Wednesday 30 January 2013
[Mr David Amess in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Greg Hands.)
May I start, Mr Amess, by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time? It is a particular privilege to introduce the debate, because it is the first time I have had the honour to do so since I was elected to Parliament in a by-election last November. I am delighted that the debate is on such an important matter.
At heart, we are debating whether consumers can feel confident about the meat they are buying and eating. People buying what they thought were beefburgers from supermarkets, including Tesco, Lidl and Iceland, were horrified to discover that they contained horsemeat. Muslims, including many in my constituency, were upset to discover that the beefburgers they were eating contained pork DNA, which is forbidden by their religion.
Aside from the shock of discovering that they were eating a completely different animal, what confidence can we have that the meat we buy is not contaminated or unfit for human consumption if we cannot even be sure what meat is in the product in the first place? Of 27 samples tested by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, 10 tested positive for horse DNA and 23 for pig DNA. One Tesco beefburger, in probably the most celebrated instance, was found to contain 29% horsemeat.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. Does he agree that there is a difference between a product having traces of something in it, however problematic that may be for people’s religious views, and the adulteration of food with large amounts of material, probably for commercial purposes?
I do agree. The problem is that consumers cannot be sure what is going into the product they are buying for consumption by them and their family. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
First, we have to ask whether the Food Standards Agency is still fit for purpose. Let us not forget that it was the Irish authorities and not our own that exposed the problem of horsemeat in beefburgers. Our system has been fragmented by the Government as part of a drive to deregulate. Labelling, food composition, nutrition and food safety used to be dealt with by a single agency and are now handled by three: the Department of Health, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the FSA. That fragmentation and additional bureaucracy make it much more likely that problems will be missed.
Standards in the British food industry are high, and it is vital that those standards and that reputation are not undermined by the Government’s actions. The FSA’s budget has been cut by £11 million over the past year alone, reducing its capacity to detect contaminated food. At the same time, the swingeing scale of Government cuts to local government has seen funding for local trading standards services plummet by a third from £213 million in 2011-12 to around £140 million this year.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the Government’s scrapping of the national equine database was sheer folly? We have the risk of bute entering the food chain, but, putting that to one side, any savings that may have been made by scrapping the database have been totally dwarfed by the commercial and financial damage to the food industry.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to the national equine database and the risks that its scrapping has created for consumers and the industry. I thank him for his welcome intervention.
On local trading standards services, a freedom of information request by the trade union Unison exposed the fact that 743 trading standards jobs have been lost since 2010, resulting in fewer inspections and, consequently, higher risks for the public. Unison has questioned whether councils still have the resources they need to do the job. It is not enough for the Government to blame councils for cutting those services when the Government have cut councils’ funding to such a huge extent in the first place.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s interesting speech on this extremely important subject, which is damaging our meat industry and our farmers. I am not certain about his logic regarding Government cuts to local authorities and elsewhere. He is politicising what should be a non-political discussion, because we all hate the notion of horsemeat in burgers. The issue has nothing to do with Government cuts; it is to do with supermarkets buying cheaper and cheaper burgers from doubtful sources.
There are certainly issues to do with what the supermarkets are sourcing, which is contributing to the problem, but if we do not have a properly resourced system of regulation, consumers cannot be confident that what the supermarkets and other retailers are selling them is what they believe they are buying. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
There are serious questions about the role of the supermarkets in forcing suppliers to cut corners to meet commercial demands. There are reports—we will all have read them—of products being bulked up with protein powders containing trace DNA from other animals, with no way of tracing those products back to their origin. There are further concerns about the processing of meat from different animals through the same production equipment, leaving trace DNA behind despite attempts at deep cleaning, as well as about meat from different sources being commingled without any labelling to warn consumers about what they are buying. The National Farmers Union has raised concerns about that, warning that the drive towards “more for less” risks compromising consumer health, the need for transparency and, ultimately, consumer confidence.
On horses slaughtered in the UK for food, the past four years have seen an 84% increase in the number of animals slaughtered, mostly for export. In 2012, 9,405 horses were slaughtered, but only 1.5% of those animals were tested for phenylbutazone, or bute, as it is more commonly known. That drug is commonly administered to race horses, but it can cause cancer in humans and is banned from the human food chain. Of that small sample, the FSA has confirmed that eight slaughtered horses tested positive, potentially exposing fraud in the system. That risk of fraud was made worse by the Government’s decision to scrap the national equine database last August, which my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) alluded to. That has made it more difficult to trace which British horses are being slaughtered for meat and whether the meat is fit for human consumption.
The Government have chosen to rely on the horse passport system alone. Under that system, 75 different organisations are authorised to issue passports, which contain details of the drugs a horse is given during its lifetime. The British Horse Society confirmed this month that
“with no central database…it is now possible for a horse to be issued with two passports: one in which medication is recorded and an apparently clean one to be presented at the time of slaughter—allowing the medicated horse to be passed as fit for consumption.”
The system is clearly wide open to fraud and abuse.
I will make progress, if I may. I have taken several interventions already.
Those failures of Government threaten the very high reputation of the UK food industry. The NFU has spoken out clearly for a more robust system, with clearer labelling of ingredients in products, and a new requirement that processed meat products should display the species of meat and meat derivatives alongside the country of origin. On the difficulties in tracking the source of horse DNA in burgers, the NFU has called for a review into how the origin of meat is identified and maintained throughout the trade and between different countries. The Government should adopt that proposal, and I hope the Minister will respond to that in his speech.
My contention is that the Government have underfunded, fragmented and undermined the food safety system. We must reassure consumers that the meat they buy is correctly labelled, legal and safe to eat. The Government’s actions, driven by cuts and an ideological pursuit of deregulation, made the latest food crisis more likely and mean that it could happen again.
Like many others, I think that the debate is hugely important, and with my background in the livestock industry I know what the concerns are there. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the reason the issue has come to the fore—and we are pleased that it has—is the improved testing in Ireland, which is, essentially, where the problem arose? We should congratulate the Irish Government on raising the bar for testing. It would be encouraging if testing of that standard could happen in as many countries as possible, including ours.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman; the standards of testing in Ireland seem to be admirable, and we should replicate that in the UK.
In summary, it is time for the Government to review the whole system and take urgent action to restore consumer confidence in the meat products that we buy and eat, for the benefit of consumers, retailers and the food industry in the United Kingdom.
I was not necessarily intending to speak at any great length, but I have been inspired by the speech of the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed). I congratulate him on making such an excellent speech so early in his parliamentary career. I am not sure that in my 15 years here I have quite achieved the expertise that he has in a few months. It was a most useful introduction to an important and interesting debate.
I took issue with the hon. Gentleman to a degree, because in discussing a cross-party issue he strayed slightly into party political issues, blaming the Government and everything to do with them for an appalling incident over Christmas, when horsemeat was found in supermarket burgers. I am not certain that Government cuts to local authorities and the other things that he listed can necessarily be directly blamed, and I felt that that was an unfortunate part of the speech. Overall, however, he made an extremely important point—that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) pointed out, even the smallest traces of DNA in a burger could damage consumer confidence to an extraordinary degree. That has happened before, such as in the Edwina Currie and eggs episode, with beef and on other occasions since then.
The slightest hint that supermarket burgers might not be up to scratch could lead to a disproportionate effect on the burger and supermarket industries, and therefore on farmers. I speak particularly on behalf of farmers in my constituency where there is significant beef production. I pay tribute, in passing, to McDonald’s, which now sources all its beef from UK sources. That was a worthwhile thing to do, and it would be appalling if confidence in the excellent McDonald’s product—I hold no brief for McDonald’s—were to be undermined by the unfortunate incident that has occurred.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on making a very good speech. Local food provenance is important, because among EU nations the UK is unique: it has the highest proportion of food retail—and beverages—from sales from shops and restaurants. That is very important, so trading standards are critical. Even in the past month, trading standards in the south-west found lamb kebabs, which everyone likes to get when it is late, on the way home, containing chicken, beef, poultry and other assorted goodies. It is important to keep local trading standards.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and am about to discuss trading standards, and how we can restore consumer confidence. If consumers believe that what they buy is different from what the packet says, they will stop buying it. That damages not only dodgy products—and I think some supermarkets have been guilty, under commercial pressure, of buying products at a lower price than they might reasonably have done—but also first-class ones. I agree with the hon. Member for Croydon North about the importance of strong local trading standards, a strong Food Standards Agency, and strong Government controls, to ensure that the highest possible standards for food are maintained in supermarkets. That applies particularly in the present case to meat, and particularly beef, in the context of horse-contaminated products. I agree with the broad thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, and I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Minister how we can be certain to restore consumer confidence.
I want, however, to touch on an aspect of the opening speech that I disagreed with; the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) also touched on the same point in an intervention. The suggestion seemed to be that if the system in the UK for the control of the killing of horses were somehow better, incidents such as the recent one would be less likely. The hon. Member for Croydon North mentioned the Government’s recent abolition of the national equine database and the operation of horse passports. I remember a debate in this very Chamber in 2005 when my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) argued passionately that horse passports were a complete waste of time, and committed himself to abolishing them when he came to power. I keep reminding the Prime Minister of that, and he has not yet got round to it, but I am confident that sooner or later he may go down that track.
The idea behind the introduction of horse passports was that every medicine administered to a horse would be stamped on the passport. In particular, as the hon. Member for Croydon North mentioned, bute is a common medicine—and not only among racehorses, as he mentioned; often ordinary hacks will be given bute. That is or could be harmful to human beings. It is important that those horses should not go into the food chain. Abattoirs should know if horses have taken it, and prevent that from happening. The idea was that every horse—there are getting on for 2 million of them in the UK; we do not quite know the number—should have a passport. Every time it went to the vet the passport would be stamped, and when it appeared at the abattoir the staff would say, “No, Mr Horse, you have had bute. You can’t come in here. Please go away.”
From the start, that was a ridiculously flawed principle. The basic flaw is that although a horse owner such as me might be persuaded to buy a horse passport on first getting the horse, it is difficult to remember to cancel it when the horse dies. Already, roughly half of 750,000 horse passports in circulation in the UK today are for dead horses. The document is entirely meaningless, and a great many horses—particularly low-value ones, belonging to various groups of people—have no passports at all. The system is blown wide open. Decent, sensible, ordinary horse owners get round to buying them. People who try, criminally, to get their horses into the human consumption chain do not, so the system does not work.
That system failure was compounded by the national equine database. I must pick up the hon. Member for Croydon North on one point: of course the NED did not cost the Government anything. It was the passport-issuing authorities that paid for it. Abolishing it did not save any money; it was abolished because it was not working. An enormous computer, with a list of animals on it that die at the rate of 100,000 a year and are born all over the place, without anyone knowing where they live, is a worthless piece of bureaucracy. It cannot keep an accurate record of where all the horses are. It did not work. It did not even begin to do so, or come close to it. The Government sensibly realised that. I hope that they will go further at some stage and abolish horse passports, challenging the European Union in doing so, but that is another debate.
I have taken the same view of horse passports as my hon. Friend, because I knew they would not work. Does he agree that the issue is particularly relevant where there are many wild horses? Because of the bureaucracy affecting passports and ownership, and fear of in some way getting into trouble, the likelihood of their being got rid of when they die is far greater. That is one reason why the whole industry is not run properly. That is particularly relevant in places such as north Wales, where there are huge numbers of wild horses.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, and I was about to move on to it. He speaks for north Wales, where there is a large problem, but it is also a problem across the rest of England—less so in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK.
The fact of the matter is that the NED and horse passports cannot, by definition, prevent horse medicines from getting into the human food chain in the UK; neither can they prevent horsemeat from entering it. They do not work, but there is a simple solution. Only about 7,500, or perhaps 8,500, horses a year go to the one or two functioning UK abattoirs that still take them, which is an incredibly small percentage of the 100,000 or so horses that die each year. Horses are generally shot by a vet, and either buried on a farm or given to packs of foxhounds to consume. The latter is a common way of disposing of horse carcases, with a very small number indeed of horses going to an abattoir. All horses that do go to an abattoir are exported overseas on the hook, as it were, for eating in Italy and elsewhere.
Many purists who think that eating a horse is a disgusting idea, would say, “Fine. Let us abolish the killing of horses in the UK. There is a very small number, so let us just abolish the abattoirs.” That would also abolish the need for horse passports, because if someone could not take their horse to an abattoir they would not need a passport to prove that it had not taken bute in the previous couple of years.
That is a possible solution, but either way, I do not believe that the way in which the horse passport regime, the NED and the UK abattoirs work has anything to do with the scandal of horsemeat in burgers. That came from elsewhere in the world, and no one is suggesting that UK abattoirs were somehow feeding horsemeat into burgers in the supermarkets. Saying that the horse passport system is somehow bad, that the NED should not have been abolished or something about abattoirs in the UK has nothing to do with what we are discussing, so I want to press the Minister on this matter.
If the Government have a primary duty to consumers, it must be to say to them, first, “What you are buying in the supermarkets is what you believe you are buying.” What it says on the tin must be what they find inside the box, and if that is not the case there is a slippage somewhere, whether with the Food Standards Agency, local trading standards or elsewhere. Secondly, the Government must be able to tell consumers that the product is of the highest possible quality. Our farmers depend on the consumer relying on top-quality supermarket products, and the moment the consumer—because they are Muslim or do not like eating horses, or for another reason—begins to believe that a product might somehow be contaminated, they will stop buying it, and that has an extraordinarily bad knock-on effect on our nation’s food producers.
The Government have an absolutely fundamental duty to discover what went wrong in this case, to put it right, and to consider whether the newly established supermarket ombudsman might have a role to play, possibly in examining how purchases are made. In all events, I want to be able to say to consumers in my constituency, “What you buy in supermarkets is exactly what you think you are buying and it is of the highest possible quality. There is no possibility of cross-contamination, from horsemeat or in any other way, and you will get precisely what it says on the tin.”
I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon North on securing this important debate, and I very much hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister responds he will be able to put at rest the minds not only of consumers across my constituency of North Wiltshire but of the food producers there too.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed) on bringing this matter to the House. It has been very much in the press over the past few weeks, and it continues to be an issue that concerns us. My constituency is a very rural one, and because of the scare in certain parts of the country the importance and quality of the foodstuffs produced in Strangford must be illustrated and underscored.
Up until a few years ago, before I was elected to this House, I was a pork retailer. I had a business that sold bacon and sausage across the whole country. I sold good-quality meats to local butchers and restaurants, and had a very good trade. Times have changed since the day when people knew the farmer, knew the guys who slaughtered the animal and knew their butcher, and with the current lack of knowledge, uncertainty has crept into the market, which is at odds with the new mindset of being aware of and cautious about what we eat.
As a type 2 diabetic, I have become very aware of what I eat and of the need to control my diet carefully, so when it comes to checking food labels I try to look for the good things to eat. Labels tell us what is in a product—but do they? That is the question that the hon. Member for Croydon North is asking. Do labels tell us what we are eating? No, clearly they do not. This debate will hopefully address that issue, and consider where the responsibility lies. In the short time I have, I want to illustrate where I think the focus needs to be.
We teach primary schoolchildren how to read nutritional labels and to be aware of what goes into their bodies, and this shock of a label not actually covering what is in the product is alarming news. In a recent interesting article about the horsemeat issue, the Countryside Alliance raised the following important point:
“A food scare never fails to alarm, and when the spotlight shines on the unsustainable cheap-end of the market we must use the opportunity to inform consumers.”
One reason we are where we are today is the demand from the public and the consumer for cheaper products, as other Members have illustrated. Cheaper products are not always better products. Very often, as has recently been seen, they are not what they seem to be, and I, and many others in this Chamber, want to ensure that there is more information for consumers, that lessons are learned from this latest debacle and that things change for the better.
Although eating horsemeat poses no health risks, I and many others in this Chamber consider it distasteful. People should be informed about what they are paying for and eating. When we buy a beefburger we want a beefburger, and when we buy a beefsteak that is what we expect to get. In one of this morning’s papers, it was indicated that there is some concern about beefburgers in Spain. We know that our European colleagues have much more unusual eating habits and tastes than we do in this Chamber, and there might be a liking for some things that I, and many others, would turn our noses up at and not be happy with, but the point is that in Spain they thought that they were eating beefburgers and they were not.
There should be an assurance that British beef is indeed British, and not just packaged in Britain as the labels so often tell us. When I was wearing my previous hat as a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), the issue of clear labelling was brought up. At that time the scare was about pork contamination, but it was clear that Northern Ireland’s pork was free of any contaminants. That scare reminded me of when Edwina Currie made her comment about the egg industry. I am not being disrespectful to her, but right away the impact on that industry was colossal and people were ruined overnight, yet the threat, the contamination and the damage were coming from outside.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what is important now is to restore the confidence of the wider community—the general consumer—in the accuracy of labelling and the safety of meat products? That needs to be done with the utmost urgency, to try to ensure that there is no repeat of the salmonella and other such issues, to which I think my hon. Friend was alluding.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that matter. The farming industry does its bit, and trading standards has a role to play, but the supermarkets also have a clear role because their push for insatiable profits and cheaper items means that they cast their net wider when it comes to getting the product.
At the time I was talking about, the shelves were emptied of bacon, sausages and other pork products, even through they were safe. The spin-off in Northern Ireland was worrying. The contaminated products came from the Republic of Ireland, and their origin was not clear from the packaging. There is a clear role for local councils and trading standards on clear packaging.
There is a question to be asked about the degree to which the Republic of Ireland is guilty of lower standards than we have in the United Kingdom. I heard of a case this week in which a horse with a decent passport was exported to southern Ireland to be administered drugs and the passport was not changed. The horse was re-imported into the UK with an apparently clean passport, despite having been given drugs in the Republic. One or two of the Republic’s practices might need to be examined with some care.
The hon. Gentleman has illustrated that well. There is a question on the standards in neighbouring countries, and that question must be addressed.
The Northern Ireland pork contamination of 2008 is happening today in the United Kingdom, and this time we must take action that ensures that the good-quality products that farmers produce across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are given the status that they deserve. That raises the issue that butchers and the like have been touting for years: buying from reputable local retailers ensures that food is locally or responsibly sourced, although it may cost slightly more. Local butchers have local products. Many farmers have direct access to butchers, and people can be assured that the local butcher, by and large, has the best product and ensures animal welfare.
We had a debate in this Chamber two weeks ago—several Members here today were in attendance—on veterinary products that are put into animals and sometimes carry over into the food chain. There is concern about animal welfare, but there is also the reassurance and confidence, to which my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry referred, that British farming almost certainly guarantees a first-class product every time.
Hailing from a rural constituency and working with farmers and fishermen, I know the hard work that goes into providing top-class produce. In my eyes, buying locally, supporting the local economy and ensuring that farmers get a fair price for their product is worth every penny. I am concerned about local supermarkets and their drive to keep prices low, which is good for the consumer, but only if the product is good. The recent situation should not have arisen, but, as the saying goes, there is no use crying over spilt milk, just fix the jug handle and make sure that it does not happen again.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. At one end of the market, people are becoming very conscious about what is in their meat—they are looking for locally sourced, organic produce, perhaps cattle fed on grass, rather than on grain, and so on—but at the other end of the market, people who cannot afford to pay for such products are increasingly going for the very cheap options, and we have no idea what they actually contain. As we have heard today, in some cases those products are contaminated. I am unsure of the solution. Does he have any ideas?
