Wednesday 19 June 2013
[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]
Speech, Language and Communication Education
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I am delighted to secure a debate on an issue that is of great importance to me personally, as a parent of a child in receipt of speech and language therapy services and as vice-chair of the all-party group on speech and language difficulties, chaired ably by the noble Lord Ramsbotham, whose track record in this field is second to none.
Let me set the scene by discussing the seminal importance of communication skills in modern society. We are living in an increasingly complex world, where more and more information is available to us. Therefore the ability to communicate effectively is becoming ever more vital in securing employment and gaining skills. Communication is about having the ability not just to use language, but to understand and assimilate information being conveyed to the individual; it is a two-way process. For many children it is a given that the importance of communication is understood at an early age, but for a significant cohort that is not the case, which is where invaluable help from speech and language therapy comes in, to teach the child the value of communication itself.
As many as 10% of children in the United Kingdom—more than 1 million—have speech, language and communication needs that are not caused by language neglect or English as an additional language. That means that, in the average classroom, there are two or three children with such communication difficulties. Of that group, a large cohort—some 5% to 7% of the child population—has a specific language impairment, which means that they have difficulties acquiring, learning and using language that are not associated with factors such as cerebral palsy, hearing impairment or autism spectrum disorders. We are talking about children whom we would all describe as bright, but who struggle to listen to and understand the language being used in the classroom, or who struggle to express themselves effectively. Perhaps we politicians should draw the distinction between being articulate and being bright. One can be both, but sometimes one can be either/or.
The Department for Education annual special educational needs statistics demonstrate that speech, language and communication needs are the most common type of primary need for pupils with full statements of SEN in maintained primary schools. In January 2011, nearly 28% of pupils in maintained primary schools had speech, language and communication registered as their primary need.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing an important debate that all hon. Members can relate to in respect of their constituencies. In Northern Ireland, we have some 8,650 pupils with learning difficulties: there are three in every class of 30, which illustrates the magnitude of the problem. Does he agree that it is best to have a co-ordinated approach in schools, with families as well, so that the capacity to help and teach children can be reached and they can have that wee bit extra help when they need it most?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving us some of the Northern Ireland figures: the three-per-classroom figure reflects the United Kingdom average. He makes an important point, which I will come back to in discussing examples in Swindon, because I am familiar with the services there.
In areas of social deprivation, upwards of 50% of children are starting school with language delay. That does not mean that their general cognitive abilities are below the national average, but their language skills are delayed. That delay can often run into secondary school and that has an impact on literacy and general attainment. It is clear from research that reading difficulties can be made worse if children are taught written language before their spoken language skills are developed enough to access this teaching.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. The figures that he has given us are startling: almost 1 million children across the United Kingdom have difficulties. In Northern Ireland, we have a major problem owing to the shortage of speech therapists. Does he agree that, for children to be helped in the classroom, it is vital that we have trained staff to identify the difficulties at an early age?
The hon. Gentleman is right. He talks realistically about the fact that, although it would be wonderful to have a speech and language therapist in every classroom across the country, it is about increasing staff training so that generally, whether they are teachers or teaching assistants, they have awareness and understanding of how to manage and help children with identified speech, language and communication disorders. However, having link speech and language therapists for each mainstream school, such as the one we have in Swindon, is an excellent way of making sure that there is a network of specialists who can provide support when needed for teachers dealing with children in the mainstream environment.
I apologise, Mr Dobbin, because I must leave in a few moments to attend other meetings in the House. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate.
In Stoke-on-Trent, Stoke Speaks Out has done fantastic work addressing speech and language needs in a deprived community. The hon. Gentleman talks about linking schools and organisations in Swindon—I think he was going to give examples—but what is his view on linking all groups, such as Stoke Speaks Out and the groups that work in Swindon, to have a national approach to this matter?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that, because there is an opportunity to do that through the Government’s response to the better communication research programme, set up under the previous Government as a result of the Bercow review. I pay tribute to Mr Speaker for the work that he has done in this field. The report published by this Government at the end of last year, entitled “Better communication research programme: improving provision for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs”, led to the creation of a communication council, which I believe will address the hon. Gentleman’s legitimate question. The council will involve the Department for Education, the Department of Health and the Communication Trust, which is an organisation comprising more than 40 bodies in the field of speech, language and communication. The aim of the council will be to promote best practice, to share the good work of councils, such as Stoke and Swindon, to work out ways in which the research that has been obtained can be shared with as many councils and agencies as possible and to promote a better awareness of speech, language and communication needs. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister provided an update on the progress being made with regard to the work of the new communication council.
I was talking about primary school. It is important to note that there is an attainment gap. Although nearly 80% of all children achieve the expected level in English at the end of key stage 2, just 25% of children with speech, language and communication needs reach that level: a gap of 55%. The gap in maths is similarly dramatic—it is 46%—and in science it is 41%. In key stage 4, when young people are doing their GCSEs, just 15% of children with speech, language and communication needs achieve five GCSE A* to C or equivalent, compared to 57% of all young people.
As I said, we are not talking about children who are not cognitively able—they are—but their communication impairments mean they lose out big time when it comes to achieving the qualifications they need to progress into further education, training and employment. We talk a lot in this place about young people who are not in education, employment or training, and this issue is part of the problem. Unless we nail it here and now, we will not do justice to the hundreds of thousands of young people who are still not in education, employment or training.
An Institute of Directors skills survey reveals that businesses suffering skills shortages named communication skills as among the most difficult skills to obtain, with 22% of businesses experiencing difficulties recruiting people with oral communication skills and 18% experiencing difficulties recruiting those with written communication skills. That evidence reinforces the point I made at the beginning of my remarks that communication skills are becoming vital to not only social interaction, but the economic contribution young people can make to society. This issue is not, therefore, just a question of social good, but a fundamental question of economic activity and this country’s future economic prosperity, so there is a hard edge to all this.
