Wednesday 23 November 2011
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
Disability Hate Crime
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Angela Watkinson.)
It is, as always, a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Gray. I am pleased to have the chance to open this debate.
Writer and journalist Katherine Quarmby, who addressed a joint meeting of the all-party groups on disability and learning disability in Parliament a couple of months ago, told us that in the course of her research into the subject she had been unable to find much evidence that disability hate crime had been debated in either House in Parliament. I am glad that we are able to put that right today.
The issue concerns many hon. Members from across the House. I am particularly pleased to see the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who has done a great deal of work on this subject, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), who will be responding to the debate from the Labour Front Bench.
I acknowledge the Lord Chancellor’s commitment to align the tariff for murder where disability is a motivating or aggravating feature with that for race, religion and sexuality, which he made in response to my amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill last month. That amendment enjoyed the support of a number of hon. Members from across the House.
That commitment was a useful step in the right direction and one that organisations such as Mencap, the National Autistic Society, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and others have been calling for. I welcome the Lord Chancellor’s undertaking and look forward to hearing in more detail how the Government will progress his commitment.
The reality is that sentencing for murder is just the tip of a deeply disturbing and significant problem. As the recent EHRC report “Hidden in plain sight” has shown, attitudes, behaviours and practices, both institutional and individual, are contributing to a growing climate of hostility towards disabled people and fall well short of being a satisfactory response to the harassment of those people and the commission of crimes against them. I hope that today’s debate will give the Minister the opportunity to tell us specifically what actions the Government are taking to address so-called disability hate crime and to tackle one of the nastiest, most disgraceful forms of crime in our society. The coalition Government have promised a hate crime action plan, but we are still waiting for it. Disabled people, their families and campaigners are rightly anxious for action now.
The EHRC reports that around 1.9 million disabled people were victims of crime in 2009-10. We do not know how many were victims of harassment, but we do know that disabled people face a greater risk of being a victim of crime than people who are not disabled. There is also evidence that disabled people are more likely to experience antisocial behaviour, although more research is needed on that to confirm the scale of the problem. That is clearly unacceptable. What is worse, we also know that too often disabled people will feel forced to put up with a pattern of harassment, humiliation, antisocial behaviour and low-level criminal behaviour and come to accept it as an inevitable part of their lives.
What may start as relatively low-level harassment all too often escalates, becoming intolerable for the victim. In the worst cases, it can spiral to the point of violence, even murder, or to a situation in which victims and their families are simply unable to carry on with their lives. Hon. Members will be all too aware of the shocking case of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter Francecca, whose suffering of persistent harassment and abuse ultimately led to their deaths.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining this important debate. She has mentioned the issue of attacks on people with disabilities. Does she not agree that there needs to be a campaign to increase awareness of that? We congratulate Mencap on its excellent “Stand by Me” campaign, but does she not agree that such awareness needs to start back at primary school? Schools need to have a role and to teach our young people to have respect for people with disabilities.
Indeed, and I will say a little more about that. It is an important point that highlights that some of the perpetrators of really shocking instances of abuse and criminal behaviour are very young. Intervening early to demonstrate to them the absolute unacceptability of such behaviour is clearly the right thing to do.
Cases such as that of Fiona and Francecca Pilkington are of course the extreme, but they exist in a context of rising hostility to disabled people, which fuels abusive behaviour and leads to an increase in the harassment of them. Recent research for Scope by ComRes has shown that 47 % of disabled people feel that attitudes towards them had got worse over the past year, with 66% of disabled people reporting experiencing aggression, hostility or name calling.
A study published last month by the Glasgow Media Group, which analyses how the media are reporting disability in the context of Government spending cuts, reveals a major shift in how disabled people are portrayed, and the negative impact that that is having, both on public attitudes and on disabled people themselves. The research found a fall in media coverage that described disabled people in sympathetic and deserving terms, and an increase in the number of articles focusing on disability benefit fraud. Researchers observed an increase in articles portraying disabled people as a “burden” on the economy, with some articles even blaming the recession on incapacity benefits claimants.
Harassment and attacks exist and flourish in that context of hostility—a context, it has to be said, to which politicians are helping to contribute. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the derogatory and damaging language that has surrounded too much of the debate about welfare reform, and will give her commitment that there is a determination across Government to stamp out any negative portrayal of disabled people.
Although attitudes and language are important, campaigners have rightly identified the need for a much wider, whole-system change. That requires that public bodies and the professionals who work in them treat all manifestations of disability-related harassment and hate crime with the utmost seriousness. Too often, victims fail to report harassment and attacks, because they are unsure to whom they should report them, or because they feel that they will not be believed. Too often, when attacks are reported, the response of the professionals is to focus on the behaviour of the victim and how that should change. In other words, they focus on how victims should curtail their lives to avoid finding themselves in a situation in which they continue to experience harassment. That cannot be right. The priority must be to focus on the behaviour of the perpetrators, to challenge behaviour that is unacceptable, to deal appropriately with criminal behaviour and to take all necessary steps to prevent it occurring.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She has just made the point about people being subjected to patterns of harassment. Is she hearing from police officers that they are increasingly conscious that, when younger officers or officers who are new to an area produce a report and check the books, they find that that report is the latest in a series of reports about harassment being suffered by a particular individual? It is almost because a report forms part of a pattern that the police are inclined to say, “There is nothing we can do about it”, because nothing has happened about the previous reports. The police fail to appreciate the cumulative impact of this sort of antisocial behaviour and constant harassment. Such behaviour and harassment should be a call to action rather than a call to indifference.
That is an important point and I am sure that it is one that the police will also take note of. Too often there is an attitude that nothing can be done because the victim is disabled and there is scepticism about what disabled victims say. One shocking case, quoted in Katharine Quarmby’s book “Scapegoat”, was that of a blind woman who had been sexually assaulted, but the response of the police was that it was not possible to proceed with the case because, of course, she had not seen her attacker.
In its report, “Hidden in plain sight”, the EHRC has proposed a number of important measures to help to improve the situation. First, there must be leadership and ownership of the issue across all public bodies. This is not an issue simply for one arm of government. It cuts across central Government Departments, local government, the criminal justice system, the education system, health, housing, care, transport, employment and so on. Therefore, a signal from the Minister today of the seriousness with which the Government regard the issue will be important. However, warm words will not be enough. Disabled people want to know how Ministers will ensure that the issue remains a priority for ministerial attention across Government; what structures exist within Whitehall to focus attention and drive action; what accountability mechanisms will be put in place; how public institutions that fail to take action will be compelled to do so; and how Ministers will work with local government to ensure ownership of the issue at local level.
Secondly, such an approach must be informed and supported by the systematic gathering and monitoring of data that spell out the scale and severity of the problem, and by analysis of that data to support and direct policy makers’ attention to where action is needed. We know that there is significant under-reporting of harassment and abuse of disabled people, and there is a need to improve the recording and reporting of disability hate crime.
Radar has responded to that problem through its “Stop Disability Hate Crime” project, which is working with disabled people’s organisations and the authorities to develop a national independent disability hate crime reporting centre, which will provide minimum standards for other such centres, and raise awareness of disability hate crime and incidents and how to report them. The project also maps the disability hate crime third-party reporting sites that already exist or are being established. Also, a survey has been undertaken to find out why disabled people do not want to report disability hate crime and what would make them more confident to do so.
The Radar project is an important initiative and I hope that the Government will look carefully at the lessons that emerge from it, and at ways of strengthening the capacity of third-party hate crime reporting centres as a valuable way of increasing the incidence of reporting. Of course, it will be important that such centres follow minimum standards, but I know that all right hon. and hon. Members will welcome Radar’s work in that area and look forward to its report, which is due to be published early next year.
Thirdly, practice at the front line is, of course, vital to ensure that action is taken swiftly to respond to and prevent harassment or criminal attacks on disabled people. That requires the engagement, attention and effort of a range of public institutions. Crucially, those public institutions must work in partnership with each other and with disabled people to develop and to implement the right strategies to tackle disability hate crime. That partnership working can enable early identification of the patterns of behaviour that we have been discussing today, which is essential if problems are not to escalate. Today those patterns are too often missed, or cases are dealt with in isolation. As a result, the response of the authorities can be fragmented, inadequate or too slow.
In its 2009 report on the security of disabled people, the EHRC pointed out that a range of public authorities were not playing any preventive role: housing associations, social care providers, health care providers, the voluntary and community sector and local authorities. Too often, there is an inadequate response to incidents even when they are reported. That must change. Although there has been some progress in the response of the criminal justice agencies, action across the piece is needed and it is in that context that the Government’s action plan will be so important.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and bringing this matter to the Chamber today. Society is always measured by how it treats those who are less well-off, and that is true of individuals as well as of society as a whole. She has discussed a campaign that she hopes the Government will support. Does she feel that that campaign should not only be an England and Wales campaign but a campaign that goes to Scotland and Northern Ireland, too? If so, perhaps the catalyst to make that happen will come from this Chamber today. I ask the Minister to consider that point too in her response to the debate.
That is also an important point, and if there is good practice from which we can learn we will want to learn it in every part of the United Kingdom.
The Government’s action plan will need to include action on developing a better understanding of the motivations of perpetrators of disability hate crime, and of the interventions that are effective in changing such behaviour. It must be a priority to develop appropriate interventions that can be made in schools, which have already been mentioned, in the criminal justice system, through family and community programmes, and in other settings. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what analysis and action the Government are considering with regard to those interventions.
The action plan must also address the need for proper training of front-line professionals who may be required to recognise and respond to issues of disability-related harassment. Such training must include training in communication skills and understanding and recognising signals of abuse. I hope that the Minister will be specific today about the steps that the Government are taking to make progress on those matters and I look forward to hearing her response.
Before I conclude, I want to highlight one especially vulnerable group of victims—those people with learning disabilities who have experienced sexual violence or abuse. All too often in those cases, the perpetrator is a partner, a family member or a carer, so the attack is compounded by an abuse of intimacy and a breach of the victim’s trust.
A shockingly high proportion of women with learning disabilities have experienced sexual abuse. The problems that other victims of disability hate crime experience are magnified for these women by their not being believed, by professionals not knowing how to address the issue, and by abuse continuing and escalating over a long period, which happens all too often.
During the summer, I attended a conference with a group of learning disabled women to discuss the measures that are needed to address that form of abuse. The conference was jointly organised by the rape crisis centre in my own borough of Trafford, Salford university and Change, an organisation that is run by and for learning disabled people.
The learning disabled women present at the conference, who themselves were victims of sexual abuse, were absolutely clear about the action that is needed. I should say that they were also prepared to acknowledge that there have been improvements in parts of the criminal justice system, including better awareness among the police, greater understanding of their circumstances and their needs by the Crown Prosecution Service, and greater responsiveness from the courts. However, they also highlighted the need for specialist advice and support to be much more widely available. They spoke about a lack of access to health services and other support services, which happened for a number of reasons: sometimes because of discrimination, sometimes because of a lack of communication skills, and sometimes because they and other learning disabled women were not empowered to express their needs. They repeated that there was a need for training for front-line professionals, which they strongly suggested should be delivered by learning disabled women themselves. They identified an additional barrier that they faced, which was dealing with workers who did not have the confidence to deal with them as learning disabled women.
Women often want to use mainstream services where they can, but feel that the staff are often not equipped to support them. In her role as Minister with responsibility for disabled people, I hope that the hon. Lady takes these points up urgently with colleagues in the relevant Departments, and urges them to engage directly with learning disabled women in formulating Government policy.
I want to put on record my gratitude to the disabled people and their families who have taken the time to describe to me the deeply distressing, shocking and vicious attacks they have experienced, and how the system has sometimes let them down. I also want to thank the families of Keith Philpott and Gary Skelly, members of the Disability Hate Crime Network, Simon Green and Stephen Brookes, and the women I met at Change. Their stories of abuse, violence and in some cases death, have brought home to me that there remains a dark and primitive side to our attitudes to disabled people, which still too often manifests itself in harassment and criminal behaviour that simply cannot be tolerated in any civilised society. I am pleased that we are debating the issue this morning. It must not remain hidden in plain sight.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing this debate on a very important issue.
I, too, met the family of Gary Skelly on Monday, and we watched the 15-minute video they have put together as part of their FACE Facts campaign. Gary Skelly, a 53-year-old man who lived in Norris Green, Liverpool, was attacked just over a year ago—punched for no obvious reason, and killed. The perpetrator was sentenced to seven years for manslaughter, so, unfortunately, even the amendment that the hon. Lady and I have tabled to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill would not have given him the sentence I feel he deserved. What happened left the family not just bemused and confused, but greatly distressed. They simply could not understand what had happened to someone about whom they, and many in the community, cared greatly.
I consider myself relatively fortunate in Blackpool, in that I have an excellent third-party reporting centre and the Disability Hate Crime Network is very strong. The hon. Lady has already mentioned Stephen Brookes, one of my constituents, who helps up and down the land in ensuring that the fight to have this form of hate crime recognised is prosecuted as widely as possible. Yet I can still be shocked. About six months ago, a father and his son came to one of my constituency surgeries. The son, in his early twenties, had had a serious car crash a few years previously and now has a developmental learning disorder. He was trying to go to college, but faced abuse from neighbours and cat-calls as he walked there, and was now dropping out. I thought, “My word, even in Blackpool, where we are really trying, this is still occurring.” But what really shocked me most was that it was occurring not in my constituency, but in my own road, where I live, and had been going on for many months without my being aware of it, not 100 yards from my front door. Such incidents are hidden in plain sight, as the title of the Equality and Human Rights Commission report makes clear. It is probably happening in very close proximity to where we all live, and we might not be aware of it.
I want to focus today on an aspect of disability hate crime that does not yet get sufficient attention: the needs of many people with learning disabilities, who are subjected to what is increasingly being called mate crime. Why has it developed? Some 50 years ago, society’s answer for many people with learning disabilities was to shut them away out of sight—hide them away, so society did not have to confront them. Ensuring, rightly, that they live fulfilling lives in their local communities, participating in everything we all do, has put them at risk from a few ignorant individuals who do not understand what a learning disability is. That makes them vulnerable.
The hon. Lady mentioned the types of press coverage that we see. I welcome the fact that serious examples of disability hate crime are now being covered and referred to as such, but what we do not hear about every day is the so-called friend who relieves someone of a £10 note. That might not seem a particularly large crime, certainly not in financial value, but if a so-called friend of someone with a learning disability abuses their trust, that is a far greater crime, in human value, than if they were stealing £1 million. It is not just a financial crime; it is an attack on the person’s humanity and identity.
Something that the Skelly family stressed to me on Monday—indeed, we began the discussion by talking about it—was the labels that people put on others. Yes, society is very complex, and I am sure that we all find it difficult to deal with at times, but it is much more difficult for someone with a learning disability. We apply these labels to try to help ourselves to simplify the world around us and to help us to understand things that might be at the margins of our understanding, about which we know we ought to think in a particular way. We put the labels on them, then think we understand them. The labels are often the beginning of a prejudice—a way of assuming that someone acts in a certain way or that they are a particular way because of how they are. That is perhaps the most dangerous thing we do in our society. We cope with the people at the margins—people we do not quite understand—by just putting labels on them.
Two or three months ago, we heard about the sentencing of the murderers of Gemma Hayter, a lady in Rugby with a learning disability who had gone to visit her so-called friends and had been tied up, locked in a toilet, forced to drink her own urine, led to a railway line, wrapped in plastic bags and stabbed to death. Her attackers got the sentence they deserved, but sadly they could not face the 30-year tariff, which I believe such people should face, proposed in our amendment. That incident brought home to me the vulnerability of such people.
There are things that the Government can do, and I urge Ministers to consider them. It is vital that the Government take on board, as Mencap is requesting, the Law Commission proposals to extend the definition of harm to include exploitation, particularly financial exploitation. I hope that when we see a social care Bill, we can put the adult safeguarding boards on a statutory basis. Sadly, no organisational structure can stop evil occurring in a person’s head, but we can try to do something to ensure that when we identify people at risk, the different agencies involved are at least made aware of what is going on. If people are talking to people, and agencies are talking to agencies, we will at least have some hope that, just maybe, solutions can be found.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for securing the debate. Is he aware of a recent case in, I think, Bristol? A gentleman with learning disabilities went into a barbers, and the barber thought it amusing to shave “fool” on his head—an unbelievable story. I cannot remember the details, but the punishment was lamentably low.
I thank the hon. Lady for that classic example of how unfeeling and insensitive individuals can be. I hope that the punishment is that the local community boycotts that barber, because he does not deserve to have any customers if that is how he treats them.
A more fundamental issue that concerns me is that the Government are not approaching properly the philosophical status of day care centres. That might seem like a slightly abstruse point to make, but in many social services departments these days, the day care centre seems to be an unfashionable creation. Some want people to be out in the community all the time, as though a day care setting somehow denied them the right to be in the community. That concerns me greatly. For many people with a learning disability, particularly those of an older generation, a day care setting offers the very support network that so many of them crave, and in pursuit of which they often put themselves at risk from so-called friends.
I urge the Minister to consult with her colleagues to ensure that day care centres are not written out of the picture. We have an excellent one in Blackpool called the Rock Centre, which is indeed a rock for many in the community. Although the activities that people there engage in might not strike us as terribly meaningful—
I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to make a quick point; I very much support what he says. One challenge of disability and learning disability is that people in Whitehall and the professions often think that they know best. For the past 15 years, the direction of travel has been to reduce day care. I endorse totally what he says: for a lot of disabled people, particularly those with learning disabilities, the reduction in day care centres has reduced their quality of life. I support him in pushing the Minister to ensure that that understanding filters through to the professions and Whitehall.
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment and agree wholeheartedly. It struck me when I spoke to users of the Rock that they feel happy, fulfilled and, above all, safe and secure in that environment. That is surely what we want for the most vulnerable in society: that they feel safe and secure, that they are not placed at risk and, most importantly, that anyone who dares to presume that they can inflict their prejudices and their crippled attitude to human life on those vulnerable individuals feels the full force not just of the law but of the local community’s criticism and condemnation.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to follow the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who always speaks in an informed way. Today was no exception. I join him in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on obtaining the debate at an important time, and on her excellent speech. I hope that she will forgive me if I re-emphasise some of her points, each of which was well made.
Disability hate crime is a big issue, affecting about 60% of all disabled people in the UK. Within that number, people with learning disabilities are hugely affected: according to Mencap, nine out of 10 say that they have been bullied, harassed or harmed because of their impairment. I should declare that I am the joint chair, with Lord Rix, of the all-party parliamentary group on learning disability.
The recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report “Hidden in plain sight” suggested that disability harassment is so common that many have come to accept it as part of their everyday lives. The report also found that numerous agencies, including the police, the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service and local authorities, have failed to recognise disability hate crime and respond effectively when it happens.
Mencap’s “Stand by me” campaign aims to rectify the issue by encouraging police forces to give greater attention to disability hate crimes and promoting the need for Government to do more to achieve improvement. In June this year, I had the privilege of hosting a reception. I was delighted that the Minister was there, as I am always delighted when she is present. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), whom I am delighted to see back in a post to which she is eminently suited, feels equally welcome.