I do not always have solutions to the issues that come along. I hope the Government, in whom we have confidence, can provide some of those solutions. I know one thing: when it comes to cheaper products, we need a guarantee that there will be monitoring of what takes place.
My constituency is no different from any other. I represent people who buy something because it is cheaper, and many people who buy cheaper perhaps do not fit into the physical, visual strata of being well off.
I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees that we should not create an impression that, just because a product is cheaper, in some way it is of poorer quality, because that is not the case. We need a system whereby what is said on the tin is what is actually in the tin. Just because a product has been produced more cheaply using cheaper cuts, that does not mean it is an inferior product.
I accept that point. Cheaper does not always mean that the quality is inferior, but—this is why we are having this debate—we must underline where the labelling on the tin or the package has not been correct. That is the point. We need councils or the Government to oversee a system in which labels stating that a product is sourced in Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom mean that the product comes from Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom, not on a lorry into an abattoir in the middle of England from across Europe because that would not be entirely accurate. We want to address those things.
We must ensure that steps are taken to ensure that produce is clearly marked with the country of origin, country of packaging and exactly what the product is made of. As the hon. Gentleman says, that what it says on the tin is what is in the tin, and that what it says on the packet is what is in the packet. The best way to do that is by buying locally. I know the price squeezes that large chains put on local farmers make it hard to survive, which is why I have always supported the idea of a supermarket ombudsman or regulator. Perhaps the Minister could give us some indication of whether there is a role for the ombudsman or regulator. I suspect everyone in the Chamber has pushed for the groceries code adjudicator, for instance, and the Government have committed to introducing that. Is there a role for the adjudicator? If there is, perhaps that is how we can address the issue.
The price gap from field to plate is increasing, and as the price of fuel increases the farmers once again feel the brunt. Too often, supermarkets expect farmers to absorb the price increases, and, indeed, too often supermarkets push for a price decrease, which means they will not buy locally. Farmers in my area tell me that the supermarkets will say, “Here is the price for this week,” even though it costs the farmer more to produce their quality product. There has to be a role for the adjudicator. My firm belief is that, had the meat been locally sourced, there would not have been an issue. I support those who call for an investigation into the way labels are written and for all things to be made clear, which is what the hon. Member for Croydon North proposes.
Have we learned a lesson? I hope we have, and I hope we can improve. The major supermarkets are saying that they have learned a lesson, and I hope they have; consumers are saying that they have also learned a lesson, and I hope they have, too. They are both committed to the product. Our job is to ensure that the lesson learned translates into action so that we do not find ourselves in the same position in five years’ time. The next time someone has a burger containing horsemeat, it should be because they are aware of what they are eating, not because they went to the local supermarket and chose a cheaper brand.
I start by declaring an interest as a producer of beef and sheep, but not horses. The last time I sold a horse was when it was outgrown by my daughter, which was before passports were introduced.
I commend the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed) for obtaining this debate. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason why such debates are well attended or not so well attended, but he has been rather ill served today because he has introduced a subject of great interest both to the House and to the public outside.
A range of organisations and people across the country are looking to the Government to ensure that confidence is re-established in food, particularly meat products and burgers. Not only farmers and food producers, but food manufacturers, food retailers and consumers must have confidence so that our food industry, which has been of a high standard, maintains that high standard and goes on to improve.
The hon. Gentleman did a good job of breaking down some of the issues that have been conflated by other people. The excellent work in the Irish Republic to identify the matter has raised a number of issues, the first of which is contamination. Some food manufacturers’ processes are not as good as they could be, and they use machinery that has been used to make pork products to produce a beef burger without cleaning the equipment well enough, so that some pork residue ends up in the beef product. That can be of huge consequence to people whose religion teaches that they should not eat pork, so it is of great significance to us.
The other issue occurs when large amounts of cheaper product are introduced into another product in order to reduce the cost, and the product is not described accurately on the label. That is food adulteration, and it is as old as the food industry itself. When commodity prices are high, people will always cast around for a cheaper alternative to put into their products. There is no real problem with doing so, as long as it is made clear to the whole supply chain so that people know what is in the product. In this case, it was a complete deception, possibly by the supplier of the meat, which it is suggested originally came from Poland. The supplier had a duty to make that clear to the Irish who bought it, and so on down the supply chain.
It is a difficult issue. The food manufacturing business is this country’s biggest manufacturing sector, and it is sometimes overlooked as simple or primitive. I do not mean that in a derogatory way; it does not have the same great initiatives and research as some of the other sectors, but it fulfils an important purpose.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good and intelligent contribution to this debate. I suggest that one thing that has changed in how we source and identify our meat and trace ingredients is the increasing globalisation of the meat market, both inside and outside the EU, the Republic of Ireland and the UK. For that reason, adulterated meat, which he says is a problem that is as old as the hills, is of greater concern now, particularly when it can involve imports from Argentina, North America or elsewhere into the EU market, and possibly into the UK thereafter. We must be even more stringent.
The hon. Gentleman, because he is aware of these matters, will know that if meat or any other foodstuff is imported into the European Union, it must come through a port and be inspected, but if meat is transferred between European Union nations, it is expected that each nation will have done the appropriate tests and is confident that the product is as described and is safe. Safety is key.
During food manufacturing, a lot of products are taken out and put in. One of the simplest examples is bread. Some or all of the bran is removed from wheat to make flour, and then chemicals are added, particularly nutrients to prevent birth defects. We agree that those additions to wheat are a good thing, but we must ensure that other things added to our food products maintain safety.
Trading standards and the Food Standards Agency have been mentioned, as have this country’s public health bodies. The key issue is to have joined-up working between those organisations locally, in policy making and in ensuring that all the necessary tests are done to maintain food safety in this country.
We must stand up and say that Britain has a remarkable record on food safety. When issues have been identified, Governments of all persuasions have been ready to take action to ensure that consumers are safeguarded. I am sure that this Government will be no different in taking such action, and I have every confidence that they will do so.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed) on securing this debate, which is of vital concern not only for food production but for manufacturing and processing. It affects every constituency in the UK; I doubt that there is a single one that does not have jobs related to food manufacturing and processing. As the Minister will know, it is one of the largest employment areas in the UK economy, but is often overlooked. It is important to get food provenance and consumer confidence in the sector right, and to ensure that what is written on the label is accurate.
As my hon. Friend outlined in his contribution, this debate should focus on restoring confidence after a scare within the industry and among consumers, but in order to do so, we need complete and utter transparency. I agree with the comments made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams); in the past couple of decades, we have become increasingly rigorous in inspecting and testing meat, in terms of slaughter and processing. However, we also need candour, not only about the successes in the sector and in implementation across the EU but about potential failings. If we do not do so—if we try to conceal issues that might be of concern—we have learned nothing from previous scare stories that have caused a run on consumer confidence and hit the economy of the food processing sector. It is vital to be honest with consumers, ourselves and industry in order to restore and maintain confidence.
That might be uncomfortable, but before I begin, let me highlight, as I am sure the Minister will do in his speech, the importance of the sector. The meat processing and slaughter sector in the UK involves more than 300 businesses and contributes more than £4 billion in revenue and turnover. In the European Union, of which we are still a member nation at the moment, the meat processing sector employs 48 million people, and here in the UK it employs 1.25 million. It is economically important, but consumer confidence is equally important. People need to know that what they eat is what is described on the package.
I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate, and I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. His point about confidence is of the greatest concern to many Muslim and Jewish consumers in my constituency and across the country. Although, as we know, none of the products recalled was labelled as kosher or halal, the case has unfortunately eroded confidence more widely. Does he not think that it is crucial to rebuild confidence in the industry?
My hon. Friend makes a critical point. There are technical issues that we need to consider and ask the Minister to deal with, but fundamentally, consumers might overlook much of that technical detail. They want to know exactly what the Government, the Food Standards Agency, individual food processors and manufacturers and supermarkets are doing to give utter confidence to the nth degree, so that they know what they are purchasing, whether in a local takeaway or restaurant, a supermarket or elsewhere. In a moment I will mention some ways in which we might want to deal with that.
I should like to discuss some salient points that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North mentioned, including on the fragmentation of the labelling system between three different areas and the cuts to the FSA budget, from £143 million to £132 million by 2014-15. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s comments about how he can avoid those cuts having any impact at all on front-line testing. The National Audit Office states that Government funding is falling substantially. Unison has some views on the matter, too.
I do not think that hon. Members have mentioned the detection of bute, or any other substance, whether in trace elements or otherwise—an issue that has recently emerged. The interesting response from the FSA, when this matter was pushed, was that it could provide reassurance that none of the animals slaughtered in which bute was identified were put into the human consumption chain within the UK. It is, of course, illegal to put such animals into the human food chain. However, five animals were identified later as having been subsumed into the food chain in another country in the EU. In light of comments made during this debate about integration and the fact that food now does not necessarily go straight from farm to fork—it could go through various stages of processing—it is interesting to note that food produced in this country that was tested and identified as containing bute, albeit with trace elements, entered the human food chain somewhere in the EU. Whether in respect of bute or any other substances, can we give consumers confidence that, in that spider’s web of food processing networks, nothing containing those substances is re-entering the UK for consumption?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. He has been doing some work on bute. Animals receive many other medicines as well and not all of them can be tested, but there is a process involving withdrawal periods, whereby animals should not be slaughtered within so many weeks of such medicines being administered. Quality is assured on that basis.
The hon. Gentleman tempts me to mention the Government’s own veterinary advice, although I was not going to mention it. The veterinary residues committee, which advises the Government, has repeatedly identified concerns about trace elements of bute, or other substances, in horses coming into the slaughter process in the UK, although not entering the human food chain. That committee identified a failing in the system, regarding the veterinary process and the horse passport, which has been mentioned. Horse passports are fragmented now over more than 70 organisations.
Just to correct the hon. Gentleman on a small point, it is not a matter of fragmentation. When the Labour Government introduced horse passports, there were 93 passport-issuing authorities and that number has been reduced to 75. So it is nothing to do with fragmentation. The system was flawed before it started.
This is fascinating, because that was why we introduced the national equine database, which centralised data in accordance with European regulations to do with horse passports and aspects of safety in the supply chain. I ask the Minister how, in the absence of the NED, he can assure himself about issues to do with passporting, when there is a report showing that there is concern about double passporting. Vets must be much more rigorous in ensuring that a non-passported horse is not entering the food chain. I will cite the report if the Minister would like me to.
Double passporting and fraud would occur whether or not there was a national equine database; that would not prevent it. I want to correct the hon. Gentleman on a factual point. The NED was not set up by the Government. It was a private not-for-profit company, run by private individuals—directors—to which the Government provided some small subsidy. It did not cost the Government much at all. It was a private company that never worked, and I am glad it has been abolished.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The Prime Minister was always opposed to the NED and spoke openly about his opposition to it and his wish to get rid of it. However, it provided a central database, as required under European legislation, which allowed for cross-referencing of records. I will not dwell on that any more or take any more interventions on it, because it is a matter for a separate debate.
On the industry’s response, at one point there was a suggestion that the transparency that I am calling for was unnecessary and that reassurances should be offered. That is not the view of Peter Kendall, the president of the National Farmers Union, who said:
“The events of the past few days have severely undermined confidence in the UK food industry and farmers are rightly angry that the integrity of stringent UK-farmed products is being compromised by using cheaper imported alternatives”.
John Sleith, the chairman of the Society for Chief Officers of Environmental Health in Scotland, said:
“We note that statements are being made that it is not a health issue, but our concern is that there is no information on how the horse meat came to be in the burgers and so there is no way of telling whether the meat is safe to eat, it could be from diseased or injured animals, for example.”
What discussions has the Minister had with the Home Office about this matter? We know—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will be well aware—that there have been suggestions in recent weeks, as this matter has come to light, that it may not simply be an issue of adulteration, whether in Poland or elsewhere. Criminal gangs may be involved. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said that this issue was as old as the hills, but it has tended to be localised in many ways. If there is a serious criminal gang operation involved, that will be a major concern.
I have spoken to people who work in the UK slaughter trade—they are doing a fine job and are proud of the standards in the industry—who tell me of their concerns about adulteration. An individual mentioned to me in a conversation yesterday that they were sympathetic to Tesco and the other big retailers, because Tesco, for example, does spot checks and checks the veracity of its supply chain. However, the adulteration of food happens the moment that it leaves. That is a concern, because the information comes from people working in the industry.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the illegal meat trade has always involved criminal activity. Some of us were involved in trying to prevent the import of bush meat into this country, which was run by criminal gangs. It has been going on forever and I am sure that criminality is still part of the illegal meat trade.
Indeed, hence my insistence on doing more. It is not sufficient just to say, “We have checks in place.” We need to do more.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to my praise for an announcement made by Tesco this morning, about its introduction of its own self-funded, comprehensive system of DNA testing for meat products. That innovation is welcome; there should be more of that sort of thing, which the NFU and others are calling for. We need to be far more rigorous than we used to be, and such innovations show us how we can do that. It is not the same world as it was 20 years ago.
It is not only me saying that double passporting is a matter of concern. With no central database to facilitate checks, it is now possible for a horse to be issued with two passports, one in which medication is recorded and an apparently clean one to be presented at the time of slaughter, allowing the medicated horse to be passed as fit for consumption. Hamish McBean, chairman of the National Beef Association, has said:
“It is obvious that here in the UK consumers, quite rightly, have high regard for the excellence and integrity of beef produced on British farms and that British beef is their favoured purchase.”
He is flagging up exactly the same issue.
I am extremely interested in the whole topic of horse passports, but it is a diversion and a red herring in the debate. Only one abattoir in the United Kingdom kills horses, and it kills nothing apart from horses—it is a pure horse abattoir. In the recent scandal, no one has suggested that something going wrong in the British abattoir system was to blame. That meat could have come from anywhere in the world; as the hon. Gentleman correctly pointed out, it could have been internationally sourced. The notion that we should somehow undermine the credibility of the British abattoir system because of apparent cross-contamination seems entirely fallacious. A small number of horses are killed in Britain, and there is no suggestion that the abattoir that does it is guilty of the cross-contamination in the recent case.
Another debate is needed, but I can cite root and branch opinion, including from members of DEFRA’s own equine expert groups, on the necessity of a central database to deal with controls and stringency on passports.
To move on to my fundamental point, the issue is not only a UK one. In recent weeks and months, we have had warnings over dyed pork sold as beef; in Sweden, meat imported from Argentina and sold as beef turned out to be other meat products; in Spain, in recent days, a similar horsemeat scandal to ours has been unravelling. As I mentioned earlier, trading standards are now picking up adulterated meat issues locally, not only in supermarkets but in takeaway shops and restaurants.
I am interested in the Minister’s comments on whether the country of origin labelling proposals before the European Parliament and Commission—due to be resolved this year—provide an opportunity for more stringent labelling. The NFU, the National Beef Association and others are keen on that. When something is marketed as British beef, it is really important to know that it is sourced and produced in Britain, not transported from somewhere in the EU, potentially with adulteration, and that it is only processed in Britain before being put on the shelves.
In the Minister’s response, will he deal with the fundamental issues of adulteration, which are not UK issues only? Does he have any evidence on whether adulteration is going on more widely in the supply chain and, potentially, in the EU market, and what lines of inquiry is he pursuing? What additional steps is he taking to tackle the issue, in the UK and in the EU? Does that involve discussions at EU level? Does it involve further discussions with the supermarkets about following today’s example of Tesco on DNA testing? Has he had any discussions whatever with the Home Office on the criminality involved in the sector, whether in food adulteration or in horse passports, in order to get horsemeat into the food chain?
The issue is vital, and I know that the Minister wants to give complete confidence. We are forthright about our concern on the subject, as are the NFU, the National Beef Association and people who believe in provenance labelling such as red tractor labelling. They are concerned about the matter not only because of its economic importance but because they want to give people long-lasting confidence, in the very different age we now live in, so that they know exactly what they are eating and can trust what is said on the labels.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed) on securing and introducing the debate, which is timely. I am sorry that more colleagues were not able to contribute.
Nothing is more important than giving our consumers the confidence that what they see on the label of a food product is what they get. Sadly, that confidence has been undermined by the recent incident—there is no doubt about that—which is why it is essential for us to find out as much as possible about what happened. We need to take any appropriate steps to deal with the situation, but we also need to look again at the whole range of activities that we carry out in this country in order to ensure conformity with labelling, as far as consumers are concerned, and to put right anything we are not doing that we should be doing.
Having said that, I want to put the situation into context. When we had the urgent question in the main Chamber, I was accused of complacency or arguing purely from the producer interest, but I make no apologies for saying that there is abundant evidence for, in general, our producers, our processors and our retailers doing a good job at maintaining high levels of food standards in this country. That point was made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams). We do no one any favours by suggesting that every piece of meat on the shelf is adulterated, dangerous or whatever, which would simply undermine confidence inappropriately. It is a question of identifying and dealing with risk properly and, as far as possible, giving that assurance to our consumers.
As the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) said, that assurance is also important for our industry, which relies on its good reputation and people’s trust. That certainly applies to the big retailers, but also to anyone engaged in the sector. Those engaged in the food chain need to know that it is assured at every point, which is why I was pleased with the immediate response of the big retailers. I welcome Tesco’s further announcement today, which has been mentioned. Sellers are required to know where their goods come from and that they conform with their labels—that is their responsibility, in law and morally, to the people who buy products. I think Tesco has suggested today that its supplier in the recent case had been using produce from a non-registered or non-approved forward supplier, which must be of concern to a supermarket in regulating its food supply chain.
I, too, welcome the announcement that Tesco will do DNA testing, but we should not be misled in thinking that Tesco has not always been vigilant previously. I supply animals to a slaughterhouse in Merthyr from which Tesco sources a lot of its meat. Tesco certainly examines the processes in that slaughterhouse, and ensures that they are fit for purpose and that consumer safety is at the top of the list for that organisation. I am sure that other supermarkets do exactly the same.
I am sure that that is absolutely true, as it is of other retailers. Waitrose, for instance, wished to point out that its contracts require its own-label burgers to be made on the first run in the morning, to ensure that there is no cross-contamination from other products later in the day. Retailers take the matter terribly seriously, and we should not give the impression that they do not, because that would be a false impression.
Ultimately, however, the Irish authorities did pick up a serious example of adulteration, and I congratulate them on that and on communicating the facts to us, so that we and others have been able to work closely with them to investigate what happened. While I do not diminish the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) about those whose religious dietary requirements may be affected, the trace findings of porcine and equine DNA elsewhere were a much lower level of contamination than the burger containing 29% horsemeat, which appears to have been a case not of cross-contamination but of deliberate substitution.
One confidence restorer that consumers will expect is that those responsible for the current adulteration will face the full weight of the law. People should not be let off the hook. There has been an element of pointing the finger further and further down the supply chain. If a processor in the Republic of Ireland or elsewhere did not follow due diligence down the supply chain and used an unauthorised supplier, I hope that they will be prosecuted—I am interested in the Minister’s comments on this—by the supermarkets and others because of vicarious liability for negligence down the supply chain. Someone is responsible, and the finger should not be pointed to the nth degree at someone in Poland if some culpability lies within the supply chain in the Republic.
