Sgt Alexander Blackman, of Taunton, was found guilty of murder at a court martial in November 2013 for murdering an insurgent in Afghanistan.
Dear John ,
Parliament debated the petition you signed – “Free Sergeant Alexander Blackman”
The Petitions team
UK Government and Parliament
Read the transcript:
Wednesday 16 September 2015
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
Midland Main Line (Electrification)
Harry Harpham (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): I beg to move,
That this House has considered electrification of the Midland Main Line.
There is no doubting the critical need for the country to keep its rail network up to date. Over the past 20 years, passenger numbers have doubled. Between 1997 and 2010, the number of inter-city trains went up from 580 per day to 1,228 per day. Current growth in use stands at 4%, and total movement of freight by rail is rising by 2.5% per year. With demand growing as it is, it is entirely understandable that there is cross-party consensus on the need for bold and ambitious upgrade works.
On the midland main line specifically, Leicester, Nottingham and Derby are all experiencing passenger growth at rates above the national average, and demand for rail in the east midlands as a whole is expected to rise by 16% by 2019. Coupled with that is the chronic lack of investment in the line over the past two decades when compared with other routes.
From anyone’s perspective, electrification is the next logical step for the rail network. Compared with a traditional service, an electrified line is more cost efficient, greener, thanks to reduced carbon emissions, and served by better rolling stock. There are also benefits in terms of reliability, connectivity, capacity and economic growth.
To take the midland main line as a specific example, electrifying the line from Bedford to Sheffield could cut carbon emissions by 13,000 tonnes per year. The project would also provide the higher W10 gauge clearance along the whole route, making it more accessible for freight, so there would be a further indirect environmental benefit, as the growing demand for freight could be met, taking more lorries off the roads. To give a rough idea of that benefit, on a traditional service a gallon of diesel will carry 1 tonne of freight 246 miles by rail as opposed to 88 miles by road; on an electrified line, of course, the environmental benefits would be even greater.
As for the economic benefits, it has been estimated that by cutting the costs of rolling stock, energy, track access and maintenance, electrification will cut rail industry costs by over £60 million per year, reducing the cost of the railway to the taxpayer. The midland main line serves one of the fastest growing areas of England, and a report prepared for east midlands councils and the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive by the consultancy firm Arup estimated that electrification would generate £450 million-worth of wider economic benefits. If the Government want to get serious about growing our economic potential outside the south-east and giving the northern powerhouse brand some substance, as a starting point they will have to commit to funding the midland main line project, as well as the TransPennine route upgrade.
16 Sep 2015 : Column 306WH
Lack of investment in infrastructure has been one of the key restraints on growth outside London. In 2013-14 expenditure per head on transport capital was £166 in the north, whereas in London it was £332. Treasury figures published earlier in the year show that planned infrastructure expenditure on transport in real terms from 2015-16 is £2,604 per head in London, but only £391 per head in Yorkshire and the Humber, and just £346 per head in the east midlands. The lack of transport investment means that cities and towns in the north cannot link up into a single economy. Instead, we are still operating as single units and are not able to build up the economic scale and weight that would allow us to play to our strengths and complete globally.
The midland main line might feature only as a footnote in most discussions of the northern powerhouse, if it features at all—and I certainly do not want to get into a debate about what counts as “the north”, which might keep us all here a lot longer than we would like—but it is a vital link in the chain that will help with the Government’s stated objective of rebalancing the north-south divide. Without it, Sheffield and Nottingham will be left as the only core cities without a direct electrified connection to London.
In fact, the midland main line has the best business case of any major electrification scheme, including the Great Western main line. The Department for Transport’s own figures show a benefit-cost ratio of between 4.7:1 and 7.2:1 for the midland main line,
“dependent on train length and train type”,
compared with a ratio of 2.36:1 for the Great Western main line.
Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend think there is a slight irony in the fact that, as he says quite rightly, the midland main line has a better business case than the Great Western main line—and arguably than some of the works on the west coast main line over the years—but electrification of the line has been paused as a direct result of the overspend on the Great Western main line?
Harry Harpham: I agree 100%. My hon. Friend makes an important point; the midland main line work is paused not because of the business case for the line, which everyone agrees is probably the best of the lot, but because of overspend in other areas.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing a debate on this extremely important cross-party issue. Is not one of the problems—the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) alluded to this—the fact that because we are in the east midlands we are always forgotten about? We have one of the lowest amounts of public expenditure per head of population in the whole country, not just on rail but across all infrastructure.
Harry Harpham: Again I agree wholeheartedly; I could not have put it better myself. When I go about meeting business leaders, council leaders and civic leaders across the east midlands and Yorkshire, and right up into the north, that point is made constantly.
By now, we are used to hearing about Ministers’ ambition for the north and for the electrification of the rail network, but in reality, in both cases there is a lack
16 Sep 2015 : Column 307WH
of drive to push through the work needed if that ambition is ever to amount to anything. That is why Labour has been calling on the Government to recommence the suspended work on the midland main line and TransPennine routes. Last month,
Rail Business Intelligence
reported that the Government had instructed Network Rail to “unpause” the electrification of the TransPennine route. As far as I am aware, that is just a rumour, but I would be grateful if the Minister provided some clarification. If true, it would be a welcome development, but of course it raises a question for the Minister: why not the midland main line too?
By calling the suspension “a pause”, the Secretary of State is trying to downplay the potential consequences. The word implies that it will be only a brief time before everything gets going again, and that work will resume as if nothing had happened. In reality, delays in large infrastructure projects always have cost implications—just look at Crossrail. The same story is beginning to play out in this case, too. Philip Rutnam, the permanent secretary at the Department for Transport, told the Transport Committee in July that the principal issue that led to the suspension of work on the midland main line was cost. Network Rail’s initial estimate, in 2013, for the cost of electrifying the midland main line was £540 million. By December 2014, that figure was £1.3 billion. When the work was paused, £250 million had already been spent on contracts for ancillary works, such as rebuilding bridges. Some of Network Rail’s resources have already been transferred to other projects, making it harder and more expensive for the work to get going again. Further delays will only increase the bill.
There are knock-on effects, too. The doubt the suspension has thrown up has led to questions about what rolling stock will operate on the line. There are worries that, assuming electrification does go ahead, the current 1970s-vintage InterCity 125 trains will be replaced by transferred east coast class 91 locomotives, which have poor acceleration; in fact, with those trains, some long distance journeys would take longer than they do at present. So far, the Department for Transport has made no public statement about the specification of the rolling stock that will be used on the midland main line, and I hope the Minister will be able to rectify that.
Mr Betts: I apologise, because I will have to leave before the end of the debate, as I have explained to the Chair. On timing, is it not crucial that the high-speed trains on the midland main line are replaced by 2020 because of issues over disability? Equally, Stagecoach’s franchise has just been extended to 2018, but there will have to be certainty about whether electrification goes ahead, because, as my hon. Friend says, that will affect the future rolling stock for the new franchise.
Harry Harpham: Once again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right.
The recent invitations to tender for the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises have been framed to ensure that they cater for Sheffield’s economic growth requirements. However, it will be possible to meet those needs only with additional diesel-powered rolling stock made available from recently electrified routes.
16 Sep 2015 : Column 308WH
The ongoing uncertainty over the future of the midland main line work is putting other projects in jeopardy. Those projects go beyond just the midland main line electrification. Some involve improvement works, which are to be delivered alongside electrification. Some £200 million has been set aside for improvements such as the remodelling of Derby station, the straightening of the curve through Market Harborough station and the four-tracking of the line from Bedford to Kettering and Corby. The Secretary of State has suggested that those works could go ahead independently of electrification, but the Department has failed to clarify whether they are still to happen.
There is one final side effect of the suspension. Skills providers have been gearing up to provide apprenticeships associated with the upgrade work, but those are now in doubt too. When the Select Committee asked the Secretary of State about that, he said that, although he was not able to give a precise number for those affected, he felt it was a key point, and he hoped to be in a better position to answer the next time he appeared before the Committee. I do not wish to usurp the Committee’s role, but is the Minister aware of any progress that has been made in quantifying the impact?
I do not wish to rake over the next point, but it is worth repeating that the Secretary of State had plenty of warning that the electrification projects were likely to run into substantial difficulties. As early as June last year, Network Rail told the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive that there would be difficulties in getting the midland main line work done to the relevant timescale. Last year, as a matter of urgency, the Secretary of State commissioned a report on the state of Network Rail’s electrification programme, which he received in September. The Department has refused to publish the report, so we can only assume that it contained warnings of future problems.
In November, Network Rail began to compile a list of the projects at risk. In January, the Select Committee gave an explicit warning about projects being announced without a clear idea of where the funding would come from. It is vital that the Government get a grip on the situation. The Secretary of State has said he is waiting for Sir Peter Hendy’s review, but while he waits for it to give him a solution, the problem is getting worse. He needs to provide a clear commitment to restart work on the midland main line as soon as possible, and that should be backed by a clear timetable under which the project will resume. Otherwise, the uncertainty will mount, and, for all the talk of ambition, the very real fear will remain that the pause will turn into a cancellation.
We need only look at the Hendy review’s terms of reference to see that that is not scaremongering. The review states:
“work that cannot be afforded, or is not deliverable, between 2014 and 2019 is profiled for delivery beyond 2019”—
and then, the key phrase—
“pending availability of funding”.
Taken by itself, that might be dismissed as back covering, but taken with the Department’s recent letter to Network Rail, preparing it for further Treasury-mandated budget cuts of potentially £1.5 billion, it suggests that the ground is being quietly prepared for cancellation. Assuming the rumours about work on TransPennine restarting are true, I am left wondering whether that project has been
16 Sep 2015 : Column 309WH
saved to provide talk about the northern powerhouse with some credibility, while the midland main line is to be ditched as too costly.
Several hon. Members rose—
Sir Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. Five or six people who wish to speak have already submitted their names to the Speaker’s office. I will not impose a formal time limit, but if hon. Members confine their remarks to about five minutes, we should be able to accommodate everybody who has applied and maybe one or two who have not.
Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Roger. I am pleased to be able to contribute to the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) on securing it. I was interested that he covered the costs involved in pausing work on the midland main line route, as well as the environmental aspects. I was also pleased that the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) mentioned the extension of the East Midlands Trains franchise, which is very welcome. That is good news for the service and it will provide a lot of continuity.
The outcome of the Hendy review into Network Rail spending will have real consequences for my constituents. The line is essential for business and leisure travellers. We are keen to promote tourism in the area, but it will be affected if the service is not as good as it could be.
When it became clear that Network Rail’s programme for railway upgrades was behind schedule, I supported the Secretary of State’s decision to take action to get it back on track and to ensure that it delivered, in a financially responsible way, the improvements passengers want.
Much of the work that is needed on our railways should have been done decades ago. Governments of all hues have let the railway system down. It is a shame it has taken so long to focus on electrifying the majority of Britain’s railways—something that was started in the 18th century.
I agreed that bonuses to Network Rail’s executive directors should be suspended after the organisation failed to meet targets. That went some way to making up for previous years, when the company paid out £1 million in bonuses at the same time as being fined £53 million by the Office of Rail Regulation for failing to meet train punctuality targets. I have to say that, on Monday, every other train was cancelled because of rather poor signalling, which caused a lot of disruption for a lot of people.
With that in mind, I am waiting to see what Dame Colette Bowe’s review says later this month. Later today, like many other Members in the room, I will be meeting representatives of the East Midlands chamber of commerce, as well as local economic partnerships and councils from across the region, to discuss the paused electrification and the potential outcomes of the Hendy review.