The Government committed to publishing a hate crime action plan, but there is no evidence of it yet, although it is essential if we are to achieve strategic direction and a co-ordinated approach to tackling hate crimes, such as those aggravated by disability. Sentencing is a key issue that has been raised. Recently, the Government announced their intention to equalise minimum sentences for murders aggravated by disability as part of schedule 21 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I welcome that strongly, of course, but it does not mean the end of the issue. Murder is just one part of a huge spectrum of abuse suffered by disabled people, and provision should be made to safeguard all disabled people who suffer any sort of disability hate crime.
Types of hate crime vary substantially, as we have heard. Murder and physical abuse are the most hard-hitting and widely publicised. However, name-calling and general harassment build up over time and can cause long-lasting psychological damage to the victim, as was seen in the case of Fiona Pilkington, who, sadly, killed her learning-disabled daughter and herself after years of abuse. Another, relatively recent phenomenon, referred to by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, is mate crime, in which perpetrators falsely befriend disabled people and exploit them financially, physically or sexually. Sentencing for disability hate crime should be comprehensive enough to safeguard against all those forms of crime.
The Government have also announced that they will reform section 146 of the 2003 Act, which imposes sentence uplifts for crimes aggravated by protected characteristics such as disability. Section 146 is widely unenforced: only 1,200 cases of disability hate crime have been prosecuted, compared with 48,400 racist and religious hate crimes. However, the Ministry of Justice has said that the Act will be updated so that where any offence is shown to be motivated by hostility towards the victim on the grounds of transgender, race, religion, sexual orientation or disability, sentences must be more severe. The implication is that the law will be strengthened so that courts “must” impose a sentence uplift, thus removing their discretionary power. Will the Minister clarify the situation? I would welcome that.
Another issue that must be addressed is the power of the Attorney-General to review sentences deemed unduly lenient. That power does not extend to sentences for disability-motivated offences, which creates an inconsistent picture in the legislation on disability hate crime. There is a possible implication that disability hate crime is not as much of a priority as other strands of hate crime such as race or religion, important though those are. Disability hate crime must be recognised as an equal issue across all forms of sentencing.
My right hon. Friend rightly highlights the fact that the Attorney-General can review lenient sentences for racial or religiously aggravated attacks, even where the offence is relatively minor, but the law insists that disability-aggravated crime may be reviewed only if it is most serious. Does that not essentially put the law and the Attorney-General in the Sepp Blatter position of saying, “Yes, it’s wrong, but it’s not really serious; it’s unacceptable, but it’s somehow understandable.”?
My hon. Friend’s point is salient and I am sure that we all take it on board. It is essential that the issues under discussion are dealt with as part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill; otherwise, the opportunity for disability hate crime to achieve the type of parity for which we are calling will pass.
What needs to happen? I acknowledge the Home Office directive on collecting figures on disability hate crime. That could achieve a better understanding of the national picture, taking in every part of the United Kingdom. However, more needs to be done to be proactive, even beyond that.
Police forces need better to understand disability, including learning disability, so that they can effectively support victims of disability hate crime. That includes flagging up repeat cases of disabled people being victims of abuse. Mencap’s police promise initiative, for example, encourages police forces to sign up to a list of pledges to show their commitment to tackling disability hate crime.
Courts and the criminal justice sector should employ special measures, as per the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s recommendations in the “Hidden in plain sight” report, better to accommodate disabled people. That includes effective support for witnesses, which can be crucial in so many cases.
It is also hugely important to tackle wider public attitudes about disabled people, as hon. Members have mentioned. There is a lot in the media about people being “benefit scroungers”, and disabled people are often deemed guilty by association, which breeds contempt among the public, some of whom perceive disabled people to be cheating the system to ensure that they get state handouts. That is wrong and unacceptable.
I again welcome the debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston on securing it. I strongly believe that we should face the issues and problems of sentencing and respond accordingly, and her debate today has given us a wonderful opportunity to focus on that.
It is an honour and a pleasure to take part in this debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and congratulate her on securing it. I was present in the main Chamber when she managed to secure the important concession from the Lord Chancellor on schedule 21 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I pay tribute to her and to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for their work. They will be glad to know that, as well as the Members present, those in another place, particularly Lord Touhig, have played a key part in changing the Government’s mind. We met the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), only some 10 days prior to that concession, to press the case on schedule 21, and I am delighted that the Government have moved so swiftly to regularise the position.
That, of course, gives rise to the question: why not move in other areas? Why not regularise the law so that disability hate crime is treated in the same way as an aggravated offence, as is the case with race or religion? That would require an amendment to primary legislation, and yes, I know it would be a big step, but it would be an important one. If we are making concessions elsewhere, we should regularise the law in that area as well. We treat equalities as a single concept now and we have an Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Surely moving beyond schedule 21 means that, as a society, we should ensure that we do not seem to treat disabled people as a people apart, almost saying that different attitudes, legislation and approaches are required for them. The more we treat disabled people like those of us who are not disabled, the more likely society as a whole is to follow that example and move away from treating them as almost subnormal or abnormal.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for dealing with a point that I was about to address and that has been alluded to by other Members. The focus needs to be shifted away from always analysing a case’s evidence by looking at the victim, and towards the wrongdoing and what the offender has done. That welcome shift of emphasis was displayed in guidance issued by the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecutors in England and Wales in March 2010. It is similar to the shift in focus that occurred some years ago in relation to domestic violence. People used to ask of the victim, “Why did she stay with him?”, instead of focusing on the behaviour of the perpetrator, which, I am glad to say, is what is now happening in cases of domestic abuse. The same must happen in relation to disability.
The danger we face in focusing on the victim and their behaviour is that in assuming that all disabled people are vulnerable just because of their disability, we start asking dangerous questions, such as, “Why don’t they avoid these situations? Why do disabled people put themselves in that position in the first place?” By asking those dangerous questions, we are at risk of driving disabled people back into their homes and into institutions, and away from mainstream society. That is wrong and I hope that today’s debate will give a clear message to the Government that we must avoid it. We are in danger of being as bad as the people in ages past who used to apply the dunce’s cap to disabled people in the classroom.
Such attitudes lead to other dangerous assumptions, such as that of some involved in the criminal justice system that disabled people are somehow unreliable or incredible witnesses, simply because of their disability. That is another dangerous and fatal assumption, which, I am afraid, has played far too great a part in the criminal justice system and has prejudiced and stopped cases involving disabled people. It has ended in miscarriages of justice involving disabled people.
I have mentioned the guidance, which was welcome. It followed a speech made by Lord Macdonald when he was Director of Public Prosecutions, which I think helped to clarify the CPS’s position and its understanding of disability. I welcomed his comments about the concept of hate. We have to be careful when using the word “hate”; we must make clear what it covers. The danger with the word is that hate is an extreme concept, so we think that there cannot be many people in our society capable of it. The definition, however, is a wider one, and includes hostility or prejudice. What does that mean? There are other words for hostility, such as unfriendliness, antagonism, meanness and sheer ignorance. That is particularly important when we consider that many acts are perpetrated over a long period. We have heard about many sad cases, both today and elsewhere, that involve the victims of a crime finally suffering the last straw that broke the camel’s back. It is important to remember that “hate” has a wide definition and involves a whole section of attitudes that I believe are bred from ignorance and sheer lack of understanding of the needs of disabled people. That leads to offences that take place on many levels; low-level offences can cause so much misery to the lives of disabled people.
We have been rightly reminded of the provisions of section 146 of the 2003 Act. To be fair to the drafters of that welcome provision, it says that the court “must” treat the fact that the offence was committed in an aggravating way when the offender, immediately at the time of the offence, or before or after it, demonstrated hostility based on the disability or presumed disability of the victim. The provisions are there; they are mandatory. The problem is with the previous stage, because there must be evidence of hostility beforehand, which is where the work of prosecutors becomes extremely important.
The guidelines include a welcome set of considerations that all prosecutors should consider when reviewing cases involving disability. They are the sort of factors that we have discussed today, such as previous incidents involving the victim and the offender. Are the incidents escalating in severity or frequency? Is the targeting becoming systematic and regular, rather than opportunistic offending? On the status of the offender, we have heard about so-called “friends” who befriend people and then manipulate the circumstances. A lot of proper questions are being asked in the guidelines. The key now is to ensure that in every case, those considerations are applied, looked at and checked in each case file.
Key actions could be taken now to help both prosecutors and sentencers. For example, section 146 should be flagged up as a consideration in every case file, so that when prosecutors assess and prepare the evidence, any sentencer is aware of it. In open court, the prosecuting solicitor or barrister should remind the court of their powers under section 146. Such nuts-and-bolts practical measures could see the sort of increase in the use of section 146 that was rightly referred to by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke), and which we all want to happen.
Court practitioners and judges need more training on disability issues, most notably the use of section 146. The key point that I found, depressingly, time and time again is that the equation between disability and reliability has to be broken. We have to break that link in the hearts and minds of those involved in the system.
In respect of the whole question of sentence uplifts, the ECHR report stated that sentence uplifts have never been applied to any prosecution of rape or sexual assault where the victim was a disabled person. Is the point about the question of unreliability of people as witnesses, which the hon. Gentleman has just made, a factor in that?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I will address his point directly. There is no doubt in my mind that prosecutors who face a case where the victim has disabilities feel that somehow the prosecution will be an uphill struggle. Far too often, the use of special measures is not considered as much as it should be. For example, in a case that I was involved in, a person with a moderate learning disability was the victim of a rape. Through the help of an intermediary, the person was able to give evidence through a video link and a conviction was secured. The intermediary was a speech and language therapist. She was not only able to give confidence to the victim, but was there to assist the court if there was any ambiguity or lack of clarity to the jury in what the victim was saying. It was a most encouraging exercise, not only in achieving a fair result, but in making sure that the voice of that person was heard.
The role of intermediaries should be expanded and encouraged, not viewed as an unusual event in our courts. I think that there was an instinctive suspicion among practitioners that somehow the use of an intermediary would dilute the victim’s evidence, or would in some way interfere with the process of giving evidence. Those concerns are unfounded. People should think of intermediaries as officers who help the court, rather than people who somehow manipulate or interfere with the evidence. That is not my experience, nor that of many other people who have successfully used intermediaries. To put it bluntly, if the intermediary had not been there to assist the witness in that very serious offence of rape, I do not believe that we would have secured a conviction. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point.
It has already been said that in the past four years, despite the fact that there are 10 million disabled people in the UK, only 1,200 cases of hate crime have been prosecuted. On the basis of a recent Scope survey, conducted in May 2011, that is an incredibly low figure. The survey revealed that almost 60% of disabled people had experienced hostility, aggression or violence due to their impairment, and that half of disabled people said that they experience hostility on at least a weekly basis. Almost 40% of disabled people said that hostility had got worse in the past year. If we extrapolate those figures, we see that millions of people are suffering in silence or, when their voice is heard, that the situation is not being effectively dealt with by the authorities.
We have come a long way since society wished to institutionalise disabled people and wholly shut them out from the mainstream, but we still have a long way to go to ensure that when disabled people, rightly, access mainstream life, they do not become vulnerable because of the circumstances in which they put themselves. We must all, as a society, stop asking these dangerous questions: why do they come out into the mainstream and why do they put themselves in those positions? Let us focus on the offender. Let us focus on the offending. With that approach, we can achieve real results in the field of disability hate crime.
I start by adding my congratulations to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on securing the debate. I recognise that she has long been a champion on the issue. As someone who sat on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill Committee, I welcome the Government’s announcement that they will table amendments in the House of Lords to offer disabled victims of crime the same protection as those who are targeted because of their race, religion or sexual orientation. The provisions were pushed for by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston and by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard).
Although I am particularly pleased to learn that the Government will be tabling those amendments, I hope that they will seek to build on experience north of the border. In 2010, Scotland became the first country in Europe to have specific disability hate crime legislation on its statute book. The Offences (Aggravation by Prejudice) (Scotland) Act 2009 makes provision for statutory aggravations that can be attached to offences motivated by prejudice towards disabled or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and requires courts to say what impact, if any, those aggravating factors have had on sentencing.
In Scotland, any criminal offence that is partly or wholly motivated by prejudice on such grounds is to be dealt with as a hate crime all the way through the system. For example, the offence could be assault, vandalism, verbal threats, abuse that could be charged as breach of the peace, or any other crime. If the person committing the offence uses disability-prejudiced language, or if there is any other evidence of a prejudiced motive, that makes it a hate crime. If anyone witnessing a crime thinks it was a hate crime, the police must record it as a hate incident. If there is any evidence of a hate motive—for example, prejudiced language—it will be charged as a hate crime. If the person charged is found guilty, the hate motive will be taken into account in sentencing, and the court must say publicly what difference the hate motive made to the sentence.
It is interesting to hear about the experience in Scotland, from which I am sure we can learn. I was very interested in what the hon. Gentleman said—that if anyone identifies the crime as a hate crime it must be treated as a hate crime. Is it not also important to recognise that although victims themselves often specifically exclude the possibility that it was a hate crime, that in itself should not be taken at face value, because there may be all sorts of pressures on them not to identify it as such?
I absolutely agree. In fact, the hon. Lady’s intervention feeds very nicely into my next point. Twenty years ago, when I was going through basic training as a police officer, racial incidents were going through the self-same process. When someone was the target of a racial incident and did not necessarily feel that it was one, the fact that someone else had witnessed the incident was sufficient to make it a racial incident. That was the test that I was taught to use 20 years ago. I have to admit that at the time it felt excessive, but it was only thus that such crimes and incidents became generally unacceptable. In that way, there was a move to general agreement that much of the racist language of the ’70s and ’80s, which was tolerated by the silent majority, was derisive and abusive. Such a move is required in attitudes to disability hate crime, and is massively overdue. I trust that the Minister will be able to assure us that the amendments that the Government have now promised to table in the Lords will go further and build on the experience in Scotland, affording a similar level of protection in England and Wales.
The announcement from the Government signals recognition, welcome to us all, of the need to tackle those despicable crimes. It is also heartening for me to help push forward the agenda that my predecessor in Edinburgh West worked on in the previous Parliament. Responding to a parliamentary question tabled by my predecessor, John Barrett, in April 2008, the then Home Office Minister, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said:
“The Home Office is responsible for the police recorded statistics. Statistics are collected on the number of racially or religiously aggravated offences but no information is available on those offences which are specifically ‘disability hate’ crimes.”—[Official Report, 29 April 2008; Vol. 475, c. 330W.]
I welcome what the Government have already done, specifically the coalition commitment to improve the recording of such crimes. Since April 2011, all police forces now report hate crimes centrally. Published data from the Association of Chief Police Officers show increases in the number of disability hate crimes reported in 2010—a 21.3% increase on the recorded figures in 2009. This must be one of the few areas where we can welcome a large increase in reported crime, as it shows that the push for people to report the crimes is having an effect.
I await the promised hate crime action plan and the Government response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry, but it is positive that the issue is finally receiving the attention that it deserves, although of course it is a shame that this or any Government have to tackle it at all. Such horrific cases as the killings of Brent Martin, Steven Hoskin or Fiona Pilkington should assault our consciousness as a decent society and daily remind us how serious the situation can become if left unchecked. As the Equality and Human Rights Commission noted in its “Hidden in plain sight” inquiry, we need to look at preventive strategies alongside any legislative changes, ensuring that we nip in the bud such attitudes and behaviours before they escalate. We also need to address the wider geographical, social and economic factors, identified in the Commission’s research, that can leave disabled people and others at greater risk.
A change of attitude in this country is vital. After all, it is not disabled people who create their oppression, it is others. As previously said, and as Sir Ken Macdonald so eloquently argued in one of his final speeches as Director of Public Prosecutions, we must overcome a prevailing assumption that disabled people’s intrinsic vulnerability explains the risk that they face, an assumption unsupported by evidence. At best, that had led to protectionism, constraining rather than expanding the individual freedom and opportunity that greater safety and security should provide. Only by extending the same expectations of safety and security to disabled people as to everyone else can we truly address the deficits in our current approach and wake up to the need to act. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on those points as well.
I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We are currently finishing an inquiry into independent living, which has looked at various aspects such as access to welfare, housing and employment and the differences in provision between different local authorities and nations. We have even had the Minister along recently to answer various questions about Government policy. However, I now realise that we have omitted investigation of a basic element. A constituent part of ensuring access to independent living is laid out in article 3 of the universal declaration of human rights:
“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and”—
crucially—“security of person.” What is clear from many of the dreadful examples that we have heard today is that that security is put at risk daily by the criminal acts of a few, which are unfortunately tolerated by many more.
As a member of the JCHR, I have also taken note of the EHRC’s endorsement of the mechanisms of the Human Rights Act 1998, which it says are essential for the protection of human rights in the United Kingdom. The EHRC also argues that the existing law is well crafted to balance Britain’s international obligations with its constitutional conventions. In particular, the existing Act preserves parliamentary sovereignty and the role of British judges in interpreting the legislation, and has allowed many people to exercise their basic rights without the time and expense of taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights. I hope that the Minister can reassure me and other members of the Joint Committee that any revision of the Human Rights Act will not change that crucial lifeline for those who are disabled.
In conclusion, I welcome the issue finally receiving the attention it deserves. I await further concrete steps by the Government to deal with this hidden crime.
Thank you, Mr Gray, for allowing me to speak. I appreciate that it is far more important for the Chamber to listen to the Front Benchers, so I shall be very brief, which is a challenge, because I feel strongly about the subject. I have been very impressed by the speeches today, in particular those from my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) and for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart). I want to focus on one area only.
What is incredibly important around disability hate crime is the use of language and how we approach it. I do not believe that Whitehall knows best. I shall give the Chamber a quick example to ponder. I remember a good friend of mine who is a wheelchair user telling me a few years ago the reason he hated being patronised far more than he hated someone being angry with or unpleasant to him. When he was patronised he felt shamed, and he did not know how to respond, which is perfectly normal. If I am patronised, even though I know the person is wrong, I feel shamed—that is human nature. He gave an example of being ignored in a restaurant, but his partner, who is not in a wheelchair, was addressed—he would feel that sense of shame. He said, “The thing is, Stephen, even though I did not like either, the advantage of when someone is unpleasant is that I feel angry, and that gives me a sense of empowerment.”
That point might be a little counter-intuitive within such a brief discussion, but my real point is that I want the Government and all politicians across the piece who feel so strongly about the issue to be intelligent about it. We do not want to go back to what we had many years ago, when disabled people were seen only as victims, which was counter-productive and appalling. Disabled people have fought hard over the past 15 years to stop that. I want the Government to take it on board that this is about listening to how disabled people want them to deal with hate crimes. That will help them to achieve a much more productive and sensible way forward to nail this, rather than ever going back down the road of saying, “You poor disabled person, you are a victim and you just need protecting.” That is not what the disability fight has been all about. Lord knows, I know, because I have been with it for 20 years.
I am delighted to be in the Chamber under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I have known you for more years than either of us cares to remember, so it is a pleasure to find ourselves in this situation this morning.
I echo the remarks of others and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on initiating this important debate. I thank other colleagues—my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) and the hon. Members for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) and for South Swindon (Mr Buckland)—for their powerful comments. I also thank colleagues from Northern Ireland who participated in the debate. The question was asked about this being a UK issue; it is definitely a UK issue. Indeed, the Equality and Human Rights Commission report makes recommendations for the devolved Administrations, which I hope they will be able to pursue.