In Northern Ireland, 51% of school providers have indicated that speech and language difficulties are a serious problem, which shows the magnitude of the issue. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that there should be better co-ordination between schools, education boards and business to ensure we have follow-through?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I like his point about linking up with business so that the skills young people acquire, such as communication skills, match what businesses need. We need to look at that in terms of young people, in 2015, coming to their GCSEs and, indeed, reaching the age of 17 or 18 and remaining in some form of learning environment.
I, too, apologise to my hon. Friend because I have to leave shortly for another meeting. I have two brief points. Does he agree that we must start picking up the problems in pre-school and nursery? Otherwise, we get intense behavioural problems, which is not a good start to the child’s period at school. On GCSEs, does he share my concern about the potential impact of Ofqual’s proposal to remove the speaking and listening assessment from GCSE English language?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for both those points. I will come to the concerns I share with her about Ofqual and GCSE English language in a little while, but let me deal with her first point, about early years. Often, we are talking about a pre-education setting and a health setting. I have long advocated the need for a proper, health-based assessment of speech, language and communication needs at the age of two, and I am supported by people such as Jean Gross, the communications champion. The Government are similarly committed to moving in that direction. With the increase in health visitor numbers—an extremely welcome initiative, which is already having an effect in places such as Swindon—and with extra training for health visitors and other professionals, we can start to identify a cohort of young people who, at the moment, are not being identified until early years education or, sometimes, even later.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On pre-school and pre-early years, he makes an important point. A couple of constituents recently approached me with their son, who is pre-school age. As parents, they found it incredibly difficult to find the correct signposting for speech and language therapy for him. Does my hon. Friend agree that, although the increase in the number of health visitors may well help, it is imperative that they have the knowledge to allow them to refer parents and children on to the specialist help that can nip the problem in the bud and, therefore, prevent the significant problems he identified at key stage 4 and later life?
I entirely agree; indeed, I would go further. In Swindon, we are training staff in early years settings and children’s centres. We are training our health visitors in the skill of early identification and in the support strategies that can be put in place there and then. Despite the fact that Swindon’s child population is rapidly increasing—our population generally is increasing, and we expect it to grow from 209,000 last year to 240,000 in the next 15 years—the need for specialist referrals is staying stable. That is clearly important, because we are saving valuable resources by putting in early support to prevent issues from becoming acute and prevent the need for more specialist referrals. That is good for the child, good for the family and good for the provision of local services, at a time when resources are increasingly tight.
In that context, I am glad to commend my local authority for being flexible about the use of health and education funding, so that there is a link speech and language therapist in each mainstream school—in other words, the artificial division between sources of funding for health and education has been broken down, there is proper joint commissioning and people are intermeshed, rather than just working side by side. For example, speech and language therapists have been TUPE-ed over to the local authority, and there is a genuine coming together of services around the child. That must increasingly be the way forward for local authorities.
Let me deal briefly with the Children and Families Bill. In recent weeks and months, we have had much debate about it—I see that the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), the shadow spokesperson, is in her place, and she joined in much of that debate in Committee and on Report last week—so I do not want to go over old ground. However, from the point of view of speech and language communication, it is important to deal with some of the concerns that remain, despite the general welcome for the Bill, and the warm welcome for the approach taken throughout Bill proceedings by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), who has responsibility for children and families, and for his engagement with the sector, as well as with families, children and young people who have an interest in, and passion for, this issue.
We have talked about early identification not only at pre-school level, but at the first opportunity, when the problem is identified. There are still concerns about how the Bill will ensure that the identification mechanisms will work across all phases of education. There needs to be clearer guidance across health, education and social care about how speech, language and communication needs are identified. Paragraph 11(a) of schedule 1 in the draft regulations in the indicative code of practice makes it clear that local offers must set out what speech and language therapy provision is available. That is welcome, but it would be helpful to have further clarity about how the draft regulations would ensure that those responsible for the quality and delivery of services can be held to account. The Minister has indicated that those are draft regulations and that there will be a full consultation later in the year, but today is a golden opportunity to highlight some of the work that needs to be done.
I have made the point many times to the Minister that it would be helpful to have a common framework in which local authorities could be guided to construct their offer. That would help us to have a consistency of approach to speech and language therapy. I am not asking for uniformity, but simply for a common framework within which local authorities can be guided towards best practice.
I welcome the Minister’s comments that children and young people with SEN who would not be eligible for a full education, health and care plan will continue to be tracked under the new framework, but further reassurances as to how that will function in practice would be welcome. We must avoid any compromise over the identification of the need. The imposition of a duty on health providers, which was the subject of an amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Minister, was good news. That clearly reinforces the existing commitment in the Bill to impose a duty jointly to commission services. We had a long argument about the phrase “wholly or mainly”, and my hon. Friend the Minister is familiar with the issue. Until now, speech, language and communication needs have been identified as educational needs, and we hope that that will remain the case, and that it will be clear.
I welcome the declaration that communication and interaction are a primary need, in the draft code of practice, but there are concerns that the role of schools in SEN provision remains at the edge of the Bill; there is not a huge amount of detail about what responsibilities schools will have. That is important, bearing in mind the welcome move to the creation of academies and free schools, and the unintended consequence that that may have on long-term provision of speech and language therapy services locally. There is a tension, is there not, between the need to employ therapists on a medium or long-term basis and the short-term spending priorities of schools that must spend to budgets? Some further clarity about how academies can work collaboratively to commission services would be extremely helpful. It would regrettable if, through the welcome and admirable ethos of the new academy structure, we lost some of the long and medium-term thinking that is necessary in the commissioning of services from speech and language therapists.