In Derby, we have the largest rail forum in Europe, and the business community is understandably nervous about what the review will say about not just the electrification of the midland main line, but the other proposed upgrade projects. While the pausing of the
16 Sep 2015 : Column 310WH
midland main line electrification was disappointing for those of us looking for that long overdue project to get under way, it should not prevent other improvements from being made to the main line, because those can and must be undertaken.
In his statement on Network Rail’s performance before the House on 25 June, the Secretary of State said that better services can be delivered on the midland main line before electrification. Those include a four-track railway line from Bedford to Kettering, which will create a six-path on the midland main line, so more trains will be able to use it—something we desperately need.
Our trains are a victim of their own success, because they are pretty full most of the time. In addition, changing the layout of the tracks at Derby train station to separate the Birmingham and Leicester routes will make a big difference. The only problem I have with it is that we will never go into platform 1—the easiest one from which to get out of the station—again. However, that pales into insignificance against the fact that we will not always have to wait outside the station, which is the only one on the way up from London to Derby where trains wait outside and people cannot get off until they go in.
Mr Betts: The hon. Lady is demonstrating that we are mounting a cross-party argument today, with everyone behind it. She is right to mention the other works that are planned. Over the last few years, the journey time to Sheffield has been cut by 10 minutes for less than £100 million—great value. Will the Minister give a commitment today that the other improvement works will continue while the pause in electrification is in effect?
Pauline Latham: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: this is a cross-party issue that is important to all of us. It is important for businesses across the whole of the east midlands that there should be a much better service.
The proposals can clearly help to increase capacity on the main line route and provide economic benefits to the businesses that rely on them. I hope the Minister can inform us whether a clear green light to proceed will be given in the Hendy review. That will allow businesses and investors to make plans about investing in the necessary skills and capabilities needed to implement the improvements, without any concern that the rug might be pulled out from underneath them at a later date.
The business case for the upgrades and electrification remains strong. As well as creating an expected £450 million of economic benefits, the quicker and more reliable service would cut journey times by up to 15 minutes and improve freight access to the network. Numbers on the midland main line have increased by more than 130% over the last 15 years. A further 30% rise is expected in the next 10 years. All of us who travel on the trains will know that it is much harder to get a seat at peak times now.
I am hopeful that the Hendy review will give a clear answer about when electrification will be given the go-ahead again. A lot of companies in the supply chain part of the rail forum in Derby are waiting for the announcement. They need certainty to be able to plan, and so as not to have to reduce their workforce. The less ambiguous the answer, the better, because a lot of work
16 Sep 2015 : Column 311WH
has already gone into the electrification plans—for example, on the advanced design work for electrification and the re-building of a number of bridges. The longer we delay, however, the more uncertainty builds and the higher the costs will be if we decide to go ahead at a later date.
I am happy to continue working with the large number of stakeholders, including our local rail forum, who are looking to see the main line improvement go forward. Pausing it was the right thing to do, but I do not want this to be another project that is kicked into the long grass. I hope the Minister can inform us of when we will know for certain which projects are to be given the green light and what factors are being taken into consideration to determine that.
Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) on securing this important debate.
As well as being the transport group leader for the Scottish National party in Westminster, I also represent the constituency of Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, which is quite a distance from the midlands, but that does not mean that I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment at the Government’s U-turn. When the news broke, people were quick to share their disappointment on Twitter, with the verdict that it was much less northern powerhouse than #northernpowercut. That was people showing how they feel when, as the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) said, the rug is pulled from under their feet. When vows are broken, it is always with a casual disregard for the people who based choices on them. In my view, the UK Government should reinstate plans to electrify the midland main line—and, for that matter, the trans- Pennine route.
The foundation on which a prosperous economy is built is its infrastructure and transport connections. That is as true in Scotland as it is in the north of England. That is why the SNP Scottish Government have already committed to a substantial rolling programme of electrification. They are keeping to what they said they would deliver for the people—a sharp contrast to what is being discussed here. In Scotland, more than 441 miles of track have already been electrified and 2016 will see the completion of the Glasgow-Edinburgh rail link. All that is happening in spite of the fact that the capital budget for Scotland was cut by 25% by the coalition Government. Indeed, there can be no doubt that in Scotland the electrification of the railways has a firm place in the Scottish Government’s blended transport strategy, as it should in the UK Government’s strategies for the north and south. I understand that, on making the announcement about pausing the projects, the Department for Transport shared its intention to pursue bigger and better solutions to increase capacity and reduce delays on the routes.
Mr Bone: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and I think he is saying that the Government should reinstate this important project, which I agree with.
16 Sep 2015 : Column 312WH
However, does he agree with me that his constituents in Scotland have £2,000 more per person spent on them than those in the east midlands? Would he like Scotland to give some money back, so that we can have our line upgraded?
Drew Hendry: As on previous occasions, the hon. Gentleman will realise that I do not agree with him. I would be happy to have a separate debate to go through, line by line, why I do not agree, but I do not believe we have time for that today.
The north does not need a solution pushed out for the next political cycle, but instead a proper, continuing strategy. The Government hide behind the idea that they will sort things out for “the long term”—I heard the phrase used yesterday in this very Chamber. Well, the people are pretty fed up with being considered as commodities, to be told that they will be dealt with when the more important stuff is done. They were made promises and they want them carried out. They want a solution that satisfies current infrastructure needs and issues, as well as meeting the longer-term challenges and opportunities for the region.
We must have sympathy for those using current services. They would have put up with the teething problems of new services, but they are being asked, day in, day out, to cope with a diminishing service. It is not acceptable that thousands of passengers travelling on the routes in question spend the entire journey standing. Passenger numbers have already doubled since 1997, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough said, and they are set to rise even further. The problem is not going away. Furthermore, the electrification of the routes is vital for improving transport connectivity. It is and will remain an integral part of the growing economy in the region.
Yesterday I had the great pleasure of chairing a meeting of the Westminster transport forum. When I asked one of the speakers, from the ports sector, what the biggest challenge to his industry was, he answered without hesitation that it was the railways. The investment that his company is making in northern ports will not be profitable or sustainable if there is not much improvement in railway infrastructure. The two must go hand in hand. The pause is not what was promised. There is concern and scepticism, rightly, about jam tomorrow; in fact, without greater rail investment, jams on the roads tomorrow are more likely.
We all remember the Chancellor’s visit to Manchester armed with a big commitment to rebalance the economy. Investment in the north was a top priority prior to the election; afterwards, there was no longer any money in the pot. That is simply not acceptable. It is understandable when people call what is happening yet another chapter in the story of the north losing out to the south. Surely the UK Government do not wish to perpetuate that feeling by failing in their promises yet again. More than 80% of transport infrastructure spending happens in the south, and people notice that it is not big ticket projects such as Crossrail that lose out. Without a serious shift in spending to give the north the investment it needs, the growth needed for competitiveness will simply not happen. The current poorly integrated and underfunded transport network is detrimental to business, commuters and freight movement and will certainly not deliver a prosperous economy.
16 Sep 2015 : Column 313WH
In conclusion, without a swift assurance of Government’s commitment to the northern economy through the reinstatement of this project, there will be little credibility left to the northern powerhouse agenda. The Government should honour the promises that they made about electrification.
Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con): As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) on securing this important debate.
I certainly support the electrification of the midland main line, for reasons that many speakers have outlined. I will not waste minutes by rehearsing them; rather, I want to make a specific point about a project that is connected with the midland main line but stands alone from it. That project is the east-west rail line, which will connect Bedford on the midland main line through my constituency of Milton Keynes to Oxford and into the great western network. The project is well advanced; construction is under way. It will unlock huge benefits, including around 12,000 new jobs and a £38 million annual increase to regional GDP. It will improve the environment, and there will also be all the other benefits that we will get from that rail line.
Significantly, the project it will also be a valuable addition to the whole national network and provide important connectivity for towns and cities on the midland main line through my constituency and into the south-west. To give an indication of the benefits that it may unlock, my local football team, MK Dons, plays in the same division as Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County and Nottingham Forest. If fans from those cities wish to come and see their teams lose in Milton Keynes, they will be able to do so very easily by rail, because Bletchley station is a short walk from Stadium mk. For that and many other reasons, the east-west project will be very significant.
I would like the Minister, first, to confirm that the basic east-west project, which is not an electrified line, will very much proceed as planned. Secondly, it was envisaged that the east-west line would be electrified as well, which will enhance the project, and not just for environmental reasons. Critically, as the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) said, that will add significantly to the national freight network, providing an electrified connection from the southern ports and western ports through the midlands to the north. I would be grateful if the Minister said something about how she envisages the electrification of east-west rail, as part of the consideration of the midland main line electrification.
Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): As I have said, Sir Roger, I have to leave before the end of the debate, as I have a prior engagement, so I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham), to the Minister and to you. I will not take up too much time—I understand that other hon. Members want to speak—but I want to re-emphasise some points that I made in interventions.
16 Sep 2015 : Column 314WH
I remember, when I was first elected back in 1992—a long time ago now—going in the cab of a train down to London and being shown all the problems on the midland main line compared with the straighter and quicker routes on the east coast lines, and eventually, the west coast lines. All the curves and bends prevented the trains from going at maximum speed. Ten years later, I remember going to a conference with Network Rail to talk about how we might deal with the problems on the line; and, another 10 years later, we finally got the upgrade. It was a long time in coming, but, as I said in an intervention, for less than £100 million, we cut 10 minutes off the journey time to Sheffield. When we consider how many billions were spent achieving not much more than that on the west coast line, we can see what good value the midland main line offers when improvements to it are carried out.
That is a good starting point, and it leads on to the point that my hon. Friend has made very eloquently. The business case for electrification of the midland main line is very strong indeed. It is one of the strongest—stronger than that of the great western line, so we have to ask why it was put behind the great western line. Maybe the question of having to replace the rolling stock on the great western line drove that decision and put it ahead in the queue, but it was certainly not the strength of the business case.
That leads me on to issues for the future. Given that we have already delivered track improvements on the midland main line and have progressively, over the years, brought the journey time to Sheffield down to two hours—a long-term objective that we have now achieved—why can we not have a serious commitment from the Minister now that, irrespective of the electrification pause, we can get on with the other track improvements? As I understand it, they will take another 10 minutes off the journey time to Sheffield and mean reductions in the journey time to the stations in between. The Government can do that. They have not announced a pause on those, so can we have clarification that those other improvements will go ahead? Of course we want electrification as well, but this commitment can be given ahead of any decision on electrification. The Minister can do it today.
There are two drivers of this. We have some challenges coming up, the first of which leads back to my point that perhaps a driver of the great western line electrification was the issue of rolling stock. My hon. Friend has already referred to the fact that if we get electrification, we will need the new Hitachi trains to run on the track, because only they will give time improvements with electrification, not the discarded, heavy trains that are currently running on the east coast line. However, the problem is that the HSTs on the route are old, out-of-date and not friendly for disabled people and will have to be replaced because of disability legislation by 2020. Indeed, the HSTs we have are themselves second-hand and discarded previously from other train lines. They were not new trains—most of them—when they came on the midland main line in the first place. There is therefore a big decision to be made. If the rolling stock is to be replaced, what will it be replaced with? The HSTs will have to be replaced because of disability issues, and in my view it will be nonsense to replace them with more diesel trains, thereby effectively locking out electrification for the foreseeable future.
16 Sep 2015 : Column 315WH
We also have the franchise issue. The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) referred to the good news, which has just been announced in the last few hours, about the extension of the Stagecoach franchise to 2018. That means we will have a new franchise from 2018, but will it be for an electrified service or a diesel service? Again, the franchisee will have to indicate what rolling stock they will use on the line. They are going to need clarification about the future of the line and electrification in order to make a sensible decision.