As others in the Chamber have said, it is to our collective shame as a society that we are having to consider such a report 11 years into the 21st century. We are supposed to be committed to a road map for equality for disabled people, yet we are considering a document that highlights the antagonism, harassment, assault and even murder inflicted on those whose only crime was that they were disabled and were therefore seen as a legitimate target by those who sought to harm them.
It is difficult to read the report without becoming angry about the fact that, after the passing of two disability discrimination Acts, an equality Act, the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission, which is now the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the signing and ratification of the UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities, the Autism Act 2009, the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998, and the introduction of public sector duties, our society still sees disabled people being abused daily and regularly becoming victims of violent crime. That is the picture that has been presented to us in the report.
The lessons are stark. For example, public authorities such as police and social services have often been aware of harassment of individuals, but no action has been taken. Even when the harassment escalates, it is often the case that little effective action is taken to protect the disabled person, which often results, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston said, in an escalation of the victimisation of the disabled person. When action has been taken, it has often been unco-ordinated, with little exchange or intelligence sharing among those public authorities that were duty-bound to be part of the support network for the disabled person.
As has been alluded to, research shows that some 60% of disabled people have been the victim of some sort of hostility, violence or aggression from strangers. As the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys said, there is increasing awareness that some disabled people are victimised and abused by people who are known to them. To echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, it is particularly worrying that, according to Mencap, nine out of 10 people with learning disabilities have experienced such abusive behaviour, and there is evidence to suggest that such behaviour is on the increase. I will come to that later.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston said, the Equality and Human Rights Commission report says that disabled people are more likely to be victims of crime than non-disabled people. That reflects a pattern of disadvantage for disabled people in many spheres, including education, health outcomes and access to services. More worrying—I hope that we do not lose sight of this point—is the fact that many disabled people have come to accept that that is an unwelcome but almost inevitable part of their daily lives. What a devastating indictment it is that we have disabled citizens who believe that abuse and harassment, or worse, come with the territory and are things they must put up with.
I congratulate Mike Smith, lead commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry, who was extremely challenging in his foreword to the report. His words are worth quoting:
“For me, two things come out of this inquiry that are far more shocking than the 10 cases that we cover in more detail, awful as they are. The first is just how much harassment seems to be going on. It’s not just some extreme things happening to a handful of people: it’s an awful lot of unpleasant things happening to a great many people, almost certainly in the hundreds of thousands each year.”
That echoes the experience of the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, which is that even someone with his awareness found out that someone in his street was being abused. Mike Smith’s second point was that
“no one knows about it. Schools don’t know how many disabled pupils are bullied; local authorities and registered social landlords don’t know how many antisocial behaviour victims are disabled; health services don’t know how many assault victims are disabled; police don’t know how many victims of crime are disabled; the courts don’t know how many disabled victims have access to special measures”
and so on. That is the picture that Mike Smith paints today.
Although the cases are horrible individually, collectively they are truly horrific. Michael Gilbert was a young man with an undiagnosed mental health condition whose dismembered body was found near Luton. He was murdered after years of torture by the Watt family. He had been in contact with police on various occasions, but was never afforded the protection he deserved. Steven Hoskin was a 38-year-old with learning disabilities who was found dead at the bottom of a 100-foot railway viaduct in St Austell, Cornwall. He had been tortured for years before his death, and suffered various
injuries inflicted upon him by people he knew. He had been tied up, dragged round by a lead, imprisoned, burned with cigarettes, humiliated, and violently and repeatedly abused in his own home.
One would think that going to the hairdresser was a safe activity for a disabled person. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston raised this matter and said that a young man did a normal thing and went to a hairdresser, but the hairdresser thought he would have a bit of fun at that young man’s expense. Something that links back to the comments of the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) is the fact that although we may believe that the sentence was not adequate—I believe it was 200 hours of unpaid work, compensation and court costs—the magistrates increased it by using section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which allowed tougher sentences for disability hate crimes. Police, prosecutors and magistrates won praise for the way they co-ordinated their action and used that provision. A little light was shed on the situation.
I ask the Minister to address the Government’s responsibilities concerning the environment in which disabled people live their lives. We have heard a great deal about the cultural environment in which we work, and we have heard about the Scope report. We have not heard about the second part of the report, but it says that 65% of disabled people thought that others did not believe that they were disabled, and 73% thought that others presumed that they did not work.
Leaving aside the debate on whether the Government are on the right track with their welfare reform—that is for another Chamber and another time—the daily feeding to the media of press releases and distortion of figures, and the calling into question whether people really are disabled, has changed the landscape for disabled people. Glasgow university’s monitoring report showed a dramatic increase in the number of media articles related to disability fraud. When its focus group was asked for a disability story, it typically came up with benefit fraud. Is it any wonder that we are seeing cases such as the one reported last week in South Shields, where Peter Greener, a wheelchair user with a brain condition, suffered months of taunts about being a benefit scrounger, stone throwing and harassment by his neighbour, who thought he was exaggerating his disability?
We have heard stories about the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions being enraged when he was told by his Department that no precise figures for the number of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who receive free cars were available. The paper concerned had to correct the story the following week, at the prompting of not the Department, but a disability organisation. It does not help disabled people to live their lives when statements are made that disability living allowance is available just by filling in a form. The Minister knows, and I know, that that is not a true picture.
I say with the greatest respect—I exempt the Minister from making such outrageous comments; she has conducted the debate with a measured approach—that she should challenge some of the more outrageous and outlandish comments by some of her senior colleagues, because they are creating an atmosphere that is to the greater disadvantage of disabled people, and that causes fear and uncertainty in their lives.
We can have the debate about welfare reform, but we must ensure that the language—the hon. Member for Eastbourne referred to this—with which we discuss these issues is that of moderation, which recognises that people have their own dignity, and that they are entitled to be treated with dignity and not be encapsulated in some cheap media headline.
I appreciate that the Minister has a very short time in which to respond. I look forward to that response and congratulate her and other colleagues on allowing us to have this important debate.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I commend the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for securing this debate. It has given us all an opportunity to focus on this issue in what has been an extremely informed, lively and useful debate.
I will try to respond to as many issues as possible in the time that I have available. There is a great deal of ground to cover. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) put his finger on the issue when he said that we need to change attitudes, as we saw happen for the victims of domestic violence. That brought home to me the issue that we need to deal with here. I absolutely agree with what he said.
In 2008, the then Director of Public Prosecutions said something that many hon. Members would agree with: the issue of disability hate crime is a scar on the conscience of the criminal justice system. It is important that we recognise, both within the House and outside, the magnitude of the problem that we face. Any form of discrimination against disabled people is absolutely unacceptable. Hate crime is a particularly disgusting and disgraceful abuse of disabled people, which has no place in civilised society. Working with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations and raising awareness through debates such as today’s is a way of trying to continue to change attitudes, which was a theme in hon. Members’ contributions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) talked about the importance of the way in which we handle this matter. He made the important point that disabled people do not want to be treated as victims. Our starting point must be that disabled people have to be absolutely clear that they are adequately protected by the law. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston wanted to know about practical things that the Government are doing now. She is absolutely right that warm words are not enough, so I will cut straight to the quick.
We have made a commitment in our coalition agreement to improve recording, and we are delivering on that. I do not need to rehearse with the hon. Lady the work that we are doing in that area. We have also supported the work that Radar is doing to improve reporting across the country, and I am pleased that one of our staff from the Office for Disability Issues has been seconded to help in that work. We are also working with the Association of Chief Police Officers to ensure that it is doing all it can. We have heard from hon. Members today that there are more than 1,500 recorded disability hate crime offences. I think that that is the tip of the iceberg and we need to continue to work hard on that.
Several hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke), the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart), raised the issue of sentencing. I will take a couple of minutes to dwell on that, because it is complex. We have heard that we can perhaps learn something from Scotland, for which I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West. We are committed to ensuring that everybody has the freedom to live their lives free from the fear of targeted hostility or harassment on the grounds of a particular characteristic, including disability. On section 146, undue leniency and aggravating factors—issues that hon. Members have raised today—we are absolutely open to looking at how the law is working in practice, particularly around section 146 and any inconsistencies by the court. We are always looking at evidence that suggests that courts consider their powers insufficient to deal with such cases.
We will be considering carefully the recommendations of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and we will respond to them. I am pleased to note that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), has already met Mencap and the National Autistic Society to discuss these matters in detail. I want to go one stage further for the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston to underline my concern and commitment to ensure that we see action. I will undertake to meet the Under-Secretary of State for Justice and also Mencap and any other organisations that have an interest to ensure that we are delivering not just warm words but action in this area.
Hon. Members have noted the important progress that we have made with regard to sentencing. They may be interested to know that in September I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice to underline the need for change to resolve the issues around schedule 21. I was pleased that the Secretary of State for Justice was able to confirm the Government’s intention to publish amendments in the other place, so that murders motivated by hostility towards disabled people will have the same sentencing starting point of 30 years as those aggravated by race, religion and sexual orientation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) made an extremely impassioned contribution to the debate. I welcome his insight. He raised the issue of mate crime. Mencap’s work in this area has been extremely helpful. Crimes targeted at disabled people by friends, relatives and carers are a significant challenge for the criminal justice agencies and the Government. I reassure him that the issue is seen as a priority.
I was pleased to see Mencap’s “Stand by Me” charter. It is something that individual police forces and chief constables are able to support, and I encourage them to do so. Recognising hate crime and improving its reporting must be a continued priority. We have 19 organisations that work to support victims of hate crime. We have made sure that additional funding is available for the work that they do. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys referred to the organisation that I met with him in Blackpool and the excellent work that it does with the support of Stephen Brookes. I want to reiterate his comments.
Other hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), raised the issue of devolution and the importance of a UK-wide approach. Perhaps he will be reassured to know that the ACPO lead on hate crime is a Northern Ireland police officer. Although there are devolved issues in terms of crime and justice, ACPO is ensuring that we are all working closely together.
Hon. Members will know that the Equality and Human Rights Commission published its report in September. On the back of that report, I took the opportunity to write to relevant Ministers to underline my support for its work and to highlight the requirements of the public sector equality duty, which must be considered in their response. The recommendations are being considered at the moment and will be reflected in the cross-government action plan, which I am sure hon. Members will be pleased to know will be published early next year. It was important that we had the EHRC report to reflect on first.
I have demonstrated that there has been absolutely no pause in the work of the Government to tackle disability hate crime while the action plan is being considered. Indeed, action across Government continues to be critical, which is an issue that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston raised. I want to reassure her that we have important structures in place around the independent advisory group, which continues to advise across Government. We are also about to engage in a major new piece of work to look at how we can change attitudes towards disabled people, which was at the heart of much of today’s debate. Over the next few months, I look forward to working with disabled people on those issues.
The right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) mentioned the portrayal of disabled people in the media. She and I are as one on this.
Public Service Broadcasting (North-East)
It is a pleasure and an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am pleased to have secured this debate, and I have a significant interest to declare. I recall Mike Neville explaining to me personally, or so it seemed at the time, what the posh word for a Geordie was: a Novocastrian. I remember learning the points of the compass—north, east, west and south—from the “Look North” weather map, before I was old enough to own a compass of my own.
Clearly, however, public service broadcasting in the north-east is about more than the memories of one Member of Parliament; it is an important part of the identity, culture and economy of the region. In its 2009 review, Ofcom set out the purpose of public service broadcasting, which included:
“To reflect and strengthen our cultural identity through original programming at UK, national and regional level.”
It characterised public service broadcasting:
“High quality—well-funded and well-produced; original—new UK content rather than repeats or acquisitions; innovative—breaking new ideas or re-inventing exciting approaches; challenging—making viewers think; engaging—remaining accessible; and widely available,”
so that a large majority of citizens have the chance to watch it. Will the Minister clarify whether he stands by those purposes and characteristics of public service broadcasting? If he does, will they continue to apply to public service broadcasting in the north-east after the current round of BBC cost cutting?
The purpose and characteristics of public service broadcasting are also enshrined in the BBC’s duties, and include:
“To reflect and strengthen cultural identities.”
The BBC, however, is not the only public service broadcaster; ITV, Channel 4 and Channel Five must also meet public service broadcasting requirements. My concerns about the future of public service broadcasting in the north-east therefore apply to private sector broadcasters as well as to the BBC. In addition, all broadcasters are subject to the broadcasting code, which also recognises the importance of regional and local identity.
In his reply to my letter expressing the dismay of my constituents at the portrayal of Newcastle in “Geordie Shore,” Chris Woolard, group director of Ofcom, explained that cities could complain about how they were portrayed and that their individual identity should be recognised. However, despite long-standing lip service to the importance of regional identity and public service broadcasting, we have seen a steady diminution in its quality and availability in the north-east. The BBC now proposes further cuts in its “Delivering Quality First” consultation, and it is not an exaggeration to say that such cuts threaten the existence of public service broadcasting in the north-east.
In the past, commercial companies such as Tyne Tees Television were often the greatest champions of local culture and regional identity, by giving a platform to local music and drama, holding local politicians to account, and providing children’s programmes, educational, artistic or comedy programmes—indeed, programmes of every genre. Local BBC stations would cover news, sport, politics and documentaries, and support locally produced drama, resulting in a wide and diverse range of programming. I remember watching “When the Boat Comes in”, “The Tube”, “The Likely Lads”, “Razamatazz”, “Northern Life”, “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet” and many other great examples of local content, as well as listening to a wide range of local radio programming. As well as reflecting regional culture back on ourselves, such diversity helped build local skills, thereby supporting a regional industry that provided high-quality jobs, and train the next generation of broadcasters.
Unfortunately, following consolidation in the television and broadcasting industry, and in the face of rising competition and falling revenues, regional commercial broadcasting has been much weakened. In 2009, Ofcom further reduced regional broadcasting requirements on commercial public service broadcasters. Some support for local television used to be available through Northern Film and Media, funded by the Film Council and the regional development agency, but the Government have now cut that support.
It is not therefore surprising that this summer, in Ofcom’s latest assessment of the state of public service broadcasting, the criterion
“reflecting and strengthening our cultural identity”
scored the lowest marks ever. Only a third of viewers think that public service broadcasting channels do well in
“portraying my region well to the rest of the UK,”
and in providing
“programmes about my region or nation.”
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate; she is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that at a time when the north-east is suffering dreadfully from the economic downturn, it is particularly important that regional broadcasting is able to produce documentaries to show people, both in the region and elsewhere, what is happening? Regional broadcasting can also help to build on a lot of the good that exists in an area, and provide a good and balanced picture. Simply lumping the north-east with other northern areas will not do.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One great strength of regional broadcasting is that local broadcasters understand what is happening in a region such as the north-east, and can go further in identifying issues that are relevant to local people. That is especially true in the north-east at this difficult time. Media outside the north-east have a tendency to portray the area in negative terms—perhaps rightly given the disproportionate cuts that the area is experiencing—but that does not reflect the strengths and the entrepreneurial spirit that is a feature of north-eastern culture.
Against that background, the BBC has proposed the implementation of further drastic cuts to regional provision. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has said that he is keen to support local television, but his proposals are—to be kind—not yet viable and not without controversy. There are major gaps in coverage—the city of Durham, for example, will have no local television coverage—and even in the best possible scenario, local services will not be running until after 2015. Does the Minister think that those local TV services will be complementary to regional public service broadcasting, or is he happy to weaken regional broadcasting on the basis that local TV will replace it?
If we accept the purposes and characteristics of public sector broadcasting as set out by Ofcom and if we consider the reductions in commercial regional broadcasting, the cuts to public support for local talent and the limitations of the local TV proposals, there can be no doubt that the existence of regional public sector broadcasting depends on BBC funding. However, the BBC cuts include, among other things, a 40% cut in investigative programming.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. In the past, I might have complained that Darlington, in the south of the north-east, did not get its fair share of attention in regional output. That can only become more of a problem if the north-east is put together with places such as Crewe, Sheffield, Hull and Lancaster. Great as they are, they have nothing at all to do with what it is like to live in the north-east.
On investigative journalism, first-class work has been done by people in the north-east. I am thinking of issues such as that involving Southern Cross. That is particularly pertinent to me because the company is based in Darlington.
My hon. Friend makes two excellent points. The first is that it is important to reflect the rich diversity within a region. The north-east is diverse, but it is much harder to reflect that diversity when we are looking at extended supra-regions that may cover half the country. Secondly, it is very important that investigative journalism has the scale and presence locally to be able to identify issues of great significance to local people’s lives, such as Southern Cross, and to be able to invest the right local resources in tracking down the causes of the issues and ensuring that people are made aware of them. Therefore, the cuts to investigative journalism in the north-east are particularly worrying. “Inside Out” is the last remaining dedicated in-depth regional programme on British TV, and the North East and Cumbria edition has won Royal Television Society awards for the last six years running. However, it faces cuts that will see it lose 40% of its staff.
The BBC also proposes 20% staff cuts to local radio stations. That is about 10 jobs each in Newcastle and Tees. It means that programming will be shared across the entire north-east in the afternoons and across the whole of England in the evenings.
Before the hon. Lady leaves the investigative journalism issue, I want to reinforce the point that she is making. Very few other organisations have the investigative journalist staff who can maintain the contacts and have sufficient local knowledge to do the kind of work that the BBC’s “Inside Out” team has been doing.
The right hon. Gentleman makes the excellent point that the investigative journalism supported by the BBC is essential to our ongoing understanding of what is happening in our region so that we can get to the bottom of many of the issues that will not be raised by national media.
I emphasise that cuts to local radio will have a disproportionate effect on older people. Many of them look to local radio for a sense of connection with their community. Ofcom has shown that older people are more likely to listen to the radio at least five days a week, with almost nine in 10 of those aged over 55 doing so. More than a third of Radio Newcastle’s listeners are over 65.
The BBC also envisages a two-thirds cut in local weather presenters. Given the almost sacred position that the weather holds in the national as well as the regional psyche, the end of local weather reporting for much of the day seems deliberately designed to undermine local identity. It is ironic that the cuts are taking place as the BBC is moving many areas of coverage to BBC North in Manchester. We welcome the BBC’s attempts to extend its presence from the capital, but I hope that the Minister does not need me to point out to him that for my constituents, Manchester is a long way south. Apparently, when Caroline Thomson, the BBC’s chief operating officer, visited Newcastle recently, she was surprised to learn that it takes longer to get from Newcastle to Salford than it does to get from Newcastle to London; I am sure that the Minister is more familiar with the public rail network. I hope that he would agree that MediaCity, welcome though it is, should not be an excuse for reducing provision in the north-east. Equally, although I appreciate that “Tracy Beaker” and “Inspector George Gently” are made in the north-east, that is not an excuse for withdrawing quality investigative journalism.
At the meeting of the all-party group on the BBC on 3 November, Mark Thompson admitted that the proposed cuts take regional coverage to a bare minimum. Is that what the Minister wishes for public service broadcasting in the north-east? As it is, BBC audience appreciation levels fall the further we go from London and the south-east.
I therefore hope that the Minister will tell me whether he supports the objectives and characteristics of public service broadcasting as set out by Ofcom. Will he confirm that local TV proposals are not a justification for diminishing regional TV? Will he confirm that the people of the north-east should be able to expect quality and representation in regional broadcasting? Will he agree to do all he can to ensure that the BBC does not further undermine public service broadcasting in the north-east? The Minister may argue that that is the responsibility of the BBC and Ofcom. But it is he who is accountable to the people of the north-east for culture and media in the north-east.
