Epilepsy in the workplace

HoCI, too, congratulate Laura Sandys and Mrs Gillan on securing this important debate. In common with many other Members, I would like personally to thank the hon. Member for South Thanet for the excellent work she has done. She might not thank me for a glowing tribute, given that I am on the left of the party, but I think that she is a thoroughly decent MP who does an excellent job. She will be sadly missed. I am perhaps a less active member of the all-party group on epilepsy, but I am a member of many other all-party groups, particularly those on health and cancer. This is a very timely debate. It is thanks once again to the Backbench Business Committee that we have been afforded this opportunity to raise awareness of this important and often misunderstood condition.

In a previous role—I was not double-jobbing, I might add—I worked in the National Health Service in an analytical chemistry lab where I used to do tests on anti-epileptic drugs using gas chromatography techniques, so I know a little bit about the chemistry but not so much about the clinical manifestations and symptoms.

I pay tribute to the tremendous and powerful speech by Steve Baker, which really brought home the potential risks of this condition if left unregulated. It is one of the most common neurological conditions in the United Kingdom.

As the hon. Member for South Thanet said, 500,000 people in the UK, or one in 100, have the condition. That is a considerable number of people. As I think we are all aware by now, epilepsy is not one condition but a composite. Other Members have mentioned the suspected link with autism.

There are about 40 different types of seizure and perhaps as many as 50 different syndromes with various degrees of severity and complexity. However, with the right treatment, the right medication and the right support, there is no reason why someone suffering from epilepsy cannot lead a full and active life, as the hon. Lady so ably explained.

Many Members have talked about access to medical care and stigma, but I want to stress another aspect—the discrimination that can be faced by those with epilepsy, creating barriers to education, and, more particularly, to employment.

A report published by Young Epilepsy found that three quarters of people with epilepsy have experienced discrimination due to their condition. This situation was reaffirmed by work commissioned by the disabilities charity, Quarriers, which found that more than two thirds of people with epilepsy admit that they worry what members of the public would say or do if they had a seizure, with over a third expressing concern that having a seizure in public has led to anxiety about whether to leave the house – let alone taking up employment.

In relation to employment, more than seven in 10—72%—stated that their condition had an impact on their career progression and choice, with more than two fifths avoiding even telling people about their epilepsy.

There are protections in place for those looking for work and for those who are in work, but I am concerned that these duties and obligations are not being met by employers.

Equality laws make it illegal for employers to treat people with epilepsy unfairly, and protection must be provided against bullying and harassment due to their condition. Employers also have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to help people with epilepsy to get into work, or stay there, and to prevent them from being at a substantial disadvantage.

However, we have found that people with epilepsy have been shown to be twice as likely to be at risk of unemployment as those without the condition.

The case of Karen Guyott, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend Kate Hoey, has been drawn to my attention before.

To comply with the instructions from yesterday, I am, as it says in my entry on page 205 of the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, a member of the RMT parliamentary group, although it is unremunerated and the RMT is not affiliated to my party. It is important that we speak in this House on behalf of working people, and charities, and raise legitimate concerns. That example of someone losing her job is an important test case because, as my hon. Friend said, London Underground did not provide the training or support required.

I only have a little time left, so I want to put this to the Minister, who I know is a decent and reasonable man: at the conclusion of the debate, I hope that he will make it clear that it is unacceptable to discriminate against someone due to their having epilepsy. I hope that he will support people, such as Karen, who are fighting blatant discrimination.

Will he agree to raise her case with the Mayor, because Transport for London comes under the Mayor’s auspices?

TfL is a significant public sector employer, and we want it to be an example of best practice. Will the Minister meet a delegation of interested MPs to discuss discrimination and epilepsy at work?

Premier League failing to support grassroots football, MP warns

150th Parliamentary ReceptionEasington MP Grahame Morris has challenged the Premier League to honour their commitments and address the decline in grassroots football.

Today in Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Questions in the House of Commons Mr Morris demanded that the Premier League does not squander their £5 billion tv deal and meet their commitments to funding for grassroots football, he said:

“There is a growing crisis in grassroots football in terms of facilities, pitch quality and increasing fees often as a result of government cuts to local authorities. Will the Minister back Labour’s call for the Premier League to use some of the new windfall to meet their five per cent commitment to grassroots football.”