The hon. Gentleman must be careful to distinguish between prosecution and litigation. Civil litigation may follow—I do not know—if there is prima facie evidence. When I responded in the House to an urgent question, I said that it seemed to me, without being in possession of all the facts in Ireland, that there was a possibility of criminality. That is a matter for the Irish authorities, and it would be absolutely wrong of me to assume any responsibility or to encourage the Irish in one way or another in their prosecution policy. However, they will no doubt consider whether fraud has taken place, and trace the perpetrators, whether they are the supplier in Poland, as it seems if their tracing is correct, or the people in Ireland who took receipt of the meat. That is for the Irish to decide, and I cannot interfere in that process. I can only express a view, which I think is shared by many people, that if criminal activity takes place on something as important as the food that people eat, we should use whatever powers are available.
The Minister referred to cross-contamination being a source of trace DNA found in other food products. Does he accept that other meat derivatives, such as protein powders to bulk up products, could be deliberately included in processed food when their origins are unclear, because there is no secure system for labelling and tracking the source of such additives through the supply chain?
It is not uncommon in inexpensive burgers, for example, to use bulking material such as beef protein, and it is not illegal to do so. The EU labelling regime changes to which the hon. Member for Ogmore referred will require such material to be more specifically labelled in future. I agree that it is a difficulty for those who are trying to enforce compliance because it is obviously much more difficult to identify the speciation of a brown powder than a rump steak. The hon. Member for Croydon North points to a difficulty, and we must be aware of it and consider what we can do about it.
I want to deal with some of the broad points that were raised. First, it is simply not the case that the system has been fragmented and, suddenly over the past two years, no one has known what anyone is doing. There was a change in 2010, but the Food Standards Agency has always been the key player in food safety and analysis, including competition. It has always worked incredibly closely with trading standards departments throughout the country which often do the testing at local level. The Department of Health has always had parliamentary responsibility for answering for the Food Standards Agency in response to questions from hon. Members. None of that has changed.
The only change in 2010 was in labelling policy, which was returned from the FSA to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs because we knew that there would be issues in the EU about country-of-origin labelling and we wanted to have a clear handle on that. Ministers in my Department were inevitably involved in those negotiations. They were going to be advised by civil servants in the FSA or the Department, and it seemed more sensible for them to work with those in the Department. That was the change that was made in 2010, and it does not imply fragmentation of responsibility. There is still a close working relationship between us and the FSA, and I do not think anyone would seriously challenge that or the close working between the FSA and trading standards departments.
Secondly, another charge was that the FSA’s overall budget has been reduced. That is a matter for my colleagues in the Department of Health, but let us be clear that that is not an operational reduction, but a result of the merger with the Meat Hygiene Service, which has produced economies of scale by restructuring support staff and accommodation charges, and enabled us to save money. Saving money is a good thing if it can be done without detriment to the service. We must be clear about that.
Thirdly, there is a feeling that there are vastly fewer trading standards officers around the country and that the service is denuded of capacity. I accept that there are fewer trading standards officers, but the scale of that reduction is nothing like what has been suggested. Local authority returns suggest that on 31 March 2012, 2,709 people were engaged in UK food law enforcement, which is a 2.3% reduction since the previous year, and a 6.1% reduction since 2009-10. I am concerned about that reduction and the priorities that local authorities are choosing to make in what they do because food law enforcement is a key part of their work. I would encourage them to ensure that their priorities are the same as those of residents in their area. However, the reduction in the level of testing is not huge or swingeing.
We sometimes talk about the number of samples taken, but we should distinguish between the number of samples and the number of tests done on them. We are becoming more and more sophisticated in what we can provide. I will give an indication of some of our work in the Department. One policy area is the research that we commission every year into new methods of testing for compliance of foodstuffs. We put £450,000 into that each year.
DNA testing is by no means the only tool available for testing. Stable isotope testing is being developed and is a valuable tool. Proteomics are a key test which is more often used in ELISA—enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay—which gives similar findings of speciation and origin to DNA, but at a lower cost. Metabolomics involves looking at metabolites in food. All those tools are being used to ensure that the service we provide is as effective as possible.
Let us not run away with the idea that we have a supine, inefficient service in this country that never catches anything, and the wonderful Irish can do it, but we cannot. Some of the things that have been found and dealt with over recent years include buffalo milk adulterated with cow’s milk; fruit juice adulterated with sugar and water; maize adulterated with rapeseed oil; the identification of basmati rice from its origin; the speciation of meat and fish, making sure that no offal and blood proteins are in meat products; the origins of beef; traditional breeds—distinguishing between one breed and another—the origin of fish, whether chicken has been previously frozen; and production methods, so whether something is organic, as it says it is on the packet. We test for all those things. We occasionally find non-compliance and we deal with it, so let us get away from the idea that somehow we are either complacent or have ineffective protection in this country.
I hear what the Minister says about the reduced numbers of local authority food safety officers, but will he give us the figure for the reduction in food safety tests carried out? Unfortunately, I do not have the documentation here, but I believe that in the freedom of information request obtained by the trade union, Unison, there was a 30% reduction in tests, which would mean a considerable increase in risk to consumers purchasing burgers or other meat products, not only from supermarkets, but from the many other outlets that operate in that area, and—I will leave it at that.
The distinction I was trying to make for the hon. Gentleman—I accept that he has been given figures—is between the number of samples and the number of tests. The samples have gone down, and that is what I think he is quoting. In 2009-10, there were 105,556 samples—and that is down—on the local authority side, to 78,653 in 2010-11. That is the diminution that he refers to, but the number of tests done on them has gone up to 92,181 in comparison. It is not quite as clear a picture as crude figures sometimes suggest. As I say, I accept the fact that the number of people working in local authorities has reduced, which is a proper cause for concern for me and others in central Government. What I do not accept is that it is on the scale suggested by some commentators, who are perhaps taking crude figures and interpreting them in an inappropriate way.
The Minister has rightly drawn attention to the success of testing in the meat processing and abattoir sectors, but what is his view on the situation we have just come across involving five horses that were tested and identified as having bute in them, and although they did not enter directly into the UK chain, it was too late to stop them potentially entering the food chain elsewhere in the EU? Is that acceptable? What has gone wrong? They should not be entering the human food chain at all.
I was going to move on to the issues about phenylbutazone and horse passports, as that was the other factor that has been referred to several times in the debate.
Let us be clear about phenylbutazone: it is a potentially harmful substance—in fact, there is little evidence one way or another, but we cannot say it is safe. That is why it is excluded from the food chain and it is quite right that it should be. It is principally excluded via the horse passport system. If the horse passport system is being properly applied, it will be excluded at the point of the abattoir. It should not enter the food chain and it should be simply disposed of in other ways. It is not the only drug residue that is occasionally tested for and that we need to be aware of. The Veterinary Medicines Directorate checks for a string of residues that we would also wish to exclude from the human food chain. The evidence from sampling suggests that a small quantity of phenylbutazone is making its way through, in some samples. That is concerning and it has to be investigated, which is exactly what we are doing. The Food Standards Agency is now looking at that in detail to see whether it can get a clearer picture.
There is a problem with the fact that it takes a long time for the test results to come through. I am afraid that I cannot explain why that is, but I am advised that it takes about three weeks to get the results back. During that time, it is entirely possible for food to be passed across the English channel to French markets, where it could enter the food chain. As soon as we have a positive confirmation, we advise the French—or whoever it is—authorities in the same way that they advise us. We have a wonderful network of agencies around Europe. They are constantly in communication and advise one another, which is why we knew about the Irish issue and why we would always notify the French—to ensure that that is the case. However, there is a delay, and the hon. Gentleman raises a point that I accept I need to look at further, to see if there is more that we can do.
Does the Minister not agree that it would make much more sense to prevent the transport of such meat to its destination before the results of the tests for bute have come through? For instance, it could be possible to keep it frozen until it is clear that there is no contamination.
That would require all 9,000 horses that are killed for human consumption—the vast majority of which go abroad, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, because there is no appetite for horsemeat in this country, generally—to be kept in cold storage over a period of time while tests are being conducted. That is an option. What we have to do is be proportionate—we are required by law to be proportionate about what we do, because there are costs involved for exporters—and we can only do that if the evidence shows that it is a proportionate action to take. We are collecting that evidence at the moment and I will then take advice. If at any stage, the chief medical officer or the Food Standards Agency advises me that taking any action of that kind is necessary for the protection of human health, I will take it. I have not received that advice at the moment.
I welcome the Minister’s candour. In the couple of minutes that are remaining, will he deal with the other issue about horses and the food chain? In July 2012, the Veterinary Residues Committee, which reports to him, said:
“Defra’s follow-up investigations in recent years have found that some vets are still prescribing phenylbutazone without checking the passport or ensuring that the horse is subsequently signed out of the food-chain. Phenylbutazone residues have also been found in horses that have changed owners prior to going to slaughter, and whose passports do not indicate that they have been signed out of the food-chain.”
Does he have a view on that, and will he take action?
I am very happy to look at the operation of the horse passport. However, the national equine database is a red herring. It never provided any information on the food-chain status of individual horses, and therefore, it really is not relevant. What is relevant is that passports need to be robust. They need to have the information, and people need to respect the fact that if they do not put that information in, the passports cannot serve as the sort of check and balance that we need. It is wrong to falsify a document such as a passport. Its purpose is to protect the public, but there is evidence of occasions on which people have falsified them.
We have a very complicated system of issuing horse passports. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) discussed it, and the hon. Member for Ogmore did not seem to recognise that his Government set it up. I understand why they set it up, because there are EU rules on the matter. Each breed society can issue a passport, because they keep the stud book and therefore, there is a proliferation. If we can take action to ensure that there is no duplication, it would be a good thing. Let us look at that, but again, I emphasise the point that if people want to defraud the system, they might do so. Our job is to try and pick that up, but let us not pretend that we can stop anyone from trying to defraud the system—sometimes they will.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon North on securing the debate. I hope that it has been helpful in outlining some of the actions that we are taking. We will take more, because we need to make sure that the consumer is best served by labelling, and that what it says on the packet is what they get on their plate.
Regional Government (North)
I am delighted to have secured the debate and to introduce it under your chairmanship, Mr Amess.
Regional government is an issue that is resonating with people from across the north. The campaign for strong, powerful and effective government for Yorkshire, the north-east and the north-west has been growing and gathering momentum in the past year. Its time has arrived. The arguments are strong and the case powerful. In the past 12 months, the debate has been led and championed by the Hannah Mitchell Foundation. It has outlined the benefits that regional government can bring to the northern area, how it can generate economic growth and social cohesion and how it can enable key decisions to be made in the north, by the north.
Regional government is supported not just by individuals but by business, local authorities and key agencies. It is time to move the debate forward. The arguments now need to be understood and taken up by central Government. Whitehall should not be fearful of devolving powers to the north; it should be embracing that. Without its support, the required political progress will not be made, or a watered-down version—a talking shop—might be applied. That is the last thing our region wants or needs. Indeed, I heard the Chancellor of the Exchequer over the weekend outlining how too much economic power was concentrated in London and saying that it was time to generate growth in the north. Will the Minister outline today some of the ways in which that can happen and say whether he would like to see a form of regional government helping to achieve the necessary economic growth and other benefits for the northern region?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I will come on to the 2004 vote in a little while. It was indeed a very low turnout, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) says. People recognise when we are talking about a talking shop and not talking about action. I think that the debate has moved on. The campaign has been growing in momentum in the past 12 months, as I said. The Hannah Mitchell Foundation is growing and getting support from all quarters.
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way again. I do not want to keep interrupting her, but last May certain parts of the region were offered mayors, who would surely be a form of devolved administration and powerful local leaders, but they were rejected. Given that that forms part of the “January declaration” on the north-east, does she not agree that a mayor would be a very good way forward whereby cities could come together and have a powerful local voice driving things, much as people do in London or Paris, for example?
I thank the hon. Gentleman again for his intervention. No; I would like to see a regional government for the north, using its powers to fight for the whole region, not individual areas. That is done very well now in some cases, but I want to see the whole region being represented.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) said in an excellent speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research on Monday, we need
“long term reforms, including a coherent industrial strategy, to make the most of the North’s strengths and to give businesses and working people of the North a better chance…such an agenda will only work”
if it is
“in the hands of the people who are best placed to move it forward”—
that is, if there is a radical devolution of power and resources to the north.
I shall outline what is needed. We do not want local authorities to be undermined; we want them to be a key partner of strong regional government. The regional and local government structures should complement each other and work together positively. This is about transferring powers from Whitehall and outlining areas of policy on which regional government could provide a real focus, with powers drawn to the north, for the north. It is not about weakening Britain, but about making it stronger, more democratic and economically successful. We have only to look at post-war West Germany to see how successful regional government has been in creating an economic and political powerhouse. As long as England remains so centralised and London-focused, the north’s economy will never reach its full potential.
The recent key report by the Institute for Public Policy Research was as timely as it was revealing. Yes, we can differ about its conclusions, but the basis on which its findings were made cannot be ignored. I want to avoid throwing figures at the Minister. We all know that unemployment is worse in the north than in the south, that job opportunities in the north are fewer and that public sector spending cuts are not as easily absorbed in towns such as Halifax and Huddersfield as they are in Harlow and Huntingdon.
The IPPR report underlined how the economic potential of key towns and cities across the north could be a powerhouse of economic growth in the next 20 years, and how key powers need to be transferred to the region by central Government. The levers of power urgently need releasing and sending back to our regions so that areas such as Leeds, Liverpool, Hull and Newcastle can have their potential tapped, economic opportunities can be released and social changes can be met. It is time for central Government to let go a little bit.
Over a period of years—perhaps even decades—the increasing centralism of decision making has left the north without a proper democratic and accountable voice that can champion the area, boost investment and protect jobs. Yorkshire Forward did many good things and was a strong voice for regional development, but that, sadly, has long gone. I want to see something much stronger than that—elected regional government that has real powers and the chance to do things, not just talk about things.
We can argue about the mechanisms and structures at a later date. What we need is a green light, or even a nod in the right direction, that regional government is going to happen and can be achieved. Yes, some could say that the matter was rejected by the people of the north-east in a referendum in 2004. That was little wonder when what was on offer was lukewarm at best. People can recognise a talking shop from a long way off. I do not want a northern debating chamber that is full of hot air—that talks but does not do—nor one that will just create jobs for the boys. I want to see better employment prospects for the people of Halifax and other towns in the north, and regional government is one way in which that can be achieved.
Regional government could tie together transport policy, planning and job creation. A good example is the current plan to devolve power for rail franchising to the north of England, which I very much welcome. However, special governance arrangements are having to be put in place to ensure that no fewer than 33 local transport authorities have a say in the process. How much easier would it be if there were one accountable body for the north that could provide accountability to the proposed rail in the north executive and drive forward a much-needed programme of investment in our rail network?
We are, I believe, at a turning point in relation to our democratic structures. We talk about transferring powers back from Europe and of transferring more powers to Scotland, perhaps with independence. Wales has its own Parliament. Why should central Government not enable us to have a regional government for the north, north-east and north-west?
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way in this important debate. As a proud Yorkshireman, there is nothing I like more than championing the north, but I do not want more bureaucracy. Does she agree that Yorkshire has had a fantastic month? We are hitting above our weight, with the announcement that High Speed 2 is coming to Leeds, Welcome to Yorkshire’s hard work to get the Tour de France to come to our area and the regional growth fund investment. We do not need more bureaucracy. We need to build on the success that Yorkshire and the north have had in the past couple of months.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Yes, we can build on what is already happening. The HS2 decision shows that the Government recognise that we need more investment and jobs in the northern region. Transport is one way we can move forward. I, of course, welcome the Tour de France coming to Yorkshire. With a stronger voice shouting for us, we could build on those announcements and show what a wonderful area it is in which to live.
I promise that this will be the last time I intervene. Let us look at the northern hub, for example. With respect, it was promised for years under the previous Government, but came to fruition only under this Government. We are transforming the railways in the north. The hon. Lady talks about infrastructure, but surely that is a classic example of central Government getting out of the way to allow local infrastructure development and positive steps to take place without the bureaucratic talking shop she proposes.
I do not propose a talking shop. That is the last thing I want. Transport is a major area that we need to do something about. I travel on trains from Halifax—they are not the best. One of my major campaigns at the moment is for better carriages on the line. They are much better in other areas. If the hon. Gentleman travels from Halifax to Leeds, he will see that there needs to be improvement.
Many key regional decision-making powers that currently lie with quangos, could be transferred to a regional government. Would the Minister like that to happen? We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to grasp the nettle and achieve our goal. I do not believe in regional government for its own sake, but passionately believe that it will benefit millions of people in the area and stop the trickle of money south out of the region.
Doing nothing is not an option. If we do not act, the north risks falling further behind Scotland, as the Hannah Mitchell Foundation has rightly outlined, because the north of England risks being squeezed between the south-west and a resurgent England and Wales. Does the Minister agree that that might happen unless positive action is taken to address the northern democratic deficit? People argue about having more forms of government, but I do not propose that at all. Powers currently exercised by Westminster and Whitehall would simply transfer to the regions, as they have to Scotland and Wales. The key objective of any regional government proposals must be to ensure that whatever emerges costs the public no more than the current arrangements.
As I said at the beginning, this is an idea whose time has arrived. We need real purpose from all major political parties to drive it forward and ensure it happens. If it is good enough for Scotland and Wales, it is good enough for the north. The Government talk of localism; now they need to act on that and deliver it. It is about democracy, fairness, community and co-operation. It is about helping the north to realise its untapped potential, and about making our region stronger and bigger and ensuring that we are at the forefront of our economic revival.
For too long, power and wealth have been sucked to the south from the north. The journey to reverse that trend should now begin. It is time that the northern regions stood up for themselves and were allowed a democratic, powerful and valued voice. If it does not happen, we risk being left behind an ever more powerful Scotland and London in the coming years. It is time to stop the talking and get on with providing a new vision for the north. The Hannah Mitchell Foundation has started and led the debate. It is now time for central Government to join in and kick-start the process to ensure that we have a radical voice for the north as soon as possible.
Thank you, Mr Amess. I certainly asked for permission.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs Riordan) on raising an issue whose time has come—one might say its time has come again. It is clear from Lord Heseltine’s report that there is a need for the devolution of power from the centre, which always safeguards the interests of the south and developments in London, to the north. The Government want to do it through local enterprise partnerships, and I agree that it should be done, but doing so through LEPs would cover the north in a patchwork quilt of smaller, business-led local authorities that do not have the large-scale popular involvement that we need to energise the north.
The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) is correct to say that a referendum was defeated in the north-east, but what was on offer was not worth voting for. As I told Lord Prescott at the time, the vote was very low and mainly an anti-Government vote, not a judgment on regional government. Regional government is necessary to tackle the problems common to the whole of the north, to put the north’s interests into the debate and to hold some of the powers that the Scottish Government hold. Devolution has been effective in Scotland in energising development and bringing Scotland up to higher levels of attainment and performance. We need that kind of devolution for the north.
The north could and should be united——uniting the three old development regions into one powerful authority to give us more power to pursue and develop our own destinies, involving the people and energising the whole area. That is all I want to say. It is time for the debate to begin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax on beginning it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs Riordan) on securing the debate. It is good to have an opportunity to go through some of the pros and cons of what we can do for particular areas.