Public service broadcasting in the north-east must be high quality, well funded, well produced, original, innovative, challenging, engaging and widely available programming that reflects and strengthens our regional cultural identity. That requires a minimum level of provision, and the proposed BBC cuts take us well below that. I hope that the Minister can promise the survival of good-quality public service broadcasting in the north-east.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, for what I think is the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on securing this important debate on public service broadcasting in the north-east. I think that I have said this before, but I will say it again: she is a doughty champion for her constituents and for her region. She certainly does not need to convince me that Newcastle and the rest of the north-east are great places to live and work. I spent my summer holiday last year in Newcastle. This year, I did not have a summer holiday, but last year, when I did, it was in Newcastle. I also spent new year in Newcastle. I am a regular visitor to the Sage in Gateshead. The transformation of Newcastle and Gateshead in using culture to create almost from scratch a vibrant £1 billion a year tourism and inward investment industry is a great beacon to the rest of the UK. It is no surprise that on 5 December the Turner prize ceremony—I think that it will be televised—will be held at the BALTIC centre for contemporary art in Gateshead. Obviously, I do not have the extensive knowledge of the area that the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends have, but she certainly does not need to convince me of its merits.
We watched the same programmes when we were growing up. I fondly remember watching with my late father “When The Boat Comes In”, with James Bolam. It was the Vaizey family’s favourite programme. I am delighted to see that James Bolam’s career has gone from strength to strength. I now watch him regularly in “Grandpa In My Pocket” with my five-year-old and three-year-old. Of course, “The Tube” also did so much to forge our cultural identity.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central invites me to endorse the purposes of public service broadcasting, as set out by Ofcom. Given the tone in which she did so, I could not help but feel that she was somehow setting a trap for me, but I can see no reason not to endorse the purposes of public service broadcasting. Perhaps she invites me to—
I simply want to assure the Minister that no trap was intended when I invited him to endorse the important principles behind the purposes and characteristics of public service broadcasting. They are incredibly important at a time when the BBC’s actions would seem to undermine them.
As the hon. Lady rightly pointed out in her speech, it is not just the BBC that is a public service broadcaster, but ITV, Channel 4 and Channel Five. If she will allow me to go slightly off-piste, it is important to say that the Government have a communications review under way, and we hope to publish a Green Paper early next year. In it, we will discuss the future of public service broadcasting, but it is certainly our intention, in principle, to maintain the public service broadcasting principles. It is interesting—I say no more that, and I hope Members will not read anything more into my words—to have a debate about the future of public service broadcasting in a digital age, when we have multiple digital channels and the internet. Our initial thinking is certainly that public service broadcasting remains an extraordinarily important cornerstone of UK content throughout the country, and we intend to reinforce the purposes of public service broadcasting in the Green Paper.
Most of the hon. Lady’s remarks focused on the BBC and the cuts it is making as a result of the licence fee settlement. Obviously, I will put the positive case for what the BBC is doing. In the recent debate on local radio, which was well attended, with more than 50 colleagues present, I was intrigued to find myself being assailed by Labour Members for being a defender of the BBC, which is perhaps an unusual position for a Conservative Minister to be in. However, I will bow to no one in my defence of the BBC; it is the cornerstone of public service broadcasting in this country, and we are lucky to have it. It does a superb job. In fact, its commercial rivals—I am talking about not only Sky, but ITV, Channel 4, Channel Five and, indeed, some of the newspapers—express concerns to the effect that the BBC does its job almost too well, making it harder for them to make a living.
The BBC therefore does a fantastic job, but everyone is having to make savings, and when families up and down the country are trying to manage their budgets, this is not the right time substantially to increase the BBC licence fee. What the BBC does have, which no other media company in this country really has—indeed, very few media companies around the world have this—is certainty over its funding until March 2017. That is an important asset for the BBC, and it means that it can plan ahead. Let us not forget that the BBC also receives additional income because of the success of BBC Worldwide.
The BBC is therefore well funded, but it is having to make savings. As we know from the debate about local radio, which focused on the proposals in “Delivering Quality First”, the BBC is looking to make savings of about 10% in local radio, if we take into account the cuts and the fact that the BBC wants to put more money back into programming. In that debate, I defended the BBC’s approach in “Delivering Quality First”, because I felt—and I still feel—that it has taken a strategic approach, and some of the changes that it proposes for local radio are based more on quality than cost cutting.
I must tell the hon. Lady and her colleagues, however, that that debate had a significant impact. I am not privy to the BBC’s thinking or to any changes that it might be thinking of making, but I assure them that I think the BBC has listened to the concerns that were raised. I do not know what changes, if any, it plans to make, but it is certainly legitimate for hon. Members to raise such concerns, and I am pleased that the hon. Lady attended the meeting with Mark Thompson and Lord Patten, when they came to the House to discuss these issues.
On the specific changes in the north-east, my understanding is that there are no plans to stop providing an “Inside Out” edition for the north-east. There will be savings in that programme strand, because this is a regional programme that goes out across the country in different regional variations. That means that there will be a smaller team, and more items in specific programmes might be shared.
On local radio, my understanding is that Newcastle and Tees will have to share a programme on weekday afternoons. The hon. Lady also mentioned the weather report, and I agree that it is an important part of public service broadcasting. There will still be a specific evening weather report, but it is true that the BBC is planning to pre-record the weather report for the early-morning and lunchtime broadcasts on local radio and regional television.
The BBC has had to make some tough decisions, but it has done so in a way that shows that it wants to provide the best possible service for every region in the country. I think the BBC takes its regional responsibilities very seriously, and I certainly know from my conversations with the director-general over the years that he absolutely feels in his bones the need for the BBC to be a service for every licence payer, wherever they live in the United Kingdom, and he would be wary of any proposals that undermined that.
The hon. Lady mentioned the Government’s proposals for local television, and she raises a good point. She mentioned concerns that local television might not be up and running until after 2015. We hope to have the first 20 stations launched in 2012, but if I am wrong about that, I will write to her to correct myself. I also understand—again, if I am wrong, I will write to her to correct myself—that Newcastle and Middlesbrough are among the locations that were consulted over the summer about the local TV framework and potential locations. An announcement will be made just before Christmas on where Ofcom intends to advertise local television licences.
Local television is potentially a revolution in public service broadcasting. It is there to complement the existing public service broadcasting framework, not to replace it. It is there to fill the gap that the Secretary of State felt very keenly, and which he worked on in opposition. Funnily enough, too many regional programmes, which many hon. Members have rightly defended in recent months, are still not local enough, and the Government think audiences would welcome ultra-local television.
On the other investment going into the north-east, the BBC has an impact fund, which is designed specifically to fund programmes in the regions, and it has funded 13 programmes in the north-east over the past two years.
The hon. Lady mentioned changes in the regional development agencies and in Northern Film and Media. I am delighted that Creative England has now been launched under the exemplary leadership of Caroline Norbury, and it has now received £5 million from the regional growth fund. It will maintain a presence in all the regions, and it will work with Northern Film and Media to ensure that investment opportunities exist for local independent production companies, video games companies and all the other high-tech companies that are so successful in the north-east.
One issue we have not covered, and which I often mention—this was an achievement of the previous Government, and I am happy to credit them with it—is the explosion in community radio, which was brought about by the Communications Act 2003. There are now more than 200 local community radio stations across the country, and I am sure many are also thriving in the north-east.
We still have regional quotas for all the public service broadcasters. When I talk to independent production companies in the north-east, they are keen to impress on me the importance of those quotas in ensuring that programmes are commissioned around the country.
The hon. Member for Darlington (Mrs Chapman) is now yawning, and the clock is flashing, showing that the debate is about to end. Those are strong signals that I have made the points I need to make and that it is time for me to sit down and conclude the debate.
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair for this important debate, Mr Streeter. I know that we are competing against an Opposition day debate in the main Chamber and the appearance of Mr Patrick Vieira, so it is particularly good to see many hon. Members present. The subject matters to Members from all parties in the House. It is good to see at least four parties represented here already, with possibly a fifth quite soon.
I should declare an interest at the outset in that, like many hon. Members present, I am a member of a local credit union—in my case, United Savings and Loans, in Hampshire. I also chair the all-party group on credit unions, whose secretariat is provided by the Association of British Credit Unions Ltd.
The debate is timely, and that timeliness is to do with the making earlier this month of a legislative reform order that will come into effect in January. It is a key milestone enabler for the credit union sector that will boost the ability of credit unions to improve financial inclusion right across the piece. There are other timely aspects, such as the Government’s recent announcement on the modernisation fund and the exciting possibility of linking up credit unions with the post office network. More broadly, the debate is timely also because of the focus that we have these days on debt at all levels—national, corporate and individual—and because of the desire to re-encourage a culture of savings at a time when 4 million households in the country have no savings at all.
Several related debates are taking place within Parliament, such as on capping the cost of credit, debt management companies and credit brokerage. While those are not debates for today, I would not be surprised if hon. Members brought up aspects of them.
Credit unions have a huge growth opportunity in this country. The sector has already seen substantial and rapid growth over the past decade—between 200% and 300%, depending on which measure we choose. The growth fund, which was introduced under the previous Government, was a big part of that growth. There had already been substantial momentum for growth, but the growth fund also enabled credit unions to reach out to a new category of clients and members. Credit unions in Britain now have more than 800,000 adult members and more than 100,000 junior savers.
However, on an international level, membership penetration of the population by credit unions in this country remains small—a low, single-digit percentage, compared with almost a third in the United States and Australia, and almost half in Ireland. Before I am corrected, I should say that when I talk about credit unions in Britain being small, I am referring to Britain, not the United Kingdom, because in Northern Ireland, as in the Republic of Ireland, credit union penetration is massively higher than it is in England, Scotland and Wales. Globally, there are some 53,000 credit unions, with 188 million members across 100 countries. This model is not some newfangled idea or experiment; it has a great international, long-term record.
We are here to talk specifically about credit unions and financial inclusion. It is important to note that when we talk about financial inclusion or exclusion, the subject is not quite as binary as those terms suggest. It is not that someone is either included or excluded, but that there is a scale in between. No one has no access to any financial service whatever. The scale runs from one end—people trading derivatives on personal accounts—to the other, which is people borrowing money from the sort of lender whose idea of a late-payment penalty is a cigarette burn to the forearm. The question is not whether someone is absolutely included or excluded, but what sort of financial services they can access and at what cost.
A great deal of progress has been made on the entry level of financial inclusion, which is having a transactional bank account. In 2002-03, 10% of households did not have a bank account, and the latest figures suggest 4%. That, however, is still one household in 25, or 1.5 million adults in 1 million homes. Disproportionately, such households are single households, households with single parents and pensioner households, and they tend to be at the bottom of the income scale.
Not having a bank account matters on a practical level. Figures suggest that people could save between £125 and £215 just on utilities in the first year, because they could use direct debit. Interestingly and importantly, such savings can be wiped out by bank charges, particularly behavioural charges for people who are more used to dealing on a cash-only basis.
Broader than the question whether someone has a bank account is how much they pay. Risk will always be priced into credit. Different people will always pay different prices. However, it remains the case that some people pay massively more than others. In credit and other sectors, there is still a significant problem in that the poorest pay the most.
The Centre for Responsible Credit recently produced a good analysis and report, showing how much more the poorest pay for their credit than we—people with access to mainstream credit—do. It found that for every £100 borrowed for infrequent purchases, such as white goods, the cost of credit for people with access only to high-cost credit was on average 2.5 times as much as for people who accessed mainstream financial services. For annually recurring items, such as Christmas presents and back-to-school purchases, that figure rose to 10 times: the cost was £7.80 per £100 borrowed on a Barclaycard, and £71.90 if someone borrowed from home credit providers.
We are not talking about small numbers of people, even though sub-prime and high-cost credit is not an issue that many opinion formers and journalists are particularly aware of because they do not see some of the issues. The leader in the home credit market has 11,000 agents calling weekly on one home in 20 in the UK to collect repayments. Payday loan companies have between 1 million and 2 million customers per annum, and the segment is growing quickly. The leader in the rent-to-own market has 245 stores nationwide, with an ambition to more than double that. With rent-to-own in particular, the question is not only the advertised annual percentage interest rate, which is high enough, but the hidden costs that go with that, especially on the mark-up of goods and the additional cost of service cover.
Across personal credit, particularly to the most disadvantaged, although we could argue that this extends far beyond them, much of the emphasis is not on what they can afford to repay, but on what they want. Combining that with extensions and roll-overs, too many of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in society find themselves in a seemingly never-ending trap of debt, from which it is difficult to break out.
How do credit unions address financial inclusion? On transactional bank accounts, credit unions offer current accounts, and I have such a card with me. There are 33,000 active accounts through 25 different credit unions. Credit unions also offer affordable credit. Interest on loans from credit unions is capped at 26.8% APR, which is a small fraction of what someone might pay to high-cost and sub-prime lenders. Importantly, credit unions must have a balance between savings and loans, so they encourage savings. They are personal, community focused and responsible, and perhaps most importantly, they have an ethos about helping people. They are run by and for their members and are truly co-operative, without a profit motive.
One of the most important development and growth areas for the credit union sector recently has been forging partnerships to reach out to people at risk of financial exclusion. That can be groups of people who would identifiably be at risk of exclusion and a broader group who would, at certain times, be at risk of exclusion. To help such groups, many credit unions work actively with local community organisations, ethnic associations and so on. Some excellent work is being done in prisons to help offenders to prepare for release, rehabilitation and work. Leeds City credit union, for example, is undertaking a number of such projects. Care leavers are an important segment. There is a new financial savings product for children in care, and I hope that credit unions will take the opportunity to work actively in that area.
There is also a broader group of people who, at different times in their life, will face the trigger points at which the risk of financial exclusion becomes that much greater. For example, those trigger points can come when a person is setting up their first home or moving into a flat for the first time. The temptation of going down the high street and seeing the furniture and the flat screen telly in the window of the BrightHouse store is a real danger point, because if someone gets into the trap then, it may take them years and years, or perhaps longer, to get out of it.
There are also those who, perhaps through a change in circumstance—a change in job or the breakdown of a relationship—suddenly find themselves in rent arrears, and the problem can build up and snowball. Organisations such as the London Mutual credit union do a lot of great work with housing associations on exactly that area. By coincidence, right now, in the room next to this Chamber, the all-party parliamentary group on credit unions is holding a fair that showcases some of those partnerships, including London Mutual’s work with the Family Mosaic housing association.
Other types of partnership that credit unions engage in do something slightly different. Rather than just targeting people at risk of exclusion, they seek to grow to build up their self-sustainability and reach out to more people. An important way in which that can be done is with housing associations. Such a partnership is a great way to reach people—it is absolutely in the interests of the housing association that new tenants do not fall into rent arrears. They need tenants to become better at managing their finances and, ideally, to build up savings. Credit unions including my own, United Savings and Loans, do very good work in that area.
Payroll deduction schemes are another interesting and exciting development. They drive savings accounts, either through employer-based credit unions—credit unions can be community, employer or association based—or in partnerships. For example, we could see a community-based credit union partnering with local companies.
I congratulate my hon. Friend hugely on securing today’s debate and on his leadership of the all-party parliamentary group on credit unions. He mentioned the importance of the legislative reform order that is due to come in, and also alluded to the important role that housing associations can play in the spread of credit union membership, which we both agree is incredibly important. Does he not agree that there is a real opportunity for the National Housing Federation and the Local Government Association to go out there and encourage all their members to join their local credit union so that almost immediately the number of people across the country with access to loans and a place to deposit their money would increase sharply overnight?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is a great opportunity to expand the work between credit unions and housing associations. I hope that the number of those partnerships will increase greatly.
Some credit unions have been involved in payroll deduction savings accounts for many years. I had the privilege of visiting the Voyager Alliance credit union in Manchester. Based at the Stagecoach bus depot in Moss Side, the credit union runs a slick operation. When bus drivers and transport workers join the organisation, they frequently open a savings account from day one. Very small amounts go into the account from their wages. It is a bit like pay-as-you-earn in that they almost do not notice the deduction—well, they do notice it, but hon. Members know what I mean. Before they know it, a small nest egg has been built up, which is important for their financial stability.
The Police credit union does great work with a number of different forces. The Glasgow credit union, which is one of the most successful in the country, has 71 partnerships with different organisations to facilitate building up exactly this kind of savings account. The book on the power of nudge is required reading for all political anoraks these days, and we have talked about that mostly in the context of auto-enrolment pensions, but there is great potential for savings products as well.
Those are some of the things that credit unions themselves are doing, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) mentioned, deregulation of the sector and Government support are about to unleash a set of new and exciting opportunities.
I too congratulate the hon. Gentleman on this debate and on his wider work in this area. My intervention gives me the opportunity to praise Blackbird Leys credit union and Oxford credit union in my own area. Does he not agree that there is scope to do more through the Post Office to reach out more widely to communities across the country?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. That is the single most exciting potential opportunity for the sector, and I will come to it shortly.
The key piece of deregulation, and what makes this debate particularly timely, is the passing of what in the credit union movement is known as the LRO. Politicos, however, prefer the longer title of Legislative Reform (Industrial and Providence Societies and Credit Unions) Order 2011, which is an awfully long phrase to get one’s head around. It is very important to the sector and has been an awful long time in the making. When speaking to credit union groups, we always get a groan when we say, “Soon, the LRO will be with us.” I am pleased to say that the order has now been passed and will be with us in the new year.
There are three critical elements to the LRO. First, there is the liberalisation of the common bond requirements. Traditionally, there has to be something in common between the members of a credit union. Although that has some advantages, it is also restrictive of growth. In future, credit unions will be able to open up membership to residents of a local housing association, which may have tenants outside the common bond area, or to employers who may have different branches and operations elsewhere. It will also help to facilitate the growth of the strongest credit unions, thus helping to serve more people.
The second key element is the capacity to pay interest on savings rather than the traditional dividend. The divvy, as it is known, has many advantages. However, it is rather difficult to explain, especially if someone is trying to persuade people to put their savings into a particular product. They may say, “Well, it depends how much money is left at the end of the year and then we will divide it all up and you will get whatever you get.” When a credit union is trying to compete in the market against individual savings accounts, it needs to be able to demonstrate a competitive rate. In future, it will be possible for credit unions to do that.
The third important change is in the type of members. It will be possible for credit unions to engage with not only individuals but organisations for a portion of their business. I do not think that we will see many large plcs suddenly starting to bank with their credit union, but it will work for local community groups, not-for-profit groups, small traders and so on that keep relatively small, but not totally insubstantial, positive balances in their account.
On a wider basis, we could say that credit unions have the potential to be the banker to the big society. Importantly, these changes are enabling; they are not compulsory. Three-quarters of credit unions intend to extend their membership base as a result of the changes.
What are the critical success factors for credit unions to be able to promote financial inclusion? We have to look at that on two levels: individual credit union and system-wide. For an individual credit union, scale is needed. It then needs a proportionate cost base so that it can run a surplus. It needs a good mix of savers and borrowers and income groups. To be successful, credit unions cannot just be for the most disadvantaged; they need a good mix. MPs and our local media can play an important part by encouraging more people to put a proportion of their savings—it does not have to be all—into credit unions in the knowledge that they are totally safe and that they will be doing some good in the local community.
