed for. I close by thanking my hon. Friend once again and commending him for bringing this important debate to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

11.28 am

Sitting suspended.

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Work Capability Assessments

[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Louise Haigh (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered work capability assessments.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to lead this debate, because it is one that we have been having in the House for many years and it has enormous repercussions for the people we are here to represent.

The debate comes at an important time. The amount of money that the Government spend on outsourcing has never been higher, but public trust in outsourced companies has never been lower. Only 22% of people believe that they are motivated by providing the best service to the public, and is it any wonder, with stories every week of high-profile failures, corruption, mistreatment, the falsifying of information and a premium being put on profit ahead of people? There is a sense from the public that this shadow state, providing the services that the public rely on, is acting with ever increasing impunity.

In the course of the last Parliament, as outsourcing grew, the public’s control over our own public services shrank and evidence of malpractice, mistreatment and utter contempt for those coming into contact with the services provided by such companies grew, private sector providers became the ogres for their appalling behaviour. However, we should not forget that it resulted from what were first and foremost political choices, the unpalatable consequences of which were contracted out and covered in the veil of secrecy that commercial confidentiality rules permit. Although it was Atos and is now Maximus that has carried out the Government’s massive expansion of work capability assessments, the choices made in the Treasury and in Downing Street, well before responsibility was contracted out, were the basis for where we are today—failing contractors acting with impunity, and the sick and disabled paying the price for the Government’s flawed agenda.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that if people can work, they should—that is not a contentious statement—and that work is beneficial for many people suffering from illness, be it physical or mental. I have friends and family who have fallen in and out of depression and for whom work has been a lifeline. It gives people a routine and a purpose—a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I have been unemployed for stretches of time myself and have experienced how closely linked unemployment and depression can be for many. Helping people to get into work is therefore a laudable and necessary objective of any Government, but some things are not compatible with helping people with physical illness, disabilities or mental health problems to get into appropriate work. I am referring to targets, profit-driven motives and a focus above all on cutting expenditure. When one side is trying to cut costs and another is employed to maximise profit, something has to give, and unforgivably that has been the sick, the disabled and anyone who comes into contact with this failing and occasionally brutal system.

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Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. Is there not also an issue about the significant waste of taxpayers’ money in the Government failing to address the fundamental flaws in the system, which lead to an over-reliance on appeals and reconsiderations and the Department for Work and Pensions having to prop up a private company that is failing to deal with assessments appropriately the first time?

Louise Haigh: I could not agree more, and I will come on to that issue.

This is about providing not just a good-quality service for clients, but best value for money for the taxpayer. As I said, when one side is trying to cut costs and another is employed to maximise profit, something has to give. As report after report has identified, the contractors that the Government have employed to carry out cuts have been anything but successful. They have presided over failure after failure. There has been poor performance, a disregard for vulnerable people and, in this new age of outsourcing, a total lack of accountability for Government and operator alike.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. The cost to the taxpayer is some £80 million this year, up by £24 million on last year. Does she agree that these private companies are taking the taxpayer for a ride?

Louise Haigh: Again, I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and I thank him for that intervention. The contractors continue to get paid despite repeated failures. Even worse, after being deemed unfit to perform in relation to one contract, contractors simply get to continue with another lucrative long-term deal, as Atos has done. After failing to handle the work capability assessments contract, it is still running a seven-year contract for personal independence payment assessments for the same Department. Now Maximus is failing to meet a range of key targets—targets that, importantly, put far greater emphasis on saving money than on meeting the needs of people who unjustifiably suffer. Whatever the rhetoric about “service quality”, this is still a system designed to cut costs for the Government and maximise profit for Maximus.

We have undoubtedly all read last month’s report by the National Audit Office, but some of the figures deserve to be rehearsed. Despite the new contract—which followed Atos’s spectacular failure—being worth some £570 million a year, there is still a backlog of 280,000 employment and support allowance claims. The average cost of each individual assessment is now almost £200, and that is for a 15-minute assessment. One in 10 disability benefit claimants’ reports are rejected as below standard by the Government, compared with one in 25 when the shamed Atos was running the show.

Individuals have to wait an average of 23 weeks for a decision to be made on their benefits; there has been a huge rise in that timescale—almost a trebling—in recent years. For each person, that can and almost always does mean hardship, but the number being referred keeps rocketing as the Government, desperate to clear the books at any cost, lay the bill for clearing the deficit squarely at the door of the sick and disabled. The

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Government are forcing away from ESA people who need and rely on it, and the failing contractors are being overwhelmed. Despite all that undeniable pain, unbelievably, the Department is not expected to meet the initial £5.4 billion savings target originally envisaged for the 10 years to 2019-20.