In response, Sajid Javid MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport commended the work of the Premier League, and their investment into grassroots football, he said:

“The Premier League already does a lot, I welcome that and we should all commend that. I think with the recent result of the increase in their finances we can all expect them to do more.”

The Minister highlighted that following the Autumn Statement, and in conjunction with the Premier League and FA, there was £100 million extra money going into grassroots football over the next three years.

Following CMS Question Mr Morris said:

“After every international competition fans ask why we can’t compete with other major nations, despite the English games immense financial power as the richest league in the world.

While we might have the richest clubs, the best paid players, and ever increasing transfer fees, we are poor in facilities and coaching with countries like France, Germany and Holland light years ahead.

Local Authorities are under immense financial pressure due to government cuts and over the last five years facilities have deteriorated whilst pitch fees have increased.

The Premier League are in a unique position to support the future development of English Football. However, they are failing in their duty to the next generation of footballers and the local communities that have supported and sustained our football clubs over the past century.

Investing in grassroots football is not a charitable endeavour, it is the Premier League that is set to benefit the most by producing the next generation of English greats all of whom start their career in grassroots football”

Following the Ministers statement that investment in grassroots football is rising Mr Morris added:

“I will be contacting the Minister to obtain further details regarding where this extra money is being spent, as it has not been reflected in our local communities through improved pitches and facilities.

I do not want the Premier League to squander their new TV deal. We do not need to increase player’s wages or agent fees, but we do need to address the crisis in grassroots football.”

Ban MP’s Second Jobs

Conflict of Interest2Politics was once again brought into disrepute after former Foreign Secretaries Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw were caught in a tabloid cash for access sting.

The real scandal is their actions, which are currently under investigation, are unlikely to have breached ineffective parliamentary rules which allow MPs to take on second, third and even fourth jobs, all acceptable in the eyes of parliament as long as it is declared.

I believe this is a needless scandal with a very easy solution. We need a ban on MPs taking second jobs as outside paid positions inevitably cause a conflict of interest.

The Prime Minister has rejected any suggestions of banning second jobs saying MPs with outside interests can enrich parliament. This may be true in the example he offered of someone running a small family business, though I am still at a loss at how they would find the time to fully fulfil their parliamentary and constituency commitments and run a business.

However, in reality MPs with outside interests are not running small businesses, they are becoming consultants or placed on advisory boards solely due to their role as a MP or former position in Government. This is not real outside world experience, it is exploiting your position as a MP for self-enrichment and should not be allowed.

While the Prime Minister wants to maintain the status quo, Ed Miliband has called for MPs to be banned from taking up paid consultancy or directorship positions, as well as limiting outside earnings to ten or fifteen percent of salary, effectively limiting these earnings to about £10,000. This would allow an MP to maintain their professional qualifications and status in areas such as medicine and law.

I would like to see all second jobs banned, as the public need confidence that they are voting to elect someone who will represent them and not be in the paid service of special interests which can be in conflict with their constituents.

When confronted with the allegations Sir Malcolm Rifkind cited that he believed over 200 MPs have outside business interests. However, I do not believe this is a defence to the allegations but a shocking indictment of the widespread nature of the problem.

How many more times does the reputation of parliament need to be sullied before the Government takes decisive action. Once elected, a MPs only concern should be to work and serve the best interests of their constituents and not enrich themselves through consultancy work and directorships. This was a needless scandal, which we could stop once and for all by ending, in my view, the unacceptable practice of MPs taking second jobs.

Grahame Morris MP calls for more support for successful training provider

Grahame Morris & Melissa Hammond EDET - Feb 2015Easington MP Grahame Morris has praised the invaluable work of the East Durham Employability Trust and called on the Government to do more to support successful training providers following his visit to the employment charity.

The Employability Trust is a charity based in Peterlee that aims to help NEET’s throughout the region to secure sustainable employment. They offer real work experience working on real products through contracts with local organisations. Their Destination Employment programme is an eight week work experience scheme providing young people with the skills required to move into the workplace.

In the past twelve months an unrivalled 94% of candidates who have completed the Destination Employment programme have moved into sustainable employment. That is one candidate helped into employment every other week through the Trust’s work.

East Durham Employability Trust CEO Bill Marley said:

It’s fantastic to have the support of someone with Grahame’s influence and importance. We want to continue to help as many young people into work by giving them real practical experience and improving the efficiency of local businesses.”