For all those reasons, it really requires the Minister to say yes to the track improvements now and to give a clear timetable for the decision on electrification, so that these other factors can be taken into account as part of that.
Amanda Solloway (Derby North) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) for securing this important debate.
Network Rail has said that it is committed to providing faster, more reliable trains on the midland main line and that investment will continue prior to electrification to improve performance and meet the growing demand from rail users in the east midlands. However, the Transport Secretary announced recently that work on the project had been paused. Network Rail has missed its targets and greatly overspent on the work that has been carried out. Sir Peter Hendy has since been appointed to review the failings of Network Rail. I hope his report will contribute to getting the proposed plans back on track as soon as possible.
The announcement of the pause has been met with much disappointment from businesses and constituents, not only in Derby North but in the east midlands as a region. The midland main line carries more than 13 million passengers a year. However, in recent years, when £12 billion has been spent on the rail network, only £200 million has been spent on the midland main line. We need to consider the fact that the midland main line network connects four of the largest cities in England: Derby, Nottingham, Leicester and Sheffield—although that might be just for football matches, as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) said. Those cities are contributing to one of the fastest growing regions in the country. In fact, our region has been outlined to be Britain’s engine for growth. However, I am concerned that that will be more difficult if we do not complete the electrification of this line.
The electrification of the midland main line will provide modern, cost-effective and reliable transport, and it will support the growth and competitiveness of the east midlands as a region.
Tom Pursglove (Corby) (Con): It is important to point out that this is not just about economic growth, but about housing growth. In north Northamptonshire we are seeing huge developments; Corby is, in fact, the fastest-growing town in the country. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look at this issue through that prism, too, and that areas that are taking growth
16 Sep 2015 : Column 316WH
need to be rewarded when it comes to infrastructure to meet not only existing need, but the need of people coming to the area?
Amanda Solloway: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. One thing that we are very conscious of in this region is the growth we are having in housing and the need for the infrastructure that goes with that.
Despite all that I have described, I do not think we have had enough investment in the midland main line. I would also like to point out that the trans-Pennine network, like the midland main line, has also been paused. Although it will play an important role in the northern powerhouse, there is stronger case—certainly a stronger business case—for electrification of the midland main line to take priority. It is estimated the scheme would generate over £450 million of economic benefits a year for the midlands, as a result of quicker, reliable services between the four major cities that I have mentioned. Designs have already been submitted in some areas and bridges have already been built to accommodate the line. We now need clarity on when we can expect the project to begin again. If we are to keep growing the midlands economy, we cannot continue to have the slowest inter-city line. We need investment, we need improvement and we need the electrification process to be restarted as soon as possible.
Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to make a contribution under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) on securing this debate. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), my friend and colleague on the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills. Her contribution and the others we have heard this morning underline the cross-party unity on and concern about this issue.
Let us cast our minds back to 2009, when Network Rail published a study of the electrification options for the UK network. It identified the midland main line as having the best business case for electrification of any route in the country, with the great western line second. The great western work is going ahead, but the work on the midland main line has been paused. Colleagues have made comments about pausing, and I always understood a pause to have a start point and an end point. Clarification about the end point would be helpful, for all the reasons that hon. Members have given—to provide certainty and confidence that the process will not simply be ended.
I understand the concern about cost escalation across the network as a whole that led the Government to decide to pause, but the line with the worst cost escalation overall is the great western line—up £700 million, from £1 billion. The cost escalation on the midland main line is comparatively low. Within the framework of the decision that was made, it therefore does not make sense to have paused the work on the midland main line.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough made a clear case for the benefits of electrification: the cost savings in revenue terms and the environmental benefits, such as lower CO2 emissions and pollutants. Others have made the point about the
16 Sep 2015 : Column 317WH
ability to have new trains—clearly most new trains are electric—and, in the long run, the work will have to be done to ensure compatibility with HS2. However, as others have pointed out, electrification is only one part of the discussion. It is important to continue to press for electrification, but we need to look at other line improvements, and there are clearly a number of places on the midland main line where work is required.
The Bedford to Kettering line needs additional track to be laid alongside the existing track to allow more trains to run and to speed up journeys to Sheffield and other points along the route. The single track on the Kettering to Corby line needs a second track. The speed restriction south of Leicester needs to be eliminated. The work that has been mentioned at Derby needs to be done and speeds between Derby and Chesterfield need to be raised. There is also the work at Market Harborough—I have worked closely with the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) on this issue, and I know that, were she not engaged in her responsibilities as Secretary of State for Education, she would be making this point—where the track needs to be straightened for about one and half miles to raise speeds from 60 mph to 90 mph and to allow the station to be rebuilt.
The overall cost of all that work is significantly less than the cost of electrification. We have seen two thirds of the investment in the midland main line—the electrification—paused. It would be an outrage if the remaining third—the track improvements and all the related infrastructure work—was also delayed. I am looking to the Minister this morning to provide unambiguous confirmation that the funding will be available to proceed on all those points.
On the Market Harborough campaign, we reached the point before the general election where £24 million had been allocated by Network Rail, with a further £13 million allocated from the local growth fund, through a unique coming-together of the three local enterprise partnerships: Sheffield City Region, D2N2—Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham and Nottinghamshire—and Leicester and Leicestershire. However, there was a small gap in the remaining funding, which we were assured before the general election would be resolved. That assurance is what a number of us, on both sides of the Chamber, are looking for this morning.
When the Secretary of State made his statement on pausing back on 25 June, he told the right hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier):
“We will press on with the rebuilding to speed up and straighten the track at Market Harborough…That will mean faster services soon”.—[Official Report, 25 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 1073.]
We need to know when “soon” is. The Secretary of State also reaffirmed that commitment in an answer to me on the same date. Given that this issue has been well aired, I am assuming with some confidence that it will not be too difficult for the Minister to give a cast-iron guarantee this morning that that work will happen and that the money is available or to provide a date.
Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): Thank you for calling me to speak, Sir Roger. I join other hon. Members who have called strongly for the electrification of the midland main line to be unpaused as soon as possible,
16 Sep 2015 : Column 318WH
so that we can have it as close as possible to the original 2020 deadline. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) on securing this important debate.
Let me say at the start that I understand why the Government felt a need to pause a scheme when they thought costs were spiralling out of control. Those of us who care about the responsible use of public money accept that if things are going wrong and costs are escalating, we have to get them under control and try to get the best value from the amount of money we can spend on such improvements. I therefore do not object to a brief pause to reset Network Rail’s capacity to understand what it is doing, but I do object if that brief pause becomes indefinite and starts to look like a cancellation to those of us who want the line electrified, with electric trains running on it.
As all the other speakers have said, there is a strong business case for electrifying the line, which has suffered from under-investment probably for the whole length of its history. The two competing lines—one to the east and one to the west—have dramatically faster journey times. If I travelled from Tamworth rather than Derby, I could get to London in one hour, rather than an hour and a half. If I choose to go from Newark or Grantham, rather than Nottingham, I can get a journey time of about one hour, rather than one hour and 40 minutes. Those who live east of Nottingham or west of Derby do not use the midline main line, because of the historic under-investment and much slower journey times. There is a clear need for investment in the line to get a service that is comparable to those around it and to give the important cities of Sheffield, Nottingham, Derby and Leicester the sort of rail service they need to attract the economic investment that the area so desperately wants and needs.
As other Members have said, that is a key point for the future of the line. We need to know by 2019 what rolling stock we are buying, because if we end up investing in the long term in diesel rolling stock, it will be much harder to make the case later for electrifying the line. The Government would then be faced with the question of whether to invest in dual-power trains to allow for possible future electrification. That would not be a sensible use of money.
My vision is for brand-new electric trains, built by Bombardier in Derby, operating on this line—I am not sure about those Hitachi things that the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) mentioned—but if we do not get the decision right now, we could find, when the next franchise is let in 2018-19, that this will have been a long-term decision not to electrify the line, and that would be a very bad decision. If we want the east midlands to be the powerhouse of growth, I want the engine room to be electric, not diesel.
I have another little request. The original plan to electrify the line missed out a couple of stations on a bit of the line through Langley Mill and Alfreton, which is on the Nottingham to Sheffield stretch. It seemed bizarre to electrify most of the line and then miss out a bit. I am not sure what that would do for services from Sheffield to Nottingham. I cannot see that it would do much for the direct trains to London from Langley Mill and Nottingham, which are so valued by my constituents. I therefore say this to my hon. Friend the Minister: as we
16 Sep 2015 : Column 319WH
are looking to unpause this, let us actually do the whole line, not most of the line, and get that little branch line added into the programme.
It is already proving quite hard to sell HS2 to my constituents as a great idea because of the pretty low return on the investment—it is certainly much lower than for electrification of the midland main line. If we have to go to people and say, “Look, a return of £4 for every pound that’s spent isn’t enough. We can’t justify spending this money electrifying this line where you could have nice new clean and faster electric trains and faster journey times somewhere in the early 2020s”—I hope—they will probably not understand why we can spend a hell of a lot more money trying to get a line that would be a bit quicker sometime in the 2030s.
We must be consistent in how we evaluate investment in rail infrastructure. If we cannot afford this project—if we cannot justify it—then those of us who do support HS2 will have a much harder job of trying to understand and explain why we are still doing that. I think all our constituents up this line would say, “We would rather have this scheme and these improvements sooner than wait and hope that we might get an HS2 in 15 or 20 years’ time.” The Minister should be aware that we have to be consistent and clear in giving explanations, especially if rail investment is going through the east midlands up to Sheffield. We cannot have a nice grand project that we struggle to sell while we are not investing in the short-term stuff that we really need.
Mr Betts: The hon. Gentleman is making a very important point, and I support HS2 strongly as well. The Government have said repeatedly to people, “Don’t worry about HS2. It will not affect the investment in the rest of the railway.” Are people not likely to conclude that if electrification does not go ahead on the midland main line, that promise of no impact from HS2 is not being kept?
Nigel Mills: I think that would be the conclusion. People would see money being spent on rail improvements and think that it was all being sucked into HS2 and we were missing out on a much quicker and much more effective scheme, with a much higher rate of return. They would think that that was a somewhat strange decision, at a time when the Government are trying to get more value for money from public spending.
This is a very important scheme. It has a very strong business case. I think that it ought to go ahead. Let us get the pause done, get this re-energised, get a new timetable, which I hope would show completion in the early 2020s, and get the other improvements done. Let us get moving; let us get Network Rail under control, but this scheme should not be cancelled.
Robert Jenrick (Newark) (Con): I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) for organising the debate. I represent the town of Newark, which has some of the best rail links in the east midlands. We are very fortunate, as a small market town, to be on the east coast main line. I can get to and from London in an hour and 10 minutes. There has been some good news for us recently, thanks to
16 Sep 2015 : Column 320WH
some Government investment. Our east-west rail links have improved. The Castle line, which takes us from Lincoln through to Newark and into Nottingham, has been upgraded, although I have to add that I have seen an election manifesto for my predecessor but three, from 1975, promising that he would upgrade the Castle line, so transport investments do take a long time. We are also hopeful that the Government will deliver the upgrade of another, smaller line—the Robin Hood line, in the constituency of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer)—which, equally, would provide an opportunity to unlock economic growth in an ex-coalfield community.
None the less, I cannot hide my constituents’ disappointment that the electrification has been paused, not because it affects Newark a great deal, but because it affects the large number of my constituents who commute into Nottingham and whose livelihoods rely on the economic success and vibrancy of that city, which, as has already been said, has comparatively extremely poor transport links. I can get to London in an hour and 10 minutes from Newark or in less time from Grantham, but for constituents taking the train from Nottingham, it will take two hours. That is clearly an absurd situation for a major city such as Nottingham versus a market town such as Newark.