My hon. Friend the Minister will, I know, update us on progress as much as he can, but I want to mention a couple of issues that I hope he will deal with. Early identification is the key to improving educational outcomes for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs, so will the Government introduce clear guidance to all health, education and social care providers on identifying those needs, to ensure that the needs of those we are dealing with—10% of the cohort—are met?
The creation of childminder agencies comes under part 4 of the Bill, but is relevant to the debate. I would welcome some clarity about how children with speech, language and communication needs will be identified and receive the support they need—particularly with respect to early years non-maintained settings.
Training has come up in some interventions, and I have already made a realistic acknowledgement of the limitations of resources. It is clear that staff knowledge of speech, language and communication needs is crucial for parents and young people with those issues. Currently, the universal work force has limited knowledge of speech, language and communication issues, and low confidence in identifying and supporting children with those difficulties—particularly hidden difficulties. However, historically, staff knowledge of speech, language and communication needs has been worryingly low.
That was demonstrated by research undertaken by Ofsted on the skills and knowledge of qualifying teachers, which identified that fewer than half had good or better skills, and concluded that
“not enough new teachers had consistent high-quality training during initial teacher education and induction to ensure that they developed good teaching skills, underpinned by a deep understanding of language development and the acquisition of literacy skills.”
Additionally, the research showed that 32%
“did not have sufficiently in-depth training in assessing pupils’ skills and knowledge in language and literacy to be able to use their judgements effectively”
for the planning of lessons and the provision of extra help. Evidence also shows that many early years staff feel inadequately equipped to help children with language delay, with more than 60% of teachers reporting that they lacked confidence in their ability to meet children’s language needs. Those are 2012 figures, so they are relevant and important. I should be grateful for further clarity about how teachers’ knowledge of speech, language and communication needs, and that of the wider education work force, is developing.
I join in congratulating the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. Does he agree that UK devolution presents a double-edged sword when it comes to these difficult issues, in that the devolved institutions and the Westminster Parliament progress at varying speeds, but that we could benefit from best practice in the communication and cross-fertilisation of ideas and projects across the United Kingdom? That could only enhance the way we deal with the issues.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and hope that the work of the communication council will include consideration of the devolved nations, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
I want briefly to consider low-incidence, high-cost specialist need, and approaches that can help with communications. One such approach is augmentative and alternative communication. It is estimated that about 0.5% of the population may need that approach at some point in their lives: that is about 260,000 children and adults. In addition, it is estimated that 0.05% of the population need access to regional specialised augmentative and alternative communication services, and communication aids. I am talking about the sort of technology that you may have seen, Mr Dobbin, when meeting speech and language therapists. It would include iPads, and apps developed to assist with communication. I have had a go at some of them; they are incredible, and, frankly, rather fun to use, to begin with. They are a great tool for young people, who are extremely adept at using the touch technology that is now available. The technology is evolving all the time, of course, and the problem for local commissioners is that often they make expensive decisions that quickly become obsolete. We must address that, and I would welcome support for local health and wellbeing boards to deal with such problems.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech so far. Does he share my concern that many education authorities give children quite complex and expensive AAC equipment, which is removed when they leave the education system, leaving them bereft in adulthood? What thoughts does he have on how we can ensure a better transition for them from school to adult life?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend and pay tribute to his work on the all-party group for young disabled people. He makes an excellent point. We need to think of new models and frameworks to deal with the issue of ownership of the technology. We should remember that some of it is expensive, and we cannot put an undue burden on the children and their families; however, perhaps with a joint ownership or lease-back approach we could make the transition to adulthood much easier for those young people. I would welcome further debate on my hon. Friend’s point about making sure that it is not all about the equipment, but about the young person. It is clear that as technology develops we can get things right and avoid expensive mistakes by local commissioners.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) mentioned Ofqual’s proposal to remove the speaking and listening assessment from GCSE English language. There is huge concern that that proposal will damage one of the most important drivers for giving speaking and listening due consideration in secondary education, and significantly reduce the incentive to teach oral communication in schools; there will be no chain of accountability for pupils’ performance if that assessment is removed. I believe that that will lead to further disadvantage for the 10% cohort that we are so concerned about, and it could be considered an admission of defeat, as it suggests that schools and teachers cannot be held accountable for how speaking and listening are assessed. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister could comment on that proposal, and suggest a way forward that might ensure that those skills are still at the heart of secondary education in a way that meets the needs of children and young people who have speech, language and communication needs.
It has been a pleasure to open this debate, and I have spoken for a considerable time, but I will end on this note. I moved amendments to the Children and Families Bill on inclusion. At the time, I said that, in general, inclusion is not some sort of buzz word used by the politically correct; for tens of thousands of young people with disabilities, their right to access not only mainstream education services but mainstream social provision, and indeed a whole range of mainstream services, is vital if we are to value their contribution to society.
I will give an example of where I believe inclusion works well: a playgroup for young pre-school children that can incorporate speech and language therapy within its weekly schedule. What does that mean? It means convenience, not only for the child but for their family, who do not have to go to two separate appointments during the week, with all the concomitant disruption that that causes. That is what inclusion means, and I very much hope that, when the Bill is considered by the House of Lords, there will be a return to what I regard as the important and integral right for children and young people to be part of the mainstream of our society. That is what this debate is all about: children and young people attaining speech, language and communication skills, so that they can be part of the mainstream of our social and economic life. They deserve nothing less.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) on securing this debate and on the way in which he raised these issues in relation to the Children and Families Bill on Report. I am sorry that I was unable to attend that debate, but I read his speech with great interest because I have been approached by a number of constituents about the difficulties they have faced with their children who have speech and language impairments.