Commenting after his visit Mr Morris said:

“The Employability Trust has been built up from nothing by Bill, who has used his local knowledge and expertise in the manufacturing and engineering industry to create a successful training route for young people to move into employment.

Their success rate is extraordinary, and surpassed by none other. We need to highlight the work of the Employability Trust as an example of best practice, which can be replicated in other areas”

However, Mr Morris has spoken of his disappointment at the lack of assistance the Employability Trust has received from government bodies tasked with supporting people into work

“We have a high quality, local training provider with expertise and a proven track record of success. However, funding support from DWP is inflexible and restrictive to such an extent that the Employability Trust have found it difficult to access support to develop and expand their training programme.

Instead, DWP would rather squander millions of pounds on an ineffective work programme which is failing to support local jobseekers to access training or find employment”

Mr Morris concluded,

“The Employability Trust offers real work experience giving young people the skills and training they require to move into work. We need more than warm words, it is time for real support for charities like the Employability Trust which are improving the life chances for young people in East Durham.”


NHS Valentine’s Day Rally

I was delighted to be invited to speak at the Hartlepool Save Our Hospital Valentine Day Rally.

On a day when most people were giving cards and gifts to their loved one, hundreds of people turned out to show their love for the National Health Service, and Hartlepool Hospital.

It was an opportunity to reflect on the hard work and dedication of NHS staff and to acknowledge the great debt of gratitude to those everyday unheralded life savers.

We are often told that we do not have the resources, or that we must be frugal when it come to the NHS. It is a response from Ministers when I raise issues about health inequalities, access to advance radiotherapy and improved cancer service, or how we resource and recruit GPs in the North East.

It is something I cannot accept from a Coalition Government that preach austerity for the people of the North East but allow an elite of wealthy individuals and corporations to avoid in excess of seventy billion pounds in uncollected taxes. A small minority are depriving the exchequer of the resources which could be used to fund our vital public services such as our NHS.

I believe where there is a political will we can overcome any barriers including resources. Even in the time of Government imposed austerity the Coalition have found the money to renew Trident at a cost of £100 billion, and committed to billions of pounds of spending for HS2. Two schemes, one of which does not extend to the North East, the other whose success in based on it never being used.

All I am asking is that the Government show the same level of political commitment to our communities and health services.

It is the communities of East Durham which have suffered most from the debacle surrounding Hartlepool Hospital as services are transferred to an already cramped site at North Tees. It is nothing short of a scandal that after being promised new world class state of the art health facilities we are now involved in a botched compromise with a services being transferred piece by piece to an outdated and unsuitable site at Stockton North Tees. It is an untenable situation which is not acceptable and I do not support.

We cannot wait indefinitely for a new hospital which has never materialised, and we must begin the process of returning services to Hartlepool, along with the required resources both capital and revenue to ensure their sustainability.

The strength of feeling was clear on Saturday, the love for the NHS is overwhelming and together we will continue to fight until we secure the health services our communities need and deserve.

Labour Marks 10th Anniversary of Hunting Ban with New Election Commitments to Protect Animals

Animal AidEasington MP Grahame Morris has welcomed the launch of ‘Labour: Protecting Animals’ setting out the party’s election promise to champion animal welfare.

Marking the tenth anniversary of the ban on fox hunting, Labour announced six key commitments to protect animals in the next parliament:

1)  Defending the Hunting Act which the Tories plan to repeal

2)  Banning the cruel practice of wild animals in circuses

3)  Ending the Government’s ineffective and inhumane badger culls

4)  Improving the welfare of dogs and cats by reviewing ineffective regulation of their breeding and sale

5)  Tackling wildlife crime and reducing animal cruelty on shooting estates

6)  Leading the fight against global animal cruelty

Following the announcement Grahame Morris MP for Easington said:

“Labour has a long and proud record of achievement in protecting and promoting animal welfare. We must work towards ending unnecessary suffering of animals and Labour are offering a real alternative to the cruelty and inaction we have seen from the Coalition Government over the past five years.”

Ed Miliband, commenting on the launch of the ‘Labour: Protecting Animals’ document, said:

“Our Labour values tell us that we have a moral duty to treat the animals we share our planet with in a humane and compassionate way. No other major political party has such a proven track record of decisive action for animals at home, on farms and in the wild.