Neil Coyle: I thank my hon. Friend for generously giving way again. Does she agree that the failure at ministerial level to get a grip on the backlog, the rising costs and the incompetence in the Department for Work and Pensions has led to the Treasury’s demand to take even more money from disabled people on employment and support allowance, which is why the Government are seeking to cut £30 a week from half a million of the most disadvantaged people in the country?

Louise Haigh: Again, my hon. Friend has neatly anticipated my next point, which is that the Office for Budget Responsibility has identified ESA and PIP as a major risk to planned public spending targets, given the uncertainty of the estimates. The NAO has gone so far as to say that PIP and disability living allowance performance issues have been the main contributing factor in the Department’s inability to save any money in the spending review period up to 2015.

It is clear that both the Government and contractors are failing on their own terms, yet still the cash is handed over to failing contractors. We are locked into long contracts whereby Departments do not have the capability to improve performance. The original policy itself is flawed, but it is in the treatment of individuals unlucky enough to come into contact with the system that the whole rotten trade-off between cost cutting by the Government and profit maximisation by Maximus is most apparent. Specific cases abound, and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would be able to relay evidence of deeply concerning practice, which is why it is interesting to note that not a single Government Back Bencher is in the Chamber today. I will list a few from my case load.

One man with learning difficulties whose case was highlighted to me attended his work capability assessment, but during the assessment his support worker was shocked at the lack of care and attention given to him. When the assessment came through, there were some glaring factual errors, but none the less his ESA was docked, just in case he was in any doubt about what comes first—the person or the profit. On making his request for mandatory reconsideration, he was appalled to find out that he would be ineligible for ESA, which was his lifeline, until the reconsideration decision was made, and he was unable to meet the conditions placed on him for jobseeker’s allowance. He now faces months of waiting until his tribunal, and potentially an annual battle if assessors continue to lack understanding of his learning difficulty.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Whatever my hon. Friend’s views about the contractors, does she agree that it is the Government’s responsibility to secure contractors whose assessors have sufficient knowledge of progressive conditions such as muscular dystrophy and sufficient awareness and training in areas such as

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learning disabilities? The contractors are not primarily responsible for that; is it not the Government’s responsibility?

Louise Haigh: Of course, I completely agree. The Government’s policy sets the direction for the contractors, which is why the contractors have such a huge gap in their understanding, particularly of mental health issues.

In another case, one of my constituents applied for a home visit after being unable to make their assessment. She has now been waiting for more than two years and still has not received a date. Throughout that time, she has been surviving on a reduced rate and is struggling, as anyone would, to get by. She is just one of 280,000 people in an enormous backlog.

Despite the fact that the Government have made it notably harder for people to appeal their decisions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) mentioned, the latest figures show that 54% of appeals result in decisions being overturned. As in the case of the first constituent I mentioned, there seems to be an alarming trend of cases being rejected based on factual errors or even—I hesitate to say this—falsification. I have had several cases of people telling me that their assessment report bears absolutely no relation to the assessment that they experienced with Maximus or Atos. I am sure that other hon. Members have heard similar evidence. One or two cases could be dismissed as an honest mistake, but the situation appears to reveal a disconcerting pattern of behaviour that indicates that the trade-off between cost cutting and profit maximisation is being felt by very vulnerable people.

Maximus is not doing this to make a loss or out of the kindness of its heart, and it is failing on performance, which goes to the heart of the issue. Even if the Government were more concerned with the interests and wellbeing of the user, it would be extremely difficult for them to hold the contractors’ feet to the fire.

Mr Jim Cunningham: It is good of my hon. Friend to give way to colleagues. Does the situation not demonstrate that the Government’s intention—Governments do give contractors instructions, by the way—is to cut people’s benefits, and to make the system more difficult, through the contractors, so that it is harder for people to get those benefits? If anybody wants any evidence of that, it took the House of Lords to stop a £30 cut in people’s benefits a couple of weeks ago.

Louise Haigh: Absolutely. Clearly, there is an attempt by the Government to drive down benefits for people who are sick and disabled, and they are using private companies to outsource that responsibility.

Even if the Government were interested in ensuring that the contractors were doing the best for sick and vulnerable people, it would be very difficult for them to be able to do so. They need to be able to trust the data that the contractor supplies if they are to hold its feet to the fire. In a 2014 report, the NAO pulled the Government up on the poor management of contracts, the level of inexperience within Departments, their naivety and their “over-reliance” on data supplied by contractors in the management of performance.