I fully share the hon. Lady’s views on the importance of growth in the north of England and of decentralising and devolving power from Whitehall into and closer to communities across the country. However, her proposal to establish regional government for the north is simply not the right way to achieve that. I would like to explain why that is so, then go through in detail what the Government are doing to deliver a real devolution of power so that there is economic success throughout the country.
As the history has been mentioned by hon. Members, I shall touch on it and correct one point, which will slightly change their interpretation. The establishment of regional government—evidenced by the failed attempts in 2004 to create a regional assembly in the north-east, which hon. Members touched on—is founded on a total misunderstanding of the traditions, culture and realities of this country. The hon. Lady referred to the 2004 referendum; as she noted, the electorate in the north-east overwhelmingly rejected the proposal for regional government, with about 78% voting no. A comment was made about turnout, but it was almost 50%, so the vote was a clear comment from the people in the area. Does she really believe that the views of the people in the north-east have changed so much that they would now welcome a regional government, of whatever form, with open arms? I am not convinced.
Federal arrangements in countries such as Germany are founded on centuries of culture and tradition. In this country, we do not have that history or tradition. Ours is a tradition of local government and counties—the great counties of Norfolk, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Northumberland, to name just a few.
I do not know whether the Minister has seen today’s article about the next Archbishop of Canterbury. The Minister asks whether I believe that people in the north have changed their mind. The next Archbishop of Canterbury is quoted as saying that that area is going back to the ‘30s, so perhaps they have changed their mind and need the investment that a regional Government would bring.
I am not quite sure why the hon. Lady is putting those two issues together. From travelling round the country to various counties, my view is that people tend to identify with their county, town or city, borough or neighbourhood, not an arbitrary, centrally imposed government region that, as hon. Members have commented, simply adds a tier of administration that is rarely effective or efficient and is certainly not popular.
I am delighted to say that this Government have swept away the eight government regions, regional development agencies, regional strategies and regional leader boards, which were all based around regions that were completely artificial and had no resonance with the cultural, social and economic realities of our country.
The Minister is right that localism in its purest form is an exceptionally popular feature; certainly, it is massively welcomed in Northumberland. I suggest that he go an extra mile and propose the disbandment of the unitary authority that was created by Lord Prescott of Hull. Localism would then return to its purest form, and we would get back Tynedale district authority, which is much missed. I assure the Minister that that would make him the most popular man in Hexham that there has ever been.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. As he rightly points out, the unitary authority in Northumberland was set up by the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. I do not doubt that I would make myself very popular if I were able to return Tynedale district council to Hexham. Unfortunately, the aforementioned Lord Prescott created a structure that ensures, at the moment at least, that that simply cannot happen, which is why we are reticent about going down that kind of road. It is exactly because of our commitment to localism and decentralisation that we scrapped regional government, reduced spending on bureaucracy and transferred power to local councils and beyond.
Would the Minister not accept that he is putting the traditional Conservative arguments against the devolution of power to the people that were put in opposition to devolution to bodies in Scotland and Wales? Those arguments have been shown to be false by the success of those bodies.
The hon. Gentleman completely misses my point. I am saying that the Government are devolving power directly to people. There is a misapprehension that localism is about giving power to councils. Understandably, some powers will go to councils, but localism is about moving power to people in their communities, so that they have control over those communities. It is respect for the traditions and beliefs in such communities that means that artificial, centrally set regional governments simply cannot work.
Since we swept those regional governments away, no one—other than perhaps a few bureaucrats—has generally mourned their passing, at least not until this morning. Indeed, only yesterday, I attended the launch of a report published by the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, which is chaired by a member of the Labour party, that outlines the prospects for codifying central and local relations. It states:
“An attempt to introduce regional government in England was abandoned in 2004 after the North East of England rejected proposals for a regional assembly. There were no submissions suggesting a return to regional government. We do not suggest a revival of regional government for England. There is neither the political nor public appetite for this. Local government should be the vehicle for devolution in England.”
For all these reasons—identity and traditions, practicability and efficiency, bureaucracy and effectiveness, and the lack of a political and public appetite—it is clear that the pursuit of regional government is not the way fundamentally to shift decision making away from Whitehall. It would simply shift decision making from Whitehall to an artificial regional-tier construct. Local authorities are best placed to receive powers and take critical decisions on local economic growth and on the public services that impact on the day-to-day lives of our citizens; business rate retention and the new homes bonus, with the Localism Act 2011, are moving power that way.
To follow up the comments by the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs Riordan) and those of the Minister, two groups are forming positive local solutions in the north-east: Lord Adonis is meeting various members of the local community, and an organisation has created the January declaration. I urge the Minister to study that manifesto and to meet me, because in the north-east, particularly in Newcastle and Gateshead, there are genuine efforts to take localism—working with the local enterprise partnership and local communities—and create strong ways forward that do not involve a regional assembly, but involve all local infrastructure and positive steps. I suggest that that is what we all want.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I am very happy to discuss that with him. He highlights that where things are working more positively and there is real progress around the country is where there is no artificial, centrally determined sector, region or body, but something that is led by the people in the community. Local enterprise partnerships have such ability and opportunity because they are led by the people in the communities, who understand their traditions and have a vested interest in seeing their local area grow and in working together. We must trust local people and locally elected and democratically accountable councillors to work together in the interests of their communities. That is what localism is about.
Let me touch on how this Government are devolving power to support that process. The Localism Act, which I have mentioned, and the Local Government Finance Act 2012 have devolved more power and greater control over finances than ever before. For example, the general power of competence turns previous assumptions completely on their heads. It gives councils real power to get on and do things, and the room to take action and innovate without seeking permission from the centre, as they previously had to do. We have un-ring-fenced funding, given local authorities greater control over their resources, and put in place proposals to encourage local economic growth.
We are delivering growth and jobs. The hon. Member for Halifax mentioned the imbalance in our economy. We are already addressing that through such things as city deals, which are recasting the relationship between central Government and our cities. They are giving our great cities the powers and tools that they need to drive economic growth in their areas. For example, through those deals, we have supported cities with a £75 million regeneration fund for Liverpool; an earn-back proposal from Manchester that could be worth more than £200 million; a new development deal in Newcastle worth £60 million; and smaller new development deals in Sheffield and Nottingham.
I will focus for a moment on Yorkshire and Humber, which includes the hon. Lady’s constituency. In that area, we have supported, among other things, the Aire Valley Leeds enterprise zone, which focuses on life sciences, advanced engineering and low carbon industries, and aims to create 3,780 jobs; the Humber renewable energy super cluster, which is creating 4,850 jobs; and the Sheffield city region enterprise zone, which aims to create more than 8,400 additional jobs, with an additional £400 million in economic output. We have also invested more than £73 million for local enterprise partnerships in Yorkshire and Humber as part of the Growing Places fund, and a total of £264 million through rounds 1 to 3 of the regional growth fund—it has already been mentioned—which has created or safeguarded more than 63,000 jobs over 10 years and leveraged £1.433 billion of private sector investment.
We are also opening the way for local authorities to work in partnership across economically significant areas through the establishment of combined authorities, which provide a practical way for local authorities to work together. For example, the establishment of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority has brought together local authority leaders. It will strengthen their voice and influence, thus increasing their ability to promote their area with businesses and other partners, and to grow investment and deliver jobs for local people. We are establishing other combined authorities in the Sheffield city region and west Yorkshire. With the authorities in the north-east, we are also considering how a combined authority would support them in further strengthening their leadership and economic development.
That comes back to the main point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman). The approach is led by the local community, which comes together to tell us in government what they want and what will help them, rather than our having a top-down approach.
I thank the Minister for telling us about all the investment in the north. To include transport, will he join me in welcoming the investment by First TransPennine Express, which has been announced today, of £60 million for 40 new carriages? That will increase capacity by 30%—linking Leeds to Manchester, Newcastle and Hull—which is more good news for the north.
Absolutely. That is great news for the north of our country of investment coming in.
As time is short, I will just say that we are as enthusiastic and committed as anybody would be about growth and devolving powers—taking power away from Whitehall and giving it back to local people. However, what we will not do and what would be wholly wrong is to take powers from Whitehall and put them in an artificial construct, which creates pointless discussion, bureaucracy and inefficiency. Local residents have no confidence in and show no loyalty or commitment to such constructs, which therefore tend to end in failure. Our approach is already devolving power and driving growth. We have opened the door to the significantly wider transfers of powers not only to the north, but to the south, east and west—to our entire country—without any new bureaucracy. I hope that the hon. Member for Halifax will come to see that it is our approach that, in driving growth through decentralisation, will realistically achieve her aims, which are ones that she and we must share.
[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I thank Mr Speaker for allowing us the opportunity of having this debate on scam mail and postal fraud, which impacts on the lives of hundreds of thousands of the country’s most vulnerable people. The elderly and those in debt are among those who are deliberately targeted by fraudsters because they are seen as a soft target and easy to con.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) who has been championing the issue for some time. If her ten-minute rule Bill had received Royal Assent, it would have gone a considerable way to eradicating the issue, by empowering the Royal Mail to take definitive action against those engaging in postal fraud. Regrettably, she is on parliamentary business elsewhere and cannot attend this debate. None the less, I am deeply grateful to her for the input and support of her office.
Let me outline the nature and scale of the problem before making some suggestions as to how the issue might be easily resolved. For the avoidance of doubt, when I use the words “scam mail” I am not talking about the perfectly legal mail shots that legitimate companies send out to advertise lawful services or the sale of genuine goods.
I wish to focus on mail shots which are sent for the sole intention of obtaining money through deception—fraud. Such scams include fake lotteries, fake lawyers promising transfers of large sums of cash, so-called boiler-room share purchasing scams, and even threats of curses put on recipients if they do not send back money to the originators. The scams have many different guises, but, none the less, end up with vulnerable people parting with their cash.
The scale of this largely unreported problem is vast, costing some £3.5 billion a year and growing. Some 50% of the population will be targeted, and nearly 7% will be duped by scam mail, which is carefully crafted to maximise the potential of deceiving the victim. Once the scam comes to light, the victim or, in many cases, the victim’s family, experience a large range of emotions, including anger, shame and upset. In some cases where the loss has been so big, they might even have suicidal thoughts. Indeed, as we heard on the television today, there were five suicides as a result of this matter last year alone.
Sadly, the experience of my constituent Mrs Smith is like that of many others. Her father, a former Gurkha, spends a considerable amount of his weekly pension on these scams. He looks on the payments as his “investments”. He lives in total denial, but believes unwaveringly that one day one of these investments will pay off. He has even told friends and bank managers that his investments abroad are about to mature. Of course Mrs Smith’s father will not admit what he is doing, but everyone knows about it, including his long-suffering wife and daughters. The growing piles of envelopes from the scammer arrive daily and are overtaking the bedroom, and now the summer house is full of scam mail, too, providing clear evidence of the scale of his obsession.
The local post office and coffee shop know him well, because of his routine visits, almost every day, to register post containing the money. He sends up to £150 a week to these criminals. He insists on making copies of letters so that he has proof should he need it. Of course the people in the post office cannot stop an elderly man from sending post. His family feel powerless. They have tried to make him watch BBC exposés, look at the Think Jessica website, and read leaflets and posters. They have tried to get him help from independent financial advisers; orchestrated visits from Derbyshire police officers; and even arranged a personal visit by Marilyn Baldwin from Think Jessica, who tried her hardest to convince him but to no avail. All attempts were met with the response, “That’s not me” or “Nothing I didn’t know already.”
Marilyn Baldwin is passionate about getting “Jessica’s scam syndrome” recognised as a mental health condition. Those referred to as having such a syndrome would be people trapped in the delusional world created by the scammer. Mrs Baldwin feels passionately that calling individuals obsessed with scam mail “victims” or “addicts” is not enough, as it does not explain their behaviour adequately or the torment faced by those trying to protect them.
Scam mail has the potential to make people mentally ill, as it opens up a delusional world that goes deeper than any other addiction or obsession. This inability to get some victims to see the reality of their victimisation and delusions has led some people to ask whether psychiatrists should consider the existence of some form of psychological or mental health condition that drives people to be repeated victims of scams. I strongly suspect that the addictive and irrational behaviours from which many of these victims suffer might be well known to psychiatrists. Perhaps we should consider how existing powers under the Mental Health Act 1983 could be used to empower families and those with safeguarding responsibilities to intervene and save victims, such as Mrs Smith’s father, from their own delusions.
Mrs Smith’s family feel so strongly that they have set up their own action group called “The Fight To Stop SAPCO”—scams and prize cheque offences—which already has a small army of people behind it, including a consumer affairs lawyer from Nottingham, an EU lawyer from London who is aware of international frauds of this type, a private investigator working internationally uncovering perpetrators of international finance crimes and fraud, Derbyshire trading standards, Marilyn Baldwin of Think Jessica, and DC Jim Egley of Operation Sterling at the Serious Fraud Office.
What is most galling, especially to the families of the victims, is that these scams take place with the full awareness of the Royal Mail, which often handles envelopes full of cash that it knows have been fraudulently obtained. Although the Royal Mail is able to recognise when such scams are happening, it remains powerless to intervene, which is a source of intense frustration among postal workers.
Let me turn to the current difficulties in tackling this issue. The nub of the matter is simple. First, there is confusion over the law and what it permits the various organisations involved in detecting and prosecuting these frauds to do. Secondly, there is a patchwork quilt of legislation derived from various Acts of Parliament, which creates a lack of clarity in this area. Thirdly, there is an overly burdensome demand to protect mail in transmission, which means postal workers often observe the scams happening, but are either powerless, or believe themselves to be powerless, to intervene. The result is that the fraudsters continue to profit while the authorities are unable to do anything definitive for fear of acting beyond their legal powers. In effect, no one knows what they can do when a scam is detected, even though they know what they would do if they could.
The law needs clarifying, responsibilities need redefining and powers of intervention need enhancing.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on this important, but under-reported, issue. It is clear that the purpose of this debate is to discuss postal mail scams, but I hope that she agrees that internet e-mailing scams are also an important problem. When looking to clarify the law over postal mail scamming, attention should also be paid to the consequence of e-mail scamming.
The hon. Lady is of course right. If she would like to apply for a Westminster Hall debate on that issue, I would gladly support her. I think the internet may be one byte too many for my 25-minute speech, but I am sure that the Minister, with her breadth of knowledge, will come on to that.
One Bill to amend the three relevant Acts could cover the issue. There is no doubt which organisation is best placed to detect scam marketing—Royal Mail, which says that scam mail is easy to identify both before and when the scam takes place. It wants to be able to pass on the details of suspected victims to trading standards, but its staff feel duty bound, even while observing the scams happening, to observe the Data Protection Act 1998, the Postal Services Act 2000 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, and not intervene and report the names and addresses of those they believe are being scammed. Those three Acts place obligations on the Royal Mail that, although well intentioned, often run contrary to the detection and prevention of fraud.
The seemingly simple approach of Royal Mail reporting suspicious mail to trading standards officers is particularly hampered because there is some disagreement as to whether disclosure of the victim’s details by Royal Mail is permissible under section 29 of the Data Protection Act 1998. The legal advice received by trading standards is that disclosure of potential scam victims’ details by the Royal Mail is already permitted under section 29 of the Data Protection Act 1998, which says that information can be released if it is in connection with
“the prevention or detection of crime”
“the apprehension or prosecution of offenders”.
However, the legal advice obtained by Royal Mail itself contradicts that view, which reminds me of a friend’s quip that if someone asks 10 lawyers a question they will get 20 different answers.
Royal Mail states that it would be a breach of the Data Protection Act 1998 to release details of suspected victims to a trading standards officer, and therefore it does not do so. Consequently, there is complete confusion about what powers Royal Mail has to report suspected scams to the body that is best placed to investigate. However, a Bill could be brought forward to introduce an amendment to the Postal Services Act 2000 and to the Data Protection Act 1998, in order to provide a legal gateway for the release of that information and for Parliament to enable Royal Mail to act against scam mail.
That brings me to the third issue, which is enhanced powers of interception. At the moment, in order to intercept and report scam mail, the Royal Mail, the police or those officials seeking to investigate scams or enforce existing legislation must secure a warrant from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to intercept post in the course of its transmission. To issue a warrant, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would need to be satisfied that it was necessary for the purposes of detecting serious crime, which would need substantial proof. That is understandable given the need to protect privacy, data and even human rights. However, the almost sacrosanct nature that post in transmission enjoys is also a charter for the scammer to carry on defrauding.
Like the legislative patchwork quilt, that burdensome approach is well intentioned but it also works against consumer interests. Again, it could be tackled by an Act of Parliament that gives new powers of interception. However, enhancing powers of interception naturally raises questions about protection of privacy and data. If interception powers were to be introduced without the need for a warrant, there would have to be appropriate safeguards against breaches of human rights. Such powers would need to be controlled using the existing authorisation process, but perhaps with the final power of decision resting at a sufficiently high level to ensure that the tests of necessity and proportionality are satisfied, without needing to trouble my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. After all, should she not be dealing with matters of national security, defeating terrorism and managing our law enforcement agencies?
Exactly; I thank my hon. Friend for that. As I was saying, should my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary not be dealing with matters of national security rather than being asked if a postal worker can report the name and address of someone who he or she has genuine reason to believe is a victim of scam mail?
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and I join others in congratulating her on securing this timely debate. On the issue of powers of interception, does she agree that very often, and particularly in rural areas, the local postman or postwoman, who has very distinct and detailed local knowledge of people who may have been victims of scam mail in the past, could readily and usefully deploy that knowledge in identifying scam mail before it reaches its intended target?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; he is absolutely spot on. One issue that has come to light is the complete frustration of postal workers. They know that they cannot stop this scam mail because they are being told by their bosses that they are not allowed to stop it. It is interesting that we genuinely feel that there must be sufficient safeguards in place to protect both the addressee’s right to privacy and their data, but we also feel that there is a sensible, proportionate way around the issue.
What can be done to resolve this issue? Who is best placed to deal with it? Who should detect and investigate such scams? As I have said, the Royal Mail is best placed to detect many of the scams, and then either the police or trading standards officers can investigate and prosecute those involved. In many cases, trading standards officers remain the best first port of call. That is the current situation and in my opinion it does not need to change. There is no need for new bodies or agencies, but merely for existing powers to be clarified and improved and for existing bodies to be enabled to do the job with which we charge them.
That prompts the question whether there are already sufficient powers of investigation in place; if there are, there is no need for new powers. Could an amendment to an existing Act close the loopholes? The answer is, “Very possibly and—frankly—very easily.”
Exactly two years ago, in January 2011, my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North presented to the House the Consumer Protection (Postal Marketing) Bill. It aimed to regulate postal mass marketing, which my hon. Friend rightly defined as the unsolicited sending of mail shots and letters to UK residents. She noted that, although in the majority of cases it is perfectly legal marketing of goods and services, in many cases it is used for fraudulent purposes—so-called “scam mail”.
The purpose and spirit of my hon. Friend’s Bill was not to prevent legal and legitimate marketing, but to augment the existing legislation and to close the very loopholes that I have just mentioned. It also intended to clarify the legal position of the Royal Mail and trading standards officers, and to give Royal Mail the powers that it and trading standards agree it needs to act decisively against such frauds. Therefore, this Bill is a great place to start, offering a road map for resolving the issue.