“This is a legacy that we are proud of – one which we believe shows that Labour is the only party to trust on animal welfare.”

Maria Eagle, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, said:

“The last Labour Government achieved much to end the cruel and unnecessary suffering of animals: the banning of hunting with dogs, securing an end to cosmetic testing on animals, banning fur farming and introducing the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

“The next Labour Government will continue to lead the way on animal welfare, starting with six key commitments that build on our previous achievements at home and abroad.”

For more information please see Labour – Protecting animals

Celebrating a decade of hunt ban

Local MP, Grahame Morris joins forces with animal welfare charities to mark success of Hunting Act ten years on

Fox HuntingWednesday 18th February: Today, February 18 marks ten years since the Hunting Act 2004 came into force. This important legislation was introduced to stop hunting with dogs for sport due to the profound suffering caused by the prolonged chase and violent death. Ten years on, the Act has outperformed all other wild mammal legislation and is now the most successful piece of wild animal welfare legislation in England and Wales.

Grahame Morris MP for Easington said: “I am delighted to celebrate the Hunting Act ten years on from when it first came into force. It is a mark of our civilisation as a society that we protect animal welfare and I am delighted that the Act has been so successful. I look forward to celebrating many more anniversaries of this important legislation.”

Joe Duckworth, Chief Executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said:  “Hunting wild animals with dogs for sport was banned ten years ago on animal welfare grounds. A decade on, this important and popular legislation has both the highest number of convictions and highest conviction rate above all other wild mammal legislation. Many more people have been deterred from chasing and killing animals for pleasure – something worth celebrating. The problem is not with the law.  It’s with those that flout it.”

Philip Mansbridge, UK Director of IFAW, said: “This landmark piece of legislation was brought in because the British public found it abhorrent that British wildlife was being chased or killed for so-called sport and it is right that we celebrate 10 years on from this important victory for animals. However, illegal hunting is a reality that we cannot ignore with trail hunting too often providing a false alibi for hunters to avoid prosecution. A decade on, we need better enforcement of the Hunting Act.”

David Bowles, RSPCA Head of Public Affairs said: “The RSPCA firmly believes that the cruel practice of chasing and killing live animals with dogs is a barbaric and outdated pastime and has no place in modern Britain. This is a sentiment echoed by the vast majority of the British public. A decade on, public feeling towards the hunting ban is still strong. The fact remains that it is only a tiny minority of people who, seek a return to cruelty.

“The RSPCA also believes that the Hunting Act is a workable, enforceable piece of legislation – since it came into force in 2004, 344 defendants have been found guilty of offences.”

The Hunting Act prohibited the hunting of wild mammals, including foxes, deer, hares and mink with dogs, something which the vast majority of the British public ten years on do not want to see a return to.

Latest opinion polling carried out by Ipsos MORI¹ at the end of 2014 shows that 80 per cent of people in Great Britain think that fox hunting should remain illegal, 86 per cent for deer hunting and 88 per cent for hare hunting/coursing. These figures are about the same in both rural and urban areas.

On average, one person every week is prosecuted under the Hunting Act. Of these over two-thirds are found guilty rendering any argument that the ban is not enforceable redundant.

Pubs and Planning Legislation Debate

House of Commons
Thursday 12 February
Pubs and Planning Legislation

Fair Deal for your LocalGrahame M. Morris: It is an honour to follow the hon. Members who have spoken. I thank and pay tribute to fellow officers of the all-party save the pub group—the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie), who opened the debate so succinctly and precisely, and the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), who has been such a dogged and long-standing campaigner for Save the Pub. I add my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee, which does such a sterling job in identifying subjects for debate that are dear to the hearts of Members and constituents.

We often say that there should be more cross-party consensus, particularly on policies relating to the NHS and social care, but a long journey starts with a single step, and perhaps on this topic, which has attracted support across all parties, we may be able to reach consensus. I am sorry that the Minister has slipped out for a moment, as hon. Members have made some excellent suggestions for a way forward.

My contention is that a way forward was offered by an amendment to the Infrastructure Bill that was tabled by me and the hon. Members for Leeds North West and for Bristol North West, which attracted the support of 38 Members of Parliament. The proposal was hardly revolutionary: to promote diversity, it offered some choice. It did not offer any permanent protection; it was simply an attempt to introduce community consultation to try to prevent viable pubs being closed and steamrollered into an alternative use, usually as a supermarket.