Although some much-needed changes have been made since the calamitous Atos contract and that 2014 report, old habits die hard and inexperience in managing contracts

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remains a major issue for the Department. Although we know that contractors are performing poorly against a range of measures, because of the helpful insight we get from the NAO once in a while, assessment across the full range is not always forthcoming.

Across a range of vital measures, it is up to us to trust that the Department is doing the job and that Maximus is supplying the right information. They include the number of face-to-face complaints following an interview; the number of serious complaints; the percentage of face-to-face consultations without complaints, which is supposed to be at 99.5%; and the target of 100% payment of travel expenses within nine working days. Those targets are all noble and sensible, but there is no regular method for publishing whether they are met. That is why we talk about a democratic deficit in outsourced public services, the costs of which have rocketed since 2010 to almost £120 billion, covering vast swathes of services that we all rely on.

What exactly is the point in setting targets if the public cannot see whether they are being achieved? A supplier could manipulate the data, and we would have to rely on an overstretched Department to pick it up. Let us not pretend that that would be unusual or unprecedented. In 2007, Maximus was fined $30.5 million over accusations that it had cheated Medicaid in the United States by making tens of thousands of false claims on a payment by results contract. Maximus effectively stole money from US taxpayers by making claims for children who had not received care. After that was exposed, Maximus said it would not sign any more contingency-based contracts where it was paid from savings in state expenditure, but the contract we are discussing is just such a contingency-based payment by results contract.

In 2007, Maximus was sued by the state of Connecticut for the abject failure of its computer system, which was supposed to run a police database, including real-time police record checks. The state’s attorney general said:

“Maximus minimized quality—squandering millions of taxpayer dollars and shortchanging law enforcement agencies.”

He said that the database could

“make a life and death difference to police and other law enforcers”,

so the failure was unacceptable. In 2012, Maximus settled the case for $2.5 million. While the US sues companies such as Maximus, which spectacularly fail to deliver the contracts they are required to, we continue to hand over billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.

We have an original policy based on a flawed and myopic view of the sick and disabled, and handed down by the Government to catch contractors that are undeniably failing. Meanwhile, the public’s right to know what is going on is limited by commercial confidentiality. We will all be forgiven for not wanting simply to trust that all is well when our constituents tell a different story and when well documented scandals seem to play on a loop.

Will the Minister commit to publishing regular updates to Parliament on Maximus’s performance against its targets? Will she release the latest spending on WCA appeals, given that the figures in the public domain date back to 2012, and when the contract comes up for renewal in three years’ time, will she release a cost-benefit analysis of bringing the service back in-house? Finally, will she confirm what steps are being taken to bolster

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the experience of civil servants in her Department overseeing contracts of this magnitude, to ensure that they are delivering the best possible service to vulnerable people and the best possible value for money to the taxpayer?

The fundamental problem is that regardless of which hapless and dubious provider is dragged in, and regardless of the operating system and oversight of the WCA, the need of extremely vulnerable individuals simply cannot come in third place behind a need to cut costs and maximise profit. Is not the lesson of this whole sorry episode and the episode before it that profit has no place in assessing need?

2.46 pm

Corri Wilson (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (SNP): The WCA was introduced to assess an individual’s eligibility for ESA. The assessments have three outcomes, which determine whether claimants are in the support group, or the work-related activity group, or are fit for work. Claimants who wish to dispute the decision must go through a mandatory reconsideration before they can appeal. They have one month after a decision to request that and an additional month to supply supplementary evidence. ESA is not payable during that period, but may be backdated. Unbelievably, there is currently no statutory time limit for the Department for Work and Pensions to complete the process. Since March 2011, 35% of claimants went into the WRAG, 46% went into the support group and 19% were declared fit for work. The percentage of people placed in the first two groups has increased month on month from 75% in March 2011 to 96% in March 2015.

Panic, fear, distress, dread and anxiety are just some of the words people use to describe their experience of the benefits system while dealing with health concerns. For example, people with cancer—those who are terminally ill, those receiving treatment for cancer by way of chemotherapy or radiotherapy, and those recovering from treatment—will automatically be treated as having a limited capability for work or work-related activity. In some ways that is beneficial. However, according to Macmillan Cancer Support, by 2020 one in two people will get cancer in their lifetime but almost four in 10 will not die from it. That is clearly good news, but at least one in four of those living with cancer—around 500,000 people in the UK—face poor health or disability after treatment, with a significant proportion experiencing a wide range of distressing long-term problems, both physically and mentally. Many problems can persist for up to 10 years after treatment and can be significantly worse than those experienced by people without cancer.