I completely understand the Government’s reasons for the pause. As my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) said, Conservative Members are the first to support sensible use of public funds. The pause seems entirely sensible as long as it is a pause and is not for too long. That is the overriding message from today.
I would like to make a few observations about Railtrack that have partly come out of my discussions with the Newark Business Club, which is one of the best business clubs in the east midlands and has a number of passionate campaigners for improvements in rail links not just for the Newark area, but for the whole of Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. None of us is an apologist for Network Rail, but I would like to make three points that might help people understand why we got into this situation, and to ask the Government to take them seriously in the future.
The first point, of course, is that in the history of Railtrack, as it then was, it was the darling of the City when it was first launched, but it quickly became apparent that the company had committed the cardinal sin of failing to invest in its own assets. Ever since its creation, and under a series of Governments, there has been a chronic failure to invest in projects such as this, which has led us to the present day. We need to correct that. One corollary of that failure to invest has been a severe lack of skills in the industry. It is undoubtedly true that if the Government do not do more electrification projects, we will not have more skilled workers who know how to do electrification projects, more projects will run over budget and more bad decisions will be made, because there will be fewer and fewer skilled workers in this country to do what can be quite difficult projects. If we want more projects to be delivered on time and more sensible decisions to be made, we need to do more of them and invest more in electrification.
Decision making is done in Network Rail, but also, inevitably, in the Government and in the Department for Transport, because Network Rail is guided by the
16 Sep 2015 : Column 321WH
Department when prioritising. That has been one of the main themes that we have heard this morning. Prioritisation of projects is, at best, surprising at times. It would be good if, in future, with the arrival of Sir Peter Hendy, he was given sufficient freedom to apply his very good judgment and experience to judge which projects make the most sense to deliver at any one time.
There are two elements to that. One is the assessment of how difficult projects are. I am not an engineer, but the engineers I have spoken to make it clear that not all electrification projects are technically difficult. Some are; some are not. Indeed, some of the projects that we have seen are basically simple civil engineering projects, which require a great deal less than specialist railway engineering skills. Examples are the upgrade of the infrastructure at Doncaster and grade separation at Newark.
A number of projects would not be especially difficult to achieve. It is surprising that several of those projects are being put on the back burner when more difficult projects have been given the green light. One of my constituents, who was part of the team who delivered it, raised with me the electrification of 200 miles of line between Crewe and Glasgow over three years, on time and on budget, in the early 1970s. That shows that we can do electrification projects as long as we pick and choose and prioritise the ones that do not require such technical skill. In contrast, some projects that have been given the go-ahead are very technically difficult and it is little wonder that they have ended up being delayed and over budget.
I would therefore like the Minister and the Government to give Sir Peter Hendy, whose arrival I welcome wholeheartedly, the discretion to try to improve decision making in Network Rail about the choice of projects, and for there to be less meddling in those decisions, so that projects with very compelling business cases, such as this one, are prioritised and there is better assessment of which projects are expensive to deliver and technically difficult, as opposed to those that could be given the green light straightaway.
My next point is with regard to the direct award to East Midlands Trains. Despite our concern about electrification of the line, that presents a great opportunity for my constituents and those of many other hon. Members in this room. I remember when the south-west got news of major improvements in its infrastructure due to its recent grant award. The Minister might like to tell us something of what she knows about those improvements, because it is a big opportunity to see upgrades of stations, services and rolling stock, regardless of the pause in electrifying the midland main line.
My last point concerns the depressing feeling that the east midlands always loses out. At an event two days ago in London, I met a number of people from across the country, none of whom lives in the east midlands but whose analysis of the reason why the Government have paused the project was that of all areas, the east midlands would give the Government the least aggro. I do not think that that is the case, but that is the perception across the country, within Government and among my constituents. It is all the more important that we MPs—there are not as many MPs here today as perhaps there should be—work together on a cross-party basis to give the east midlands as strong a lead in Government as we possibly can.
16 Sep 2015 : Column 322WH
Mr Bone: A number of other MPs would have liked to be here—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) is among them—but there are three East Midlands Trains events today. I believe that we will see all those Members at some time today.
Robert Jenrick: I thank my hon. Friend for that remark. The east midlands consistently loses out across a whole range of areas, which include funding for our schools, our police service, our fire authorities, our local councils and, indeed, rail investment and our LEPs. Part of the blame for that must rest on us as Members of Parliament, because we need to be better at putting forward a consistent and intelligent approach. I look forward to the Government’s taking the east midlands more seriously in the years to come.
Sir Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. Mr Hendry, I called you earlier because I wanted to make absolutely certain that you had sufficient time to make your remarks. As a Front-Bench spokesman, if you wish to make any additional brief remarks now, you may do so.
Drew Hendry: Thank you for offering me the opportunity to make additional remarks, Sir Roger, but I do not need to do so.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I always seem to do so in debates about infrastructure, and today is no exception. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) on securing this important and timely debate, which is his first in Westminster Hall. He introduced the subject skilfully and his arguments had great force. He has been a constant champion of public transport for many years, both on Sheffield City Council and since his election to this place.
It is four months or so since the publication of the Conservative party’s general election manifesto. Let us remind ourselves of what it said:
“We will back business by…electrifying the Midland Main Line from St Pancras to Sheffield”.
That is all very good. A decision to support electrification was made some three years ago, which was welcomed by passengers, local authorities and hon. Members of all parties. The midland main line has been the Cinderella of Britain’s main lines. As hon. Members have mentioned, the campaign to electrify the route goes back to the ’70s and ’80s, when British Rail said that doing so was “a first priority”, until the Conservative Government of the day withdrew their support. There is a distinct sense of history repeating itself. Nobody can fail to appreciate the strength of feeling that still exists on the issue in all parts of the House and all parties, and I am sure that passengers up and down the route will welcome the contributions of hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber.
The case for electrifying the midland main line is compelling. A Network Rail assessment in 2009 found that the project’s benefit-cost ratio was “technically infinite”, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) has said. More recent figures
16 Sep 2015 : Column 323WH
published by the Department show that the benefit-cost ratio of the project is superior to those of other major projects that are proceeding. Network Rail has said that the project is
“critical to delivering a reliable and sustainable railway and tackling overcrowding.”
In 2012, the Government talked about an “electric spine” that would convey passengers and freight from Southampton to Sheffield, which was, again, described as a first priority in terms of rail investment.
Rail investment in the north of England, including Yorkshire, falls notoriously short compared with the funding made available to other regions. According to the Department’s own figures, rail investment per head is lower in the east midlands than in any other English region. That point has been emphasised by hon. Members from the region; I am sure that the Minister will agree that they have been giving her “aggro” about that, to quote the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick). The electrification of the midland main line would have gone some way towards addressing the inequalities.
Electrification is not the only problem, however. Some of the trains on the route date back to the 1970s. Although they have performed admirably over the years, they must be withdrawn or upgraded at significant cost by 2020 to comply with the Disability Discrimination Acts, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) has pointed out. The clear aspiration was that the rolling stock would be replaced by superior electric trains, but that, too, has been thrown into doubt.
I will return to electrification in a moment, but it is important to set out that the upgrade package also contained significant speed improvements. Indeed, when the Secretary of State announced his decision to “pause” the electrification programme, he said:
“We will press on with the rebuilding to speed up and straighten the track at Market Harborough, and with the rebuilding of the Derby track layout. That will mean faster services soon, and it will enable us to make the most of the electrification and new trains that will result from future franchises.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 1073.]
That point has been made by several hon. Members. The problem is that as far as we can tell, there is still a £9 million funding gap for the Market Harborough project, and there has been no clarity from the Department about whether and how that gap will be filled. Worse still, there are worrying rumours and reports—most recently in Construction News—that the Hendy review has concluded that only a fraction of Network Rail’s control period 5 schemes are affordable. That throws into further doubt some of the things that the Government have been saying, so I hope that the Minister can provide some clarity today. It has been reported in The Sunday Times and Passenger Transport that on top of escalating costs, Network Rail’s budget may be cut further in the comprehensive spending review, threatening not only improvement projects, but essential maintenance.
That is a world away from what we were told in April, when the Chancellor said:
“Spending review will set out improvements to rail travel in East Mids including electrifying Midland Main Line from Bedford to Sheffield”.
16 Sep 2015 : Column 324WH
Let us not pretend that that has nothing to do with the choices that the Government have made, and nothing to do with the fact that different choices are announced before and after an election when marginal seats are at stake. Ministers have adopted a policy of implausible deniability on the matter, but let us recap some of the facts. We first raised concerns about cost overruns on the great western main line in in May 2014, just weeks into the new investment period. Last October, the then shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), asked the Transport Secretary to say
“which electrification projects will be delayed or cancelled”—[Official Report, 23 October 2014; Vol. 586, c. 1030.]
as a consequence of cost overruns. The Secretary of State was apparently so concerned about those matters that he ordered an “urgent” review of Network Rail’s projects, which he received in September. He has refused to publish it, so we can only speculate on its contents. The Transport Committee warned in January:
“We are concerned that key rail enhancement projects…have been announced by Ministers without Network Rail having a clear estimate of what the projects will cost, leading to uncertainty about whether the projects will be delivered on time, or at all.”
The Committee stated:
“Electrification of lines in the North West, the North trans-Pennine line, and the Midland Main Line, should not be put at risk due to the projected overspend on the Great Western Main Line.”
Crucially, we now know, thanks to documents obtained by Labour under the Freedom of Information Act, that in March, Network Rail’s board agreed to
“decisions required jointly with the DfT re enhancement deferrals from June”.
Unnamed sources in the Department initially denied to the BBC that there was any knowledge of these discussions before the election. However, Network Rail’s chief executive subsequently confirmed that:
“In mid-March 2015, Network Rail informed DfT that decisions may need to be made in the coming months about the deferral of certain schemes.”
Are we now asked to believe that Ministers really had no knowledge? I have previously described the midland main line as something of a Cinderella route, and to believe what the Government have been saying about the route is a bit like believing in fairy stories, which always seem to end with a silver carriage turning into a pumpkin.
Voters heard promises to deliver the electrification of the midland main line in the best of faith. The only people who did not know that the investment programme was collapsing, apparently, were Ministers in the Department for Transport. Will the Minister address that today? It is a straightforward question, but her Department has refused to answer it until now. When Network Rail told the Department in March that decisions may be required on the deferral of major rail projects, were Ministers in the Department informed?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Claire Perry): I am happy to put to rest once and for all the conspiracy theory that the hon. Gentleman knows better than to perpetrate. My boss, the Secretary of State for Transport, has stated unequivocally on multiple occasions that the first time he received advice that either of these projects should be paused was on 15 June 2015.
16 Sep 2015 : Column 325WH
Richard Burden: The Minister has been very clear. She will have to answer my next set of questions, and I hope she will when she sums up. Were her officials therefore not telling her what they were being told by Network Rail, or was the chief executive of Network Rail telling porkies?
Looking ahead, it is not clear what remains of the Government’s much-heralded “biggest programme of rail investment since the Victorians.” It now looks as if the much-heralded northern powerhouse has had the power turned off, the midlands engine has been left to rust and the electric spine has been broken. There is enormous anger in the north of England about the northern powerhouse, of which the midland main line project is a part.
Mr Bone: I was not going to intervene, but I thought this debate had been constructive and useful on both sides of the Chamber. The shadow Minister’s political rant is out of place. I could easily ask, “How many miles of railway did Labour build in 13 years?” This is not the place for that debate.
Richard Burden: I have made it clear that there is cross-party anger about the delays to this project, and I think that anger is genuine from Government Members. I imagine that they are as concerned as Opposition Members about why something that was promised as recently as April has since been removed and about the discrepancies that appear to exist about what happened.