I echo the disappointment of the hon. Member for Bristol North West at the response of the Government, who have sought to block every effort to support tenants and safeguard our pubs. At all stages the Government seek to water down and amend legislation to favour powerful self-interests in the pub industry—those of the large pub companies—rather than working in the best interests of communities, customers and tenants. It is a shame that this debate is necessary at all. New clause 16 to the Infrastructure Bill would have made quite a simple change to the planning laws, empowering communities to protect their local pubs from being demolished or converted into supermarkets without consultation.

Earlier hon. Members were trying to differentiate pubs that are clearly no longer viable as pubs and those that have support and are clearly viable, and that perhaps offer a range of services, such as restaurants. As today’s motion notes, the existing planning laws in relation to permitted development are causing valued and viable community pubs to be targeted by supermarkets. Hon. Members have given examples in Canvey Island, Bristol and North East Derbyshire, where that is precisely what has happened. In east Durham, in Easington, which has 18 villages and two large towns, there have been so many pub closures that there may be one pub left in a village. In some villages—Hawthorn, Dalton-le-Dale, Hesledon—there may be one or perhaps even two pubs, but there is considerable pressure, particularly on the tenants of pubs that are owned by the large pubcos. As we have heard, research from the Campaign for Real Ale suggests that a considerable number of pubs—I have a figure of 29, but the hon. Member for Bristol North West said that it is 31, and I am sure she is correct—are closing every week, and quite a number of those are being converted into supermarkets.

I greatly appreciated the widespread support that was shown for new clause 16, which offered such protections for community pubs. It was defeated only following a late intervention from the Government when the Minister made a token concession to remove pubs listed as an asset of community value from permitted development rights. While new clause 16 would have protected all pubs, the Government’s amendments potentially protect only 600 of the 48,000 pubs in the UK. This comes from a Government—on both sides of the coalition—who believe in and promote localism. Requiring ACV status to protect one’s local simply adds unnecessary bureaucracy and costs when a much simpler alternative is to empower local people. I am at a loss to understand why the Government believe that nightclubs, launderettes and casinos should have more protection than community pubs.

By opposing planning protections for pubs, the Government have failed to protect pubs and community interests. Not only that, but we continue to see efforts to water down an important decision of this House to empower pub tenants against pub-owning companies. That is an important factor in the many conversions. Last year, the House expressed its clear will to offer tenants a market-only rent option as part of a statutory code of practice between themselves and a large pub-owning company. I recognise that we have a planning Minister here and the purview of ministerial responsibility is perhaps not entirely his, but it is germane to the debate that we consider the implications. Importantly, such a safeguard would help to protect the tied publican who may be struggling financially. Some 46% of tied tenants earn less than £15,000 a year despite their hard work and, in most cases, long hours. Nearly nine out of 10—the exact figure is 88%—identified the beer tie as one of their most significant financial problems.

The market rent-only option agreed by the House helps to level the playing field and redress the balance of power between the tenant and the pub-owning company. That may relieve the pressure that is leading to so many pub closures—31 per week, as I said. It is important to note that the market rent-only option would not end the beer tie—as some critics have claimed, saying that it would be a retrograde step—but would ensure that pub-owning companies had to show real value to their tenants in order to retain the tie.

Despite the House’s support and the benefits to tenants, Tory peers—including some with clear vested interests, if I may say so—have been trying to exempt pub companies from the market rent-only option if they significantly invest in a tenant’s pub. “Significant investment” is an incredibly wide concept. While I am not surprised that a peer with a pecuniary interest would try to undermine the statutory code, I am more concerned about the Government’s efforts to reword and water down the protections of the market rent-only option without consulting MPs, or Fair Deal For Your Local campaigners, prior to inserting replacement clauses into the statutory pubs code legislation.

Subsequently there has been some consultation with the various interest groups, all of which the members of the all-party save the pub group have met, including Fair Deal For Your Local, the Campaign for Real Ale and trade unions representing pub landlords, such as my own union, Unite, and the GMB. Importantly, however, despite promising to do so, the Government did not consult in advance and the discussions seem to have taken place after decisions have been made.