On the system-wide level, scale is again at the top of the list of success factors. Alongside that are awareness, visibility and accessibility. Credit unions suffer on that count at the moment. Not as many people are aware of credit unions as they are of the sort of organisations that can afford to advertise constantly on daytime television. Credit unions need attractive, competitive products and substantial, robust back-office processes and interfaces.
My hon. Friend is drawing our attention to a number of issues; one of which I am aware is that the Isle of Wight credit union died earlier this year and was helped to amalgamate with the Hampshire credit union. We were greatly helped by the Financial Services Authority, and of course the local people were helped too, but it is important that people should feel some local connection. We do not need huge credit unions that go all over the country.
My hon. Friend makes a fine point. There will be variety. One of the things that sets credit unions apart is having something about them other than just being a financial institution, and that aspect will absolutely continue. However, these deregulatory changes will also enable stronger credit unions to grow and reach out to more people.
The other thing that can facilitate great change, improvement and growth in the sector is the modernisation fund of up to £73 million, which the Government are making available to help credit unions that can expand to reach self-sustainability in four to five years. I know that Ministers are considering a feasibility study on this issue, and whether and how best to use that money. There are some ways that Government capital can make a big difference. First, it can help the sector to develop a common banking platform and business processing. The sector has already demonstrated its potential for doing that with the credit union card account and the credit union prepaid card.
Secondly, as has been alluded to already, there is the possibility of linking credit unions with the Post Office, marrying a huge, trusted, visible and, for most people, accessible network with financial services from credit unions, which currently suffer from not having that presence. Thirdly, there is the development of the brilliantly named Jam Jar budget account, which is all about helping people to mimic the way that our mums and dads’ generation organised their finances. They had a jar for the rent, a jar for this outgoing, a jar for that outgoing and then they knew what they had left. It is a lot harder to know that these days. I mentioned some of the bank charges that people can incur, particularly in the first year they have a transactional bank account and move away from operating on a cash-only basis. Of course, that is of particular interest at the moment, not least because of the Government’s ambitious welfare reform programme.
There is another idea that I want to throw into the debate. It is not something that the sector is calling for, but I want to see new and innovative ways for people right across the country who may not have an immediate association with a credit union to put part of their investment portfolio through something like a social ISA, to hook them up with opportunities with credit unions and perhaps also with community development finance institutions or other social enterprises, social impact projects and so on.
We want growth in the sector and we want more financial inclusion, but we have to note and accept that particular costs are associated with inclusive growth. I am not a banker—thankfully—but to oversimplify things hugely I suggest that there are three key cost drivers to extending credit: the first is the riskiness of the customer base; the second is the term, or length, of the loan; and the third is the cost of collecting repayments. On those criteria, operating in the sub-prime segment of the market and reaching out to riskier types of customer, particularly with small loans and shorter-term loans, carries an additional cost.
Credit unions are known as an affordable option; that is what makes them so attractive. Their 26.8% APR limit is absolutely key, but the thing that we perhaps do not speak about often enough is that the limit has limits and it restricts what credit unions can do. With the growth fund, credit unions were able to reach out to a more excluded segment of the market. For the people that process helped, the savings have been quite substantial; there have been total savings in interest of more than £100 million and there has been a big drop-off in that group in the use of high-cost credit. However, for the credit unions themselves it is a costlier segment of the market, which is part of the reason why we have seen an erosion of the growth fund over time. Of course, with the growth of payday loans in particular it is especially difficult—actually, it is mathematically impossible—for credit unions to compete with organisations that are able to charge an APR in the thousands per cent, when credit unions themselves are capped at an APR of something less than 30%.
Some of the increased costs may be mitigated by technology. Of course, part of the point of the social fund is that if there is direct benefit deduction it greatly reduces the cost of collection and the cost of default. Jam Jar budget accounts are another development that would help in that respect, as would different channel developments. Those developments may mitigate the increased costs, but they are not the whole answer.
The sector is not calling for a lifting of the 26.8% APR limit, but I am sure that some right hon. and hon. Members have heard from individual credit unions, as I have, that they would like a liberalisation of the limit. There are big perception issues around that question but we must keep the debate active, because even if the limit on credit unions was somewhat higher than it is today there would still be a huge gap between the APR of credit unions and the 272% that someone might pay a home credit provider, or the thousands of per cent to a payday lender.
In recent months, a wider debate about APR caps and restrictions overall has had quite a lot of currency in this place, although as I said earlier, that is not a debate for today. Suffice to say, however, that everything I know about economics tells me that a blunt general cap on APR would be a terrible idea for multiple reasons, with all sorts of unintended consequences. I know that the Government are actively engaging in debate and analysis of the issue, so perhaps it is possible to have a different sort of regime—a different structure to the restrictions—which would get rid of the worst excesses of the market without denying people access to credit altogether. Personally, I have been kicking around the idea of a double-restriction scheme, whereby there is a limit on the initial set-up fee and then a separate limit, or set of limits, on the interest rate charge, which would enable payday loans, home credit and all sorts of things to continue while getting rid of the worst excesses of the market. In that different way of thinking, it might also be possible to create a different sort of regime for credit unions, although I stress again that it is not something that the sector is calling for.
To conclude, credit unions can deliver in Britain on a much bigger scale than they do today; we have only to look to Northern Ireland for a model of what things could look like. Credit unions can also deliver greatly enhanced financial inclusion. Let us not forget the human angle: more stable lives, less pressure on relationships and families and, essentially, happier people. Credit unions can also target and reach at-risk groups, such as those leaving care or ex-offenders.
I declare an interest as a fully paid-up member of the Society Credit Union in Londonderry. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing this debate. In his very illuminating introduction, he mentioned a couple of times the differing aspects of credit unions. That applies particularly to Northern Ireland, where credit unions are flourishing and have done so for many decades. He has already alluded to flexibility, but does he agree that any changes we contemplate need to be sufficiently flexible to allow for growth in communities where credit unions have been stunted and have not really taken root, while allowing credit unions in areas where they show significant growth to expand even beyond the reach that they have managed over many decades?
I certainly take, accept and agree with the hon. Gentleman’s general point. There are very specific issues about the regulatory regime in Northern Ireland, but I am not an expert so I will not attempt to talk about things that I do not know enough about. However, I have a feeling that we may hear more about the Northern Ireland situation later in the debate.
More generally with affordable credit, if people are not overpaying for their loans it means that wages go further, and of course that has a beneficial marginal effect on employment and growth. Benefits go further too, and when taxpayers are paying out sums in benefit they want to know that it is going to support families and children, rather than being swallowed up in sky-high interest rates. Credit unions can also help to deliver a renewed savings culture.
I thank the Government for their support of the sector, their recognition of the role that credit unions can play in increasing and improving financial inclusion, and for their general interest in mutuals, especially in the wake of the banking crisis. I also thank them for seeing the legislative reform order through, for their boldness and ambition with the modernisation fund of up to £73 million, and their willingness to look at radical options, such as the Post Office link-up.
Inevitably, however, I also have some asks. First, I ask the Government to please provide a proportionate regulatory framework for credit unions in the post-FSA world. Credit unions should not be penalised for a crisis in which they played no part, and for which they share none of the blame. Secondly, it would be good to get further details of the modernisation fund, and to get the key projects under way as soon as possible. Thirdly, we ask the Government to understand the pressures, challenges and costs associated with reaching the hard-to-reach and, finally, to continue to work as partners with all levels of government to address financial inclusion, rip-off loans and the erosion of the savings culture, to help responsive and responsible financial services, and to further the cause of social justice that brought us all into politics.
The speech by the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) was illuminating and informative, and his passion for credit unions came through. As treasurer of the all-party group on credit unions, I pay tribute to him for his work in raising awareness across all parties in the House of the good work that credit unions do. I declare an interest as a Co-op MP, and also as a member of Islwyn Community Credit Union, which, I am pleased to report, has this year lent £1 million to its members in Islwyn. That just goes to prove that, once again, for many people it is credit unions that are coming to the rescue for their financial needs.
There has been an explosion in credit unions in the past 10 years. In 2000, they accounted for £183 million of savings and that figure is now £475 million, and they lent £175 million in 2000 compared with £429 million now. That goes to prove the vital role the credit unions play in financial inclusion. To me, coming from the south Wales valleys—I will not use any of the colloquialisms or anecdotes I usually do—financial inclusion is the No. 1 issue.
I was pleased that the hon. Member for East Hampshire mentioned that credit unions often cannot compete with companies that offer massive amounts of interest because they do not have a budget for television advertising during “The Jeremy Kyle Show”, “This Morning” or “Loose Women”, for example. The other problem, which exists in the south Wales valleys as well, is a cultural one. People borrowing from doorstep lenders are used to the woman coming around at 6 o’clock on a Monday night and collecting.
With financial inclusion, we are looking at three issues. First, we must do something about the culture of door-to-door money lending. It is not just the illegal loan shark that we are all concerned about, but Provident, Shopacheck and obscure companies that we have never heard of. This might be outside the remit of the Department for Work and Pensions, but we need to start with financial literacy and do more to encourage credit unions in schools. When I was a kid, we had national savings, and we would save £1 a week. We learnt about the value of money and of saving, and we took the cash out at Christmas to spend on what we wanted. I pay tribute to Islwyn Community Credit Union, which has a scheme in Trinant primary school with more than 45 members. The scheme is a good advertisement, because the children are joining and then the parents are coming along and joining as well—there is a collection point there. The question we must ask is: how do we promote credit unions? When we talk about credit unions, people even in this place do not seem to know what they do, so we have to do more about advertising.
Secondly, and again outside the DWP’s remit, there is the issue of banking. I am a former Lloyds TSB banker, and when the fine Government initiative of the basic bank account was introduced, people working in the banking industry were not interested in it, because it never credit scored for products such as credit cards, loans, or even, to some extent, savings accounts. A lot of work has been done with that account, but I am still concerned that many people in my surgeries tell me about going to loan sharks and companies that offer exorbitant amounts. I ask them, “Why are you borrowing so much money off them when they are clearly ripping you off?” The problem is that they cannot access finance, even simple things such as overdrafts, which anyone might need. They are therefore driven into the hands of these lenders. I recently said to the British Bankers Association: “The way I view it is that there is a massive business opportunity there for you,” and they replied, “The set-up costs would be so high it wouldn’t be worth our while offering £500 or whatever.” So we need to talk about the role that banks can play. Would there be a facility for banks to finance credit unions and to expand that in some way?
The third issue is that we often talk about financial inclusion as being an individual option, as something that seems to happen to an individual or a family, but there are a number of small businesses that cannot access any form of lending. They might be social enterprises and there might be no money in there. I would like to hear more from the Minister about the plans for community development finance initiatives, which lend to small businesses and social enterprises. How can we expand that and make businesses aware of the facility? I did not know what they were until I did some research, so how can a business know about them? We can look at increasing that awareness.
The hon. Member for East Hampshire said that we have an option here. We can support credit unions and make people aware of them. A great thing about living in Wales—I am from there, as is the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), who is no longer in his place, and it is a great place—is that everyone has access to a credit union. We can look at the examples there and roll the idea out across the country. It does not really cost anything. If we do not do something now, particularly in these hard financial times when even people with regular jobs find themselves squeezed out, the only option will be to go to the high-lending companies. I agree in many respects with not fixing credit APR, because if we fix it all the other costs will be pushed down on to the consumer. There is an argument for capping the costs of lending, and we can look at things such as not having early repayment penalties and making loans more simplistic.
Another problem that credit unions suffer is one of image. People seem to think that they are only for the most impoverished, those who are cut off, but Islwyn Community Credit Union says that the vast majority of its members have jobs. The key is promoting credit unions to such people as a way of saving and borrowing, and promoting the idea that they are not just for people on benefits.
I have another moan—I am sorry if I am moaning a bit too much. This is an idea not for the DWP to respond to today but I hope that it will be taken back to the Ministry of Justice. When I worked in the bank, I had excellent customers who were paying their mortgage and loans, and I got a lot of business out of them. Then, all of a sudden, a county court judgment would appear on their file, and that would destroy the possibility of their having any facilities whatsoever. When I asked them what the CCJ was, very often they did not know because they thought that they had not defaulted or anything. On investigation, they found out that they were in dispute with Vodafone or Orange or over gym membership, for example, and that a CCJ had been put on them, but they knew nothing about it. It seems mad that somebody’s credit record should be completely destroyed simply because of a dispute with a mobile phone company.
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman has to say, and he is making an important point, but could I clarify something? I am a bit puzzled as to how someone in that position could reach the point of getting a CCJ against them without having received any notification. If that is happening, it is clearly a big concern.
What I have found is that a lot of people have got into arguments with a mobile phone company, for example, because they want to end their contract. They say that they have paid 12 months, but the company says that they have paid only 11 months and that they need to make one more payment—it might be for a silly amount of, say, £30. The two sides have been arguing, but they have reached gridlock, and no money has been paid, so the phone company has threatened to take the person to court. Gym membership is another issue I have come across. People want to end their membership early, but they then get into a dispute with the gym. In many respects, it seems lop-sided that the company has sought a CCJ.
If a consumer is in dispute with a company over a payment, there should be some way of ensuring that the company cannot put a CCJ on them until the issue is resolved; I am talking about tidying up that part of the law. This is very important, but it is not talked about often, so it might be something to look at. These people can be good bank customers, but what can the bank do? It can go only on their credit record. I am not knocking the banks for that. I am asking why companies that should have no effect on people’s credit rating are able to write people off in that way.
I have spoken for longer than I expected, but I believe passionately in credit unions and in expanding them as much as possible. I believe in relaxing the common bond, but I also think it is possible to have a central finance facility—these facilities are used all over the world—that credit unions could access. The Co-op party has told me that such an arrangement would cost about £10 million to £15 million, so it is not a lot. It would increase credit union membership from 750,000 at present to 2 million in five years. It would deliver 100,000 new growth fund loans over five years. It is worth looking at that, and I hope the Minister will give us more information when he responds.
Let me end by thanking every member of the all-party group for showing an interest in this issue. In the economic times in which we find ourselves, financial inclusion really is the most important subject, and I thank everybody for turning up for the debate.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for introducing the debate and for his active championing of the credit union sector, of which everybody in the Chamber is a keen supporter. We are all grateful for the good work he does, and we support him.
I am a huge supporter of credit unions. Before I entered this place, I was employed as a consumer advocate in the financial services industry. The burden of debt and the misery that increased indebtedness causes are probably among the biggest consumer issues of our time. The credit union sector plays a key role in tackling the worst excesses and, perhaps more to the point, in preventing people from becoming overburdened by indebtedness.
It is fair to say that one of the biggest causes of indebtedness is excessive charges on unauthorised overdrafts and excessive credit card debt. That is fine if people can access mainstream credit providers. This is where we get into the real contribution that credit unions can make. Once some people take on the burden of debt, the only thing for them to do is to go to less mainstream providers, which charge ever more punitive rates of interest and, at their worst, involve levels of criminality. We all recognise the role credit unions can play in expanding the amount of affordable credit that can be accessed by people who need to borrow.
My constituency is served by a credit union called Essex Savers, and I want to highlight the partnership it has with the local authority, which has enabled quite a significant expansion of services. Essex Savers came to Thurrock only one year ago, but it now has four branches operating across the borough. It is an interesting example, because the local authority’s support does not involve providing cash; it involves making the facilities the authority runs services from available to the credit union and making the staff who deliver those services available for a couple of hours a week to take deposits. That is really harnessing the voluntary aspects of the credit union and enabling a good partnership with the organisations of government. When they come together, they can be most effective. These days, when credit unions are looking for support, local authorities’ immediate response is to say, “We’re sorry, but money’s tight. We can’t help you.” With a bit of imagination, however, Thurrock council has shown that it can give credit unions meaningful support. The growth in the number of accounts and loans that Essex Savers has delivered in Thurrock through its four branches in one year is nothing short of inspiring.
That arrangement makes perfect sense from a public policy perspective. As we know, debt is a contributory cause of family breakdown, house repossessions and bankruptcy, all of which lead to additional burdens on the taxpayer, and the problem is nowhere more acute than in housing. I would therefore encourage all local authorities to look at the example of Thurrock to see whether they can learn lessons about how to engage in meaningful partnerships with credit unions to tackle some of the negative consequences of debt.
We should recognise that this is the time of year when debt issues are at their most acute, because Christmas is approaching. I want to highlight the reality for many of my constituents. In the main, they are ordinary, hard-working people; we are not characterised by high levels of affluence. Let me take Members for a little walk down the high street in Grays. Midway down, we come across The Money Shop, which offers services such as pawnbroking or gold to cash. It also offers a payday loan at £9.99 per £100, which sounds reasonable, and it can be if people can pay it back within a month; if they cannot, they have no choice but to take out a fresh loan. Some customers find themselves taking out a fresh loan every month and end up paying APRs of as much as 260%.
I give that example because we are in November and in the run-up to Christmas, and people will be tempted to overextend themselves. That is particularly likely if they cross Grays high street to BrightHouse. At present, the company is offering a 42-inch Philips LED TV for £16.99 a month for three years. Closer examination shows the cash price is £1,196.36 but that, under the terms of the agreement, the customer will actually pay £2,650.44.
Such businesses have arrived in Grays only in the past three years, but they are thriving because people with poor credit histories just cannot access loans from banks any more and have no choice but to enter into such punitive arrangements, seduced as they are by weekly payments that sound affordable on the face of it.
That is why credit unions are so important, and access to affordable credit will help to tackle some of these issues. Credit unions are staffed by volunteers and owned by their members, and their customers access credit on terms that ensure they will not be exploited. We all need to do our bit to raise awareness of the facilities that credit unions can supply.
I congratulate the Government on the new order, which liberates credit unions from some of the legal constraints under which they operated. It is fair to say that the legal regime has been a barrier to enabling some credit unions to achieve financial sustainability. It is really positive that they will be able to get deposits from businesses and partnerships from now on. Ultimately, credit unions can lend only what they have in deposits.
I, for one, will be engaging in a campaign to encourage more people in my constituency to open savings accounts with the credit union there. As the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) said, one of the biggest stigmas that credit unions face is the idea that they are only for poor people. The message I want to send out is that those of us who want, and are able, to save can make deposits with credit unions, in the full knowledge that we are not only building a nest egg, but making money available for a good social purpose.
Finally, having congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire, I look forward to hearing from the Minister what else the Government can do to support this important sector. The legislative reform order is obviously a move in the right direction. Credit unions will be able to take advantage of the freedoms, to grow. However, the real challenge is for those that are growing to achieve sustainability, particularly when there are increased costs of complying with the FSA, audit requirements and so on. One of the keys to building sustainability in the sector is thinking about how we can engage credit unions to deliver some Government services, and make use of that facility to engage with the people who are hardest to reach.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I commend the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) for obtaining the debate and for his good and active work as chairman of the all-party group on credit unions. I am conscious that the Minister who is to reply to the debate is from the Department for Work and Pensions because that Department has been closely involved—recently, in particular—in the long awaited LRO, which is so welcomed by credit unions in this country. However, without detracting from the positive points that have been made about the development and potential of credit unions in Great Britain, I want to highlight some points about credit unions in Northern Ireland. I am aware that there are in the Chamber not only officials from the DWP, but some with a relevant interest from the Treasury.