Mr Bone: Thirteen years.
Richard Burden: If the hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the record of the last Labour Government, I am happy to do so. There is not a lot of time.
Sir Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. The shadow Minister might be happy to do so, but the Chairman is not.
Richard Burden: I will simply say that Labour invested more in the railways in real terms than any previous Government.
I hope the Minister is able to confirm today that, whatever happened in the past, Cinderella will finally get to the ball. Ultimately, passengers in that part of the country need to know whether the full speed improvements package will go ahead, as planned. I even hope that she is able to tell us that electrification of the midland main line will go ahead under a reasonable timetable, as promised. When will that announcement be made?
This has been happening not for years but for decades. Passengers deserve clarity, and the Government are the only people who can give that clarity. I hope the Minister will do that today.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Claire Perry): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I have many questions to answer, and I will do my best to answer them. If I do not answer Members’ questions, I will be extremely happy to write with any specifics.
16 Sep 2015 : Column 326WH
I will start by restoring what I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) was an important, factual and consensual debate that raised some extremely important questions about this vital infrastructure. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Harry Harpham) on securing this debate, and I am delighted that it is his first debate—I still remember mine. He has big shoes and four paws to fill, and I hope he will personally pass my best wishes to his predecessor, with whom I worked and for whom I have the greatest respect.
It is great to see such a strong cross-party turnout for, and to hear such excellent contributions to, today’s important debate. I will address a couple of issues that came up. The first is the importance of investment in railways to drive economic growth on a local, regional and national basis, as the hon. Gentleman said in his opening speech.
I am delighted—I suspect this has something to do with some of his jobs in a former life—with the hon. Gentleman’s reference to freight, which is often not considered when we talk about improvements to the railways and which is vital to the economic prosperity of such regions that export and manufacture. Indeed, I have visited several upgrade projects across the region, such as the Great Northern Great Eastern line, that have been specifically designed and delivered to improve freight paths for manufacturers in the region. Investment in transport across the UK is vital if the economy is to grow. I am happy to give what should be not a cast-iron guarantee but a stainless-steel guarantee that £38 billion of investment will be spent on British railways over the next few years, which is the biggest spend in generations—since Brunel’s time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough asked how many miles of track the last Labour Government electrified in 13 years, and the answer is nine. The shadow Minister, with whom I work frequently, is embarrassed to talk about that because we have finally woken up, on a cross-party basis, to the vital role of rail infrastructure investment in driving economic growth and better journeys for people using the railway.
I am happy to confirm that £38 billion is being spent. Successive Governments have not spent the right amount or invested enough in the railways. If we roll back the clock more than 10 years to 2003-04, when the last deals for the northern and TransPennine Express franchises were being negotiated, was there any conversation about replacing the clapped-out Pacers? There was none. The TPE and northern routes, which provide some services to the constituency of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, will transform passenger services in the north of England. It cannot come too soon.
I will quickly cover a couple of other things. The first is the Sheffield city region, of which the hon. Gentleman is a great supporter. The city is working across parties, across business and across political boundaries, and it is working closely with Transport for the North, an organisation that my Government have funded to the tune of £30 million and is designed to pull such decisions about the right form of transport investment as close as possible to the region’s people and wealth creators. It is not enough for officials at Network Rail or in my Department to sit and plan what improvements should
16 Sep 2015 : Column 327WH
take place; those improvements have to deliver the maximum benefit for people and businesses using the railways.
Sheffield has been a strong supporter of the proposals to enhance east-west connectivity and to maximise the potential and benefit of High Speed 2, and I am delighted that we still have cross-party consensus on the importance of the HS2 route, despite the voting record of the new Leader of the Opposition—that is a cheap shot, but I could not resist. I am delighted that the Labour party is completely committed to going ahead with HS2.
The deal for Sheffield gives more control over local transport schemes. It enables Sheffield to work directly with Network Rail to support the delivery of the Sheffield to Rotherham tram-train project, and it improves the vital co-ordination between Sheffield, Network Rail and Highways England to ensure that investment is pulled through by local economic priorities. I thank Members who have championed the Sheffield devolution deal.
My second point is on the TPE and northern franchises. I will not be drawn on several things, including the debate on where “the north” starts and the prediction of football results, although I am disappointed that there was no mention of the Leicester Foxes, of whom I have been a lifelong supporter. But I can assure Members that the current franchise negotiations for the northern and TPE routes will be transformational for passengers in the north.
Train capacity into major cities will increase by 30%. There will be brand-new trains, not the Pacers and not reworked tube rolling stock. Existing trains will be fully modernised. There will be £30 million of northern station investment funds. I could go on. The franchise negotiations will transform travel in the north and change passenger experiences from among the worst to some of the best in the country.
As I have been asked many questions about the midland main line, I want to discuss it in detail. I emphasise that a pause is a pause. For me—I think my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) said this—when an organisation such as Network Rail has been given an unprecedented burden, because it has never been asked to do this much investment in the railway before, and there is evidence that some of the work is starting to go wrong and that promises will not be delivered on, one can either carry on and then not deliver or say, “We must get this right.”
We have to deliver these improvements. We understand the economic case for delivering them. We have to find someone, who in this case was Sir Peter Hendy—a railway man to his fingertips—who can take the organisation to a point where it can offer cast-iron guarantees about delivery dates. Network Rail is tasked with delivering the improvements. We are relying on Hendy and his team to come back and set out exactly what that delivery programme looks like. He will shortly deliver a plan that will outline the delivery of the upgrades and set out specific clarity around the electrification projects.
Many hon. Members have asked me what all this means for projects that are already happening. If one travels from Corby to Kettering, one can see that the
16 Sep 2015 : Column 328WH
four-track work is going ahead. It is being delivered and tens of millions of pounds are being spent on the track-doubling project. We are removing the long-standing bottleneck at Derby station to speed up both Midland Mainline and CrossCountry services. We are improving the line speed south of Leicester station, between Derby and Chesterfield and at Market Harborough. Station-lengthening work is going on right across the network to enable longer trains to run, and we are adding capacity between Bedford and Kettering.
I want to mention freight, because the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough shares my interest in it. The promised freight gauge clearance schemes, which are vital to allow more freight on these lines, are going ahead, so additional freight services will be run.
Paul Blomfield: Before the Minister moves on—I appreciate that she is trying to answer all the questions —I want to be absolutely clear on Market Harborough, which she mentioned in passing and skipped over. Is it guaranteed that the full funding—the money topped up from that provided through the local growth fund and identified by Network Rail—will be available for the full necessary works at Market Harborough?
Claire Perry: The hon. Gentleman refers to the £9 million shortfall. I need to investigate that further and will write to him. I believe that efforts are being made by several organisations to fill that important funding gap.
The hon. Gentleman has prompted me to answer his important rolling stock question regarding electrification and the cascade, on which he is absolutely right to focus. It will be the case that when preparation work starts for the new franchise, which will be let in 2018, all the questions around rolling stock specification and the requirement for new trains will be put into it. When we invited tenders for the TPE franchise, we gave bidders an option and set out what we knew about improvement works.
By the way, there is this idea that we are somehow not investing in the north, but has the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) travelled on the new electric trains that run between Manchester and Liverpool and Liverpool and Wigan? Electrification has come to that part of the UK for the first time. I hope that he will join me in celebrating the fact that those cities now have new electric trains, which were delivered by this Government, as promised. We are 100% committed to ensuring that the £38 billion unprecedented investment in the railways happens right across the UK, not including HS2, which, as my hon. Friends pointed out, is vital to speed up journey times to and from the north and to pull wealth out of the south-east. We will also continue—[Interruption.] Did the hon. Gentleman want to celebrate and welcome that electrification?
Richard Burden: There have been reports—I mentioned the one in Construction News—that say that the Hendy review has already concluded that only a fraction of the control period 5 projects are financially sustainable. Does the Minister have those reports as well? If so, how does she square them with what she has just said?
16 Sep 2015 : Column 329WH
Claire Perry: If I had heeded all the reports, I would have been letting the East Coast franchise to a French company instead of a fine Scottish and English company that is delivering unprecedented improvements for passengers on the east coast main line. I want to see the facts. I do not want to speculate, which can damage business confidence. We must be absolutely clear about what has been delivered, and I will wait for Peter Hendy’s report and my Department’s response. I am always happy to work on a cross-party basis with Members who pay so much attention to these vital improvements. As we go forward with the investment programme, that will help us to understand where the most important connections need to be made.
I want to mention today’s franchise announcement, about which I have already spoken in public. Although this direct award has fewer than two and a half years to run, we have negotiated some pretty significant improvements for passengers. I hope that hon. Members will agree that East Midlands Trains is a good operator. Its punctuality record is good. It has won multiple awards and ranks pretty highly in terms of passenger satisfaction, so we have allowed it to continue operating the service. From today, there will be 22 extra services between Nottingham and Newark Castle. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) mentioned, 24 new services were already delivered earlier this year. Timetable improvements will mean faster journey times and more services between Lincoln and Nottingham. Crucially, there will also be a pause—a freeze—on fares, so anytime fares on the route will not go up at all in the next two years. That is a company commitment.
Tom Pursglove: In light of what the Minister has just said, has consideration been given to increasing the number of services, both northbound and southbound, from Corby? There is currently a real appetite for that, and it would be welcome for the reasons of growth that I suggested earlier.
Claire Perry: I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out the crucial link between a growing local economy and transport. I encourage him, and all Members here, to submit such proposals to the franchising consultation and planning process, which will be starting in the next few months. It is vital that we get these important routes right.
16 Sep 2015 : Column 330WH
The freeze on fares—we will be paying the same in 2017 as we do now—is in addition to the Government’s cap on any rail fare increase above inflation for the next five years, which is a substantial commitment to ensuring that rail fares are appropriately priced for the travelling public. In addition, 15 more automatic ticket machines are being installed, along with better accessibility information and better customer information. There is an improved compensation scheme to ensure that if there are delays, such as those earlier this week mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire, passengers can quickly and easily get the compensation to which they are entitled in cash or bank transfer, not railway vouchers. We made that change earlier this year. Improved wi-fi across the service has already been delivered to ensure that people can work effectively on the train.
I talked about some of the schemes that are going ahead. They are tangible and can be seen as one travels along the line. I have discussed today’s announcement, which will deliver some substantial improvements for passengers, despite the direct award only having a short time to run. I reassure Members across the House about the seriousness and determination with which the Government and my Department take the improvements. We have to deliver on what we promise. That is the purpose of the Hendy re-plan, which means that we will have a deliverable and affordable set of improvements. I invite all Members to work together to develop the proposals as we go into the new franchise. When we get the Hendy re-plan and confirmation of the work, I ask Members to work with me and constituents to ensure that people are fully aware of what is going on.
In conclusion, I never interpret enthusiastic, honest and fact-filled debates and submissions from hon. Members or broader groups as “aggro”. I am happy to keep working and to be as open, honest and transparent as I can. I thank hon. Members and people right across the country for realising that a rail renaissance is taking place in Britain. It is vital that we get it right and that we deliver right across this great country.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered electrification of the Midland Main Line.
16 Sep 2015 : Column 331WH
Magistrates Courts: Suffolk
Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I beg to move,
That this House has considered magistrates courts in Suffolk.
Sir Roger, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I am pleased to have secured this debate on the future of magistrates courts in Suffolk, following the publication of the Government’s proposals to close two of the remaining three courts in Suffolk: the court at Lowestoft, which is in my Waveney constituency, and the court in Bury St Edmunds, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill). Sir Roger, with your approval and that of the Minister, I propose to speak for the majority of the time for this debate, and my hon. Friend will say a few words about the situation in Bury St Edmunds.