Simon Clarke from the Fair Deal For Your Local campaign is an outstanding advocate in defence of our pubs. He has warned that one revised clause means that existing tenants will not have the option of a parallel rent assessment, resulting in a tied tenant being unable to determine whether they would be worse off than if they were free of tie. That was an absolutely key principle of the Bill and Ministers gave us an assurance from the Dispatch Box that that would be the case.

A Government Minister said in the other place that Ministers

“are always discussing these issues and changes with tenants”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 2 December 2014; Vol. 757, c. 1243.]

However, despite such assurances, Mr Simon Clarke describes the Government’s amendments as

“an attempt to bulldoze through amendments without the dialogue and consultation promised.”

The Government should explain their position.

I have a number of questions to put to the Minister. Why are the Government failing to support local communities to protect their pubs? What are their objections to allowing local people a say in the planning process when a change of use is proposed for a pub? Will the Minister guarantee that he and the Government will work with MPs and campaigners to ensure that the explicit will of the House of Commons in supporting a market rent-only option in a statutory code is not undermined or watered down in the other place, because that would simply compound the problem?

It is time for the Government to do more than pay lip service to supporting communities, consumers and tenants, and to safeguard pubs and begin to offer some practical support. As my Health Committee colleague the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) has said, before we call time on this Parliament—that is a really good expression—we should ensure that we can, in unanimity, provide some modest protection to pubs that are in the interests of all our communities.

Housing in Horden Debate

Westminster Hall
Wednesday 11 February
Housing (Horden, County Durham)

westminster hall2Grahame M. Morris It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, for what I believe is the first time. I am grateful to have this opportunity to raise an important issue on behalf of the residents and community of Horden in my constituency of Easington.

By way of background—this is for the Minister’s benefit, because I am unsure whether he is familiar with the communities of east Durham—Horden, like many of the communities I represent, is a close-knit former mining community, located on the east Durham heritage coast. The village, which has a long and proud industrial heritage, was established to serve the needs of the colliery. The sinking of the pit brought new workers and the village began to take shape with the construction of terraced housing—that style of housing will be familiar to you, Mr Owen, because similar terraced housing exists in all the former mining areas, including in Wales and Yorkshire.

The demand for housing remained high until the closure of Horden colliery in 1987. I recall that Horden was one of the biggest collieries in Europe when it was at peak production and we had a number of associated industries, including a petrol-from-coal plant, which was a considerable employer, which I think was developed during the war.

The loss of the coal mine has led to issues found in many former mining communities such as unemployment, health inequalities and an ageing and declining population, which has led to lower demand for family-type housing in particular. While today’s debate is on the situation caused by the Accent housing association, I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the wider issues concerning the lack of investment and support given to Horden in particular—other mining communities have received such support—to attract new industries, jobs and investment since the end of its mining operations.

I hope that the Minister is aware of precisely what has happened with Accent. It is quite a large housing association that manages more than 20,000 properties nationally, but I want to raise specific concerns regarding the 361 properties that it manages in Horden and Blackhall, the neighbouring village. Of its 220 homes in Horden, 130 are currently empty. In Blackhall it owns 141 properties and 30 of those have become vacant. The problem is that, as properties become empty, Accent no longer seeks to let them as homes. Instead, vacant properties are being boarded up, which are an eyesore and a drain on the community.

It is clear, from walking around the area, that properties have gradually fallen into a state of disrepair and now require substantial work. Accent did have an investment plan in place to improve those properties to the decent homes standard through replacing bathrooms, kitchens, windows, doors and heating systems as well as making other repairs, but millions of pounds of regeneration funding were withdrawn following the Government’s implementation of the bedroom tax. In Accent’s view, those properties are no longer financially viable because many of them had been let to single people who, under the terms of the bedroom tax, would be under-occupying them and so be subject to an additional charge.

Although the bedroom tax was the tipping point, to be fair to the Minister—I hope that he is paying attention—the cause of the problem is long-term mismanagement by a social landlord that has failed to invest in the homes over many years. Accent acknowledges that as long ago as 2008, it was letting two-bedroom former colliery houses to single people in the knowledge that that was not a long-term option. Its failure to maintain its properties adequately is evident: estimates suggest that to bring the homes up to a fit standard would require a £7 million investment, based on £20,000 a property. The bedroom tax significantly reduced demand for the properties and although I will criticise Accent for many things, it cannot be blamed for the bedroom tax. However, it is responsible for a chronic lack of investment.