The main pieces of legislation that my hon. Friend’s Bill sought to augment were not the Acts that I mentioned earlier, but the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and the Fraud Act 2006. Those two pieces of legislation have some use in dealing with scam mail, but crucially they are limited in their application because they only deal with scams originating in the UK and can only be enforced once a scam has been committed. My hon. Friend’s Bill would have enacted new powers and made a genuine difference in the detection and prevention of these frauds, wherever they come from.
My hon. Friend’s Bill would have been a very welcome piece of legislation, and was regarded as such by Royal Mail, trading standards and the National Fraud Authority. Those bodies all supported it and hoped that it would be given Government time. I echo that call now, particularly if the Bill could be resurrected and amended to deal with the issues relating to the need for a warrant from the Home Secretary, and if it could clarify what powers Royal Mail actually has.
As I said, sadly my hon. Friend’s Bill did not secure Government time and Parliament lost a real opportunity to produce a genuinely worthy piece of legislation that would have undoubtedly secured both cross-party support and the support of the general public. As a result, the scammers continue to profit in the face of Government inaction, which is greatly to be regretted.
I brought the case of Mrs Smith to the attention of the Minister of State, Home Department, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), who is the Minister with responsibility for crime prevention. However, I was disappointed with his response. Although he drew my attention to a number of Government initiatives aimed at tackling fraud in a general sense, his response fell short of proposing legislation to close the loopholes that allow scammers to continue to thrive.
We are legislators, are we not? We are elected to propose, scrutinise and enact legislation, and we should not be afraid of using the privileges of our office to enact laws that are required to enable bodies to carry out their statutory duties. Indeed, to fail to propose such legislation is a dereliction of our duty to our constituents and a betrayal of their trust in this House. To quote the former Member for Wendover, the great Whig philosopher Edmund Burke,
“All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”
I hope, therefore, that the Minister will do something. I believe that we have done nothing definitive to tackle this issue, and as a result evil continues to prevail and my constituents continue to fall victim to these most wicked of frauds.
Trading standards and the Royal Mail have identified a loophole and proposed a mechanism for closing it. Legislation is needed, so why can the Government not find time for a non-contentious Bill, which commands cross-party support, to protect the most vulnerable people in society, some of whom live in every single one of our constituencies across the country? Indeed, I will quote to the House the words that the Minister with responsibility for crime prevention wrote to me in his response to the case of Mrs Smith:
“It is clear that for some time the response to fraud has not been good enough and criminals have exploited this. The response has been too fragmented, not enough use is made of intelligence or advanced investigation techniques, and there is not a strong enough focus on prevention”.
I could not agree with him more. There has not been “enough focus on prevention” and therefore powers to prevent postal marketing scams that could easily be enacted should be enacted. We demand a lot of our statutory bodies, and when they ask for the powers to do their job, it is in the public interest to grant them.
I urge the Government to think again about the confusion in the current legislative framework, reconsider the position of Royal Mail and trading standards, and rather than call for greater public awareness, new bodies or new initiatives, do what the experts ask, which is to find Government time for a Bill that will close the loopholes that enable fraudsters to continue to scam innocent victims. Such a Bill exists. I urge the Government to look again at the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North introduced two years ago, find Government time for it, and act decisively to empower Royal Mail to act to stop mass marketing scams.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) on securing the debate. I have worked closely with her on a number of issues, and we sat together on the Communities and Local Government Committee. She is a passionate defender of her constituents’ interests. I readily admit that my expertise in this area is not the same as hers, and I certainly will not go into the issues in such depth, but a number of my constituents have been hit by mail scams and it is important to attempt to do something about them.
According to Office of Fair Trading research, 48% of the UK population has been targeted, and 3.2 million people fall victim to scam mailings every year, particularly the most vulnerable in our society.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) on securing this important debate. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) agree that it is often the elderly who are targeted and victimised by the scams? There are many different forms of what I call snail mail marketing, and the scams get lost in the middle of that. They are well hidden, and in my experience the elderly are particularly vulnerable.
That is plainly the case. In my experience, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire also made this clear, it tends to be the older and less mentally robust who are scammed and are subjected to repeat versions of the same thing. Their names get on a list and they are targeted again and again.
The estimated annual cost of scam mailings to the economy is some £3.5 billion. The citizens advice bureau in Bishop’s Waltham in my constituency has brought a number of such scams to my attention, and one of them, involving missed delivery cards, caught my eye. The scam is not of the same nature as one that says, “You will send in a cheque,” or one that asks someone to send money directly back. This one is allegedly from a well-known delivery company, and it asks people to confirm that they want the delivery to be remade by calling a particular number. On the card, rather than an address from which to pick up the parcel, there is a telephone number. It turns out to be a premium rate number of a telephone company in Belize, which someone would be charged £315 for the pleasure of calling. Many of the scams are so sophisticated that they are extremely easy to fall for, especially for someone who does not get out or read the newspapers often and is not aware that such things exist. That case highlights one of the biggest challenges in stopping mail scams: the majority originate abroad, and it is nigh on impossible to prosecute or stop them as there is no UK-based business to have a go at.
There is a great deal of work taking place. Hampshire county council has concentrated on the matter, hence the involvement of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). The council has established a special trading standards safeguarding unit, which works closely with its partner agencies to help protect vulnerable adults, provide flexible support to victims of fraud and raise awareness through information designed to educate, support and guard against further financial abuse. It has raised awareness through working closely with the media and community groups, and by drafting articles for newsletters, newspapers and generally circulated public communications. Extra training has been given to all staff in adult services and other agencies so that, for example, when staff visit a home and are greeted with a mountain of post they can consider whether the person there might be the victim of scam mailing.
Working in that way has enabled Hampshire county council and adult services to identify several chronic scam victims. This is not something that only Royal Mail or the Government can deal with; local authorities can have a positive input. The council also works closely with a local business that provides a mail and package forwarding service to consumers and businesses outside the UK. The business raised concerns with trading standards after large amounts of mail were returned to it undelivered. With that help, more than 200 envelopes full of cash and cheques from the US were discovered, which helped to end an American mailing scam. Hampshire trading standards has a good working relationship with money supply bureaux, and it highlights concerns about individuals who regularly make overseas transfers to unknown individuals or organisations. There is by no means a single point of contact or a single solution; many different hands can get involved.
I absolutely believe that the Government take the matter seriously. The Prime Minister answered a question during Prime Minister’s Question Time from my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North on, I think, 11 November, and he has announced a series of changes designed to get to grips with the problem. The Office of Fair Trading has invested £7.5 million to create scambuster teams and run awareness campaigns, and the Government are also in the process of creating a dedicated team within the National Crime Agency, when it is established, aimed at tackling the problem. The work is therefore ongoing, but I believe we have a responsibility to look even more closely at the matter and consider whether there is anything more that we can do to target the problem.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire has covered many of the solutions that Hampshire county council would like to employ, but let me repeat them anyway. The council believes that we need additional protections in law to help to safeguard potential victims, and my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North introduced a private Member’s Bill in January 2011, which unfortunately ran out of time. For colleagues who have not seen that Bill, she argued that the police, customs officers or the National Fraud Authority should be able to intercept mail if they believe it is scam mail. The county council also believes that Royal Mail should disclose the details of potential scam victims to trading standards so that proper support can be offered to financially abused and vulnerable people.
Further questions arise: how do we stop scam mailing and not direct marketing? Can the issue more effectively be tackled by changes made by Royal Mail rather than the Government? Are there data protection issues that need to be considered? Are changes in the law required? I wonder whether it is possible to beef up the existing mail preference service, or whether Royal Mail can improve its safeguards to address the problem better. A moment or two ago, it occurred to me that it might be possible for families and/or vulnerable adults to have some sort of opt-in system, so that they give permission for their mail to be examined. That might be one of the easiest ways forward, to have a permissive regime under which potential scam victims can say, “I don’t mind my mail being looked at.”
I appreciate that this is a tough issue and one that is very difficult to resolve, but I do have some questions for the Minister. Is there a lead person in Government who is pulling together the key actions designed to address the problem better? Is the Government’s view that it is Royal Mail that needs to put a renewed emphasis on reducing the problem, or is it essentially a Home Office issue? How do we stop the problem falling between two stools in government? If there is not one person with whom responsibility sits, we run the risk of the issue being forgotten about and its dropping through the cracks in the floor.
I appreciate that this is strictly outside the Minister’s portfolio, but when the Prime Minister spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North about the issue back in November, he said that a team was being created at the National Crime Agency to deal with it. Is the Minister able to update us on the plans to create that dedicated team? I understand that it is not directly within her portfolio, but if she has any news I would gratefully receive it. What I do know for sure is that the message needs to go out loud and clear that scamming vulnerable people for cash is deeply cruel. There is more that we can and must do about it, and we must do it soon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) on securing this debate, on an issue that can have such a devastating impact on so many people across the country. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery), I do not profess to have gone into the matter in as much depth as our hon. Friend has, but I would like to bring some insights from my constituency to the discussion.
The Office of Fair Trading has warned us that, during difficult economic times, not only will the number and incidence of scams rise, but the range of scams will be much greater. We therefore need to be much more vigilant and sceptical about what comes through our letterboxes and who telephones our homes. I appreciate that the debate is confined to the postal service, but as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) mentioned, the growing use of the internet is critical, too.
My local police in Dyfed-Powys tell me that the type of scams they are dealing with have changed a lot in the past few years. There was more of an emphasis on postal fraud, but now Dyfed-Powys police are seeing more innovative attempts, often online. That is to be expected, given the advances in technology and in the psyche of the scammers, who are looking for more cost-effective ways to perpetrate their criminality.
In 2011, Citizens Advice conducted a survey asking what are the 10 most common scams and frauds. Of the 558 people in Wales who were surveyed, the biggest concern, identified by 62% of respondents, was switching: being offered money-saving deals to switch energy or phone suppliers that result in paying more money. Also high on the list, identified by 45% of respondents, were bogus debt advice companies that claim to help manage people’s debt, subject to fees, but once those fees are paid, the debt advice is not forthcoming. The third highest, with 44% of respondents, was—we have already heard a lot about this—those elusive prizes: timeshares, wonderful cars and huge amounts of cash. The local citizens advice bureau in Aberystwyth in my Ceredigion constituency alerted me to the case of an elderly gentleman who received a letter from a company informing him that he had won the magical £50,000, and in order to claim, of course, he had to buy £25 of goods from a catalogue.
There is a technical discussion to be had about the inadequacies or otherwise of legislation, as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire alluded to in her speech, but this debate also serves the important purpose—there have been debates in this House on such matters before—of shedding the light of publicity, because educating and informing people is a critical tool in defying the scammers.
Dyfed-Powys police inform me that the “receive £50,000 if you pay £25” type of scam has recently grown considerably, and the scam not only means the elderly person who replies loses money, but it allows the potential for their details to be passed on and on. Once bank details are passed on, the whole thing spirals in an unimaginably large way. The global dimension must not be lost either.
Members may have read the case, not a Welsh case, of Mr Paul Kiely from Suffolk, who discovered after his mother’s death that she had spent up to £20,000 responding to scams. On going through her paperwork, the extent to which she was being bombarded by post, often three or four letters every day, became clear. The more people respond, the more likely they are to be a target; it is a vicious cycle, particularly for the vulnerable and elderly in our society.
I have a case from my surgery, and other Members have also alluded to such cases, of a constituent who paid money for goods by bank transfer from what he believed to be a reputable website. When the goods did not materialise, the consumer returned to complain, only to discover the website had disappeared.
We are aware of the dangers of scam phone calls, and Ceredigion citizens advice bureau has informed me of cold calls from agencies claiming to be Citizens Advice, National Debtline, the consumer credit counselling service or the Office of Fair Trading and seeking payment for debt management assistance, often persuading consumers to part with their bank details.
Parliament is not immune from the scammers. In December last year a constituent of mine, a prominent farmer and butcher, received a letter from the “Office of Parliamentary Research” stating that it would like to use the details of my constituent’s business in its work, but, of course, it would cost him a fee. Suspecting from the outset that that was not what it seemed, my constituent got in touch with my office. A member of my staff rang the parliamentary switchboard and asked to be put through to the department the letter claimed to have been sent from, which did not exist in the same name. When the operator put my staff member through to the department with the closest-sounding name and asked for the person who had signed the letter, she was unsurprisingly told that no such person worked there. When my staff member explained why she was calling, she was advised that the call was not the first of its kind and the letter had nothing to do with Parliament; it was a bogus request for money. The letter was cleverly worded to get through the law, and, of course, our advice was to steer well clear. I have had two or three similar cases in my constituency, and I am sure people across the country have been approached. The sad reality is that many may have complied with the request for money, given the name on the letterhead.
So how do we address that problem? I have learnt a great deal from the hon. Members for South Derbyshire and for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on the specifics of the Royal Mail. Education and awareness are critical, In my Ceredigion constituency we have had some excellent campaigns over the years involving trading standards and the voluntary sector, with Scambusters being the latest, We must promote to our constituents the value of protecting private details until they know who they are dealing with and treating all mail, e-mails and cold callers with acute caution. If something sounds too good to be true, the sad reality is that it probably is.
Dyfed-Powys police have talked glowingly of Action Fraud, the national campaign in which they have participated since December 2012. The scheme is run by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau in conjunction with City of London police with the intention of gathering a range of cases from across the country and collecting information on incidents and reports into a central database. The information is collated and analysed before being fed back to the police force in the area where the scam may have originated. Since Dyfed-Powys police went live with the scheme in December, they have received three such packages in only two months. They tell me that they find that method helpful in dealing with perpetrators. Last year, in Newtown in mid-Wales, five or six people were arrested in connection with a scam involving the online purchase of iPads and iPhones—payment was made, but the product never arrived. The work at the centre to collect that information and feed it through to Dyfed-Powys police meant that the perpetrators could be dealt with.
Consumer Focus has also done good work on scam mail, and its “Stay Private” website should be commended for helping people who sign up to reduce the amount of unwanted mail and sales calls they receive by bringing various marketing opt-out services together. The site is popular, with some 60,000 people signing up so far, which gives a small indication of the scale of the problem.
I cannot commend my local trading standards strongly enough, although it has limited resources. Above all else, trading standards need to hear from people who have been subjected to scams, but often people, particularly elderly people, are embarrassed. There is an issue with the addictive nature of scam mail, to which the hon. Member for South Derbyshire alluded, but sometimes people are embarrassed that they have been fooled or taken in for so long, and they, too, need support and encouragement to come forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution, because I did not give notice of my intention to speak. I came to listen, but I have heard one or two things on which I would like briefly to comment.
Many of us have had people in our surgeries with scam mail problems. I want to address scratchcards and premium-rate numbers, which have already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery). Those things have at the bottom, “Phone this number for untold riches.” Telephone numbers are changing. At one time, people could spot an STD—a subscriber trunk dialling—code, and if they were a bit sad like me, they could remember the places the codes were for. Now codes begin with 09 or 08 and people never know what they will be charged. The elderly and the vulnerable see things that say, “Phone this number to claim your prize. There are six prizes. One is a car, and one is a holiday.” As has been said, they are suddenly through to a phone number halfway round the world and they get a phone bill of £300, £400 or £500 many weeks later. That is a real problem. It is not only mail fraud that is becoming more prevalent, but e-mail fraud too.
Scratchcards are also an issue. They come in the post and in magazines. People look at them, and they seem wonderful, but I always try to find the flaw in them. If someone is aware, they can see that these things are a scam, but many people just see them and think, “This is fantastic.” I completely agree with what the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) said: if it looks too good to be true, it is. That is what I always say to my constituents, but, unfortunately, by the time they come to see me it is too late, because they have the bill and it has to be paid. It is a real problem.
The other scam I have started to see—it is done more by e-mail—is a message that someone has a package waiting. On the face of it, it looks like a completely legitimate courier has a package for the recipient. I had one of these e-mails once when, ironically, I was actually waiting for a package. The e-mail dropped into my spam folder, however, so I knew that it was not about my package. That is another way that these people are digging into the vulnerable in our society and the people who cannot afford these things. It is wrong whether the person has the money or not, but the people who are being targeted can ill afford to pay out these fraudulently demanded sums.
I have seen people affected by the problem, and their first emotion is anger that they have lost the money. Then they move on to a sense of shame and foolishness. People who have been done this way feel somewhat foolish and do not tell other people, because it makes them feel a little more foolish. Consequently, word does not go around to watch out for the scam. It is great that my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), who is a near neighbour, has secured this debate, because it gives the issue publicity and lets people know that if they have been conned, they are not on their own. They should not feel ashamed or foolish. They should tell us and tell other people, because the more oxygen of publicity we can give the problem, the better chance we have of fighting it without bringing in legislation to stop it. This is a terrible and wicked crime that preys, as I have said, on the most vulnerable. If the Government can bring forward anything to stop it, they should look to do so as soon as possible.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Sheridan. It is always a great pleasure to be in your company.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) on securing this Westminster Hall debate. She is a good campaigner in the House, and today has emphasised how good a campaigner she is. Hopefully the debate will kick-start a process that will achieve some results on this serious issue. It is distressing not only for the victims and their families but for everyone concerned. I share the concerns that the hon. Lady expressed in her opening remarks.
As all those who have spoken have said, we have all had constituents who have been affected. Some of us have had personal experience of this problem. I was scammed when booking a holiday not too long ago. It looked as though it was a legitimate holiday company registered with the air travel organisers’ license scheme, but it was merely an online scam. It can be difficult to unwind such a process.
Many hon. Members will remember the 2008 survey conducted by Age UK and Barclays, which revealed that seven out of 10 older people in Britain—that is roughly 7 million people—are targeted by scams every month, either by telephone or letter. It is worth reflecting on what the Office of Fair Trading survey said. The hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) mentioned the £3.5 billion that is lost to scams every year, which equates to £70 for every adult in the UK. That is a massive amount, particularly considering family budgets. The average detriment in a scam is well over £1,000—about £1,200—which shows the scale of the problem.
The OFT survey in 2010 found that around one in 11 —just over 4 million—people said that they had responded to a scam at some time in their life, nearly a third of whom lost money. One in 25, or about 2 million people, had responded to a scam in the previous 12 months. Around half of those scammed have lost more than £50 in total, with 5% claiming to have lost more than £5,000. Three in 10 adults who responded to a scam received further correspondence from the scammer, with more than half being asked to send money and more than a third being asked to send personal information. Those statistics are pretty stark. They show the sheer scale of the problem and the effect it has across every constituency.
Of course, it is not a new practice. I thought I would reflect on the issue in the way the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) would and take us back to when we first find any information on scamming. The first mail fraud dates back to 1660, when King Charles II of England first issued orders regarding postal carriers. Some corrupt letter carriers had taken to pocketing the money that was supposed to pay for the letter’s transport and then delivering the letter anyway, because that was what they were supposed to be doing. Mail scams are nothing new, and I hope the Minister can give us some hope, 400 years later, that we have seen the end of the mail scamming system.