I am grateful to the Minister for the time that he has already given to me to listen to my concerns about the proposed closure of Lowestoft magistrates court. He has answered my questions in the Chamber and he and his officials have met Lowestoft solicitors and me.
There is no argument about the need to reform the justice system. However, any changes must not be at the expense of local access to justice. My concern is that the current proposals will imperil that. There is a need for a long-term vision of the future of our justice system, and it is important that local concerns and local knowledge are properly taken into account in the consultation that is now taking place.
There is a widespread view in Suffolk that the current proposals short-change Suffolk and that we have got a raw deal compared with other counties. The police and crime commissioner has expressed his concern, as have the temporary chief constable, the former superintendent in charge of the Lowestoft sector, the Police Federation, and the Suffolk and North Essex Law Society, as well as Lowestoft solicitors, who are working up an alternative proposal for Lowestoft. The East Anglian Daily Times has launched its “Justice for Suffolk” campaign and The Lowestoft Journal has launched a “Keep Justice Local” campaign.
In the early 1990s, there were 12 magistrates courts in Suffolk. If the Government’s current proposals go ahead, only one will remain, in Ipswich. Although Ipswich is the county town, it is located at the southern end of the county, and it is a long way from and inaccessible to much of the rest of the county, in particular—from my perspective— north-east Suffolk, including the Waveney constituency and Lowestoft. In Ministry of Justice questions last week, I highlighted the fact that under the current proposals Suffolk would be one of only six English counties with just one magistrates court. That contrasts with the three courts being proposed for Norfolk and the four that would remain in Essex.
Moreover, under the current proposals Suffolk would be the worst English county for the number of magistrates courts per square mile, with one for every 1,466 square miles, compared with one for every 692 square miles in neighbouring Norfolk, one for every 355 square miles in Essex and one for every 655 square miles in Cambridgeshire. In response to my question last week, the Minister referred to Suffolk’s being a very “law-abiding” county.
16 Sep 2015 : Column 332WH
That is true, but by no stretch of the imagination can Suffolk be described as twice as law-abiding as Norfolk, the neighbouring county, which has a very similar demography and geography.
In its consultation document, the Ministry of Justice stated that if its proposals are implemented across the country 95% of citizens will be able to reach their required court within one hour by car. If Lowestoft magistrates court closes, that will not be the case for many people in north Suffolk, whether they are urban or rural dwellers. Travel times from Lowestoft to Ipswich are approximately 90 minutes, whether by car or train, and there is no direct bus service. Journeys to Great Yarmouth and Norwich are by no means straightforward either. The position in Norfolk is very different, as Norwich is more centrally located in Norfolk than Ipswich is in Suffolk, with all the main roads to the different corners of Norfolk radiating out of the city.
Lowestoft magistrates court is a relatively modern building, which has the advantage of occupying a readily accessible location adjoining the police station. It is also close to the new shared offices of the national probation service and the community rehabilitation company, as well as the town centre, and within walking distance of both the bus and railway stations. There is also an adjacent car park, which is underutilised. The court’s concourse goes straight on to the pavement and there are lifts to the cells.
Any changes to the court estate must ensure that this strategically placed community asset continues to be used. The building is not expensive to run. Moreover, it has operated extremely efficiently over the years, outperforming other courts in Suffolk and Norfolk in terms of administering justice both promptly and fairly. It has been underutilised in recent years, although this is as a result of a reduction in the number of hearings scheduled for Lowestoft. Custodies have moved elsewhere, motoring offences have gone to Ipswich, and family proceedings also now take place in Ipswich. The magistrates court in Lowestoft sits less often than it used to, but that is not due to a lack of either magistrates or staff. The cynical might say that there has been a deliberate redirection of work away from Lowestoft, with fewer sittings taking place there so as to tie in with the agenda of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service rather than to provide a service to the local citizens, whose needs the court—and us—should meet.
There is also a concern that the analysis of costs on which the Ministry of Justice is basing its decision to close Lowestoft magistrates court is incorrect. That analysis shows 31 staff working from the court. It would appear that that number includes those administrative staff who work on the first floor in the fines collection department. They cover the whole of East Anglia and will continue to be employed if the court closes. Therefore, it is not appropriate to include their costs in those of running Lowestoft magistrates court. In addition, a further advantage of the court remaining open is that the cost of upheaval and relocation of its staff would be avoided.
The closure of Lowestoft magistrates court would make it very difficult for many people in north-east Suffolk to access justice. If court work is transferred to Great Yarmouth, Norwich and Ipswich, many people in Lowestoft, in the market towns of Beccles and Bungay
16 Sep 2015 : Column 333WH
and in the surrounding rural areas could not reach the relevant court in one hour by public transport. They would face significant travel costs in an area where wages are generally low, with the poorest and most vulnerable being most at risk.
The feedback that I am receiving is that the very thought of having to attend a court hearing away from Lowestoft, whether as a victim, a defendant or a witness, could put off many people from attending. There is a worry that there could be more failed trials, due to the difficulties in getting defendants and witnesses to court. With a local court such as Lowestoft, it is relatively easy for the local police to find those people who fail to appear in court quickly.
There are also concerns about domestic violence cases, and there is a strong view that such cases should be listed locally in the first instance. There would be problems in getting both support staff and victims to court if such cases are not heard locally. There is also a real worry that victims, witnesses and defendants in domestic violence cases could all find themselves on the same train or bus to another court. It might even be the case that the magistrate would be on the same train or bus.
The feedback from those hearings that already take place away from Lowestoft is not encouraging. Private family cases have their first hearing in Ipswich. That means more expensive travel, which adds to the trauma of going a long way to consider what are often complicated and highly emotional issues, such as child arrangement orders. If the case goes on for two or three days, the parties who live in Lowestoft will have to travel to Ipswich daily. Ipswich family court is already at capacity and is not coping. Consequently, some cases have been redirected to Chelmsford, which is a very long way from Lowestoft. With a 9 am start for hearings, there is a real challenge for people to get to court on time. Also, if social workers have to attend, they are in effect unable to do any other work for the remainder of the day.
The Government are placing great stock on increased use of information technology extending the use of “virtual courts”, with victims, witnesses and defendants appearing on screen. There is a place for that, but the feedback that I am receiving locally is that where it is being used, there are “teething difficulties”, with what was previously being done in a morning in Lowestoft court now taking the whole day.
There is also a worry that some of the pilots that are being carried out are in metropolitan areas, which are completely different to shire counties such as Suffolk. The single justice procedure pathfinder court, which commenced in mid-May, is taking place in south-west London. The “make a plea online” service is being piloted in Manchester. The rota online pilot is taking place in Hampshire and in south-west London. There is a view that if we rush to close courts on the premise that digital services will step smoothly into the shoes of magistrates courts, courthouses will have to be reopened if the new arrangements do not work, and where the courthouses have been sold or are no longer available, new ones will have to be built.
James Cartlidge (South Suffolk) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on making a brilliant and passionate speech on a subject that is important both for his constituents and for mine in
16 Sep 2015 : Column 334WH
South Suffolk. On information technology, do we not have to factor in broadband speed in areas that might be expected to use the services?
Peter Aldous: My hon. Friend is correct. In the context of going from 12 courts in the 1990s to the one that is proposed now, one hoped that traditional forms of communication—road and rail—and also broadband would have improved dramatically. They are moving in the right direction, but I do not think that they have improved to such an extent.
In family court and domestic violence cases there is a role for video links in safeguarding victims. In certain circumstances they are extremely appropriate and necessary, but solicitors emphasise to me the importance of personal interaction in reaching the right verdict. There is a fear that the whole process could be dehumanised, with serious implications for the fair administration of justice.
The great advantage of magistrates courts is that magistrates are drawn from the local area. They know their patch and can set cases in the right context, which is important in administering local justice. Such localism could be lost if courts were closed and their jurisdiction transferred to others 30 to 40 miles away—for example Ipswich, which is not easy to get to from Lowestoft. Any review of the court system should look closely at the scope of the work being carried out in magistrates courts.
With digitalisation, Sir Brian Leveson’s review and the Government’s proposed changes, the role and work of magistrates will change. As part of that, the Government should seriously consider changing the jurisdiction of and extending the range of cases considered by magistrates. That would enable justice to be delivered more locally, closer to communities. It could also help victims, because magistrates courts are less intimidating than Crown courts, and cases would also be dealt with more promptly. Moreover, research shows that significant financial savings would be achieved. Such a reinvigorating of magistrates courts and local justice can readily take place by enacting sections 154, 280 and 281 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The Minister has confirmed to me that such a review is taking place, but it should not be carried out in a vacuum; it should form part of the consultation.
Work in local magistrates courts underpins the legal profession in a town such as Lowestoft. Like magistrates, local solicitors know and understand the area in which they work, and they are immediately on hand, available at all hours to provide advice and guidance to their clients. They very much take on the role of a trusted adviser, gaining the respect and confidence of their clients who know them and know that they will do their best in representing them during what can be a harrowing and traumatic experience.
There is a worry that, without local courts, local solicitors firms could struggle to survive and local people would have to obtain advice from solicitors offices miles away from where they live. It is vital in Lowestoft that we continue to have a wide range of independent solicitor practices in the town.
In response to the consultation, Lowestoft solicitors will come forward with an alternative proposal for the Minister to consider. I urge him to give it his full consideration, as it will have been produced with the benefit of local knowledge, taking into account the concerns that I have raised.
16 Sep 2015 : Column 335WH
Sir Roger, I am grateful to you for listening to me. I now hand over to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds and look forward to listening to the Minister’s response.
Jo Churchill (Bury St Edmunds) (Con): I do not wish to repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) has said, but so many of his points apply to my constituents too. Ensuring that the vulnerable are not in vehicles with people with whom they would rather not spend the hour before going to court is hugely important. We have a paucity of broadband, but we have a paucity of buses and railways also. Physically getting around our county is difficult enough, so we cannot put up with the removal of vital services.
Suffolk is one of England’s 48 ceremonial counties and the eighth largest by area, but conversely it is ranked 32nd by population size. Should the proposals to close Bury and Lowestoft courts succeed, we will have, as my hon. Friend has said, the worst court-to-square-mile ratio, and be one of only six counties to operate a single court, based, in our case, far to the east in Ipswich.
Ironically, it is perhaps because of our size and relative sparseness that the magistrates court in Bury St Edmunds is under threat. I agree, however, that some change may be right and proper. Government figures have put utilisation of Bury court at 39%, with parts of it not used at all. Additionally, the accommodation in the current building is inadequate, and its annual running cost of more than £250,000 is undoubtedly high. Closing the service at its current location will save the taxpayer £206,000, recoverable in seven months, but one cannot put a price on local access to justice. In a system that claims to guarantee legal rights, access to justice sits at its foundations, for all the reasons my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned. That is the most basic requirement, and indeed it was the cornerstone of the Magna Carta which, incidentally, was planned by the barons in 1214 in Bury St Edmunds. One can see, therefore, why we are a little incensed.
I urge that due consideration be given to the effect on the justices of the peace, who do sterling work. As they have said to me, they know their communities. They save the legal system a great deal and add enormously to the effectiveness of local justice. What my constituents demand, as do local law professionals, the police and crime commissioner, the high sheriff, the lord lieutenant, and numerous other stakeholders, is local access to justice. It is neither feasible nor reasonable to ask the people of Suffolk—the people in my constituency—to travel 45 miles on the A14, which is often blocked solid by traffic and accidents, to access justice in Ipswich. Because of local transport cuts and the rural nature of our community, that is exactly what will be asked of them and I worry that it will be impossible for the poorest and the most vulnerable, the exact people who need justice the most.