I have had considerable communications with local residents and representatives of Horden residents association, who are highly critical of Accent. They said that it has had a “non-dynamic” approach to the care and maintenance of the properties that goes back as far as 2006. It seems to have total disregard for the community in terms of vetting potential tenants. The residents’ groups, who have worked closely with the local authority and the police, have been out litter picking, clearing up fly-tipping and identifying problems to report to the local authority. However, the residents say that their efforts to clean and improve the area have been undermined

“as a result of poor quality tenants being given access to poor quality properties, which were suffering from a lack of investment by Accent”.

As we know, when areas fall into disrepair, they become a target for crime and we get a vicious circle of decline. Accent has an obligation not just to its existing tenants, but to the neighbours of its tenants, because its properties are not necessarily continuous on streets; they may be in small clusters and groups. Residents in neighbouring properties are also experiencing problems such as antisocial behaviour, fly-tipping and rat infestations owing to issues in the Accent-owned derelict properties. The crime figures from the previous three months indicate that in this relatively small village there have been 409 reported incidents, including 88 incidents of antisocial behaviour and 14 incidents of criminal damage. Arson is not uncommon at the derelict properties.

The feeling is that Accent has abandoned the community and I would like the Minister to ensure that it will not be allowed simply to walk away from its responsibilities. I understand that it is currently seeking permission from the Homes and Communities Agency to dispose of its properties on the private market, which means that it will put them up piecemeal for auction. However, a wholesale sell-off where the homes disperse into many ownerships would be the worst possible option for the community. The genuine fear is that that will lead to an influx of absentee landlords with no interest in the community buying and letting substandard properties to maximise their return and get a quick profit from housing benefit. That would be bad for the residents, future tenants and the wider community.

I would also like to mention the role of the Homes and Communities Agency, which in relation to Horden has been hugely disappointing and incredibly ineffective. It seems to have no long-term plan for the regeneration of housing in Horden. As an aside, I perhaps should have declared a non-pecuniary interest at the start. I am the secretary of the all-party group on housing in the north. We have had many presentations from housing associations and organisations with an interest in housing. The big issue that we face in the north and in particular in my constituency—in Easington, Horden, Blackhall and some of the other villages—is not so much a lack of housing, although there is a need for new housing, but the fact that the existing housing stock in many cases is very old. It needs modernising. We need some selective demolitions and the existing stock needs to be refashioned in a way that accommodates the needs of local populations. The Homes and Communities Agency should be taking a lead in developing that strategy.

The views that I have received on the effectiveness of the HCA are that its priority and primary concern seems to be the viability of the social landlords of the housing association, rather than the legitimate concerns of the local community on the condition of their neighbourhoods and localities.

The Homes and Communities Agency and the Government have no strategic plan for housing in the north. Particularly in former industrial areas and especially in former coal mining areas, housing is often tied accommodation—houses were built to accommodate the workers—and part of the legacy of the coal mining industry. There is a failure to recognise that the problems with housing needs in the north are not the same as those faced, acute though they are, in London and the south-east. Housing in the north needs a different set of solutions and strategies. We certainly need more housing, but we also need to reshape our communities, replacing high-density colliery housing with more modern housing to meet the needs and aspirations of local communities.

You might be aware, Mr Owen, that these densely packed terrace houses have no gardens or parking facilities. They tend to have a path running along the front of the terrace and yards at the back. We need some selective demolition and some strategic oversight to open up these areas, as has happened with Easington colliery, where some excellent schemes have been carried out by the Durham Aged Mineworkers Homes Association, East Durham Homes and others. There is a model to follow there.

Will the Minister rule out the wholesale disposal of the properties on the private market? Everyone in the locality feels that that would be a retrograde step that would hurt the community in the short, medium and long term. Instead, I would like the Minister to intervene and to seek alternative options.

A homesteading scheme has been suggested, and I saw some coverage in the national news of schemes in Staffordshire, Liverpool and Middlesbrough. Homesteading involves a property being purchased by a first-time buyer at a significant discount. They then renovate the property as a home and are prohibited from selling the property for a specified period. I understand that the aim of that is to deter speculators, who would pick up the properties very cheaply, improve them and sell them on. If that happened, that would put us back in the same situation we are in now, where large amounts of property are in the hands of absentee landlords.