In the present day, as well as sending scam mail by post, scammers are taking to new methods to target people young and old, including phishing e-mails and scam adverts on social networking sites. I know the debate is on scam mail, but it is worth reflecting that the scammers are becoming more sophisticated. The hon. Member for South Derbyshire asked us to look at mail in particular, but we need to update the legislation on social networking and the internet. The work that has been done by the Think Jessica campaign on that deserves great tribute.
Once someone is drawn in by a scam mail, they are often put on a “suckers list”. We have seen some of those suckers lists when scammers have been caught. The language used in scam mail is enticing, saying, “You are a guaranteed winner”, “This is a time-sensitive document”, or, “Reply immediately to release your award”. Various other slogans and logos are also used to entice people in for the first time. The scammers are looking for the first indication that someone may be capable of being scammed. They are not interested in the person who throws the message in the bin or puts it in the junk e-mail box. They are interested in grabbing that little bit of hope that they can take the scam forward.
The hon. Member for Meon Valley mentioned bogus prize draws, lotteries and premium-rate prize promotions. Many of those promotions come with some of our national and local newspapers, as the hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) said. Perhaps we should tell the editors of those newspapers that we do not accept that.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The newspaper supplements come in a plastic bag for the simple reason that when the bag is opened and its contents are given a shake, a cascade of different things fall out. Many of them are legitimate, but among them are these scratchcards with super-premium-rate phone numbers.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, which emphasises part of the problem. I have experimented with a few Sunday newspapers by scratching off all the cards to see if I have ever not won. Given that the chances of winning the national lottery are 14.5 million to one, it is quite exceptional to pick up a Sunday newspaper and win on every single premium-rate scratchcard. That shows how people can be drawn in.
When Labour was in government, we recognised that the consumer regime needed to be more effective at stopping rogues, criminals and those who deliberately set out to defraud consumers, especially the elderly and vulnerable, through scam mailing. I am sure the Minister will respond positively to the patchwork of legislation that the hon. Member for South Derbyshire has laid out.
In government, Labour invested £7.5 million to create scambuster teams across the UK. Those specialist trading standards teams work hard with local police and others across local authority boundaries to come down hard on the worst scammers. The cross-boundary aspect of those teams’ work is absolutely essential, because trading standards teams generally find it difficult to work across local authority boundaries. Since 2006, the project has uncovered £55 million in fraud, saved consumers £23 million, seized £16.5 million in criminal assets and jailed 58 mail scammers for a total of 75 years. That is a good record, but not good enough, and the massive increase in scams, and the things that we have heard today, show that more is needed.
We strengthened the powers of the Office of Fair Trading, and of trading standards, with the implementation of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. Those regulations banned all types of unfair selling and marketing methods, and, crucially, are enforceable through both criminal and civil courts, to ensure that appropriate action is taken against prolific scammers and to serve as a deterrent. However, as we have heard, the regulations are not really serving as a deterrent, given the stories that have emerged since this debate was announced about people moving on to new scams when one is closed down.
The Government’s commitment to further scambusters funding in December 2010 was welcome, but teams in the south-eastern region, which includes London and East Anglia, have been disbanded. Has the Minister assessed the effect of that on the ability to tackle scams and scam mailing? It would be interesting if she would explain whether scambusters funding will continue.
Sadly, people involved in scam mailing have never had it so good. The economic backdrop of stagnant wages and rising prices has made consumers more anxious to save every penny or earn more money. Sometimes, that has resulted in an explosion of money-making scams and sharp practices disguised as sources of help. In addition, we cannot deny that the Government have squeezed funding on consumer protection, and particularly trading standards, with an average 19% cut in overall local authority funding from central Government. The Trading Standards Institute has done an analysis of the aggregate amount of funding for consumer protection through trading standards. The projections are that from £250 million in 2010, the aggregate throughout the country will fall to £140 million by 2014. That significant drop gives scammers the opportunity to enter markets where they may not have been before.
It is important to consider the restructuring of the consumer landscape, which the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) mentioned. The consumer protection powers of Consumer Focus have been passed to Citizens Advice, and there is a worry that that transfer to an organisation of a different kind, with different philosophies and a different set-up, might undermine some of the great work that Consumer Focus did on the issue. The OFT operated an awareness campaign called Scamnesty in partnership with 129 local authority trading standards services. That was to increase consumer awareness of mass market scams and provide consumers with practical advice on how to avoid being scammed.
Perhaps that is one of the most important things that is needed as a result of the debate. Yes, there are legislative and parliamentary responses, but awareness is also needed of ways in which consumers can protect themselves in the first place, and how they can recognise scam mailings or phishing e-mails if they receive them. I received one such e-mail yesterday, apparently from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which said I was due a tax rebate. I know that that is not true, but the temptation to click on the link and get money back from the Chancellor of the Exchequer was incredibly tempting. The fact that Departments are being shadowed for the sending out of scam e-mails is a great worry, particularly at a time of year when people are filling out tax returns and may expect e-mails or correspondence from Departments, and particularly HMRC. The amount was only £194.70, if anyone is interested—but far better it should be in my pocket than the Chancellor’s.
It is important for people to be on their guard, and to know that help is available. Scams can bring misery to victims, and we need to remind constituents of several things that the OFT highlighted in its report. It is worth reading them, to raise awareness:
“Stop, think and be sceptical. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Do not be rushed into sending off money to someone you do not know, however plausible they might sound and even where an approach is personalised.
Ask yourself how likely it is that you have been especially chosen for this offer—thousands of other people will probably have received the same offer.
Think about how much money you could lose from replying to a potential scam—it’s not a gamble worth taking.”
It is also worth reflecting on the constituency case raised by the hon. Member for South Derbyshire about a gentleman who became addicted, and how that issue might fit into legislative change. The data protection issues, and requirement for the Home Secretary to obtain a warrant, are valid only if the individual in receipt of the mail would not complain that their rights were infringed. I wonder if in the hon. Lady’s example the poor old gentleman would complain that he wanted to receive the mailings—what he called his investments. They might be costly, but perhaps he was willing to do it for entertainment.
It is worth highlighting the mailing preference service, which the hon. Member for Meon Valley mentioned, by which constituents can have their details removed from mailing lists to reduce the amount of addressed advertising literature that they receive. The MPS does not cover unaddressed mailings, of course and I suppose that the real problem with it is that people who are willing to scam completely forget it exists, so that all it does is remove legitimate people who want to send mail. However, if someone is registered with the MPS and receives mail that they think is a scam, their awareness may be heightened.
The Royal Mail door-to-door opt-out scheme includes unaddressed mail. Has the Minister reflected on the matter, and will she embark on an awareness campaign in conjunction with Royal Mail? The Foreign Secretary has just said in the House that we do not spend money on advertising these days, and he is probably right to say so, but I wonder whether there is any way in which Royal Mail could help with the process.
I want to touch briefly on the matter of e-mail scams. Surveys show that 73% of adults in the UK have received a scam e-mail in the past year. I think probably everyone in the Chamber has received one in the past week—from people who want to send us bequests, or to tell us that people have died, and so on. That is followed by scams via a letter, at 21%, and text messages at 12%. Social media sites appear to be emerging as a new route for scammers, with 9% of adults having received an approach in that way in the past year. It is not just older people who are the targets, although I appreciate that they are the targets of the physical mail. Young people, with the developments in smartphone technology, and now that many of them have their own bank accounts, are becoming susceptible to scams. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) will secure a debate on that, because it would be interesting.
I have some information about phishing e-mails to Wonga customers, and about how people are being sucked in, but it is probably best to leave that for a debate about online phishing. Perhaps the Minister could expand on what the Government are doing to make the public aware of the problems, particularly when they relate to departments such as HMRC. The hon. Member for High Peak raised the issue of such departments being made to look as if they are sending information to constituents, and what we could do to tackle that.
As for mail that is posted, Royal Mail must deliver it. That is not its fault; it is governed by law, and it must do so. I believe we all recognise the importance of strong legislation of that kind, to give Royal Mail the backing needed to deliver its mail door to door. However, could the Government and consumer organisations do more, working with Royal Mail and its union, the Communication Workers Union, and postal workers? Perhaps, while there is an obligation to deliver mail, it would be possible to pick up signs—increased loads, or telltale envelopes—that someone on a particular round is at risk from scam mail, and at the very least deliver an information leaflet, or make the recipient aware. It might be very difficult for the House to change the law on intervening, or intercepting mail, and that is probably right, but there is nothing to prevent the Royal Mail or the postman from putting an information leaflet on scam mailing through the door if it is felt that such mailings are going to that address.
Once scam mail has entered the UK postal system, Royal Mail has a legal obligation to deliver it. However, there has been some criticism in connection with Royal Mail’s “local look” service offered by Spring Global Mail and Royal Mail, whereby letters from abroad bear the Royal Mail postmark and have no trace of their overseas origins. There are concerns about that giving credence to scam mail entering the country. Will the Minister reflect on whether enough is being done at Royal Mail to protect its brand, particularly in connection with organisations such as Spring Global Mail, so that at least those overseas issues can be dealt with?
I want to finish by reflecting on the BBC programme “Inside Out” broadcast a few weeks ago. The programme reported on one company called Emery Ltd, a mail handling company based in Hampshire, which willingly acts as a conduit for European mail scammers. Footage obtained by the BBC programme shows company staff throwing letters from scam victims in the bin. The show’s reporter reads one letter detailing that the victim is 90 years old and in a wheelchair, has had two heart attacks and is diabetic, and querying why they have not received their prize yet. Such letters of complaint were just going in the bin.
It will be crucial to continue to educate and empower consumers to recognise and resist scams. That can be done by key stakeholders working together, and some of the key changes in the consumer landscape that we have discussed will have an impact.
Finally, what is being done to simplify and clarify the law, as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire mentioned at the start of her speech? I conclude back where I started, Mr Sheridan: not by congratulating you on being in the Chair, but by congratulating the hon. Lady on securing this important debate about a problem that blights so many of our constituents.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship Mr Sheridan, and to respond to this debate on an important issue that has been well highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler). I congratulate her not only on securing this debate but on how eloquently she has taken up the issue, prompted by the appalling experiences of her constituent, Mrs Smith.
It is worth recognising the great campaigning work done on the issue by a range of individuals, including the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), and organisations such as Age UK, Citizens Advice and the Think Jessica campaign. It is hugely important for raising awareness, a matter that I will address shortly. I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) that it is an important part of tackling the problem.
Although we are mainly discussing postal scams, it is important to recognise that scams operate in a range of different ways, and that the people perpetrating such scams do not necessarily stick exclusively with one particular avenue. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) mentioned internet scams, which as e-mail users we are all familiar with. Premium telephone line prize scams have also been a great cause for concern, although the latter have at least decreased slightly in number since the new guidance from the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services was put in place.
It is important to recognise, as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire did when introducing this debate, that the vast majority of direct mail delivered to our doors is legitimate advertising material. The industry is important to the economy, generating about £16 billion in sales each year, and is a linchpin of the postal service model in this country. We would not want to jeopardise that industry, as it ensures that we have a universal postal service and that we do not pay prohibitively expensive prices when we go to post a letter. I will come to preference services, as they are important, but the real villains of this case are the fraudsters. Their goal is simple: to cheat as many people as possible out of their money by making false promises.
It is worth noting that we are all potential victims. About 3.2 million people a year are victims of such scams, and the losses incurred total about £3.5 billion. Various Members have stated that it is particularly an issue for the vulnerable and elderly. We want to ensure that we protect such individuals, but it is easy to fall into a slightly superior sense that it could not happen to us: “I am a very savvy consumer, and this would never happen to me; it’s something that only happens to vulnerable elderly people.” I was certainly surprised to find when I looked at the research that the age group most likely to fall victim to postal scams is not elderly people—over-65s make up 13% of victims—but people between the ages of 35 and 44. More than a quarter of scams affect people in that age group. It is worth bearing that in mind.
We are discussing scams that are often cleverly customised. Some involve the prospect of a tax rebate, and are often sent around the time at which tax deadlines approach. Some use information about individuals to imitate interactions with banks of which they might be customers. That is how the perpetrators of such horrible crimes try to dupe people out of their money. It is true, however, that older victims tend to lose more money—about £1,200 per scam, almost double other age groups—so we must ensure that everyone is protected.
I was interested in the different types of scam. The most common are bogus holiday clubs, then high-risk investments, which are little more than pyramid or chain-letter scams. Foreign lottery scams also lead to £260 million in losses, whereas the figure for bogus holiday clubs is about £1.17 billion. A range of different scams exist.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh South discussed awareness of the issue, which is crucial. A variety of organisations, from the Office of Fair Trading to the Trading Standards Institute and Citizens Advice, try to get the message out so that people are aware of the problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) said and many Members in this debate have repeated—it is a good mantra—if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. We must have a healthy scepticism about things that come to us through the post, via e-mail, over the telephone or by other methods, and ensure that people know what sort of thing to watch out for.
Age UK has produced a helpful checklist of things to consider. Was the offer unsolicited? Is it necessary to respond quickly? Why the rush? Is it necessary to pay for a prize or free gift, or ring a premium rate number that starts with 09? Are recipients being asked for any bank or credit card details? Is the business reluctant to give its address or contact details? Is the recipient being asked to keep it confidential or secret? Those are all healthy questions to ask. It is not just parts of Government, independent agencies or charities that have a role to play in raising awareness; all of us as Members can do our bit in our constituencies as well.
Beyond awareness, enforcement is clearly a key part of the action that the Government can take. In 2010, the National Fraud Authority produced a comprehensive strategy to confront mass marketing fraud, which includes postal scams and other types of fraud. The strategy was set up under the banner of Action Fraud, and the Metropolitan police and the NFA have been working on it with a range of partners—from local government to central Government bodies and stakeholder groups—to build a cohesive response to tackling postal scams. That includes engaging with Royal Mail and other postal operators and mailing operations. Royal Mail is aware that the nature of the service that it provides—universal access to all users—makes it vulnerable to being used for scams. In recognition of that, Royal Mail is working with the police and other enforcement bodies to prevent scam mail from getting into the system at the beginning of the process. I will return to that point later.
A public trigger is also important. If people suspect a scam, they should be able to do something to trigger a response. That is why awareness will always be important. The first step in stopping a scam is knowing what a scam looks like, but it is not always straightforward, as I have said. There is a range of advice on scams and clear and practical guidance to consumers about what they can do, and I will outline some of what is available.
If someone thinks that they have been the victim of a scam or would like to know how to advise a loved one who might be the victim of a scam, the Citizens Advice consumer helpline is a good first port of call. It is open during office hours on 0845 404 0506, and it gives consumers clear, practical advice on what to do. Action Fraud is the place to go to report the scams; its website is actionfraud.police.uk and its telephone line is 0300 123 2040. The process is simple and quick. If people are worried, they can go online or telephone and quickly make a report, then the appropriate authority will be alerted so that it can take action. It might not happen overnight, but action will be pursued.
Trading standards can take action locally or it can refer matters to national and international enforcement bodies, if required, depending on the nature of the scam that has been uncovered. Trading standards services and Scambusters can investigate scams under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which carry criminal sanctions.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh South mentioned Scambusters and what the Government are doing. In respect of the consumer landscape changes, we are giving trading standards greater responsibility for consumer law enforcement, by transferring central Government funding to co-ordinate enforcement activity from the OFT to the new National Trading Standards Board. He rightly highlighted the success of Scambusters, mentioning figures for what it has done in the six years from 2006 to March 2012. It may be helpful for colleagues if I say that, since 2012, that work has continued and is now being co-ordinated more centrally as a result of that more national approach. The National Trading Standards Board is now responsible for the Scambusters teams and has matched previous funding levels, which is important recognition of how vital we think this issue is, particularly in the context of difficult economic circumstances. That central co-ordination will continue in 2013. I hope that I have provided hon. Members with some reassurance.
The snappily titled strategic intelligence, prevention and enforcement partnership, despite being in need of a new name, co-ordinates nationally between trading standards and the National Trading Standards Board and liaises over the border into Scotland, with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and agencies there, and co-ordinates with external stakeholder organisations. It is also heavily involved in other activities, particularly in considering whether consumer or business education and awareness campaigns might be able to deal with some of the detriment caused.
Various ideas have been advanced in the debate about what could be done to tackle these scams. It was either the hon. Member for Meon Valley (George Hollingbery) or the hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) who suggested an opt-in system, whereby people could say, “I’m worried about this. Can I opt in to extra help?” There is merit in thinking about that idea, but it relies on the individual recognising that there is a problem and wanting support. The hon. Member for South Derbyshire discussed scenarios involving vulnerable people who do not realise what is going on and will not be open to such action. That said, it is worth setting out what people can do if they are worried about this, and worth doing for the many who have not, thankfully, been victims of a scam and do not want to be.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh South mentioned things that people can do. I should like to elaborate on that. The Direct Marketing Association has two different opt-out mechanisms. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the mailing preference service, under which people can sign up to opt out of addressed direct mail, but rightly made the point that that does not include unaddressed direct mail. However, that association has a second service, which is called “Your Choice”, through which people can opt out of unaddressed direct mail. It has both services because some people might be happy to receive one type but not the other, so people have that option. Details of those opt-out schemes are available at dma.org.uk. The Royal Mail opt-out, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, stops about a quarter of unaddressed direct mail delivered by Royal Mail directly through its bulk mailing system, although that does not apply to other items in the postal system.
If people sign up to all three mechanisms, that will generally stop about 95% of direct mail. Of course, if people are freely breaking the law and trying to scam innocent people out of money, they are probably not going to be too bothered about following the rules of the mailing preference service. However, the point was rightly made that, if much less direct mail is coming in, it may be easier to spot something that is fraudulent or a scam. These services can give people a little bit more peace of mind. I recommend that individuals who would like an opt-in mechanism take that action.
There is a desire in some quarters for legislation as a solution—the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North has introduced a private Member’s Bill, and the hon. Member for South Derbyshire mentioned legislation—which I understand. However, there are significant drawbacks in reaching for such a solution. On the legal point, amending the Postal Services Act 2000 would not create the effect sought by the proponents of this approach, because the rules on not intercepting the post are contained not just in that Act; they are also in the Police Act 1997 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, both of which, for good reason, limit intercepts and set down the process for which warrants are required. A simple amendment to the Postal Services Act would not achieve the aim, and if those other Acts were amended the unintended consequences would be significant.
There are consequences relating to privacy of individuals who want their mail to be delivered without it being opened by somebody else: I think that is the vast majority of people. I do not like to say it would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, because this is a significant problem, but given the total number of items going through the mail—60 million items a day through Royal Mail, for example, making 21.9 billion a year—and even taking into account the 3 million people a year who are victims, trying to identify which items are causing the problems is like looking for a needle in a haystack. They do not have a big stamp on the front of the envelope saying, “This is scam mail”.
The Minister mentioned my opt-in suggestion. My thinking was that there could be an option for people to sign into, such that their mail could be intercepted by their local post office worker. We have heard about postal workers’ frustration about not being able to get involved. If somebody could opt in, giving a postal worker the right to intercept at the door, there might be some scope for that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his suggestion. I will mention Royal Mail’s response and what we could do to enhance that.
Volume is just one issue that we face. It is not easy to tell which letters are scam mail, because they can arrive in plain envelopes. Indeed, the people designing scams try to stay one step ahead of any regime.
I take the hon. Lady’s point that some may be obvious. I do not think that all of them are. We are talking about 3.2 million victims of scams a year, so there will be a wide range.