As a consequence of those approaches, I convened a meeting in my constituency. The meeting was on the wider issue of autism, but nevertheless I heard many very moving accounts from parents about the difficulties they face under the current fragmented system, which makes it unclear to whom they can turn, and presents difficulties in accessing the help their children need. For those reasons, I welcome the recognition implicit in the Government’s introduction of the Bill that the current system for addressing special educational needs is not fit for purpose and that we need a system that better integrates the provision of services for parents and, frankly, just stops making it so difficult for parents to achieve what they need.
My hon. Friend, for reasons I understand, emphasises the economic benefits of ensuring better provision, but there is a more fundamental question about our duty as a society to ensure that parents who face difficulties that other parents do not face are spared being repeatedly put through the ordeal of finding it impossible, or at least very difficult, to access the services they need. The transitions through the different phases of a child’s life present repeated hurdles that parents must clear.
In the specific case of speech and language impairment, what do parents want to ensure? First, they want to ensure that the problem is diagnosed and picked up early. Secondly, the diagnosis having been made, they want to ensure adequate provision of the therapy and the particular, specific and, yes, sometimes resource-intensive services that such children need, without having constantly to petition different agencies and providers and without the difficulties that they have experienced. And thirdly, in the event that they do not feel a service is being provided adequately, they want to make certain that they have the ability to appeal, that the appeal is clear and that providers are therefore held to account for the services they are obliged to provide. We should judge the new measures in the Bill against the yardstick of those three tests.
I welcome the Bill and the Minister’s particular commitment to it and to these issues. He has made enormous strides in setting out a new approach that will produce a much better system. From his response to my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon in Committee and on Report, I think the Minister recognises that there is still some concern about speech and language therapy and whether the new system will have the accountability that I describe.
I know the Minister is considering the code of practice, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon mentioned. Will the Minister take this opportunity to reassure those groups and parents who are engaged with this issue that the move to the new system will indeed secure an improvement for parents and not make things more difficult for them? First, will the new system ensure that the issues that children might have are picked up at the earliest possible stage?
Secondly, will there be no room for doubt in the new integrated assessment, so that where speech and language therapy is identified as being needed, it will be treated as an educational provision that cannot be gamed or passed over by providers? The concern is that if that is not the case and if for some reason the existing case law that has built up in this area can be bypassed or ignored, parents will be left in a position of being told that a particular form of provision has been identified as necessary but that, because the provision is not held to be an educational provision, it will not actually be provided and will instead be passed over to another provider that sidesteps its obligation. The concern is that the Bill’s aim to ensure that there is an integrated assessment and that agencies work together, which is exactly what parents want, might be sidestepped.
Thirdly, as a consequence of ensuring that speech and language therapy is treated as an educational provision, where there is a lapse or where parents are unhappy with the provision, is the appeals system adequate to ensure that their concerns will be answered?
I know my hon. Friend the Minister has indicated his willingness to address those concerns, but there is still anxiety out there about whether the transition to a new system will produce exactly what the Government intend. The Bill is an important opportunity to achieve very different provision of essential services. We know the gains that can be made when the agencies work together, and we know that they can produce a tailored, integrated service that not only produces a better service for the children but hugely reduces the anxiety that parents face when they constantly have to navigate their way around the different services.
There is a huge opportunity here, but there is also a need to reassure parents about the move to the new system. If my hon. Friend the Minister is able to do that, with particular reference to the code of practice, and to address the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon has now raised on two occasions, I would be very grateful.
It is as ever a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, just as it is to debate matters with the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) and the Minister, which is just as well given how many times we have done so over the past few months. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Swindon on securing the debate and for his comprehensive and passionate speech. He is becoming a real expert on the issues we are discussing, for which he is becoming the go-to Member in the House, and he is to be commended for that. We had some good-quality discussions on this area of policy when the three of us served on the Children and Families Bill, with other Members—no longer in their place—who also served on the Bill Committee.
Today’s debate allows us to go into further detail, with specific reference to children and young people with speech, language and communication needs. The topic—to be more specific, speech and language therapy—was the subject of the first parliamentary debate that I spoke in as a shadow Minister, way back in 2010. That debate, which was secured by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who is present this morning, was oversubscribed, as he might remember, but we heard a lot of personal stories about the need for and the value of speech and language therapy, including from the hon. Gentleman and me.
I have a son who had speech therapy until the age of seven. Sadly, that therapy did not cease at seven because he was cured, but because we moved south to a London borough that decided his speech was within the normal realms. It was not, but that is what we call the postcode lottery, which we hope will be addressed to an extent by the local offers, especially if they are underpinned by a national framework, as we called for in Committee. I will return to that point in more detail.
Since I have been a Member of the House, there has been a small number of opportunities to debate and discuss this important topic, not least the excellent debate on the Floor of the House in the previous Parliament following the outstanding Bercow review into speech, language and communication needs. As we all agree, it was a seminal report on the situation throughout the country of children and young people with speech, language and communication needs and on the support, or lack of it, available to them. I am interested to hear an update from the Minister on where we are with regard to the recommendations made in the Bercow review and whether they have all been met or are under way. Once again, we have had an excellent debate, with a great deal of interest from Members in all parts of the House and some excellent contributions.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for South Swindon mentioned augmentative and alternative communication aids and equipment, because that area is often not discussed in the House, perhaps because it is so specialist. For the children, young people and adults who rely on such AAC equipment, however, it is fundamental to their lives and to the quality of their lives.