We need stable communities. Homesteading would help that, and the proceeds from any sales of such properties could be used to support the homesteading initiative or be reinvested in the remaining housing stock, to bring it up to a decent standard where it could then be re-let. It is an interesting idea that is worth considering, but significant investment is required to repair the properties in Horden and, to a lesser extent, in Blackhall. If it is a viable solution, I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on it.

I highlight the community initiative of the Horden residents association. It has been extremely active in looking to establish a community-led co-operative similar to those in Liverpool and closer to home in Middlesbrough. It will be holding a meeting on Friday to explore the option further. Can the Minister provide an assurance that the Homes and Communities Agency will offer practical assistance to the residents association if it tries to pursue that option? Ideally, we would like a long-term investment strategy for former industrial communities, both for regeneration and redevelopment.

I understand that we are in a time of austerity, but if there is a political will, we can overcome any barriers on finance. With all due respect, I point out that huge spending commitments have been made recently—on High Speed 2, for example. My good and hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who is serving on the Committee considering that legislation, tells me that the estimates on the cost of HS2 vary between £40 billion and £50 billion. Already, £1 billion has been committed to acquisition, and the scheme has not yet got full parliamentary approval. The lifetime cost of replacing the Trident missile system is estimated to be in excess of £100 billion.

Those are just two items of Government spending. One is not coming to the north-east and the other’s success is based on the assumption that it will never be used. I am not asking for tens of millions of pounds or billions of pounds, but a similar level of commitment from the Government to former industrial communities. At the moment, we lack a national plan and the political will and resources to tackle this important issue.

I will conclude, because I would like to hear what the Minister has to say. Before that, I will ask him some questions and raise three specific issues. First, in the short term, will he use his influence with the HCA to ensure that Accent is not allowed to walk away from its responsibilities by disposing of its properties in a piecemeal fashion on the open market? That would be another betrayal of a community that feels it has already been betrayed by Accent.

In the medium term, will the Minister investigate the role and effectiveness of the Homes and Communities Agency? As a Government agency, it has clearly failed in Horden, and I am sure there are other examples. We need to work in the interests of the community, rather than in the interests of social housing providers; as we have seen with this case, they are not necessarily one and the same. In the long term, we need a national housing plan that recognises the unique needs of former industrial communities. We need not only more housing, but full-scale regeneration to ensure that our communities can succeed and thrive for future generations.

A real alternative for our rail network

Durham Train Station2This Friday I will be supporting the RMT’s day of action against cuts to northern rail services.

It will be an opportunity to highlight the scandal of pacer trains on Northern Rail franchises, a practice which is set to continue according to the RMT.

Last year the Prime Minister promised that pacer trains were a thing of the past, a position confirmed by the Chancellor when he said a new deal, due this year, would bring “a substantial package of upgrades including new services and modern trains” to northern rail franchises.

The announcement was welcomed by commuters who have to use the outdated pacer trains which are uncomfortable and unsuitable for any modern rail network. To add insult to injury those forced to use these trains do not see an inadequate service reflected in the train fares which are some of the highest in Europe.

However the scandal of pacer trains on the northern rail franchise is set to continue as old tube trains withdrawn from service have been sent to Vivarail’s Long Marston base to undergo refitting and conversion to diesel operation.

These trains are being earmarked for use on the northern rail service as newer rolling stock is diverted to the south and London, with commuters in the north expected to use the out of date cast offs which are being replaced in the south.

It makes a mockery of the Governments claim to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, and shows their rhetoric about rebalancing the economy means nothing in terms of practical support for improving transport infrastructure in the north.

The sub-standard rail network in the north is indicative of the failed franchise process which is failing to deliver for passengers. We will never regain control of our train services while the failed franchise process remains in place which has led to the highest rail fares in Europe and three quarters of our rail franchise being owned by foreign state-owned or backed rail companies.

While our high train fares subsidise passengers in Europe the government remains wedded to the policies of privatisation and refuses to accept the evidence from the East Coast mainline which showed the a UK publicly owned and run rail service can work in the best interest of commuters and the taxpayer with profits returned to the treasury or re-invested into rail services.

We need a real alternative for our rail network, and while I will be campaigning to replace the hated pacer trains, I will be calling for a more radical change and the return of our rail network into public ownership operated and run in the best interests of the commuter and the taxpayer as well as being accountable to the public.