Many healthcare professionals underestimate the long-term consequences of cancer and its treatment, and that low profile means that some of those affected are reluctant to report those consequences, particularly if they feel grateful to be free of cancer in the first place. It is good that we are curing people of cancer, but we have to recognise that not dying is not the same as being well. The impact of cancer and its treatment affects much more than just health and wellbeing. The physical and emotional effects of cancer and its treatment are the two most common reasons for employees who are diagnosed to give up work or change jobs. Almost half of those who do so say that it was because they were not physically able to return to the same role and one in three said that they did not feel emotionally strong enough. Having

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come out the other end of cancer treatment, the last thing they need is the stress of jumping through hoops to see whether they are entitled to benefits. The time after treatment is crucial for future health. It is a time when space is needed to process what has happened to them and a period when they need to concentrate on themselves and take time to heal and get stronger.

The issue with the work capability assessment is that there is no flexibility. It does not take people’s individual circumstances into account. It is not possible for people in the DWP to understand each and every health condition and its impact, and those who are contracted to do so seem very quick to overturn the diagnoses of GPs and health professionals. Sadly, everyone is expected to fit into the same box. Clearly, life is not so black and white, and cancer survivors and those with other health conditions want, more than anything, to have a normal life, but the opposite will happen if the benefits system continues to cause undue stress and hardship.

Although I have spoken about only one client group, there are many others in similar positions, and we can no longer ignore the damage that the system is doing. I ask the Government to re-examine the processes and to consider a better way of supporting people with health issues back into the workplace.

2.50 pm

Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) on securing this important debate.

Work capability assessments are one of the issues most commonly raised with me, and I am sure with many other Members on both sides of the House. The system is flawed and discredited, and it has caused undue stress and hardship for too many claimants. Recent academic research estimates that for every 10,000 assessments carried out between 2010 and 2013 there have been six suicides, which is truly shocking. That alone requires the Government to undertake a complete review of the current system.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that cases such as that of one of my constituents, who is disabled and does not drive and who has had to attend centres four times, only to be told that the assessment would not go ahead, exemplifies the administrative and financial shambles of the current work capability assessment scheme?

Gerald Jones: My hon. Friend illustrates a valid point that is replicated across the country.

I am sure that hon. Members are as concerned as I am when they hear that, according to the DWP’s own figures, around 50% of assessments are overturned on appeal. That surely calls into question the reliability of the initial assessments and raises the question why we are putting people through such unnecessary stress, which has undoubtedly had a negative impact on the mental health of many claimants.

I am also concerned that the work capability assessments do not seem to take account of individuals who have a limiting long-term illness that means their condition often fluctuates, such as kidney dialysis patients or

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people with Parkinson’s. I visited the kidney dialysis patients support group in Merthyr Tydfil last weekend, and a number of people told me of their concerns about the work capability assessment and the lack of understanding of their condition. Dialysis patients often feel reasonably all right on certain days between dialysis, but on the day following treatment they can feel very low, which means that if they are receiving treatment three days a week, the number of days when they feel okay are few and far between. The Government need to address that lack of understanding.

If the original clauses 13 and 14 of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill are reinserted, financial support for new claimants in the work-related activity group will be cut by around 25% from £102 to £73, which will have a drastic impact on disabled people. The Government have said that they are committed to protecting support for disabled people, so the clauses are deeply worrying. The cut will not incentivise people, as the Government say they want.

Neil Coyle: Could the Government’s proposed cut to half a million people, including people with learning disabilities or cancer, have the perverse incentive that those people will then try to go into the support group when there is already a 280,000 backlog due to the Government’s incompetence in handling that contract?

Gerald Jones: I agree, and it shows how ill thought out the Government’s proposals are.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): On the Government’s justification for the measures in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill to cut the work-related activity group rate by £30 a week, the Government have said that that is to remove the financial disincentives that could otherwise discourage claimants from taking steps back to work. They have not produced any evidence for that disincentive in practice. Why does my hon. Friend think the Government are addressing a problem that is not there and ignoring the problems that are there and that hon. Members have raised over and again?

Gerald Jones: I will try to address my hon. Friend’s points later in my contribution.

I am concerned about the impact of the assessments on people with mental health problems. If the original clauses 13 and 14 are reinserted, the significant cut may mean that people with mental health problems become more unwell. They will be unable to spend money on support and activities that help them recover—things that the personal independence payment does not support—which will affect their ability to move closer to work. Rather than increasing the number of people in work, the change could hinder recovery and push people further away from work. The cut has been opposed in the other place, and I hope that the Government will listen and scrap the clauses.