I recently had an Adjournment debate on that very subject, which was replied to by a Health Minister. Does the hon. Lady agree that part of the problem is the lack of clarity in Government about where AAC should sit? Should it be a Department of Health or a Department for Education priority?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. As the name suggests, the education, health and care plans are a combination of education, health and social care. The Minister must be commended for his excellent work in that regard, to get the involvement of the Department of Health and that collaboration and cross-departmental working that in the past has been lacking, leading to confusion about whether AAC sits under Education or Health. I am sure that the Minister will respond to that point when he winds up. Under the new plans, I hope that things will become clearer, if only in the sense that the different parts of government work better together to meet the needs of the child or young person. The right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) asked for assurances from the Minister that the new system will bring improvements and not make it more difficult for parents to access the support that their child needs. We all agree that that is what we want to see from the new system, which I hope will be the case.
Speech, language and communication needs are highly prevalent: more than 30% of those on school action plus schemes have been identified as having speech, language and communication needs, and around a quarter have statements. Only 44% of pupils with speech, language and communication needs achieve their expected progress in English; as we heard from the hon. Member for South Swindon, even fewer—35%—do so in maths by the end of their school life. Even by age 19, little more than half those young people have achieved level 2 qualifications, which means a C or above at GCSE. Obviously, fewer still go on to get A-levels: just one in five young people with speech, language and communication needs has achieved a level 3 qualification by the age of 19.
Shockingly, those statistics suggest that speech, language and communication needs hold back children and young people more than other special educational needs and disabilities that we might otherwise think have a bigger impact on educational outcomes. The proportion of children achieving level 3 qualifications is lower for those with speech, language and communication needs than for those with hearing or visual impairment, multi-sensory impairment, physical disability, autistic spectrum disorders and specific learning difficulties. Such statistics clearly indicate that we have a real problem with how we provide support for such children and young people. It is therefore little surprise that they are so over- represented in exclusions from school and the youth justice system—about 65% of young offenders have speech, language and communication difficulties, according to the Communication Trust.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for those shocking statistics about 65% or more of young people in custody having such need. Is it not essential that we use the Children and Families Bill as an opportunity to reach in to those young people in custody, to rehabilitate them and to reduce the risk of reoffending? That is what it is all about.
The hon. Gentleman has made an excellent point, which we discussed at length in Committee and on Report. Noble lords will return to the issue in the other place, and Lord Ramsbotham will be seeking some commitment from the Government, specifically to amend or even scrap clause 69 of the Bill. The area is vital, and I am sure that we and others will return to it time and again until that figure of 65% comes down to a more representative level.
I am afraid that my point might be slightly political. Will the hon. Lady put some pressure on her Front Benchers about the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill? They are opposing abolition of the antisocial behaviour order—ASBOs trap many young people with speech and language needs in a cycle of breach that ends up in imprisonment—and its replacement with the injunction to prevent nuisance and annoyance or IPNA, which will enable a positive requirement to be imposed on the individual and might help to tackle some of the conditions. Will she have a discussion with her shadow Front-Bench team, please?
The hon. Gentleman has made his point, but I will not test the Chair during this debate by expanding on antisocial behaviour or on my discussions of the subject with Front-Bench colleagues. The hon. Gentleman has made his point, however, and it will have been heard by my colleagues.
That failure—all those young people being excluded and ending up in the youth justice system and then adult prisons—is a significant cost to the public purse, through lost productivity and taxes from children not reaching their potential, and the cost of welfare or of keeping the young person in youth justice or in the prison system, if it comes to that. Therefore, early intervention and getting the right support in place as soon as possible are important not only to the individual child or young person, but to the whole of society. That is why I pushed the Minister so hard, as did everyone who spoke on these matters during Committee consideration of the Bill, on the provisions that will be in place under the new system, and particularly on the role that early years settings and early years area special educational needs co-ordinators working across those settings will be expected to play.
The Minister resisted my calls for local authorities to have a duty to co-operate with private, voluntary and independent child care providers with regard to children in their settings whom they believe to have special educational needs, saying that he believed it would place a burden on those providers. However, as I have heard from such providers, the problem is that they are often completely ignored by local authorities when they try to refer a child for an assessment or some other form of help. That is the problem that I was trying to solve with an amendment. I hope that our noble colleagues can address it in more detail in the other place.
I would also like early years area SENCOs to be given a statutory role to ensure that PVI child care settings are given the support that they need to identify and adequately cater for such children. As we discussed in Committee, the draft code of practice includes a heading on that role, which I welcome, although there is no content yet. I am sure that the Minister and his officials are working on that now, so I would be grateful if he could tell us what progress has been made on developing that guidance since our discussion in March.
Obviously, the vast majority of children and young people with identified SLCNs do not qualify for a statement at present, and will not qualify for an education, health and care plan when the new system is rolled out. At present, their teachers and parents have school action and school action plus as a graduated response to meeting their needs, which will become a single SEN category under the new code of practice. We are still not sure exactly how that will look in practice, but the Minister assures us that the 1.4 million children on school action and school action plus will continue to be supported, and we must take him at his word.
Clearly, though, the level of support that children receive will owe much to the quality of the local offer in their area, which is why I have sought at every stage of the Children and Families Bill to strengthen the wording of the legislation on that issue. In particular, the Minister and I, along with the hon. Member for South Swindon, have had many debates about what standards we should expect from local offers in terms of provision and accountability. I am sure that such debates will rumble on as the Bill continues its passage through the other place.