Economically, the arguments for closing the magistrates court are compelling, and I accept that changes can be made, but we must keep a court in Bury. A superb opportunity exists, if the Ministry of Justice were to feel inclined, to use Bury as a trial and have a more peripatetic
16 Sep 2015 : Column 336WH
approach to justice that would allow it to come back into our communities. The consultation allows for that kind of approach to making the necessary improvements and savings, and the Ministry has stressed to me, during our many conversations, that it is looking for good ideas.
Integrating the court into the public service village in Bury could provide it with improved accommodation that could be shared when not in use, thereby delivering more cost-efficient services across the board. Such new ideas can be developed, with fines and other services being provided online, integrated for vulnerable people who do not have broadband access—I reiterate that I have villages with streets with no access. That suggestion is completely in line with the Cabinet Office’s One Public Estate programme. However, when one Department is in the process of advocating and advancing such a programme it seems counterproductive for another to cause panic by stating that it proposes to close a service that is so patently suitable for inclusion in the programme, instead suggesting that it relocate it to a town some 26 miles away. It appears, not for the first time, that we need better joined-up government, and not just between our local authorities and services. Such a move would keep access to justice local. It would locate the court adjacent to the NHS and social services, which will, it is anticipated, take up residence. Consequently, constituents —particularly those who are vulnerable—would have all the support they needed when using the court.
The design of the next phase of development is still being formulated. Specific requirements such as cells and van docks could be incorporated at the start, rather than retrospectively fitted. To that end, I and other colleagues in Suffolk have strongly urged the Justice Secretary in an open letter to look favourably on any such proposal and to keep justice local.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): As always, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Sir Roger. I thank my three hon. Friends for their contributions today. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this important debate, but I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) for her contribution and my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) for his intervention.
Let me make one thing absolutely clear. There is no doubt that all three Members have been diligent and conscientious in how they have spoken up for their constituents. They have corresponded with me and met me. Indeed, they have enforced the point by having this debate. I have to say that I have learned a lesson. I tried to jest a little in oral questions when I told my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney that the figures he cited reflected the low levels of crime in Suffolk. I had the last word in the Chamber, but that has rebounded, because he has been able to come back to me this morning. Nevertheless, he has eloquently put forward the arguments for his constituents, as have the other Members.
I again emphasise that the consultation on the reform of the court system in England and Wales is genuine. Indeed, the consultation asks people to make submissions
16 Sep 2015 : Column 337WH
if they can suggest alternative places where the court can sit. There is this notion of the majesty of the court building as we have all known it for centuries and decades, but the 21st century has brought about enormous changes, and with those changes we must recognise that the traditional court building can also change. That is why I have specifically asked for contributions from members of the public and the legal profession if they can suggest alternative venues, such as town halls or other civic buildings, where we might not need to sit for five days a week, but where we could sit simply for a day or two.
James Cartlidge: I accept the Minister’s point; we all support the overall principle of trying to achieve efficiency savings in public services and so on, but does he appreciate that if there is no alternative, it is about having a minimum level of access to justice and the concern that we might be going beyond that? If that is the case, we should accept that we may simply have to preserve the current building, for example in Lowestoft.
Mr Vara: I hear loud and clear what my hon. Friend says, but I will come on to what access really means in the 21st century shortly, if he bears with me. I make clear that any proposals from the consultation will be seriously considered by me and my officials. I take on board the figures that have been mentioned for the number of courts in Suffolk and the surrounding areas and the concerns expressed on the physical building being in Suffolk.
I also take on board what my hon. Friends say on travel times, but I turn to what precisely “access to justice” means. Access to justice in 21st-century Britain is different from what it has meant in centuries and decades before. Before, it meant proximity—the ability to go physically to a court, with all the majesty that goes with it—but the world has changed. People now work online. They do things from the comfort of their sitting room. People can now sit on a Saturday evening in the comfort of their armchair and, by use of their mobile phone, go online and plead guilty to low-level offences in a magistrates court, such as low-level traffic offences or the avoidance of payment of a TV licence. Likewise, people will be able, by use of their mobile phones, to pay any fines that may be imposed.
In like manner, access to justice can mean that victims and witnesses, particularly those who are vulnerable, do not have to go to a court and experience all the stress that goes with that. They can go to a room in their locality and, through video conferencing, access a court located elsewhere. Solicitors and barristers no longer have to go to court and hang around for two or three
16 Sep 2015 : Column 338WH
hours to have a five or 10-minute hearing before a judge. They can arrange a telephone conference. Lawyers on both sides of the case can sit in the comfort of their offices and a judge can sit in the comfort of his chambers, and at a given time the three of them can teleconference. That is happening. That is access to justice without moving, from people’s homes and offices.
James Cartlidge: Will the Minister give way?
Mr Vara: I am mindful of time. If my hon. Friend will bear with me—
James Cartlidge: What if people have no broadband?
Mr Vara: I am coming to modern technology. I appreciate the difficulties of broadband. I appreciate the IT teething problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney mentioned. The Ministry of Justice is spending £130 million to ensure that the Courts and Tribunals Service will have an efficient communications system, fit for the 21st century. Of course there will be problems. Nothing will ever be perfect, but that is not to say that when we encounter a problem, we step back. Judiciaries and legal systems across the rest of the world are moving on. If Britain is to stay as a global legal player, we must move and recognise the way that access to justice, technology and the legal process now operate. We are working on the IT problems.
My hon. Friend spoke of his concern that the trials were being carried out only in metropolitan areas and said that that reflected badly on the service that people get in rural areas. Let me be absolutely clear: the service that people receive throughout England and Wales will be uniform. The pilots are carried out in metropolitan areas to ensure that the technology is tested against a whole range of cases, and that is more available in metropolitan areas than in rural areas, where volumes tend to be lower.
In the limited time remaining, which is about 90 seconds, I hope I can sum up by saying that the consultation is genuine. I welcome alternative proposals, whether they are on the siting of courts, the use of video conferencing or other measures that we may not even have thought of. I reassure my hon. Friend that this is a genuine consultation. I have taken on board all that he and my other hon. Friends have said, and I again commend him for having taken the trouble to secure this debate. I hope that I have given him some comfort that I will reflect carefully on all that he and my hon. Friends have to say.
Question put and agreed to.
16 Sep 2015 : Column 339WH
Sgt Alexander Blackman (Marine A)
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): I beg to move,
That this House has considered the case of Sgt Alexander Blackman (Marine A).
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I believe is the first time, Mr Pritchard. Before I start, I welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), for Wells (James Heappey), and for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), along with our colleague, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I thank them for coming to this debate. I also welcome Sergeant Blackman’s family, friends and relations, and the four members of the Royal Marines who are also here to listen.
We shall be debating an incident that took place thousands of miles away in one of the most hostile environments on earth; in fact, it is so hostile that 454 of our finest servicemen and woman have been killed there, and thousands more wounded. Lance Corporal Cassidy Little is one of those wounded men. He served with Sergeant Blackman during the fateful tour and is present today to support the debate. On behalf of us all, I thank him and his colleagues for their bravery, courage and devotion.
In Afghanistan, the enemy were clever, motivated, difficult to identify, ruthless and cruel. Torture and death faced those who fell into their hands. It was into this hellhole that Alexander Blackman and his fellow Royal Marines from 42 Commando were pitched in 2011. Sergeant Blackman was a 15-year veteran of six operational tours: one in Northern Ireland and three in Iraq, and he was on his second in Afghanistan. There is nothing that this former Royal Marine has not seen. In each tour he had served his country and his corps with great distinction and courage. He was that most valued member of the Royal Marines, the elite’s elite—a senior non-commissioned officer—and he had been recommended for promotion, but then came his last tour in Helmand province, the toughest of his military career.
Sergeant Blackman was posted to the remote command post Omar, with 15 younger Royal Marines under his command. They lived for more than six months in a small mud enclosure, in appalling conditions of physical discomfort. Daily, they patrolled on foot for up to 10 hours in a large hostile area where the Taliban were most active. IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, the roadside landmines favoured by the Taliban, were a constant threat, to the extent that the squad seldom used their vulnerable Jackal vehicle, preferring to patrol on foot instead. They were aware that hundreds of their comrades had already been killed or maimed by IEDs. The psychological impact was devastating. Firefights with the Taliban were common. So, too, were deaths and life-threatening injuries. Overall, 42 Commando lost seven men, and a further 45 were injured, many of them very seriously indeed.
On 28 May 2011, several Marines from Sergeant Blackman’s troop were tasked with establishing a new base in an area known as the badlands. During the
16 Sep 2015 : Column 340WH
operation, Corporal Little was caught in the same blast that killed Sergeant Blackman’s troop commander, Lieutenant Ollie Augustin, and Marine Sam Alexander, who had won a Military Cross on a previous tour. The blast also badly wounded Lance Corporal JJ Chalmers. Later that day, the Royal Marines discovered body parts hanging mockingly in a tree. We can all imagine the effect of such an incident on hard-pressed, very young troops.
While holding it together in such atrocious conditions, Sergeant Blackman’s frequent complaints to headquarters about the impossibility of performing his assigned tasks with such a small number of men for a period far longer than the recommended tour of duty went unanswered. He had one sole visit from his commanding officer, which shows how stretched 42 Commando was. For month after month, the huge weight of responsibility bore down on him as he tried to maintain morale, but a combination of factors were taking their toll.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): When my hon. Friend says six months, does that mean Sergeant Blackman had no R and R?
Richard Drax: I welcome my gallant colleague to the debate. He did have two weeks for R and R.
Those factors taking their toll included: the inadequacy of the accommodation, equipment and supplies; Sergeant Blackman’s inability to sleep; the almost total lack of supervision; the general isolation; the recent death of his father; the ever-present fear of death or injury; exhaustion; and the strain of keeping the young men under his command alive, in itself an awesome responsibility.
On 15 September 2011, towards the end of their fraught tour, Sergeant Blackman and his patrol were directed to an insurgent who had been fatally wounded by gunfire from an Apache helicopter. Horribly exposed in a known hotspot for enemy activity, they knew that other insurgents were in the area. They dragged the fatally wounded man to cover. That Sergeant Blackman then shot him is beyond doubt: the incident was filmed by a head camera worn by one of the Marines on patrol. I have seen all the footage. What he did was unequivocal. He appeared calm and matter of fact—points made by Judge Advocate General Blackett in sentencing. However, no camera on earth can capture all the circumstances leading to that one momentary loss of control, or what was going on in Sergeant Blackman’s mind at the time.
Except for Corporal Little and his colleagues, none of us here has endured anything remotely approaching what those Royal Marines experienced, and, God willing, we never will. Although both the court martial and the Court of Appeal said that they took into account mitigating circumstances with regard to the sentence, Jonathan Goldberg, QC, who now heads the defence team and is here today, believes that a number of significant mistakes were made. The court was never given the chance to consider the lesser verdict of manslaughter by reason of loss of control owing to the appalling stresses to which Sergeant Blackman was subjected for months on end.
Mr Goldberg advises that, by law, the judge advocate general had a duty to direct the jury on all verdicts reasonably open to them, regardless of whether the prosecution or defence chose to raise them. The verdicts
16 Sep 2015 : Column 341WH
included the ability for a jury to return a verdict of not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter. Possible routes to such a manslaughter verdict included: temporary loss of control after months of cumulative stress; diminished responsibility owing to battlefield fatigue and post-traumatic stress disorder; and finally, by reason of an unlawful act, in that Sergeant Blackman admitted desecrating a dead body.