The LRO has long been sought by the credit union movement in Great Britain. It is great to see that advance, some of whose benefits were highlighted by the hon. Member for East Hampshire. Of course, that development, of itself, will not extend to credit unions in Northern Ireland, as he mentioned, so we have a little source of frustration. The Northern Ireland credit unions have spent many years campaigning to be able to offer as many services as their counterparts in Great Britain—their much smaller counterparts, both as to member numbers and savings. At a time when it looks as if that will now happen—at least the primary measure to permit it is coming with the draft Financial Services Bill—one frustration makes Northern Ireland credit unions a wee bit jealous: the LRO will further enhance what their counterparts in Great Britain can do compared with what they can do. Also, of course, there are issues to do with some of the details of the regulation that might come from the Financial Conduct Authority, courtesy of the Treasury’s plans in relation to the draft Bill and associated developments. Issues of context and content arise in relation to the change.
As the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members acknowledged, the credit union movement in Ireland at large is very strong. It has a long history, well rooted in communities. It is also particularly strong in Northern Ireland. The roots of my predecessor, John Hume, were in the credit union movement: not only did he help to found the movement in my constituency, but he led it in Ireland in the 1960s. In Northern Ireland, we have 163 credit unions, 103 of which are affiliated to the Irish League of Credit Unions. Those tend to be more mature; they have been longer in existence. Some 60 credit unions are associated with the Ulster Federation of Credit Unions. The Irish league has 370,000 members and there are 148,000 borrowing members with total savings of more than £700 million and total loans of more than £430 million, so, given the size of the Northern Ireland population, we are talking about something quite significant.
That is the situation while the credit unions are able to offer their members limited services—essentially just deposits and loans. The beauty of the measures that we hope will proceed—courtesy of the draft Bill and the consultations undertaken by the devolved Department and the Treasury in the past while, in response to the report to the Northern Ireland Assembly of an inquiry that I chaired—is the creation of at least the regulatory openings to allow credit unions in Northern Ireland to offer increased services. That is because some historic anomalies and legislative warps have limited what credit unions in Northern Ireland can do. They are not regulated by the Financial Services Authority. Therefore, they cannot offer services that are, by their nature, regulated by the FSA here.
It looks as if we may be coming to a path forward in that respect, but the credit union movement—both the Ulster federation and the Irish league—have concerns about the context and the detail of what is happening. The recent consultation was shortened to two months instead of three. People are worried that it has been rushed, and that although the changes that could be made afterwards have long been awaited, they may take place relatively quickly, before credit unions have been able to prepare themselves properly, internally and externally, for their impact, and for all the requirements. There is no point imposing change that will add to difficulties and make life hard for busy and effective credit unions.
The federation and the Irish league are also concerned about the content of some of the changes. Some of the proposed changes would take credit unions in Northern Ireland backwards in relation to existing functions. One is the planned reduction in the maximum deposit limit. Credit unions in Northern Ireland have a maximum deposit limit of £15,000. It was raised to that amount in 2006, because it needed to be. The proposal is that under the new arrangements it will be scaled back to £10,000. That will affect 48 credit unions in Northern Ireland, in which there are already people over that savings limit. That is entirely consistent with the culture of credit unions, which is about encouraging thrift through growing savings. To ask credit unions to tell some of their savers that they must take money away seems perverse.
The credit unions that belong to the Irish League of Credit Unions also offer, essentially, a free life-savings insurance service to their members. Whatever the value of a member’s savings on death, a multiple of that will go to their next of kin. Therefore, imposing the new limit will mean a significant change in the benefit that credit unions can offer their members.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the issues affecting credit unions in Northern Ireland, and I agree with him. I have received representations on the issue of borrowing, as have several hon. Members, and it is clear that members’ borrowing ability will be adversely affected, with the effects that he suggests. In the case of Northern Ireland, which has such a mature credit union movement, would it not be a good idea for the FSA and the Government to consider the best examples of what has happened there and perhaps import those, rather than imposing what is suggested for Great Britain on Northern Ireland?
I accept what the right hon. Gentleman says. Any changes proposed now should be about allowing and encouraging credit unions in Northern Ireland to go forward, not taking some of them backwards, and expanding their platform, rather than restricting the space in what they offer their members. He has made the point that the deposit restriction has a consequential effect, in some ways, on borrowing. Another issue, although I shall not go into it here as time does not permit, is the limit being imposed on unsecured loans. Given that there is such a high rate of saving and very healthy savings levels in credit unions in Northern Ireland, that restriction also seems perverse in its consequences.
There is also a proposal to limit the investment maturity period for any surplus sums that credit unions invest. Many credit unions in Northern Ireland are investing them very prudently, sometimes on three, four or five-year terms. The changes proposed by the Government would limit them to one-year deals. In the circumstances, the logic of Government policy should be about encouraging long-termism, prudence and sound investment in savings, so it seems perverse that credit unions in Northern Ireland are being told that they will no longer be allowed to follow the good and effective practice in which they have been engaging for years, and that they will have to move to a more varied and less reliable pattern of dealing with investments.
There are also issues with the transition to the new arrangements. Traditionally, credit unions in Northern Ireland have been registered with and regulated by the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, albeit for a limited number of services. Credit unions belonging to the Irish League of Credit Unions and the Ulster Federation of Credit Unions have enjoyed their relationship with DETI. They have confidence in its officials, who have important insight and rapport.
During any change or transition to the Financial Conduct Authority, given that it will involve new things, as will the new regulation for credit unions in Northern Ireland, it will be important to have a strong support programme in place. The devolved Administration should support that, but I also hope that the Treasury and DWP will be sympathetic, because the kinds of measure that we want during the transition and development period are akin to the sorts of support that the Department has been happy to give to members of the Association of British Credit Unions Ltd and credit unions in this country.
I wanted to take advantage of the debate, secured by the hon. Member for East Hampshire, to set out some of the concerns. The story of credit union development in Northern Ireland has been good and strong. We could be on the threshold of something positive, but there is a danger that unnecessary detail will detract from that potential.
As always, Mr Streeter, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing the debate.
The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoke passionately about financial literacy. He might be interested to learn that a young lady doing work experience with me this week is watching the debate from the Gallery. She told me before we came to Westminster Hall that, as part of her enrichment class, she has just studied the role of credit unions. I have no idea what an enrichment class is, but the fact that it is studying credit unions is a fantastic way to ensure that youngsters learn about a variety of sources—
The hon. Lady makes an important point. Does she agree that it is important that credit unions can operate from an early stage in schools and involve young people much more directly than by simply learning about them?
I agree. As many providers as exist should be entitled to teach children about the variety of sources of financial awareness. I have been to primary schools in my constituency and seen big banks supporting financial education programmes, which I think is fantastic, but we should get as many people in there as possible.
I proudly declare, like many Members here, that I am a member of a credit union: Kent Savers, the county-wide credit union. I am also soon to be a member of Medway credit union, which covers part of my constituency. Like others, I am passionate about tackling high-cost credit, lending and financial inclusion, and see credit unions as part of the answer. That stems from my experience of living the high life in London as a young graduate and stupidly running up debts, from which I was saved by my bank manager, and of representing a constituency that has pockets of deprivation and associated personal debt problems.
In the current economic climate, we must pay particularly close attention to how much debt people take on as pressure inevitably increases on household budgets. As Members of Parliament, we have a duty to promote accessibility to fair and equitable credit, particularly, although not exclusively, for those on low incomes. That is why I share the enthusiasm for credit unions and believe that we must raise their profile. I am sure that I join many hon. Members here in having done so through local media.
I have met representatives of Kent Savers and Medway credit union, the latter as recently as last Friday, and have learned a great deal more about credit unions’ services, benefits and duties. Northern Irish Members will be interested to know that they spoke favourably of the credit unions in Ireland and Northern Ireland. One director is from Ireland and is helping to bring that experience to Medway.
As a mutual, a credit union has an ethos of responsibility and inclusion—traits especially welcome in Medway, which, sadly, has problems with unmanageable debt. Responsibility and inclusion go hand in hand and are crucial features in running credit unions fairly and equitably. Much is admirable in credit unions’ ability to open up opportunities to take out reasonable loans for people on low incomes or with bad credit history. The alternatives, as I have found in Medway, are far less appealing. As in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), several high-cost credit lenders have set up shops prominently situated on busy high streets. They are the antithesis of credit unions.
Consumers took out £1.9 billion in payday loans last year, which is £500 million more than in the previous year. That trend is a concern and it is broadly reflected in the Medway area. Shockingly, at the local citizens advice bureau recently, a record £3 million in unsecured personal debt walked through the doors in one week. I have since been informed that loans and the interest associated with payday lending account for a worrying proportion of that £3 million. That is a great shame, and I have campaigned against it as a local Member of Parliament.
Such businesses deal in large sums of money and small print. They are identifiable by their glossy shop fronts, but they offer less attractive interest rates, targeting people on low incomes who are in financial difficulty. Sure, if they pay back the loan in time, the rate might be lower over 30 days than a high street bank’s overdraft charge, but the very fact that someone has gone to a payday loan company rather than a bank might indicate that they are a credit risk. No controls are placed on borrowing—a remarkable difference from credit unions.
The emergence of payday loan shops on high streets and the accessibility of easy credit on the internet appear to offer a quick fix. It might be financial inclusion of a sort, but the reality of high-cost credit is very different. It can be irresponsible on the part of the lender and self-defeating for the consumer, placing them deeper into debt and excluding them from accessing the lending market in the future, which credit unions do not do.
On Monday, I was pleased to note the Government’s response to the consumer credit and personal insolvency review. I was particularly encouraged to learn that they will consider the possibility of imposing a variable cap on the cost of high-cost credit that can be charged in the short to medium-term high-cost credit market, while talking up the credentials of credit unions as an alternative.
It is worth making the point that credit unions are more than just a lending service. To take out a loan, members must first commit to saving, which is an equally important feature of managing their finances. Given that only 20% of people in the UK reportedly put aside money each month, more clearly needs to be done to encourage saving. Credit unions offer a great opportunity to help to reverse that trend with a more innovative method of depositing cash, receiving a dividend and earning the possibility of taking out a loan. By committing to saving, members provide a cushion for those unexpected emergencies that we hear so much about from payday loan lenders, while avoiding astronomical interest rates.
I learned last week that Medway credit union is developing a Christmas savings scheme that encourages members to put aside money for Christmas essentials. Christmas is an expensive time of year. Given the pressure on families to spend, the temptation for those on low incomes to buy now and pay later is strong. However, under the scheme, reserves gradually built up over time will be on hand to cover the cost of the festive family season and steer families away from alternative high-cost credit. Most importantly, what makes the Christmas saving scheme attractive is that it is secure.
Credit unions have an important role to play for older people, who are often financially excluded. I have spoken before in this Chamber about my concerns for the financial welfare and education of our pensioners. Financial difficulty is not limited to younger generations seeking loans to cover rent, bills or insuring the family car. I read a worrying report called “Debt and generations” commissioned by the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, and I urge hon. Members to read it. It revealed a minority of older people with extremely high levels of debt and a notable number of older households with high repayment-to-income ratios.
For instance, 12% of over-55s have a repayment-to-income ratio of 30%, compared to only 9% of those aged 18 to 24. Also, a great many older people are less able to mitigate the effect of an unexpected bill or change in circumstance. A reduction of just £50 to their monthly income, for example, doubles the likelihood of the oldest age groups becoming financially vulnerable and, potentially, taking out costly loans to meet the shortfall. I think we all agree that it would be far more preferable for older people faced with those difficulties to approach credit unions instead.
I am conscious of the time, so I will finish by saying that the Government have taken some welcome steps with the legislative reform order and other measures. I think we all welcome those steps and I look forward to reading the Government’s study, to which their formal response on consumer credit alludes, on credit unions and how they will be encouraged to grow and prosper.
I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr Streeter. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing the debate, on his work chairing the all-party group on credit unions, and on his thoughtful and well informed observations at the start of the debate. His constituency and mine have similar names, although they are rather different places. We both, however, have constituents who owe a great deal to their local credit unions. I will touch on that during my remarks.
We have had friendly societies for a long time, since the early 18th century, when the chaos of the period brought the need for the greater security that mutual action was able to provide. The idea of working co-operatively to ensure that people are provided for in times of want and have a secure haven for their money, drawing on the resources of the community, continues to be very important.
The previous Government made a number of widely supported changes to enable the development of new dynamism and opportunity to the credit union and mutual sector. We recognised that the way the law treated credit unions in a number of respects was holding them back. That was the reason why, in 2002, the previous Government brought credit unions under the regulatory aegis of the Financial Services Authority. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner) gave a good example in his intervention of that arrangement working very well. The hon. Member for East Hampshire was also right to sound a cautionary note about some of the risks for credit unions in the current re-regulation process.
The previous Government then took steps to enable credit unions to modernise while retaining what has always made them unique, starting with permitting them to communicate electronically in 2007, which was previously not allowed. We also committed to looking at how to reform the legislation on their membership, and that was the background, in 2008, to what became the Legislative Reform (Industrial and Provident Societies and Credit Unions) Order 2011, which will modernise the common bond and which has been widely welcomed during the debate. I note, however, the cautionary observations made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about the possible effects in Northern Ireland.
It is clearly right that as communities have changed, so the restrictions that the common bond places on credit unions should change, too. Allowing businesses, housing associations and social enterprises to become partners with credit unions reflects the reality of communities today and the opportunities in them.
It was not just the previous Labour Government who introduced changes to the sector. Both the former Member for Bournemouth West, Sir John Butterfill, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Malcolm Wicks) tabled private Members’ Bills, which helped the sector by reflecting the extent of consensus and support. Like others, I hope that the Minister will make some favourable observations about the prospects for the imminent implementation of the legislative reform order.
Partly—perhaps largely—as a result of support given to the sector by Government, there has been significant growth in the size and scale of the credit union movement, particularly over the past decade, in terms of numbers and of the amount saved, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) rightly pointed out. I pay tribute to the work of the Association of British Credit Unions in supporting the sector and its consistent and effective effort on behalf of credit unions. Recent unaudited data from the association note that credit unions grew by nearly 15% in just the first six months of 2009, which reflects what was happening elsewhere, I guess, in the financial services industry.
In Westminster Hall last week, I set out the case of my constituent who was about to start her university course and was unfairly denied a bank account after she became a victim of fraud when her card was stolen. She was only able to take up her university place because the local credit union, NewCred, of which I too am a member, as are other Members, was willing to offer her an account. Because she had run into problems with her bank account, a reference was made to CIFAS—the credit industry fraud avoidance system—which meant that she could not get an account from any bank at all. NewCred was the only institution able to offer her an account, and had it not been for that she would not have been able to take up her place at university, because she would not have been able to receive her student loan cheque or have an account for it to be paid into.
Like other Members, I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm the continuation of his Department’s funding for credit unions. That has been a valuable source of support over recent years; the hon. Member for East Hampshire mentioned the figure of £73 million, which has been spoken of in this context. I also hope that the Government will support credit union access through the Post Office, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) drew attention during an intervention.
I echo the appeal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn for the creation of a central finance facility. He has talked about the cost of setting it up, but as he said, such a facility is widely used elsewhere and it is estimated that consumers will have significant savings in credit costs if such an arrangement can be put in place. It might also provide a mechanism to release more than £1 billion in the Post Office card account float, which could be lent to social fund customers, as well as providing, as my hon. Friend said, the potential to significantly increase the size of credit unions. Is the Minister able to say something about that?
One major disappointment is the missed opportunity—many of us felt this—in relation to Northern Rock. My right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North raised the issue of the extension and expansion of the mutual financial sector in his question to the Prime Minister earlier today. We have not really received an explanation of why the option of a member-led remutualisation, which was proposed by the Co-operative party, was not accepted. There are some big questions to be asked about the sale of Northern Rock. When will the Minister and his hon. Friends publish the advice of United Kingdom Financial Investments Ltd and Deutsche Bank, so that we can see exactly why a mutual Northern Rock was ruled out? I know that the Treasury said that remutualisation would have meant gifting value currently held by the Exchequer to members of the new mutual, but we have not been told whether the Treasury is gifting £250 million of Northern Rock’s existing equity to Virgin, or what the difference in principle is between those two exchanges. A mutual Northern Rock would have been very attractive.
Members have rightly touched on other aspects of financial inclusion and exclusion. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) has made great strides in advancing the argument for a cap on interest rates in the UK, and there are pros and cons to that proposal. Before the election, as I recall, the Conservative party pledged that there would be a cap on excessive store card interest rates, to protect the public and help prevent people from falling into problem debt. I was present at an event at the Barbican where the former Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor, the hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), said that the cap would be the firm policy of the Conservative party, and it subsequently appeared in a policy document. Will the Minister let us know what the plans for that measure now are?
I welcome the strong support expressed for the credit union sector in the debate. The growth of the sector has been greatly helped by Government support in the past decade or more. I, with others, hope that the Minister will be able to confirm today that support will be maintained, and that the sector will have the potential to expand further in the period ahead.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. It has been an extremely informed and useful debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) on securing it, on the extensive work that he has clearly done chairing the all-party group, and on his involvement in the credit union fair today. It is with fortuitous timing that we debate this issue at the same time as the fair, which showcased the valuable work of credit unions. There is a greater focus on both events as a result, but I particularly pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his colleagues for their involvement in the fair—a sign of hon. Members not just talking, but acting—and showcasing work by a sector that we all agree plays a very valuable role in our society, particularly in tackling debt, which can be a massive burden on lower income families.
One of the consequences of the credit crunch is that it is now more difficult for families on low income to obtain credit. The consequence can be to trap people in poverty, which makes it more difficult for many people to improve their work situation, as it constrains job search activity and makes financial planning much harder to manage. Of course, it also denies people access to certain types of job; for example, those that include handling cash are not necessarily available to people with poor credit records. It means that people have more demands on their finances, more to lose if something goes wrong, and are therefore perhaps more cautious about changing their financial situation; for example, by leaving the relative security of the benefits system and moving into work, even though we all know that once they are established in work, they are much better off in the long run.
We are dealing with the problem of debt that entrenches people in poverty. We know that those on low incomes are at the greatest risk of ending up in debt and, as a result, are often the least equipped to cope with it. One of the principal causes of debt for those on low incomes is that the majority have few or no savings. When an unexpected financial pressure occurs—an essential household appliance stops working; for example, the fridge breaks down—they have to resort to borrowing to make ends meet. However, they are treated as high-risk borrowers by the financial services sector and have to pay a high price for their credit. We have heard very articulate arguments this afternoon about the problems that can create, and about various lenders in the marketplace. My hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) made valuable points about the risks to families on very low incomes and the huge price that they can pay for access to some of the things that those who are able to access mainstream financial services find easy.
Credit unions offer a valuable alternative service. By working within communities and helping those most in need of support, they help people to manage their financial affairs. Hon. Members play a valuable role. It has been interesting to hear how many of them give active support as members of their local credit union. As the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) said, successive Governments have supported credit unions and directly helped the sector to grow. We are keen to continue that support in a sustainable way; we believe that it is important. That is why we have agreed to continue providing support from the growth fund while we carry out a feasibility study into how we should help the sector to develop in the future. We have allocated £11.8 million to continue to support credit unions and other community financial institutions in this fiscal year. We want credit unions to continue to be part of the financial services landscape.