I reiterate a point made in last week’s debate by the Chair of the Select Committee on Education, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart). The success of this raft of reforms rests on getting local offers right. I do not believe that the Department for Education can afford to take the chance that 152 flowers will blossom if cash-strapped councils are left to their own devices.
Finally, teacher training is crucial in making every school a good school for children and young people with high-incidence SENs such as speech, language and communication needs; the hon. Member for South Swindon mentioned that as well. Every teacher is a teacher of children with speech, language and communication needs, but not every teacher knows how to be. Fewer than half of newly qualified teachers surveyed by Ofsted had good skills and knowledge of language development, and about one third did not have sufficient training to enable them to plan how to give such children extra help in the classroom. That is clearly not satisfactory.
Again, I feel that the Department for Education should be leading on that issue by requiring improvements to teacher training and continuing professional development so that every teacher has the skills needed to teach the class in front of them rather than just the subject. The Department is going in the opposite direction, saying that people do not need a teaching qualification to teach, or even to head a school in some instances. Labour Members restated our opposition to that idea this week.
That said, I hope that the Minister, outside the Children and Families Bill process, will consider our calls to make such improvements to the quality of the work force. He has made a lot of improvements to the Bill during his relatively short time in office, for which Members from all parties are grateful. During his remaining time in post, however long or short it may be, I hope that he will continue to listen to the concerns of parents and practitioners and take the actions needed to ensure that the unacceptable outcomes for children and young people with SLCNs that the hon. Member for South Swindon and I described will be improved in the years to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, for the remaining 35 minutes of this debate. I hope that my time in office will be longer than that, so I can reach the end of the debate still in post.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) on securing this important and still timely debate—it follows Report of the Children and Families Bill last week—which has been well attended by Members on both sides the House. I know that he speaks from a voluminous amount of personal experience, as he does valuable work with children and young people with special educational needs and their families in his constituency.
As my hon. Friend rightly reminded us, he is also the vice-chair of the all-party group on speech and language difficulties. He has been championing the cause not just through that group but through the work that he has done on the Bill. As a member of the Committee that considered the SEN provisions in the Bill, he helped to shine a bright light on many of the key issues by tabling amendments and making wise and measured contributions to the discussions. I thank him again for his engagement. I also thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who has been another constructive participant in those debates.
I will try to cover as many of the points raised as possible. In the usual way, I will be happy to write to hon. Members to provide full answers if any points remain outstanding. I will deal at the outset with the specific points raised. The points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on behalf of his constituents exemplify why it is necessary for us to push through these important reforms, so that parents in his constituency and across the country do not face the battles that form the downside of their experience in trying to access special educational provision for their children. Those problems prevent them from feeling that the system is working with them rather than against them, which happens on too many occasions.
The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West raised the importance of the local offer in trying to drive improvements on the ground. The local offer will set out in one place information about all the services that the local authority expects to be available in the local area and beyond for local children and young people with special educational needs and their parents. We have been clear in the indicative regulations that it must cover support for all children and young people with SEN, not just those with education, health and care plans. That could include provision from small specialist services providing outreach support to schools, such as those offering support to children using alternative and augmentative communication, as well as the provision normally available in mainstream settings and on offer in special schools and specialist colleges, including those in the non-maintained and independent sectors.
The local offer will also let parents know how to access services, what support is available to enable them to do so and what to do if they are unhappy with the support on offer. My approach is to make that engagement as clear and simple as possible for parents to access, so that they do not have to navigate through what I have described in the past as a labyrinthine array of different organisations and processes. We must have a single, easy entry into ensuring that those services are properly provided.
Regulations and a new SEN code of practice will set out a common framework for the local offer, but the key to the success of the local offer in each area will be the transparency of information and the involvement of local parents, children and young people in developing and reviewing it. That will help to ensure that it is responsive to local needs. Arguments have been made for stipulating minimum standards for the local offer. I believe that that would weaken local accountability and lead to a race to the bottom, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon said in Committee.
We made an indicative draft of the code of practice available to the Committee to aid consideration of the SEN provisions in the Bill, and we are revising the guidance in the draft to take account of the points raised in Committee and the wider discussions that we are having and continue to have with others. To that end, I had a productive meeting recently with the Communication Trust, another key interest in the speech, language and communication sector. I also had the privilege, only last week, of visiting Springfield special school in my constituency, which makes excellent provision for children’s speech, language and communication needs, particularly for those who need alternative and augmented communication. If I have time, I will explain a little more about how that experience has enriched my understanding of this important area. My officials will shortly meet the Communication Trust and many of its constituent groups—I believe it is made up of 47 such groups—to discuss the code of practice. That will offer the opportunity to consider the guidance on the local offer and the issues raised this morning.
Important points were raised about the need to ensure that we identify and provide for children’s speech, language and communication needs as quickly and as early as possible. My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs and my hon. Friends the Members for South Swindon, for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) all made that point.
Age two is an important time for children and their parents because it is when problems with language development and behaviour become readily identifiable and when intervention may be more effective than for an older child. That can make a real difference to a child’s future. The early years progress check that we introduced at age two and our work with the Department of Health to develop an integrated health and development review at age two to two and a half will make a real difference. Developmental delays, including in speech and language, will form part of that review and the training of clinicians will include assessing speech and language needs.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon said, by 2015, we will recruit and train an extra 4,200 health visitors to identify disability and special educational needs, to provide advice and support and to suggest activities to enhance language development and communication skills, including referral for speech and language therapy when appropriate. We have also commissioned the Early Language Consortium to deliver a £1.4 million three-year early language training programme to train practitioners to identify language development problems and to work with children and families. We aim to train nearly 13,000 professionals and to reach 95,000 families through that programme.