If we begin to give people licence to intercept mail, that creates a fundamental change in the postal workers’ role. There is a related issue—a genuine operational issue—about feasibility and the resource required. The postal service is universal and is welcomed and valued. We need to think about the resource impact, given the 60 million items of mail a day.
There are, however, things that Royal Mail can do, given the communication channel in which it operates. Hon. Members have mentioned Royal Mail employees feeling frustrated because they want to ensure that they can help. That is often because the local posties will have a pleasant chat and pass the time of day with people, or say hello to them, in particular someone who is housebound or in during the day. They are frequently the people who notice if someone has had a fall or been ill, because the mail is piling up at the door, and many of them take a real interest as upstanding members of the community. There is no reason why they should not be part of the solution, and that is why there is specific awareness among postal workers of such issues—general awareness in the population is vital, but such front-line workers have particular access to individuals, where things are happening.
Such awareness has already started to develop. The hon. Member for Edinburgh South mentioned the lack of funds for advertising campaigns, which is right, but there are other ways of communicating and getting information out there. For example, Royal Mail has an employee magazine, in which the Think Jessica campaign has been publicised, including contact details and its aims. If postal workers are concerned about someone on their regular round, they have a way of being able to pass on those complaints to Action Fraud to ensure that the police and the authorities can deal with the issues. That is important.
At the other end—not the mail delivery end, but at the beginning, trying to stop things before they get into the postal system—Royal Mail is working alongside the police and the UK Border Agency to identify some of the scam mailing houses. Royal Mail has the ability to cancel contracts, and it has done so with particular bulk mailing houses if they are found to have been used to facilitate scams. Such action in the early stages is important, as is the role of that trusted individual with access as a conduit for good advice.
One idea was that postal workers could have an information leaflet to give out, which would be less intrusive than a power to open mail—I have outlined some of the problems with that proposal. Royal Mail does not leaflet at the moment, but I am happy to go away and take up the idea with Royal Mail, to see if it is feasible and useful. In the scenarios outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire—I can imagine the brandishing of the envelopes that were pretty obvious—a leaflet could provide targeted and useful information without being intrusive or invading privacy. With awareness and enforcement, we can ensure that people understand the risks and can clamp down hard on the people who are abusing the system and conning innocent people out of money, causing a great deal of distress. That is vital.
I accept that my response is slightly disappointing for my hon. Friend, because I cannot say that the Government will support the proposed legislative change. I can, however, say that the Government are sympathetic to the problem she has rightly outlined. The victims of such scams are people who should not be conned out of their money. The practice is unacceptable and, to use a word used earlier, cruel. I disagree that we should deal with it by putting the onus on Royal Mail front-line staff and giving them an extra responsibility to identify things, then intercept and open the mail. Such an approach would be heavy-handed and there would be a raft of unintended consequences.
Another general principle is that legislation is a last resort. Some good ideas have been proposed in the debate today, and we can take those forward to see whether they can have a further impact. Indeed, excellent work is already going on, started through Scambusters under the previous Government, continued under this Government, to ensure awareness and that proper enforcement is followed up. Trading standards, Citizens Advice, individual MPs, UKBA and the police all have an important role to play in raising awareness, in improving enforcement and in putting a stop to this unacceptable practice.
Reigate and Banstead Borough Council
I am grateful to you, Mr Sheridan, for allowing us to start a couple of minutes early, which is always helpful in such circumstances. I am grateful to have secured the opportunity to debate the core strategy of Reigate and Banstead borough council.
The strategy has been more than eight years in the making, since the introduction of the local development framework system in 2004. To say that the process has been fraught would be an understatement. There have been more than a dozen iterations, consultations, submissions, amendments and further amendments, and we are now in a public consultation period on further amendments that ends on 4 February. I intend my speech to be the basis of my contribution to the latest public consultation.
Before I get further into the details of process, which are of course where the devil sits, in an almost impenetrable fog of regulation, affordable housing needs assessments, employment and migration forecasts, judgments about housing demand and household social behaviour forecasts—all of which are being made against a framework of directives from the European Union overlaying national policy, overlaying regional plans, which may or may not be valid subject to potential judicial interpretations of EU law—let me highlight the key fact that something is badly awry with the process. Simply put, green fields in the green belt are being zoned for potential future development. That has had its first public presentation in the further amendments to the core strategy now being consulted on, and two sites for 500 to 700 homes each have been identified in technical papers supporting the consultation.
Unsurprisingly, as this wholly unexpected and unwelcome development has become public and people have realised that their interests are absolutely engaged in terms of local planning blight, the value of their property and the quality of their environment, they have started to express concern in debates in public meetings and on web pages. Greenfield development in the green belt, against the wishes of the local planning authority and its people, is surely a violation of two central tenets of our Government’s policy of localism and protection of the green belt. Set against what people rightly understand about our policy, what is being contemplated seems scandalous. How have we got into this position, and how can we get out of it?
Protection of the environment and the centrality of planning policy in my constituency have been plain to me ever since I first applied for the Conservative nomination back in 1997. The constituency is wholly within London’s metropolitan green belt and because of the ribbon developments down the A23 and the A217 the green belt is at its narrowest and most fragile. The villages to the north of the M25, which bisects the constituency east to west, including Banstead, Walton-on-the-Hill, Tadworth, Kingswood and Chipstead, have their own character and charm. Their individuality has been sustained by green belt protection and, before that, by the existence of substantial tracts of common land, and the determined policy of the borough council.
South of the M25 and the north downs area of high conservation value, the adjacent towns of Reigate and Redhill complement each other in age, style, history and planning policy. South of Reigate and Redhill are the significant housing areas of Woodhatch, South Park, Earlswood and Whitebushes, much of which was conceived as social housing development. Without the protection of the green belt those areas would have sprawled to envelop the villages of Salfords and Sidlow and form one continuous development into Horley and on into Crawley. However, those settlements enjoy abutting on to green fields, much of which make up the floodplain of the River Mole, which is a significant plus of living in those areas, which do not possess some of the architectural or downland charm of other parts of the constituency. It is that asset and the principle of preventing sprawl development that is now under long-term threat in the proposed core strategy of Reigate and Banstead.
It is not the purpose of this speech to criticise the position of the borough council or the inspectorate. In the end, they are the prisoners of the national planning process and if things are going self-evidently wrong in Reigate and Banstead, we must of course look to the Minister to put things right. He is the policy supervisor of the planning process, and I look forward to his response, both in reply to this debate and on a more considered basis over the weeks to come, about how to turn around the alarming environmental outlook for my constituents.
Having tried to paint a picture of my constituency, let me go into some of the detail. Reigate and Banstead borough has the largest population by district in the county, and it is projected to grow by 18% by 2027, mainly due to the large amount of development in recent years, which has attracted young families and therefore the highest birth rate in the county. It is far from being the largest borough. It is not as though the borough, despite the green belt designation of much of it and the entire Reigate constituency, has not done its bit in contributing to national housing need. The annual housing target at 500 houses per year since 2006-07 has seen 3,689 housing completions in that period, exceeding policy by more than 20%.
The infrastructure is under serious pressure. We are already short of two primary schools and we will shortly require a new secondary school. The local road network becomes paralysed as soon as there is trouble on the M25, as it is already beyond capacity. This time last year, we were panicking about future water supply, and today we are recovering from the latest occasion on which the River Mole burst its banks on Sunday. Development will only make flooding worse, not least because the major development flowing from the 1994 borough development plan saw water retention and run- off factors built into a development of nearly 2,000 homes on the encouragingly named Great Lake farm.
Taking all factors into consideration, the proposed housing target for the borough of 460 houses per year is unsustainable, and undermines the green belt and the principles of localism. Frankly, it also undermines any sensible national regional policy because enabling development in the south-east further undermines the economic prospects of England’s less prosperous regions. That number drives everything, and takes us into the contentious area of defined housing need, which the Government set and on which the inspectorate hangs its decisions.
What is our objectively assessed housing need? It is not something that local policy seems able to influence. It is a number, which in its latest iteration, has been spat out of the 2008 strategic housing market assessment. How that process was to be done was imposed by central Government, and is so complex that local authorities cede it to specialist consultants. That number, at 981 is nearly double the requirement produced by the discredited regional south-east plan. It includes market demand and a requirement to meet the needs of migration, the sensitivities of which were again reflected at Prime Minister’s questions today.
Reigate and Banstead borough council is about to submit a third draft of the core strategy to the Planning Inspectorate, the previous two drafts having been withdrawn due to the planning inspector’s non-acceptance of the plans on the grounds that, notwithstanding the council’s assurances on site allocations, he did not consider that they would meet the stipulated housing targets. Here, I would enter an important concern about the process.
Windfall sites have made up much of local provision over the past decade. That is hardly surprising when nearly every property owner stands to make a life-changing development gain for their family given local property prices if they can secure unrestricted planning permission. The inspector should be able, indeed required, to include that historical pattern in his review of the council’s ability to meet its housing target. The council, including all Conservative and Green councillors, whom I have found equally committed to the defence of the environment, has unanimously endorsed a housing target of 460 per annum. That is significantly higher than councillors would wish, in actuality, but on the strong advice of their officials, is the lowest practical target they believe they have a chance of defending. The council’s figure is taken from the south-east plan, which remains in place due to the impact of EU regulation. I seem presciently to have predicted in my maiden speech in June 1997 that that would happen.
It should be deeply ironic to any Conservative that the core of the Conservative borough’s case is that to be allowed a strategy that will give it a measure of local control, it must rely on a regional plan, which Conservatives wish to abolish, but cannot because of EU regulation that Conservatives oppose, to give it a housing target that is unsustainable and inconsistent with any sensible balance of environmental and economic policy, compared with one that would be utterly catastrophic if consistent with central Government’s 2008 formulation of a strategic housing market assessment that could hold sway otherwise.
The threat of a much larger number being imposed by inspectors at planning appeals driven by developers, some of whom have already land-banked parts of the green belt in the absence of an authorised local plan, is forcing the council’s hand to contemplate future development it would otherwise not want. Under that impossible pressure, the borough council has had to issue for consultation a third draft core strategy, which refers to green belt development by way of two large but undefined urban extensions in the south of the borough, and holds out the prospect of future development around the village of Salfords after 2027.
All that is deeply inimical to the interests of my constituents who, left to their own devices with their representatives, could properly balance economic, environmental and social pressures. However, we now have a situation in which every strategic objective of our policy, be it localism, protection of the green belt, or a sensible regional balance across the country between the economy and the environment, is being undermined by how planning policy is delivered in practice.
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a powerful case for his constituents and his constituency. Does he agree that many of the voters in Surrey, which includes my seat as well as his, gave us their vote at the last election because they believed that we would protect the green belt, and they felt that we believed in localism, which was a central tenet of our manifesto? That is what they want to see MPs, our council and our Government deliver now.
I am extremely grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. He neatly makes the point that I will come to next in my peroration.
Clarity is required for my constituents, their councillors and the inspectorate on which national policy trumps which: the delivery of local autonomy through meeting perceived national housing need, or the protection of the green belt? Our rhetoric implies—this is the point that my hon. Friend made, with which I absolutely agree—that the green belt has priority when those two clash, as they do in my constituency. I hope that the Minister can make it clear that that is the reality of our policy as well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, and I apologise that you were not informed that I was going to be replying to the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) on securing this debate on a matter of great importance, both to his constituents and to the constituents of many other hon. Members around the country. He referred to his prescience in his maiden speech, and I am sure it surprises none of us that he was prescient on that matter, as on many other things.
As I hope my hon. Friend will understand, because of my role being a strange beast, in that it is quasi-judicial, I will not be able to go into the details of his constituency and how planning policy and the recommendation that authorities produce a local plan affect it. I am not familiar with the situation, and it would be wrong of me to prejudge any decisions, but I hope that I can provide an explanation and even some reassurance about what national policy demands of local authorities that are producing local plans.
I hope that my hon. Friend will not take exception to my starting with what I think are the fundamentals: what are planning and the planning process all about? Any of us who have served as local councillors, whether on the planning committee or having represented our wards in front of planning committees, know that planning is an attempt to reconcile competing demands and make difficult trade-offs on behalf of the people we represent. Very few planning decisions are easy and no planning decisions are universally popular, but we believe, as I know he does, that the people who are best placed to make those difficult trade-offs are those who are closest to the people such decisions affect.
The national planning policy framework was the Government’s attempt to take a blizzard of planning policy that we had inherited—not only from the previous Government but from a series of Governments—and clarify and simplify it, so that there were a relatively limited number of national policy priorities that each locality needed to reconcile in its own way. One of those policy priorities is housing need, and it is probably on that priority that our performance, as a country, is most disappointing over the longest period of time.
Over 30 or 40 years, we have failed to build enough houses to meet the housing need of our population. My hon. Friend was absolutely right to single out the previous Government’s failure to control the level of immigration as a contributor to that need. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister mentioned during Prime Minister’s questions today, 2 million people in a decade moved to the UK. Of those, 1.7 million moved to England. Our population has grown largely because of an immigration policy that none of us—I apologise, Mr Sheridan, I do not mean to include you in this—supported. The Government are now trying to bring that under control, but we have to accept that those people now live here and have a right to do so.
Although that is a big contributor to the housing need of the country, it is not the only one. Something that we can all feel happier about is the fact that people are living longer, and as a result, there is a natural growth in the number of households. If people live into their 80s and 90s, while people are still being born, an increase in the number of households will inevitably be created, with each household having an entirely legitimate right to expect a home of their own.
The fact remains that the planning system that we inherited in 2010 had, for 30 or 40 years, failed to deliver the level of housing that we needed to meet the growth in the number of households. What is extraordinary is that it did not even meet the housing need between 2000 and 2010, when we had a booming economy and the loosest credit conditions that anybody had ever seen. In no year in that decade did we, as a country, build enough houses to meet our need. That priority is important. It is stated in the national planning policy framework and is one of the Government policies that every local plan must meet, but, of course, it is not the only one.
I would like to register a concern about the definition of housing need. The danger is that it starts to look like “predict and provide”. There are other ways in which housing policy and household formation policy will adapt to how many houses there are. I want to be careful about an approach that simply says, “We must have this number of houses, because these things are happening elsewhere.” The other things that are happening—in terms of household formation, when children leave home, and how rapidly or otherwise families break up—can change, and they will change in the face of economic pressures, some of which will come from housing shortage.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but as I think he would agree, although we should feel comfortable with some adaptations, as he puts it, we should be profoundly uncomfortable with others. An adaptation with which we were all comfortable—the Government have therefore taken steps to facilitate it—is the idea that redundant buildings, such as offices, should be easily converted to housing, so that that can go some way to meeting that housing need. Every office that we can convert into housing is a bit of land that no longer needs to be built on to create new housing. I think we would all agree with that kind of adaptation.
However, two adaptations are taking place in our country that no Conservative, and probably no Member of Parliament, can feel entirely comfortable about. The first is the number of working people in their 20s and 30s who still have to live with their parents, or sometimes have to share a room, because they cannot afford to get a place of their own. The second is certain young families with young children, who have no prospect of ever being able to afford a place of their own with a bit of garden that the children can play in as they grow up. Neither my hon. Friend nor I would be comfortable with such an adaptation, which is clearly a response to the astonishingly high prices and lack of affordability of housing.
I do not want to dwell too long on that point, because that would imply that it is the only policy priority of the Government, when it is not. It is important for every local authority area to come up with a plan that meets its fair share of the housing need. However, the national planning policy framework, which was brought in under the auspices of the Localism Act 2011, is very clear about the protection of the green belt. That is of the utmost importance; its permanence and openness is vital, and the NPPF is absolutely explicit about the importance of preserving that.
The figures that we have are relatively encouraging—again, I refer to what is happening nationwide, and not to my hon. Friend’s constituency—as the amount of green belt has gone up in the past 10 years, and the amount of building that has taken place on the green belt is tiny. The number of times when and the number of places where the green belt is encroached on is still, I am glad to say, very small. It is very rare and is done as a result of a local authority going through the process of a local plan and working out which bits of green belt it is in the interests of the entire community to surrender for some kind of development in order to balance the competing demands of the community.
I want us to be clear on the starting position for the national Government, given that green belt is a national policy designed to protect us from the sprawl that would otherwise happen in terms of development. The Government start from the position that the green belt should be protected, and policies that lead to the green belt being encroached on violate that principal objective of Government policy.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is an absolutely core tenet of Government policy that the green belt should be protected. It is also an absolutely core tenet of Government policy that housing need should be met. That is why localism is difficult and not a free lunch for anybody—we are devolving the matter to local authorities, in their communities, to resolve that very difficult tension between competing policy demands.
It is not terribly difficult. If the entire country were green belt, it would be difficult, but the entire country is not green belt, for very obvious reasons, and green belt is restricted to certain areas to stop towns simply growing for ever and there being no space. That is why green-belt policy exists. I gently put it to the Minister that it is not a very difficult tension to reconcile; indeed, it is essential that it is reconciled in favour of the green belt.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, of course, that the green belt does not cover everywhere. It does cover, nevertheless, a very substantial proportion of land. Interestingly, it covers more land, as a percentage of the total, than all the land that is currently developed in any way; 13% is in the green belt and only 8.9%, in the whole of England, is built on or even used for gardens in any form of development. The green belt is bigger than the total of all towns, cities, villages and all other kinds of uses.
It is absolutely the case that it is the function of the green belt, as the green lung, to prevent cities from splurging into each other, which is what has happened in the United States and in other countries. We absolutely do not want that to happen in England. Nevertheless, the green belt is a substantial proportion of land, and it has always been the case that local authorities have, by their own choice, through local consultation and the local plan process, sometimes varied it in small ways in order to meet community needs.
There are other policy objectives. My hon. Friend referred to them, and I want to make it clear that they, too, find their place in the national planning policy framework. I am referring to the broad idea of sustainability on all levels. He is absolutely right that infrastructure of all kinds needs to keep pace with the demands that are placed on it, and it is incumbent on the local authority to make those plans and not to encourage, welcome or accept development that is not adequately supported by infrastructure.
Another kind of sustainability, although in a sense it is all one concept, is environmental sustainability. My hon. Friend referred to the threat of flooding, and it is of course clearly a national policy in the framework that houses should not be built in areas of high flood risk unless there are flood defences or some other form of mitigation to prevent floods from affecting those houses.
I would like to say something that I fear may be somewhat unsatisfying to my hon. Friend. We as a Government cannot make the choices between these different priorities. All we ask the inspectorate to do, and all the inspectorate can do—I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that the inspectorate should not be blamed for this, because we make the policy and the inspectorate, like a judge, just tries to interpret that policy—is to look and see whether it believes that a local authority has adequately measured its housing need, assessed the sustainability concerns, looked at all the different policy requirements in the national planning policy framework and given due weight to all of them in the difficult attempt to achieve a resolution. I completely accept that in constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s, for local authorities such as Reigate and Banstead, that difficult task is probably more difficult than it is for almost any other local authority in the country.