Inexplicably, none of the above possible lesser verdicts were ever raised, either at the court martial or on appeal. The judge advocate general failed to direct the jury panel on those available lesser alternatives, instead imposing the mandatory life sentence for murder, resulting in a good man serving a minimum of eight years in jail without being allowed to seek parole.
On the other hand, a manslaughter verdict on these extraordinary facts could reasonably have resulted in three years in prison at worst and a suspended sentence at best. Sergeant Blackman insists that he was never advised by his then defence team that a manslaughter verdict was even a possibility. Indeed, he knew nothing of the manslaughter option until recently, when his new defence took over. Almost unbelievably in a murder case of such complexity, Sergeant Blackman was never offered a psychiatric assessment prior to his conviction. Moreover, it is bizarre that the Judge Advocate General’s said this in his sentencing remarks after conviction:
“We accept that you were affected by the constant pressure, ever present danger and fear of death or serious injury. This was enhanced by the reduction of available men in your command post so that you had to undertake more patrols yourself and place yourself and your men in danger more often. We also accept the psychiatric evidence presented today that when you killed the insurgent it was likely that you were suffering to some degree from combat stress disorder.”
The psychiatric report he referring to was presented before sentencing and not conviction. In other words, the panel did not know about the report when they found Sergeant Blackman guilty. Why not? What was the defence team up to?
Further evidence that was never heard at Sergeant Blackman’s court martial comes in the form of a 50-odd page document—the Telemeter report. Written by Brigadier Huntley, a few pages of the executive summary were released only this morning, despite frequent requests for the whole report to be published. Apart from criticising Sergeant Blackman, it confirms that there were concerns that the culture within 42 Commando
“was perceived by many…to be overly aggressive.”
The report also states:
“A number of those involved in this incident both directly and indirectly, felt that the Chain of Command had failed to provide them with adequate support before, during and after the court martial.”
Bob Stewart: As a former commanding officer, I find it extraordinary that this group of Royal Marines was left in the same position, obviously one of huge danger, for the whole six months. Was the rotation of the men in that position not considered?
Richard Drax: That is a good question, and one that my hon. Friend can perhaps ask afterwards of the Royal Marines who were on that tour. As I understand it, they were covering a vast area of land, they were under-resourced and undermanned, and rotation was not possible.
16 Sep 2015 : Column 342WH
Bob Stewart: Why not?
Richard Drax: I do not know. It is perhaps something that the report—the 50 or so pages that we have not seen—may hint at. We call for the report to be published now, so that the new defence team can use it to build up its case. Ultimately, we will have to wait until, as we hope, the Criminal Cases Review Commission takes up the case and demands the release of the report, or the bits of it that we have not seen.
Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) (Con): On the psychiatric report, I believe that the sergeant was in hospital for a week, yet no reports were submitted about how he was, what the conclusions were and what his state was when he got home. Will my hon. Friend expand on that a little further? He mentioned it just now, but I think there is a bit more to say.
Richard Drax: I am unable to expand on that particular point other than to say what I have already said, which is that the psychiatric report was there for sentencing, but not for conviction. That is what I know. He did spend some time in hospital, but I cannot expand on that particular period.
Rebecca Pow: Or on how crucial it would be to have that?
Richard Drax: I am afraid that I cannot expand on that.
Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. For the benefit of Hansard, I encourage Members to stand if they want to intervene.
James Heappey (Wells) (Con) rose—
Richard Drax: I give way to my hon. Friend.
James Heappey: Rather than mention this in my remarks later on, it is perhaps relevant to do so now. I was the adjutant of 2 Rifles in Sangin during Operation Herrick X in 2009, and there was a well-established mechanism of TRiM—trauma instant management—which is the peer-to-peer post-traumatic stress management of people after each traumatic experience. Those records should exist within Sergeant Blackman’s unit. If that process had been done properly, it should have been identified well before he reached his breaking point that he was very much at risk. Those records should exist. If they have not come to light, it is a gross injustice.
Richard Drax: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I cannot expand on that too much now, but we are aware that Colonel Oliver Lee, Royal Marines, had written a report identifying seven criteria that commanding officers should look out for. I also believe that, as far as Colonel Lee was concerned, Sergeant Blackman ticked every box.
From reading what we have of the executive summary of the Telemeter report—what we have got of it—there is strong reason to believe that the full report is critical of the overall command structure, including the lack of supervision over Sergeant Blackman and his men, which would certainly support Sergeant Blackman’s claims. A sergeant in the Royal Marines is probably—I will get
16 Sep 2015 : Column 343WH
myself into trouble here—superior to, shall we say, a line regiment sergeant, in the sense that they are trained to be far more independent. That was one explanation given to me as to why, in this instance, Sergeant Blackman was left out there for as long as he was—because he was a sergeant and highly respected, and so on.
However, what happened in this instance struck me, too, as extremely odd—my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) hinted at this earlier on, and I agree with him. We are both former soldiers, and it was our duty as officers to visit our men and make quite certain that they were safe and well and doing the job that they should be doing, because that was our task. If we did not do that, things began to unravel. Maybe that was one of the reasons why things unravelled in this particular instance.
Going back to the report—50 pages of which, as I have said, still remain unseen—it is no surprise that the Daily Mail and Frederick Forsyth thunder about a cover-up and attempts to make Sergeant Blackman a scapegoat for a much wider failure of high command. Would the full report have given Sergeant Blackman a better chance in court had it been written and published openly shortly after the events, rather than long after his conviction? Vice-Admiral Jones has reportedly asked both serving and former officers not to comment if the press start asking questions.
Also of great concern is the resignation of Colonel Lee. As I understand it, he was a high-flier who resigned his commission in disgust over how Sergeant Blackman was treated and the refusal to call him in evidence at the court martial. Colonel Lee became Sergeant Blackman’s commanding officer just six days before the incident, although they never met.
Bob Stewart: How come the defence counsel did not call the commanding officer to give evidence?
Richard Drax: Again, I am regrettably not a trained QC or lawyer—I wish I were. All I understand is that he was not, which can be further explored by the QC, who is actually in the room here today.
When he resigned, Colonel Lee wrote the following, which is one of the most damning indictments that I have found in the 10 or 11 months that I have been involved in this sad case:
“Sgt Blackman’s investigation, court martial and sentencing authority remain unaware to this day of the wider context within which he was being commanded when he acted as he did.”
He went on:
“My attempts to bring proper transparency to this process were denied by the chain of command. Sgt Blackman was therefore sentenced by an authority blind to facts that offered serious mitigation…The cause of this is a failure of moral courage by the chain of command.”
That is a devastating criticism and hardly a ringing endorsement of military justice. Colonel Lee’s evidence will be important if the case is referred to the appeal court by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which we trust it will be. It must be.
Sergeant Blackman’s conviction in 2013 left a deep impression on me as a former soldier. I visited him in Lincoln prison in December 2014—had I not, I would have gone to my grave with this nagging whatever you
16 Sep 2015 : Column 344WH
like to call it on my conscience and preying on my mind. There I met an intelligent, proud and professional soldier, alongside whom I would have been proud to serve. Several prison guards told me as I left that Sergeant Blackman’s incarceration was hard to comprehend. “He shouldn’t be here”, they said.
As for Sergeant Blackman, understandably he feels betrayed—a scapegoat, hung out to dry by the military and political establishments. He was fighting a war at our behest and on our behalf. He believes that his small patrol was given an impossible mission with little support or command structure. They were undermanned and overstretched, the impossible was demanded and a decent man was pushed beyond endurance. In his words, it was a
“lack of self-control, momentary lapse in…judgement.”
The aim of today’s debate is to highlight a miscarriage of justice. The debate will send an important message to those charged with administering justice to Sergeant Blackman and it mirrors the public outcry. Sergeant Blackman is the first British serviceman to be tried for murder by a court martial since the second world war, and I hope he is the last. War is a dirty, filthy, horrible, frightening business and every man— even the very best —has his breaking point.
I am indebted to the highly respected author Frederick Forsyth for his immense help and his interest in the case; to Jonathan Goldberg QC and his team, who are now representing Sergeant Blackman and are in the Public Gallery today, as I said; to the Daily Mail—which I do not often praise—for running such a well-researched campaign and for going to such incredible lengths to support Sergeant Blackman and his case; to Sir Tim Rice and Major General Johnny Holmes, both highly distinguished in their own fields, who have volunteered as directors of a fund-raising effort; and of course to the public for their support and their donations, which have now reached about £120,000 in five days. In addition, there have been thousands of letters; the Daily Mail is having to employ a team to open them.
I conclude with two observations: one concerns the court-martial panel and the other is entirely my own. When Sergeant Blackman was sentenced for murder—murder—dismissed from the Royal Marines and ordered to march out of the court, he gave his final salute in uniform. The panel, to a man, returned his salute—an act that is, as far as I know, unprecedented, especially given that they had just condemned him for murder. To me, that act speaks eloquently of their deep feelings of ambiguity.
I end finally with my own thoughts, having been involved with the case for nearly a year. Sergeant Blackman was and is no cold-blooded killer. He was just a man pushed to the very edge and sent to do a filthy job with his hands tied behind his back, and he is now no threat at all to anyone. He is paying a terrible price for a lapse of judgment. He is a man who deserves another hearing and should be allowed to go home to his wife.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It is an honour and a privilege to take part in this vital debate. I commend the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) for giving us all the chance to participate and to hear at first hand his presentation in Westminster Hall
16 Sep 2015 : Column 345WH
today. I spoke to him last week to get some ideas and I asked whether the story would appear in the
. He said, “I am not sure about that”—he knew of course, but he was preparing for the story to break.
This debate, arguably more than any other, is of the utmost importance as it comes at a time when a man’s fight for justice hangs in the balance. I am in the Chamber to participate both as the Member of Parliament for Strangford and as someone who is honoured to have served Queen and country in my time: as a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment and a Territorial Army soldier in the Royal Artillery for some 14 and a half years. I am here along with many other hon. and gallant Members.
Perhaps the case strikes such a chord with me because of my background, although it might simply be because justice was not done. That would explain why the case has caused such a public outcry, with more than 100,000 people calling for Sergeant Blackman’s conviction to be quashed. We in Britain pride ourselves on ensuring that justice prevails, but in this case I am afraid that it has not been done.
For the first time in history, a British serviceman has been convicted of murder. Given the injustices surrounding the court case, I am not surprised that the Daily Mail dubbed Sergeant Blackman a “political scapegoat”—well done to the Daily Mail for highlighting the case and giving us the chance to find out more about the background. What I find most shocking is that vital evidence was withheld and that a colonel who was blocked from telling the truth to the court martial was so disgusted that he resigned his commission.
Forgive me for a rather long quote, but it is important that it goes on the record. It needs to be heard in its entirety, because it is undoubtedly one of the most damning remarks made about the case. On his resignation, Colonel Lee said:
“Sgt Blackman’s investigation, court martial and sentencing authority remain unaware to this day of the wider context within which he was being commanded when he acted as he did.
My attempts to bring proper transparency to this process were denied by the chain of command. Sgt Blackman was therefore sentenced by an authority blind to facts that offered serious mitigation on his behalf”—
that is the thrust of the contribution of the hon. Member for South Dorset.
“The cause of this is a failure of moral courage by the chain of command.”
That is the quotation.
Given the evidence that has come to light and the failure to provide original evidence that might have resulted in a lesser charge of manslaughter, which was “deliberately withheld”, I see no reason why the case cannot be reviewed by the courts-martial appeal court. What has happened simply would not happen in any other case, particularly not in the British justice system that we regard so highly. For a British serviceman and acting colour sergeant in the Royal Marines, deemed to be a man of “impeccable moral courage”, to have been treated in such a way and to have been served with such injustice is downright wrong and completely and utterly unacceptable.