Ofsted evidence points to over-identification of SEN. The better communication research programme was funded by the Department for Education and arose from a recommendation by the Bercow review. We are continuing to take forward many of the key recommendations, including our work with the Communication Trust, our grants and contracts with the trust, to help to disseminate much of the good practice that came out of that research programme and to ensure that all that is brought together in one place, with the involvement of the royal colleges, and used effectively and pragmatically where we know it can make a difference on the ground.
That research also shows that some groups, such as those with speech, language and communication needs, are under-identified. We plan to replace the present system of School Action and School Action Plus in schools with new guidance to help schools to ensure that they identify children with SEN more accurately and put the right support in place as quickly as possible. The new SEN code of practice will include clear expectations for schools on the processes for identifying and assessing pupils, setting objectives for them, reviewing progress and securing further support. That will not change the legislative duties on schools to use their best endeavours to secure special educational provision, to have an SEN co-ordinator, to notify parents of such provision and to publish information on how they are implementing their policy on SEN and disability. Those are all set out in the Children and Families Bill.
The local offer presents clear opportunities for local authorities and schools to reflect approaches with good evidence of positive impact. I CAN’s programme, “A Chance to Talk”, which is supported by funding from my Department, is one example. It provides a comprehensive approach to children’s speech and language development across clusters of schools and through the involvement of NHS speech and language therapists. It incorporates a joint commissioning approach to ensure that children with the most complex needs receive specialist help at school. That is very much the model that my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon talked about and it has flourished in his constituency. It provides flexibility in health and education, breaks down many of the barriers that my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs spoke about in relation to his constituency, and starts to bring about the culture change that we need to see on the ground.
Teachers tell us that the quality of their training is increasing, and many hon. Members have spoken about the importance of training the work force. Through the school direct programme, we are giving schools greater control over how they recruit and train teachers to meet the needs of their pupils. For example, ARK school is working with Canterbury Christ Church university to train 54 teachers through school direct. The programme includes intensive training during the first three years of a new teacher’s career, with additional training in inclusion behaviour and the teaching of reading and writing. They have a clear focus on SEN and equipping teaching to meet the range of pupils’ needs.
I am aware that the practical tools for schools developed by the better communication research programme, including those for developing communication supporting classrooms, are being widely disseminated by the Communication Trust as part of its work with the Department and elsewhere. The Department is also supporting the development of teachers’ skills in meeting SEN in other ways. A national scholarship fund for teachers has helped 600 teachers to obtain a qualification related to SEN, and there have been specialist resources for initial teacher training and new advanced level online modules for serving teachers, including on dyslexia, autism and speech and language skills. Funding has been provided for new SENCOs to complete the master’s-level national award for SEN co-ordination, with 10,119 between 2009 and 2012 and a further 800 in 2013-14.
Additional training for established SENCOs has been offered through NASEN, formerly the National Association for Special Educational Needs, to 5,000 teachers to date and there has been funding for several sector-specialist organisations, including the Communication Trust, to support the implementation of SEN reforms and to provide information to schools and teachers. The Institute of Education was awarded a grant in 2013-14 to explore the development of a scalable pilot to increase knowledge and skills in SEN within initial teacher training for trainees who wish to study this area in greater depth as part of their programme.
There has been a strong effort in initial teacher training and the current work force to develop skills and expertise in special educational needs, so that the ambitions set out in the Green Paper are reflected in the draft code of practice, which states that all teachers should be special educational needs teachers. That is becoming a reality following the work that I have mentioned.
A key change to the Bill, which several hon. Members have mentioned today and in Committee, is the introduction of a specific duty requiring those responsible for commissioning health provision to secure the health care provision in education, health and care plans. That significant change has been acknowledged and widely welcomed. The new duty builds on the joint commissioning duty in the Bill which requires local authorities and clinical commissioning groups, as well as NHS England when appropriate for national commissioning, to assess the needs of the local population of children and young people with SEN, and to plan and commission services to meet those needs. Joint commissioning arrangements must include those for securing education, health and care needs assessments, and the education, health and care provision specified in education, health and care plans. The new health duty requires health commissioners to ensure that the health care elements of those plans are provided for each individual. That provides direct clarity to parents that the support their child needs will be provided.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon raised particular concerns in Committee, on Report and again today about clause 21 of the Bill and about when health provision is to be regarded as special educational provision. My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs also made that point. Clause 21(5) states:
“Health care provision or social care provision which is made wholly or mainly for the purposes of the education or training of a child or young person is to be treated as special educational provision”.
That was included to fulfil an undertaking I gave during pre-legislative scrutiny that we would maintain existing protections, including case law, and preserve the current position where there is no duty to secure the health provision in plans.
Under the broader, integrated assessments and plans in the Bill, decisions will be based on special educational, health and care provision. Without clause 21(5), it may be difficult for a tribunal to say that, although speech and language therapy is health care provision made by health care providers, it is in fact special educational provision. The clause also enables appeals to the tribunal in respect of health provision when it is defined as special educational provision, as now. However, as I said on Report—I am happy to reiterate it for the purposes of this debate—we want to get things right, so that the position is clear for parents and for young people and children with a special educational need. I am content to continue listening to the views expressed in this House and in the other place to ensure that that is the case.
I applaud the Minister for his efforts, but will he look again at the Bromley case that I referred to on Report? Although I accept that it was in the context of the old system of statements of special educational need, there, we had a very clear exposition from Lord Justice Stephen Sedley, as he then was, of what is necessary for the purposes of provision. As for my wording, I agree that just removing “wholly or mainly” may not be the right approach, but we all need to strive together to get the wording absolutely right, so that we avoid the nice legal arguments that the Minister and I might enjoy academically, but which are no good to families.