We also have a duty to ensure that credit unions operate efficiently and offer a good range of services to a wide range of people. Many credit unions are run at a loss. Many do not offer the same range of products and services. Many cannot provide services that are available in another part of the country. We have heard much about the legislative reform order this afternoon. As I am relatively new to the issue, I had not followed the extensive process to the degree described by my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire, but the order is there. It is happening. It will help to improve coverage.
The amendment to the Credit Union Act 1979 effectively opens up membership of credit unions to new groups, such as housing association tenants and employees of a national company, even if some of those people live outside the geographical area served by the credit union. It was either the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) or the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) who pointed out that it is important for credit unions to spread their umbrella over a wider area than they do at the moment. My hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire made a point about credit unions becoming the bankers of the big society. He is correct to say that there is potential to drive deep into the heart of the communities that they serve.
I want to point out, and I am sure that the Minister would agree, that the people who run credit unions have made a great contribution. When the Isle of Wight credit union ceased to exist, the new amalgamated credit union of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight did a great deal of work, which was carried out by individuals voluntarily in the constituencies.
I pay tribute to all those involved. This is the essence of the credit union movement, and indeed the essence of the co-operative movement as a whole. If I have one regret politically, looking back over history, it is that the co-operative movement found itself on the left of politics rather than the right. The co-operative spirit has much in common with the spirit that we on the Government side of the House represent. Many of the changes that we are putting in place are designed to try and encourage people to work together. Within the credit union movement, we find that writ large.
As a result of the changes in the review, credit unions will be able to pay a guaranteed rate of interest on members’ savings. We hope that will help them to attract more savings, and so make more affordable credit available in the community. We also want them to do more. We want them to look to the future, reach out to offer new products to many more potential members, and work to provide the services that landlords and their other partners want. We need them to become more efficient, better known and more attractive—effectively, to move to the next level of potential for the credit union movement.
Credit unions need to reduce their costs, increase their capacity, and operate more efficiently by sharing back-office activity. The right hon. Member for East Ham asked a question about that. The creation of a central financial wholesale organisation for credit unions is being examined by the feasibility study, which is looking at a wide range of different options. It is being led by a project steering committee, supported by the Department for Work and Pensions. I am pleased that the issue of Jam Jar accounts was raised. Financial products such as Jam Jar accounts are very much part of the study.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the study is being chaired by Deanna Oppenheimer of Barclays bank. She has just finalised her report with her team, and the recommendations will be presented to Ministers shortly. We hope to be able to make that information available to the House before too long. We have not seen the report yet, but there will not be long to wait. Clearly, that restricts some of my ability to provide detailed answers to questions raised today, because these are matters that will be in the report. However, I hope that it will provide a clear blueprint and a clear direction of travel for the sector for the future.
We are bringing credit unions into Jobcentre Plus offices to try to create a greater link between credit unions and the work Jobcentre Plus is doing for the unemployed. The committee consulted the Post Office on its potential role working in partnership with credit unions. That could have benefits. A number of hon. Members made the point that such a partnership would be valuable. We will know more when the study is published.
We regard the sector as enormously important. We want to see credit unions grow and develop in an effective and efficient way, delivering support to those in debt at the bottom end of the income scale, driving to the heart of communities, attracting savings from a broader range of people and sources, and absolutely at the heart of what we hope to deliver for local communities and, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire says, the big society, through the community groups that will give support right across the country.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.
The UK and Morocco go back a long way, and it is my great pleasure to have this opportunity to discuss the Government’s policy towards one of this country’s greatest friends and allies. Fortunately, unlike France and Spain, Britain has avoided the acquisitive behaviour that so complicates their history with Morocco, with a single, brief exception in 17th-century Tangier. Our amicable relationship has been enhanced recently by the appointment of King Mohammed VI’s esteemed and able cousin, Her Highness Princess Lalla Joumala Alaoui, as ambassador to London.
In 2013 arises an opportunity to cement the relationship further, with the 800th anniversary of the first official contact between the two countries. In 1213, King John sent an emissary to petition support from Sultan Mohammed Ennassir. It would be a great pity if that opportunity were lost, and I am interested to hear what proposals the Government have to celebrate the occasion or, if they have none, whether they will give the matter some serious thought.
On Friday, Morocco goes to the polls, and they will be keenly watched in the South West Wiltshire constituency, a division with more Moroccan residents than any other outside the M25. The election will cement the “new constitution project” for a citizen-based monarchy, accepted in a referendum with a remarkably high turnout on 1 July. A polling station for that was set up in Trowbridge in my constituency, which I had the great pleasure of visiting. The new Parliament will have the task of giving statutory expression to the will of the people as expressed in the referendum. The way it conducts itself will be important in facing down the critics, the more considered of whom cite scope for interpretation of caveats to the clauses in the new constitution, the reliance of the new constitution’s articles on what are called organic laws, which have not yet been written, and recourse to special commissions chaired by the King to determine much of the change anticipated.
It is important to set the context for this year’s historic referendum and general election. Morocco has, to a large extent, stood apart from the violence and disorder of the Arab Spring. The present King, Mohammed VI, has ruled for 12 years and is generally credited with liberalising his country and shifting it towards a constitutional democracy within the historic and religious constraints of a society that remains deeply conservative and traditional. His regime contrasts sharply with that of his father, Hassan II, who presided over the post-colonial period during what became known unflatteringly as the years of lead. It is significant that King Mohammed, early in his reign, pardoned thousands of prisoners, set up an arbitration body to compensate families of opposition leaders who had disappeared and caused credible elections to take place. There has been a marked improvement in the position of women, with a quota for the Parliament that will be the envy of many in this House. The rights of women have been enhanced by the King’s family law, and he has insisted that the Berber language should be taught in primary schools, a measure that complements his move towards regional autonomy in Morocco, including western Sahara.
In June, King Mohammed laid out his proposals for the referendum. The King surrendered his right to appoint a Prime Minister and uprated the status of the premier to Head of Government, with the consequent right to dissolve Parliament. The King lost the right to appoint regional leaders. The new constitution endorsed by the referendum explicitly upholds human rights, promises religious freedom, prohibits torture, backs freedom of thought, opinion and expression, permits free assembly and peaceful demonstration, and should facilitate a more free press. It calls for gender equality, and gives the minority Berber language official status.
There is an interesting version of the separation of Church and state in the differentiation of the powers of the King as Head of State and as commander of the faithful, which may be of interest to those in the UK who are concerned about the established Church, and the Monarch as supreme governor. The proposals overhaul the judiciary, and even offer an ombudsman service, but reaction in the west has been mixed, with The Economist leading under the mean-spirited headline, “A very small step”. However, it is, without doubt, a step in the right direction, and one that I am sure the Minister will support.
Perhaps because of the peaceful evolutionary change that is under way in Morocco, the country has avoided much of the mayhem seen elsewhere in north Africa. It is true that there were significant protests in Moroccan cities early this year, but as far as we can tell, they were less intent on regime change than in other countries involved in the Arab Spring. The relatively few protestors who took to the streets of Rabat, Tangier and Casablanca in the run-up to the general election focused on the Makzhen or palace elite. That is said to represent a road block to reform, which organisations such as the Brookings Institution maintain is happening too slowly. If there is a criticism of what is going on in Morocco at the moment, it usually involves the rate of change, rather than the direction of travel.
As for the protests organised by the 20 February organisation and so on, it is difficult to know what significance to assign to them, given that Morocco is caught in a pincer between economically inspired unrest in Europe and the Arab Spring in north Africa and the middle east. It is also reasonable to point out that stridency among émigrés, which is generally a barometer for unrest in troubled countries, has certainly not been experienced in respect of Morocco. I get the feeling from my Moroccan community, many members of which return regularly to Morocco and certainly have family there, and through the British Moroccan association to the Moroccan Community Association, whose meetings on the parliamentary estate I attend, that the reforms that are under way are welcomed and appropriate.
In recent years, there has been significant security and judicial co-operation between Morocco and the UK. Clearly, the ungoverned spaces of the Sahel present a threat to the west, and desertification makes it more likely that populations will move north. The Government of Morocco give every indication of appreciating the threat that that poses to peace and concord within their borders, and the danger of being seen as a repository of criminality threatening southern Europe.
In the summer, the Foreign Secretary and the Moroccan Foreign Minister, Mr Fassi Fihri, signed a memorandum of understanding on deportation on the grounds of terrorism and national security, but the detail was left out. Can the Minister explain the practical consequences of the memorandum now, how he sees it developing, and within what time scale?
It has been reported that the streams of intelligence from north Africa have reduced in recent years and months, probably as a result of political developments, the disappearance of old lines of communications with, thankfully, vanishing regimes and general chaos in the region. If so, it means that Morocco’s significance has increased. Indeed, attacks in Casablanca and Marrakesh and the involvement of Moroccan nationals in the 2004 Madrid bombings notwithstanding, terrorist activity in and linked to Morocco has been limited, and commentators have suggested that that is due in part to effective intelligence gathering and co-operation with western agencies.
I appreciate that the Minister cannot be specific in this forum, but can he comment on the development of intelligence co-operation with Morocco? As Tehran continues to act as the bully boy of the middle east, what significance does he attach to Moroccan good sense in cutting off diplomatic relations with the monstrous Iranian regime in 2009 after it started to spread its fundamentalism to the peaceful and moderate Sunni kingdom?
There are major threats to Morocco from challenging frontier security issues, and difficult-to-regulate migration. The barely governed space of southern Algeria, Mali and Niger, and vast area of the western Sahara offers a potential nest to fundamentalist terror organisations, including al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. To what extent does the Minister believe that Morocco’s ability to engage in intelligence and security has been degraded by the Binyam Mohamed episode?
Although the UK does not provide direct bilateral aid to the western Saharan people, the European Commission’s humanitarian aid office certainly does. The UK provides direct assistance to help to promote stability and to alleviate poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, and I was informed before the election that the Government were working on the EU to direct EU stability instrument funding to help to address the security situation. Can the Minister offer a progress report? What progress has been made in establishing a new embassy in Mali and political offices in Mauritania, as heralded in January 2010 by the then Minister of State at the Foreign Office?
The previous Government showed interest in the Moroccan imam training scheme in marginalising the religious fundamentalism that is the cause of so much trouble elsewhere. The scheme was exploring whether UK imams might train in Morocco, and I wonder whether there has been any progress on that.
In 2010, the House was informed that bilateral defence activity was “modest but important”, and the most significant seems to be Exercise Jebel Sahara, which is run regularly in the region of Marrakesh. Can the Minister say how he anticipates bilateral defence activity being developed, and for what purpose?
Helped by Morocco’s association agreement with the EU, the EU accounts for 60% of Morocco’s exports, 80% of tourism receipts and most of its large income from foreign remittances. Given the strong prospect of a double-dip recession in the eurozone, depression in southern Europe and the country’s wide and growing trade deficit, it seems likely that the pressures on Morocco from the young, educated unemployed will increase with every chance of an escalation in civil unrest and potential for terrorists to feed off poverty and grievance. Morocco is a relatively small trading partner for the UK, in contrast with, for example, France, but what measures are being taken to improve trade in goods and services between the two countries, and how does the Minister believe that might help to avoid the turmoil elsewhere in the region with its attendant security threats?
In January, I had an Adjournment debate on the western Sahara, when the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), responded. Can the Minister provide an update on the Government’s contribution to steering this central issue for sub-regional stability to a safe place? What has Baroness Ashton and the portentously named EU External Action Service been up to? If we must have it, it might as well do something useful in the EU’s near abroad, which the western Sahara most certainly is.
Voting arrangements for the Moroccan elections this Friday are based on Moroccan ancestry, rather than residency or citizenship. That means that a large Moroccan ex-pat community is potentially involved, although the arrangements are rather more complex than for the referendum held in the summer. There is certainly confusion at the bewildering array of parties on offer, and I regret that the very good polling stations that we saw for the referendum will not be available again on Friday. Nevertheless, I am sure that the Minister will take a keen interest in the outcome and in the Government who emerge, who will be headed for the first time by a Prime Minister who can be said to be truly head of the Government.
In a similar vein, the Minister will have noted that at the Inter-Parliamentary Union assembly at Berne in October the Speaker of the Moroccan House of Representatives, Mr Abdelwahed Radi, was elected president. Will the Minister join me in welcoming this important totemic step as Morocco moves towards a commendable new settlement based on constitutional democracy?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) on securing this debate and thank him for the work that he does as chairman of the all-party group. I am aware of the exemplary way in which he represents a large part of the Moroccan diaspora who are based in Trowbridge, where, historically, they worked in the food processing industry. I want to set out our approach to the internal and regional issues pertinent to Morocco before dealing with the key features of our bilateral relationship.
Morocco’s determination to implement political reforms predates the Arab Spring. Indeed, the new constitution takes steps to increase the power of Parliament, advance gender equality and protect minority rights. My hon. Friend mentioned that the king himself has been very much involved with the issue of gender equality, which is to be applauded. We welcome Morocco’s decision to ratify the optional protocol on the convention against torture, which shows seriousness in this regard. The parliamentary elections on Friday are the first to occur under the new constitution and have the potential to herald a new era in Moroccan politics.
The UK strongly supports the ongoing process of constitutional reform and looks forward to observing free and fair elections in Morocco. There is generally a good level of freedom of expression in Morocco, but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, there are still some restrictions, particularly in relation to criticism of the monarchy, Islam and Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara. A number of high profile cases are a reminder that there is still more that the Moroccan authorities can do in that respect.
Our embassy maintains good, close working relationships with human rights institutions and civil society activists. It has run several human rights-related projects in recent years, including on penal reform and alternatives to the death penalty, and on supporting human rights institutions. Coupled with the reforms already being carried out, the recent constitutional change and Friday’s election reinforces Morocco's reputation as a leader of change in the region.
While setting an example in the region on political reform, Morocco has a major role to play in regional stability. At a time of great historic change in the Maghreb region, the need for strengthened political, economic and security relationships across the region appears all the more pressing. An improved relationship between Algeria and Morocco is vital. I therefore warmly welcome the news that the Moroccan and Algerian Foreign Ministers met in Rabat last week; it was the first meeting at this level for 14 years. According to some experts, improved trade between Maghreb countries could double the impact of any concessions made by the European Union and United States. Enhanced regional co-operation could also contribute to a more favourable dynamic for the resolution of the status of Western Sahara.
I must also acknowledge the role played by Morocco in reaching out across the Maghreb to the wider region. In relation to Syria, Morocco did not hesitate to join the calls of the international community in condemning the use of violence against civilians. Its support for political change in Libya and high-level engagement at the Libya contact group formed an important element of Arab support for the National Transitional Council.
My hon. Friend mentioned Western Sahara. Morocco has demonstrated its ability to play a constructive role in the region, and we encourage Morocco to continue its efforts, particularly with regard to Western Sahara. We fully support the efforts led by the UN to encourage all parties to reach a mutually acceptable solution that provides for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. The kidnapping of European aid workers from the Tindouf camps is of grave concern and it raises questions about the safety of those in the Polisario-controlled camps, as well as the threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Maghreb across the Sahel. This incident also underlines the need to find a solution to secure the futures of the refugee population.
My hon. Friend asked about the EU’s External Action Service. I assure him that we are in close discussions with the service. I agree with him that it is important that the service does not try to replicate what members of the EU are doing, but that it works in a symbiotic, complementary way and tries to add value to the work that they are doing rather than cutting across initiatives and diplomacy that are already in place.
I am pleased to report to the House that the UK is engaged in an open dialogue with Morocco and other parties to the frozen conflict. We are committed to working with the international community to try to find a successful resolution. We cannot forget the humanitarian tragedy caused by the continued stalemate between the parties, in some cases separating family members for more than 35 years. Morocco has made commitments to providing safeguards for the human rights of all those living in the disputed territory, as noted in the UN Security Council resolution 1979 in April. Our approach to the annual renewal of the mandate for the UN peacekeeping forces in Western Sahara remains under consideration. I encourage Morocco to demonstrate firm progress against those commitments well in advance of the Security Council discussions next April.
I hope that Morocco’s recent election to a non-permanent seat on the Security Council will provide a special impetus in this regard. We look forward to working with Morocco to address all threats to international peace and security during its two-year tenure. We consider Morocco to be a close ally on complex regional matters, and we will be seeking its expertise and experience.
I will say a word or two about our bilateral relationship, which we regard as very important. Since Morocco’s independence in 1956, UK-Morocco relations have grown steadily in importance. Today, nearly 400,000 British holidaymakers visit Morocco every year, and there is a renewed strength and impetus to the political relationship. The range and depth of our bilateral contacts reflects this. As a sign of our joint wish to deepen co-operation, the Foreign Secretary and the Moroccan Foreign Minister agreed a bilateral partnership agenda in March, setting out a number of key areas for closer working. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary made his first official visit to Morocco last month, demonstrating the importance that our Government place on this relationship.
In addition, the successful official visit of Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall last April signifies the strong civil society links between our countries. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy is involved in parliamentary exchange programmes, and the British Council has established links between 60 Moroccan and 40 British schools through the Connecting Classrooms project.
I will say a quick word about the Arab Partnership, one of the most pertinent areas of our Government’s co-operation. This initiative leads the UK’s strategic approach to the Arab Spring, working with those in the region to develop more open societies underpinned by vibrant economies. We are committed to supporting those aspirations. In Morocco, our focus is on political participation and transparency—areas that Moroccans themselves identified as key to the country’s progress. Our programme, worth approximately £500,000, is providing targeted, rapid assistance in areas where the UK can add best value.
The Arab Partnership also works to leverage funding and support through multilateral organisations, particularly the G8 and EU, to provide a strengthened offer of support to the region. Morocco’s commitment to reform has long been recognised by the EU. Indeed, it was the first near neighbour to achieve an association agreement in 2000 and an action plan for advanced status in 2008. As far as the EU’s External Action Service is concerned, we will be working alongside it to make sure that this action plan for advanced status is moved into the next phase. The UK supports greater conditionality, both positive and negative, in the EU’s relations with all its southern neighbourhood partners. As we move forward, this is an opportunity for Morocco to demonstrate, and be rewarded for, its internal reform efforts.
My hon. Friend mentioned judicial co-operation. The Arab Spring produced new opportunities for greater partnership. We have been working with Morocco consistently over a number of years and are reaping the benefits of a reinvigorated bilateral relationship. He mentioned the memorandum of understanding with Morocco concerning the provision of assurances in respect of people subject to deportation on grounds of national security. This MOU forms one component of a wider judicial package, and it will continue to be developed and moved forward. This will pave the way for greater co-ordination to ensure the protection of citizens. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are taking this very seriously indeed. We are pleased that the Foreign Ministers were able to sign the MOU in September. The final exchange of letters is ongoing but near completion, and obviously this forms part of a much wider judicial package to increase security and co-operation between our two countries.
Let me say something about security and co-operation. As well as harmonising our judicial systems, we have been directly co-operating with Morocco on terrorism and narcotics. The bombing of the Argana restaurant in Marrakesh last April killed 17 people, including one British national, and demonstrated the shared threat that our countries face from terrorism. We have a good record of co-operating with Morocco, and the Moroccan police investigating that incident conducted their inquiries in line with post-bomb blast management provided by the UK—a good example of close and constructive co-operation between our two countries. We also sent a special police unit to aid the investigation, and we are now looking at technical work to share expertise in the use of CCTV. I hope that has answered my hon. Friend’s question about security and co-operation, and we will write to him on any additional points that may be relevant.