The current work capability assessment is not fit for purpose. It has lost credibility, and an overhaul is desperately needed. The views and experiences of ill and disabled people must be at the heart of the process. We need a compassionate and effective system that supports people, not one that causes such misery for so many ill and disabled people in our country.

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We in the Labour party feel that disabled people should be able to play a central role in monitoring the work capability assessment system and helping to ensure that it is managed with dignity and fairness. There have been concerns about the assessment over a long period, which has resulted in the DWP changing its contractor from Atos to Maximus, which I understand will be paid substantially more than Atos to carry out the contract. I fully support the calls from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley to the Minister to make public the performance of the contractor, which will improve awareness of the situation.

The Government are trying to defend the indefensible. I hope that the Minister will signal today that she is willing to consider what action she and the Government can take to review this appalling situation and bring about some common sense and, above all, compassion.

2.57 pm

Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP): We know that today’s debate is important because, in my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran and in constituencies across the entire UK, some of our most vulnerable people—those with long-term and quite debilitating health conditions—are relying on us to be their voice. People who have undergone the work capability assessment tell us that they find the entire process at best demeaning, and at worst intimidating. It is a cause of deep distress, which is particularly alarming when one considers that some claimants live with challenging health and mental health conditions and find going through such assessments almost more than they can bear. The assessments can exacerbate or even precipitate mental health problems.

New research from the universities of Liverpool and Oxford has found that in areas where more people are assessed for employment and support allowance there is a greater increase in mental health conditions, prescriptions for antidepressants and even the number of suicides. The research estimates that that may have led to 590 additional suicides. The research is robust and suggests a correlation between mental health problems and the roll-out of work capability assessments. The result of the research is sobering for us all.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson) has said, why are there such strict limits for claimants when there is no time limit for the DWP to complete the mandatory reconsideration process? As has been said, we know that an individual’s condition may fluctuate, which means that symptoms can rapidly decline and abate over the course of a week, a month or even a single day. What about folk with a condition such as Parkinson’s? What if they are assessed on a good day? The assessor would be unable accurately to evaluate the condition’s impact on the person’s functional ability. Work capability assessments also focus on a person’s typical day. That means that their best and worst days are averaged out, which can create a totally misleading impression of their condition. A snapshot of a person’s health is not a true and accurate view of the profound and often difficult challenges they face.

Work capability assessments do not take account of whether a condition is progressive. That is a significant oversight and leads systematically to incorrect assessment decisions about people with Parkinson’s.

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Steve McCabe: The hon. Lady has mentioned progressive conditions and delays that sometimes happen with mandatory reconsiderations. Can she think of any logical reason for the Government’s refusal to give statistics on the outcome of mandatory reconsiderations? Is there any obvious explanation for the withholding of that information?

Patricia Gibson: I am afraid the only possible reason I can think of for that is that the information does not present the work capability assessments in a flattering light. I leave others to draw their own conclusions about how bad it might be.

The worst thing about the system is that those caught up in the controversy and confusion are people with long-term health conditions, and some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. There is a lot of consensus in the Chamber about the need for an urgent review of the work capability assessment. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) pointed out, the cost is increasing, and it is expected that £595 million will be paid for 3.4 million assessments—about £190 per assessment. There has also been a problem with the recruitment of enough medical professionals to meet the demands of the assessments. At least £76 million of taxpayers’ money has been wasted through the failure to get a new IT system up and running more than two years after it was supposed to be in place. As has been mentioned, the National Audit Office report, which was released only last month, revealed that,

“recent performance shows the Department has not tackled—and may even have exacerbated—some of these problems when setting up recent contracts”.

Neil Coyle: The points about rising costs and the backlog are well made. Perhaps we can help the Minister by asking her to consider removing some of the routine retests for those with progressive conditions and conditions that will not change. We have all had the excellent briefings from Parkinson’s UK and Mencap, for example. Perhaps the Minister should look again at the frequency of testing for some people, to save the taxpayer money and save some of the stress and anxiety that the hon. Lady has mentioned.

Patricia Gibson: That is an excellent, well made point and I thank the hon. Gentleman.

There is also a problem with transparency. In December the Work and Pensions Committee concluded that it was unable to scrutinise benefit delays fully because of lack of available data. Its report said that,

“if the DWP has this data, they should publish them. If they do not, then they are making policy decisions in the dark. The Department should address the lack of data immediately.”