I am extremely grateful for my hon. Friend’s generosity in giving way again. When he spoke about green-belt development—I want to bring him back to that—he used the term “the community”, and I absolutely endorse that. The local community may be able to see a reason for developing on the green belt, as Reigate and Banstead did, with my support and everyone else’s support, when it developed proper access to the Holmethorpe industrial estate and then created a development of approximately 500 homes, now called Watercolour. That was entirely supported. It involved access underneath the London to Brighton railway line and it tidied up access to an important industrial estate in Redhill. That was a very good example of the community driving development.
What the Minister has not said, though—I want to bring him back to this—is that green belt is a national policy. We are dealing with the consequences of two national requirements. One is the housing numbers, and I would challenge how those numbers are acquired. I would also challenge other points. If children have to leave home slightly later because we are protecting the environment in our country and see that as a priority, so be it. If we make this country a less attractive place for immigration because there is a housing shortage, so be it. We protect the environment for our children and successive generations. The Minister and I may disagree on that, but that is a perfectly proper debate to have. But on this issue, the green belt is a national policy to protect cities from expanding ever outwards. Reigate and Banstead is now dealing with the contradiction between the two. I just want him to give an indication that it is fine for the community to seek development in the green belt, but not fine if it is done otherwise, in which case there will always be questions about why it is happening.
I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s concern to ensure that any changes to the green belt in his local authority area, in his constituency, are decided by his local authority. It is of course the case that although we very strongly encourage local authorities to produce a local plan, they are not compelled to do so. There is no obligation on them. No councillor will go to prison if they do not produce a local plan. However, we believe that even when the process of producing that local plan requires them to take intensely difficult decisions, some of which may not be very popular with local people, that is nevertheless a better position for them and their community to be in than to have no local plan at all. If there is no local plan, all applications will be speculative in a sense, because there will not be a plan to go by. All applications will be judged according to the national planning policy framework.
Of course, although the inspectorate can advise a local authority on how to make its local plan robust and suggest things that it might want to consider so that the local plan will pass examination and be adopted, it is entirely for the local authority to decide what it wants to have in its local plan. If it does not agree with the advice that it is getting or does not want to take up any of the suggestions that come from the inspectorate, it is entirely within its power to resist those suggestions and to decide either to put forward something else as a plan or not to have a plan at all. But what is the case—
May I just finish? I do not feel that I answered my hon. Friend’s previous question.
There is indeed a national policy about the green belt—that we should protect it, that it should be permanent and open. There is also a national policy that we must meet our housing need. Those two policies and many others about sustainability and about economic growth are all contained within the national planning policy framework, and it is for local authorities such as his to carry out the difficult task of achieving all those objectives within their local plan.
It is a pleasure to have secured this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, and to have the opportunity to discuss this very important topic in such a timely manner. I believe that it provides the Minister with a last chance to allay the concerns about reform of special educational needs provision before the children and families Bill enters Parliament.
I remind colleagues that this is not a marginal issue. There are about 700,000 disabled children in England. One in 15 families with dependent children has at least one disabled child and more than one fifth of children—about 1.7 million—are said to have special educational needs. Far too many of those families feel close to crisis point. I know of no MP whose casework file does not include countless calls for help from parents of disabled children and children with SEN. Parents are forced to fight their way over seemingly endless bureaucratic hurdles to get the support they desperately need for their children. Parents come to me, and have done for many years, exhausted and demoralised, unable to understand why it is such a battle even to get their children’s needs recognised, let alone be given adequate support.
At the heart of the battle that families with disabled children and children with SEN face is the unacceptable lack of support close to home. Scope’s recent report, “Keep Us Close”, found that the biggest issue facing families with disabled children was a lack of local support services.
When we first come into this place, we all think that it is just an individual problem, but I see from the Scope report the scale of the problem. The average distance travelled is more than 4,300 miles a year. That is staggering. When someone has to travel, it is always a fight to get funding from the local authority to cover even that.
I empathise and agree with the point my hon. Friend makes. I will refer to that issue later in my speech. It is about not only distance, but cost, which in the case of low-income families can be an incredibly difficult burden to bear.
More than six in 10 parents of disabled children say that they cannot get the services they and their child need in their local area. A measly one in 10 parents told Scope that the process of getting local services was simple. Families with disabled children and children with SEN want to use the services that many families simply take for granted: child care, so that parents can work; short breaks, which enable families to rest and a disabled child to enjoy a leisure activity; therapeutic services, to support development such as speech and language; and, of course, the right educational setting, so a child can learn and reach their potential.
A lack of local, accessible services can have a devastating impact on a family’s quality of life. Recent research by Scope found that 80% of the families with disabled children who cannot access the services they need locally report feeling anxious and stressed, and more than half said that as a consequence they missed out on doing family activities together, such as days out or celebrating birthdays.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, families with disabled children travel on average more than 4,300 miles a year —84 miles a week—to access the services they need. The logistics and complicated arrangements necessary to get them to appointments, school and activities on time are vast. Travelling long distances is extremely demanding, particularly for children who tire easily or become distressed if they are contained for long periods. For disabled children and children with SEN, such journeys can be even more stressful. As one mother of a disabled child put it:
“Not being able to access the fun things for my child has left us isolated and almost housebound for most of the month. It is difficult to access things as we don’t drive and no thought is put in to the placement of services for disabled families who need to use public transport. It is always assumed we drive. Therefore public transport costs a fortune and takes at least twice as long. Services are a distance away, so if you don’t drive it means you just don’t go to services at all, which means being housebound and being further isolated.”
In some cases, the immense financial burden placed on families can literally tear them apart, which is the important point my hon. Friend made earlier.
My hon. Friend describes a situation with which we are all familiar in our constituencies. One concern that parents in my constituency report is that funding for home-to-school transport has been reduced significantly due to pressure on councils’ budgets. Does she agree that it is extremely important to ensure that families can manage the day-to-day journey to school readily and affordably and that it ought to be given priority in any local offer?
Transport is extremely important, as my hon. Friend points out, but so is the consistency of the service. Having the same driver, routine and route to school is often incredibly important for children, particularly those with autism, for example. There are issues with consistency of service and central Government funding for local government to ensure that such services are consistent and of a high quality.
My hon. Friend mentioned the impact of funding cuts, which are of particular concern, given the additional responsibilities that will be pushed on to local services by the Government through the legislation. She will share my concern that extra services will be demanded and local authorities will need to put on those extra services, but the money will not come with them. At a time of pressure, that will make it even harder for the families she described.
My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. When local authority budgets are being reduced significantly, we may see the expectations on local authorities quite rightly increase in relation to disabled children and children with SEN. I will be pleased to hear the Minister’s response on that point. In Sheffield, £1 in every £3 is being cut from the council budget by central Government. Something has to give somewhere.
Frustrated at not being able to access support, some parents find that the only way to gain the help they need is to go through the formal process of getting a statement for their child. For too many, that process involves navigating their way round a very complex system, characterised by a lack of information, poor support and negative attitudes. Indeed, “banging our heads against a brick wall” is a phrase my constituents use time and time again when talking about the challenges they face to get the support they need. All too often, they feel that they have to be persistent and tireless if they are to get the services they need, and they often feel that only articulate families or those who shout the loudest—middle-class families—are successful in accessing services.
The Government have said that their reforms to SEN provision will reduce the adversarial nature of the system, putting an end to the frustration at having to fight to get the support families need and deserve. The former Minister with responsibility for children, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), said that the proposed children and families Bill would put an end to the unacceptable situation in which thousands of families
“are forced to go from pillar to post and face agonizing delays and bureaucracy to get support, therapy and equipment.”
I welcome the intention behind the Bill. I particularly welcome the requirement for local authorities to publish a local offer to better enable families to find the education, health and care support that they need. I also welcome the duty on local agencies to jointly plan and commission services for disabled children—it is long overdue.
Too often, families feel that their child, and indeed the whole family, has been compartmentalised, with local agencies failing to see the whole picture of what is needed to support them. One of the most common refrains I hear from my constituents is that children are not seen as individuals and that services fail to see them as individuals and families.
My hon. Friend is right. Bringing together education and health in the plans is a positive move. The concern presented to the Select Committee on Education in evidence, when we conducted pre-legislative scrutiny, was about what happens at the thresholds. What happens to those people on the borderline who have low or medium levels of need? I am sure that she will touch on that concern and I know that the Minister is aware of it. It is one of the key issues around statementing.
I was the cabinet member for education in Sheffield, and low incidence need is an area of SEN that has long been neglected. My personal view is that children with low incidence needs—dyscalculia, dyslexia and such heath conditions as diabetes and asthma—are often not given the care and support that they should receive in the education and health systems. Movement on that score is and will be very welcome, but we must scrutinise carefully what the Government are proposing, because this is a great opportunity to get it right.
The Government’s proposed reforms to SEN provision are well intentioned, as I have just said, but I cannot help feeling that they very much lack the ambition truly to improve the support available for families with disabled children and children with SEN. I hope that the Minister will prove me wrong on that point when he responds.
In its pre-legislative scrutiny report, the Education Committee said:
“The importance of getting the Local Offer right cannot be overstated.”
The local offer is designed to set out which services are available to support children and young people with SEN and their families, reflecting those services that can be made available from within existing local resource, but that only reinforces the status quo. Where is the vision to improve both the quality and the availability of services? Rather than reducing the adversarial nature of the system, the reforms in the proposed Bill might actually increase the battles faced by parents with disabled children and children with SEN, with the onus being placed on them to ensure that services meet the needs of their children.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we want to avoid the adversarial conditions of the past that have worn down whole families. Does she agree that it would be helpful if the Minister outlined what redress there is for parents who do not get adequate services?
I take the hon. Lady’s point. Ambitious about Autism is pressing for the right to appeal to be included in the proposed Bill, but I want to state that it is important for services to be right in the first place. A problem with the current system is that the right to appeal in the tribunal process is exactly one of the reasons why parents find the system so difficult. At the moment, I do not think that services are meeting the needs of parents when the first offer is made to them in relation to their children. The constant obstacles and hurdles that parents have to go over to get where they need to be is the most depressing part of the SEN process.
Is it any wonder that people are so lacking in faith about what the Bill contains, given that a former Minister has openly stated that children and families policy is simply “not a priority” for the Secretary of State or the Department for Education? Unsurprisingly, the disability sector is worried that insufficient attention is being paid to a proposed Bill, the title of which comprises the words “children and families”. This concern is increasingly turning towards the development of the local offer, as is illustrated by the lack of detail and clarity in the Bill about that. Will the Minister confirm that the development of the local offer is being sufficiently prioritised by his Department?
That relates to the point that I previously made. Services must work really hard to ensure that they get the local offer right first time—when parents need to put support in place for their children. We do not want parents to have to battle against inadequate offers that may be made to them by local services. If the local offer is not of a high quality, families will continue to have to battle to get the services they need and the Government will have failed in their ambition for the proposed Bill.
There are widespread calls for the local offer to be strengthened. For example, Scope has called for a “provide local principle” to be introduced to place a clear duty on local authorities to ensure that local services—schools, playgroups, children’s centres and leisure centres—are inclusive and accessible for families with disabled children and children with SEN. That would ensure that where those services do not already exist, there is a duty on local agencies to commission and guarantee the delivery of them. Many feel that it is only through bringing about a cultural change in local authorities, with local councils and service providers thinking differently about the services they commission and run, that a step change in provision can be initiated. Such a cultural change is needed now more than ever.
I have already referred to the strongly worded pre-legislative scrutiny report from the Select Committee. Colleagues on the Committee have recommended that the Government strengthen the local offer through the introduction of minimum standards or a national framework, which I strongly support. Does the Minister have any plans to implement such a national framework or minimum standards? A commitment from him that the Bill will include such proposals would go a long way to alleviate the many concerns held by families with disabled children and by the organisations that represent them, as well as by many local authorities.
There is no doubt that local authorities face immense financial constraints, which means that many services for the disabled are being cut. That is particularly being done through tightening eligibility criteria, which means that people with lower-level needs are losing support. It is therefore imperative that the local offer meets the needs of children with less complex needs—that was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson)—notably, the 1.3 million who have SEN, but are not eligible for a statement. The needs of those children cannot merely be met by, as the Minister has stated,
“improving teaching and learning for all”.—[Official Report, 12 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 304W.]
For example, many of those children have distinct difficulties, such as speech and language problems, which require specialist attention that cannot be provided by mainstream teaching alone. I have personal experience of that, and it relates exactly to my point about having to go over all the different hurdles that are in the way of getting the right support.
Many of those children currently receive support from the school action and school action plus programmes. The Government have announced that those programmes will be scrapped, which has created huge fear and uncertainty among parents, who simply do not know what support will be available for their children. The Education Committee highlighted that as a key concern. Will the Minister clarify exactly what support will be available for the 1.3 million pupils with SEN who do not have a statement, particularly those who currently receive support under the school action and school action plus programmes?
When the Minister gave oral evidence to the Education Committee, he stated the importance of ensuring that there is a strong local accountability mechanism for the local offer. That is extremely important for families with disabled children, and will be crucial to the success of the local offer. With plans to replace the school action and school action plus programmes with a single school-based category, there is an increased need for a strong local offer, as such children will be reliant on the universal services outlined in the offer. It is therefore crucial that families are able to hold local authorities to account for the delivery of the services described in the offer.
Ministerial responses affirming that the introduction of a local offer will “inevitably...prompt discussion locally” offer alarmingly little reassurance for families. Indeed, in the proposed Bill, the Government are relying on parents to create accountability for services within the local offer, which they could well do without. At the moment, parents already have to battle and struggle—and become demoralised—to get things right for their children. We do not want to replace one system with another that puts in place a different set of obstacles and hurdles. Parents will be forced to go from individual service to individual service to complain about inadequate local provision, or they will themselves have to examine local offers from neighbouring authorities to identify services that are missing in their area. That is not acceptable: it might lead to a deterioration in standards, and will not provide adequate accountability.
I want to end with a comment from Joanna, whose son has Down’s syndrome:
“I am not naive and I don’t expect services to exist just for me, or facilities to be for my convenience. The frustration comes from the possibility of services being made easier; the facilities are already there...but are out of my reach.”
No one disagrees that the battles faced by parents such as Joanna are unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will think that this a timely opportunity, before Second Reading of the proposed Bill, to answer some important questions. Lots of people, including parents of disabled children and children with SEN, are closely watching this debate, and I urge him to seize this opportunity to break down the barriers to accessing the services that those families so desperately need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) on securing this important and timely debate. I know that she speaks from personal experience, and that she gives support to people in her constituency. I believe that she will be doing that on 1 February when she attends an employment fair for individuals with autism in the city of Sheffield. I hope the fair goes well. She has a strong and sustained interest in the issue and I am delighted that she has taken the time to look carefully at the Green Paper that was brought out by my predecessor and subsequently at the draft clauses that were subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by the Select Committee.
I will endeavour to cover as many points as possible in the short time that is left. In the usual way, I will be happy to write to the hon. Lady to provide full answers to any outstanding points; all her points carry weight and deserve a full response. Let me deal with the specific points that she raised at the outset. In relation to the local offer and where it will sit in the future provision of services for children with special educational needs and disability, clearly the purpose of the local offer is to have, for the first time, a single source of information, which is transparent and which sets out all the services in the local area and beyond. Clearly, there are not provisions for some low-instance conditions in every local area, but it is important that parents and young people know where they can access them if they fall outside their local authority area. Parents need to know how to access all the services in their local area and what support is available to enable them to do that. Where the support is not provided, parents need to know how they can redress that.
The approach of the Scope campaign has been constructive. It has supported many elements of the Bill that we, hopefully, will be introducing shortly. To allay some of its concerns over the veracity of the local offer and over how parents and young people will be able to review the services that are on offer to ensure that they match the need within the local area, it needs to be involved in the consultative stage of the local offer; I will come on to that in relation to the point that the hon. Lady raised about the framework and where it will sit as a national model. I do not see the local offer as a static document. It is important that it is an evolving piece of information and guidance for local people who have the opportunity to review, monitor and influence it to ensure that it reflects everything that is required by all young people with a special educational need or disability within the local authority area. I want to have local people as involved as possible in the whole process, and that is something that I hope to take forward in the Bill, which will deal with many of the issues that Scope has raised.
What will the local offer look like? What we have found from the 20 pathfinders across 31 local authorities is that close involvement of parents and young people in the development of the local offer, through the parent carer forums funded by the Department, is a much more powerful way of ensuring that the services that local authorities will provide match the local need. To drive up national consistency, the code of practice, which is not in primary legislation, will set out a common framework that shows what should be in the local offer. We do not want it to require local authorities to provide only what is in that framework; it must not be a race to the bottom. It will set some parameters so that both local authorities and other agencies and services know their responsibilities and their duty to co-operate and to provide information for the local offer. Parents and young people need an explicit assurance that they will have that information available to them.
That is really helpful. Our concern is that some local authorities will simply re-badge what they have already, and they will not drive up standards. A key role is to ensure that parents and local groups work with the local authority to raise those standards.
That is a sensible approach and one that we share. As is illustrated in the Green Paper, the redrafted Bill following the Select Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny, and the subsequent regulations in the code of practice, the whole purpose behind many of these reforms is to put parents and young people at the heart of the whole process—before the assessment and through the assessment, the delivery of service and any redress that follows. That can be done on an individual basis and also with the help of professionals. It can also be done through existing groups such as parent carer forums, which can be a powerful voice for parents in their local area.
The Bill will strengthen the role of young people in the system, which is hugely important. We will move to a single system for those aged nought to 25 with a more co-ordinated assessment and joint commissioning, and increase the opportunities for young people over the current age requirement to take their own case to tribunal where their request for an assessment has been refused. We will also pilot a scheme for children to take forward an appeal if they feel that they have not been provided with everything that they require. That is a huge advance in ensuring that this system moves away from the huge barriers which the hon. Lady rightly referred to in her speech. Too many parents are still finding obstacles in their way, too much duplication of information and that they are having to retell their story again and again. We need to get away from that and have a system that has parents and young people at its heart from the start, rather than when it is too late and when there is too much division between them and the services that should be there to support children.
What the Minister is saying is absolutely right; I think we all agree with him. But without the additional resources, and given the constraints on local authorities because of the funding problems that they already have, will this be deliverable? That is a very grave concern for local authorities.
The overall spending on special educational needs is consistent; about £5.7 billion is being spent across local authorities. Clearly, other services fall outside that funding envelope. What we are seeing from the pathfinders, particularly with the onset of personal budgets, is that there is a much better way of bringing together services so that they can co-ordinate their response. Not duplicating efforts means that there can be a more efficient and effective provision of the service that the individual child needs.
The hon. Lady raised the issue of transport. That will be contained in the local offer, so it will be clear to parents and young people what the opportunities are for accessing transport. One pathfinder has demonstrated the power of personal budgets in that regard: in the East Riding area, a group of parents have pooled their personal budgets to provide a mode of transport on which they can all rely, which is far more cost-effective and puts them more in control of the arrangement.
Mr Sheridan, I am conscious that I have only 40 seconds left and there are many issues that we have not managed to cover. None the less, I welcome the hon. Lady’s broad support for the direction of travel of our reforms. When the Bill is finally published and we take it through Parliament, I hope that she will see that I have taken time to listen to many of the aspects that she has raised today and to the concerns of parents and others, and that I have taken on board much of what the Select Committee has said to get the proposed legislation in as good a state as possible. However, I recognise that this is about not just the legislation, but the culture change that we need, and we are determined to make that happen.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).