The security of Morocco’s borders is of direct concern to the UK given the flow of illegal drugs and migration from west Africa into Europe. Many of the drugs that flow from Latin America into Europe come via west African countries and up through north Africa. The Moroccan authorities have publicly committed themselves to tackling the cocaine trade, and they have requested assistance from the UK and Spain to combat trafficking and terrorism. Such support is part of our enhanced security and intelligence co-operation, and we will give it added impetus in the immediate future.
As my hon. Friend will know, the Government have placed a great priority on improving commercial links with many countries, and no country is too small to prevent us from working tirelessly to increase bilateral trade. The UK will solve its economic problems only through the export-led recovery that the Prime Minister and Chancellor have talked so much about.
We are, therefore, looking to exploit future opportunities. Morocco is an emerging economy and we are focused on building up our bilateral trade. I am pleased that International Power has recently secured energy contracts to operate a wind farm and coal-fired power stations, and I hope that other British business will follow suit. My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that UK Trade & Investment will take an outwards trade delegation to Morocco in January, and we also hope to restructure the Moroccan British Business Council and increase its effectiveness as a vehicle for creating vibrant business opportunities. We see Morocco as an increasingly attractive investment for UK companies—four UK law firms have established offices in Casablanca this year alone—and Her Majesty’s Government can play a role in encouraging that trend.
As my hon. Friend said, Morocco is probably one of the most advanced countries in north Africa in terms of democratic reform, and the way to embed such reform is through trade and the creation of prosperity and wealth. The more ties based on trade that countries such as Morocco have, the more likely it is that the rule of law will prevail in the future and good governance will remain.
I hope that I have responded to most of my hon. Friend’s points, and that he agrees that the UK and Morocco now have the opportunity to move forward together in a reinvigorated bilateral relationship. We must look at other ways of underpinning that already excellent relationship, and opportunities will flow from working together on the UN Security Council. As the Minister responsible for the UN, I have seen a number of small countries join the Security Council as temporary rotating members. If we engage with those countries at an early stage, we can work with them on a constructive basis—I refer in particular to countries such as Gabon, Colombia and Lebanon that have sat on the Security Council over the past year. We already had a fairly good relationship with those countries, but it is now even better. Working with them at a time of so many global challenges meant that we had to sit down together a great deal, look at our mutual interests and work together on many different international initiatives.
During his recent visit to Morocco, the Foreign Secretary spent time discussing the challenges and opportunities posed by Friday’s elections at this exciting time with representatives from a range of political parties. The UK will continue to support Morocco and its people as they continue their journey of evolutionary political reform.
I am last but not least, Mr Streeter. I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this debate. The mechanism for allocating channels is particularly important to the largest private sector company in my constituency, the shopping channel QVC, which employs more than 2,000 people nationwide, the majority of whom are based in Knowsley. Most of QVC’s work force are based in the UK, even though the company could move elsewhere given the nature of its business.
Although it sounds complicated and will involve a lot of acronyms, the issue under discussion is quite straightforward. QVC’s viewing figures and revenue are dependent on viewers being able to find it. As it stands, finding QVC is easy—as long as the channel remains the same—and it has 1.1 million loyal customers and many more viewers. Control of the channel number, however, rests in the hands of an organisation owned by its competitors. Such an arrangement could work with proper forward-facing regulation, but Ofcom does not actively regulate the process of channel allocation.
There have been three attempts to change the channel’s location in recent years, and another is imminent. We know that channel changes can lead to loss of revenue in excess of 35% per home. If Freeview channels were retail premises, it would be the equivalent of allowing major supermarkets to move the location of a smaller competitor at will. The issue, therefore, is about fair competition and appropriate regulation, to allow this thriving industry to create and sustain UK jobs.
I declare an interest in the debate because the headquarters of QVC will hopefully move to my constituency in the near future. My constituency is also the home of BSkyB, so I have an additional interest. On this issue, however, it seems that a group of companies is deciding the one thing that gives QVC its only competitive advantage and allows it to grow.
The hon. Lady made her point effectively and I will support her argument as my speech develops.
I have recently received helpful representations from the Interactive Media in Retail Group—IMRG—and the Electronic Retailing Association—ERA Europe. Both organisations support the case I am making today. The issue has a direct effect on QVC, but there is also a wider effect. Leaving aside QVC’s 1.1 million active customers, independent commercial broadcasters in the UK form a successful and growing sector that employs 22,000 people. Some of those broadcasters are now commercially vulnerable due to the unfair and unclear regulatory situation in respect of the Freeview platform. The allocation of Freeview channels is important to the whole of the independent commercial broadcasting industry.
According to a communications market report by Ofcom, non-public service broadcasters have a 28% share of the audience in UK multi-channel homes. That is a not insignificant number. Research undertaken by Deloitte shows that members of the Commercial Broadcasters Association—COBA—invested £432 million during 2009 in original UK content. Another survey, from 2008, showed that COBA members contributed more than £2.2 billion to the UK economy.
The Government recognise the importance of the sector and are currently undertaking a major review that is likely to lead to a new communications Bill. I welcome the rationale for that legislation, which I understand is to bring the UK’s regulatory regime into the digital age and to ensure a communications infrastructure that supports growth and innovation while protecting the public interest and consumer choice.
COBA told me that
“one of COBA’s fundamental principles is to support light touch regulation that benefits the whole market not just a few players.”
That is why handling the allocation of Freeview channels is so important. It will signal the Government’s intentions on fostering independent dynamic businesses in the communications industry and beyond.
My right hon. Friend is making extremely important points. Although I am not particularly familiar with the channel in question, I certainly believe that all regulation should work on the level playing field principle, and in the circumstances he has described, it clearly does not. That underlines a view that I have stated for many years and that I hope the Minister will think about when preparing his broadcasting legislation: Ofcom should have a much broader umbrella, covering all digitised services, so that at least there is a parent body that can deal with anomalies such as the one that my right hon. Friend describes.
The Minister nods; I am pleased about that.
As well as being the largest private sector employer in my constituency, QVC employs more than 500 highly skilled people in Battersea. As the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) said, the intention is to move to Chiswick Park in 2012. Therefore, this issue does not affect just my constituency. The objective must be a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory system for channel allocation, so that independent commercial broadcasters are not unfairly damaged.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for initiating the debate. Could he clarify the situation? Is he saying that the allocation of channels is driven by a commercial enterprise for its own vested interests, rather than being based on viewing figures for the likes of QVC, which may therefore be pushed down the list unfairly, as against those vested interests, in the allocation of the channels?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. That is exactly the point that I want to make. I will come to it in a moment.
DMOL—Digital Television Multiplex Operators Ltd—which manages the Freeview platform and allocates channels, is owned and run by the public service broadcasters BBC, and ITV and Channel 4, as well as the infrastructure provider Arqiva. As mentioned previously, that is the equivalent of allowing a major retailer to decide where local independent competitors can site their operations.
Further to the intervention by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod), is my right hon. Friend aware that ITV recently launched its own shopping channel, which adds more force to the argument about potential unfairness, because DMOL is partly owned by ITV? Does that not call into question what our hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) mentioned—the level playing field?
Absolutely. I am grateful for that supportive intervention. I understand that not only has ITV moved into that market and put itself in direct competition with QVC and any other shopping provider by those means; it used QVC to pilot the operation of that new service. That adds force to the point that was made earlier.
The national and European trade associations share my concerns. They said in a submission to me:
“Businesses need certainty as well as fair competition. QVC’s business is threatened by the current regulatory uncertainty around channel allocation and we call on the government and on Ofcom, to give some clarity so that UK firms, like QVC,”
can continue to serve their customers and grow their businesses. ERA Europe stated:
“Our members’ future business in the UK is under threat from an uncertain regulatory environment regarding channel allocation on the Freeview platform and we urge the UK government and Ofcom to be more transparent in this most important area.”
At the heart of the issue is the ability of the dominant players to allocate valuable channel numbers to commercial competitors without independent adjudication and due process. QVC is currently positioned on Channel 16 on Freeview. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) said that he does not use QVC. If he takes the trouble to tune in to Channel 16, he might find some very useful bargains, but I will leave that up to him. He should remember that when he does so, he will be supporting jobs in Knowsley.
The issue is very important. Ofcom said in relation to DMOL that
“any regulatory issues would require consideration under the relevant multiplex licences. Pursuant to the Communications Act its activities are also subject to Ofcom’s concurrent competition law powers under the Competition Act 1998.”—[Official Report, 14 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 497W.]
That quote is from a parliamentary written answer from the Minister.
Ofcom was in contact with me directly ahead of the debate. Its briefing sheds more light on the situation. It confirms:
“The multiplex operators are subject to regulatory requirements set out in the relevant multiplex licences, which include provisions to ensure fair and effective competition. Ofcom’s formal role in relation to DMOL’s listing policy is to”
consider “compatibility with our code” on electronic programme guides
“and consider complaints from interested parties (including DTT”—
digital terrestrial television—
“licensees such as QVC). Pursuant to the Communications Act, DMOL’s activities are also subject to Ofcom’s concurrent competition law powers under the Competition Act 1998.”
The problem is that those regulatory powers are in practice retrospective. They can apply only after the channel changes have been determined.
In relation to the electronic programme guide code, Ofcom informed me that it
“has considered from time to time whether it would be appropriate to review the Code, but has concluded on each occasion that there was no pressing need to do so. It is likely that there will be communications legislation within the next few years, and the government has indicated that it is minded to look at EPG regulation in this context. We would need to take this into account in considering the appropriate timing for any review of the Code…On behalf of multiplex operators, DMOL has initiated a detailed review of the DTT listings policies, including the criteria for how different types of channels should be listed in the EPG. It has completed a first round of consultation, and identified the need for a further consultation early next year, following detailed research it has commissioned into the views of consumers.”
Given the likely threat to jobs faced by QVC workers, the statement about there being “no pressing need” is of some concern. Saying that the regulation falls within individual multiplex licences overlooks the fact that with the exception of the utility Arqiva, the multiplex operators are also dominant channel operators and indirect competitors of independent broadcasters.
Fortunately, there is an easy to implement solution, which I am sure that the Minister will be happy to hear. DMOL should be regulated in the same way as any other broadcast television platform. For example, the equivalent operation at BSkyB, to which the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth referred and which reaches fewer homes, has been regulated since the late 1990s.
That is not an argument for special treatment, merely one for a level playing field, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston put it, so that independent broadcasters can compete fairly with all channels, including the public service broadcasters. I accept that public service channels should have special prominence with preferential channel numbers, but the current policy and practice for allocating logical channel numbers on Freeview unfairly disadvantages independent commercial broadcasters and disproportionately benefits the channels operated by DMOL shareholders.
We all want to ensure that the UK broadcast market remains dynamic and successful. Channel allocation on Freeview is about economic fairness, business certainty, jobs, encouragement of investment and legal principle. It is also about the importance of a broad and diverse UK television market.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister to consider carefully the full implications of the current DMOL channel allocation system and its lack of transparency. I am sure that with good will and an understanding of the problem, the Government and Ofcom will between them be able to resolve the situation. In practice, that means asking Ofcom to ensure that DMOL is regulated in the same way as other platforms.
First, may I say what a pleasure it is to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter? Secondly, I thank the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) for securing the debate and for the way he presented his concerns, which I absolutely understand. Thirdly, and in some ways most surprisingly, I apologise for not being the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). I hope that this is the last time I have to do so. He is, of course, the Minister for the arts and the media, but he is away on ministerial business, and on his behalf, I apologise.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the issues regarding Freeview and the allocation of channels. The debate is particularly timely, because my Department is considering the regulation on electronic programme guides as part of our communications review.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the importance of slots and the high-level listings on EPGs, and how that might impact on viewing numbers, and therefore indirectly on businesses, such as those in his constituency and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod). I absolutely understand QVC’s position and the possible impact that any decision by Digital Multiplex Operators Ltd may have on that established company. QVC is a great British company. In 18 years, it has revolutionised home shopping in the UK and grown to have about 1,500 employees in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency and at least another 500 elsewhere.
The regulation of EPGs is, as the right hon. Gentleman correctly said, a matter for the independent regulator, Ofcom, and not directly for Ministers. While I have no powers to intervene in this case, I would like to set out the regulatory framework and what we are considering as part of the communications review. At the outset, I will give him a straightforward undertaking that I will take back what he has said today and ensure that my hon. Friend the Minister, who has responsibility for the arts and the media, is aware of his concerns.
Will the Minister add another aspect to that? While my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) teased me about not being a shopper on QVC, my mother, who often gets into such debates, found it to be of invaluable service when she was at home as a disabled person. A lot of older people who are not experts on the internet, although my mother used the internet in her 90s, find television shopping a valuable tool. It would be grossly unfair to put people such as the disabled at a competitive disadvantage because of the competitive advantage of giant broadcasters.
I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman the undertaking that I will ensure that his comments are also relayed to my ministerial colleague.
The Communications Act 2003 sets out the fact that it is Ofcom’s duty to draw up, and from time to time review and revise, a code to give guidance to platform operators about the provision of EPGs. Ofcom’s code of practice on EPGs is non-prescriptive about the order in which channels are placed, except for the public service broadcasting channels, which include the BBC’s digital services, channels 3, 4 and 5, and S4C in Wales.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Knowsley on securing the debate. The Minister mentioned S4C. There is an exciting prospect that EPG has to provide for local television. There is some consideration being given to using channel 8 for local television, on which Channel 4 is broadcast in Wales because of the presence of S4C on channel 4 on the EPG. Does he recognise that that issue also needs to be considered in the debate?
Absolutely. While the Government intend for the local television channel to be channel 8 in England and Northern Ireland, we are looking at what the appropriate channel is in Wales and Scotland, given exactly the issue that my hon. Friend has raised.
The right hon. Member for Knowsley is particularly concerned to see that Ofcom’s code requires that other, non-PSB channels are treated on a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory basis. To guard against platform operators such as Freeview misusing their power in relation to broadcasters, Ofcom has the power to investigate potential breaches of competition law in the communications sector, such as exclusionary agreements and the abuse of a dominant position.
In summary, the listing of channels within EPGs is determined by individual platforms, exactly as the right hon. Gentleman said, such as Freeview, Sky, Virgin and Freesat, within the restrictions of Ofcom’s code and powers. It is not for the Government or Ofcom to specify exactly where every channel should be listed. It is important to note that anyone, including the broadcasters themselves, who is unhappy with how a platform operator has applied the EPG code has recourse to raise that with Ofcom as the appropriate regulator.
I am grateful for the helpful way the Minister is responding to the debate. I would like to emphasise that the existing powers are retrospective, and that still creates uncertainty. I hope that he will feel able to address that aspect together with Ofcom.
Thank you for that gentle warning, Mr Streeter, and I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I absolutely understand that and I will ensure that his point is fed into the Department’s wider review of the 2003 Act.
The right hon. Gentleman’s concerns relate specifically to Freeview, so I shall discuss the background and the set-up of the Freeview platform. The Freeview service comprises approximately 50 TV channels broadcast on digital terrestrial television, or DTT, and is free to air. A company called DTV Services Ltd, owned and run, as he said, by its shareholders—the BBC, BSkyB, Channel 4, ITV and Arqiva—is responsible for the Freeview brand.
DMOL, which is a limited company owned by the digital multiplex operators, was set up in 2007 to co-ordinate the functions of the DTT platform. Within its remit is responsibility for setting the channel numbers on Freeview. The good news is that DMOL has initiated a detailed review of the DTT listings policies, including the criteria for how different types of channel should be listed in the EPG. It has also commissioned in-depth research on the views of consumers. Once again, I will ensure, through the Department, that the views of the right hon. Gentleman are brought to the attention of DMOL as part of that review.
DMOL proposes to launch a consultation in February. It is asking for comments on the ordering of channels within the general entertainment genre, the creation of a transactional genre, and the ordering and location of all genres beyond general entertainment. That consultation will presumably include, among others, the mother of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). It is therefore essential that everyone with views about the allocation of channels responds to that consultation. I strongly encourage the right hon. Member for Knowsley and his constituents to do exactly that.
As the right hon. Gentleman does not feel that there is a level playing field between Freeview and other platforms, let me turn briefly to the way Ofcom regulates EPGs with particular reference to Freeview. The platform operators decide EPG lists. DMOL is a body formed by the multiplex licensees to co-ordinate the operation of the DTT platform and the organisation of the EPG. I must stress that EPGs on the DTT platform are regulated by Ofcom, albeit in the circumstances intimated by the right hon. Gentleman, in the same way as other platforms.
The EPG code on DTT applies to the multiplex licensees, rather than to DMOL. That means that in the event of a complaint against Freeview over its compliance with the EPG code, Ofcom would take it up with the multiplex licensees through DMOL. Ofcom would have the regulatory power to intervene, just as it could in the event of a complaint about the EPG of any other platform. In this case, it does not make sense for Ofcom to intervene even before DMOL has held its consultation and reached a final decision on its proposed changes, which is why I am encouraging the right hon. Gentleman to respond to the forthcoming DMOL consultation with as much evidence as possible.
As hon. Members will be aware, my Department is undertaking a review of the communications sector. We are looking at a broad range of areas from television and radio to broadband and spectrum issues. I should stress that the aim of that review is to stimulate growth and create opportunities in the communications sectors, and not in any way to dictate or limit the development of markets and technologies in broadcasting or other industries.
The importance of EPGs is an area to which we have started to give detailed consideration. The Secretary of State has reflected that interest:
“Position on the EPG will probably be the Government’s single most important lever in protecting our tradition of public service broadcasting. We are actively looking at how to make that situation better, if necessary using legislation.”—[Official Report, 8 September 2011; Vol. 532, c. 543.]
That is absolutely a key area in this review. I should add that not only are we interested in looking at the issue of the EPG from the perspective of public service broadcasters, but we are aware of the immense value that many of the commercial, non-PSB channels bring in providing a wide range of viewing choices and investing in more UK content. We would like to understand more about the importance that companies place on the EPG.
There is some evidence that the position on the EPG can affect the viewing figures of a particular channel, and that may have some indirect commercial impact. For example, MTV’s slot was moved up 150 channel places on the Sky platform, from the top of the music section to the middle of the third page general entertainment section. Research published by the media consultancy Attentional suggests that the Sky audience for MTV increased by as much as 150%.
The communications review is already under way, having been kicked off by a letter from the Secretary of State in June. We have already received more than 160 responses to that letter, many of which touched on the issue of EPG and channel prominence. We are very much in listening mode ahead of the publication of the Green Paper early next year and are grateful for the opportunity to hear some of the issues today. As I said to the right hon. Member for Knowsley, I will ensure that his contribution is fed into that review.
It is important that interested parties continue to feed in their views. I am pleased that QVC was among those that responded to the open letter from the Government and I encourage it to continue to engage with that process as it moves forward.
Let me finish by expressing my thanks to the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Although the Government do not have a direct role in allocating EPG places, and I do not think that anybody in this Chamber would encourage us so to do, I promise him that I will take on board what he has said today and ensure that it is fed into the review. I encourage him and his constituents to continue to engage with the review as it moves forward.
Question put and agreed to.