As ever, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which reminds us lawyers that sometimes we need to look beyond the boundaries of a legal document and reflect more on what it seeks to achieve, as a way of ensuring that it does what we intend it to. I will look carefully at the Bromley case that he mentioned, not only in context, but as a demonstration of where we need to think through the implications of the clause as drafted to ensure that some of those eventualities do not still pertain in the new environment and in the reformed system that we all want to see work. I am happy to do that, and I have clearly indicated my intent to continue thinking carefully about how that aspect of the Bill will fulfil all those objectives.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend and with the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West that young offenders, including those with special educational needs, need to receive the right support and access to education, both when in custody and when they return to their communities. Clause 69 is necessary because it prevents our legislation from coming into conflict with existing comprehensive statutory provisions governing how education support is delivered in custody, as set out in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009, which I am sure the hon. Lady remembers well.
Duties placed on local authorities by that legislation are fulfilled through contracts held by the Education Funding Agency that are funded by the Ministry of Justice. As hon. Members will know, the MOJ is clear that the current system is not working, which is why it recently consulted on transformational reforms to how education and support in youth custody should be delivered in future. I have ensured that the education element for children, including those with SEN, in the care system and elsewhere, is being properly considered as part of the review. That provides an important opportunity to be absolutely clear about what role the time that a young person spends in custody plays, both as a form of punishment and in rehabilitation, so that when they come out of custody, they have every prospect of moving on in a positive direction. We have done that elsewhere in the prison estate. There are some good examples, but we can do much better, which is why I have given a commitment to my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon that we want to make progress, both in my Department and across Government, as the Bill moves on and as other work is done by the Ministry of Justice on the consultation that is taking place.
I know that the Minister was a family practitioner, but does he agree, perhaps from his experience dealing with criminal cases, that, very often, crimes of violence are precipitated by communications misunderstandings and young people resorting to using their fists—or worse—instead of being able to communicate with each other to resolve any differences?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will know—as do I, from my family’s experience of fostering many children—that some manifestations of the inability to communicate result in outbursts of anger. I have spoken before, on one occasion, about when someone who appeared to be, on the surface, a quiet, unassuming young man ended up smashing every single pane in my Dad’s greenhouse, because he did not know how else to communicate his anger, frustration and worry about what had happened to him in the past. I am very alive to that fact, which is why I am determined that we make progress in that important area.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard)—I am looking forward to coming to his working group later today on speech, language and communication needs—on the importance of ensuring that children and young people who need specialised communication aids have access to them. I know that he has raised that vociferously on a number of occasions, including in Prime Minister’s questions, in which the Prime Minister was clear that he wanted to help bring about the important changes that my hon. Friend wants.
My hon. Friend made the point about whether the interest in Government in the issue lies in health or education. The best answer I can give is that it is in both, which is why, in both those Departments, there is a strong interest from Ministers, who work not only individually, but collectively. I have met the Minister of State, Department of Health, who has responsibility for care, on a number of occasions to discuss that and other matters that transcend the Children and Families Bill, to ensure that we are moving in the right direction and in a way that will bring about the best results.
For lower-level alternative and augmentative communication needs, it will be up to health commissioners and their local authority partners to work together—we should lead by example by doing that in national Government—to ensure that the right services are in place locally to meet the needs of the population, and to reflect those services in the local offer. Highly specialist services needed by only a very small number of children will be commissioned centrally by NHS England, as my hon. Friend will know.
Prior to 1 April this year, there was no national commissioning of AAC services. There was no standard or nationally consistent definition of the services that were the commissioning and funding responsibility of the NHS. As a result, there was variation in organisations and in the commissioning and funding of specialised AAC services, and inequitable access to such services. A key priority must be to ensure that commissioning arrangements for specialised services are placed on a much more robust and equitable footing across England. That is currently being undertaken by NHS England’s area teams.
Work is under way to establish the required baseline for AAC services. Area teams are working with colleagues in clinical commissioning groups to identify the value of contracts for communication aids. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon mentioned the work of the former communication champion, Jean Gross, whose 2010 report suggested that a national budget of £14 million was required for 2012 to 2014 to bring the required baseline into effect. Working with experts on its AAC sub-group, NHS England will be looking at the report’s assumptions and other available data. We need to be clear that the progress on AAC has to be fulfilled to a degree that ensures the greatest level of equitable access that we can achieve. The development of the national commissioning of those services provides an opportunity to have much more consistency. I hope that that will be an important step forward.
One reason why I am pleased to support my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys in trying to improve the situation is that I saw for myself, on my visit to Springfield school in Crewe, some of the incredible aids that are now available. Those are quickly coming on stream all the time. I was given a number of demonstrations involving buttons and click mouses, and I was also told about gaze technology—I confess that I cannot remember the exact phraseology, but that is the term that I have decided to use—in which the length of time a person keeps their eyes fixed on the screen determines their command to the device. That is an astonishing way of providing anyone, whatever their level of communication, with an opportunity to communicate.
As the technology advances, some of the costs of the technology, certainly in the early stages, prove quite significant, so we need to think carefully about how we ensure, as my hon. Friend rightly said, that the equipment can still benefit the individual as they move on from compulsory education and, we hope, make the transition to a fulfilling adult life.
There was recently a reception, which some hon. Members may have gone to, about the gaming industry. One company there, SpecialEffect, is developing some of this eye-movement technology. It works in the gaming industry, but also on the educational opportunities provided by that technology. A lot of people may think that gaming is not necessary, but this is a very important move, with regard to cohesion, and young people feeling included in society, and able to play games and take part in other online activities in the same way that their peers can. The cost of the technology could be prohibitive, so I am pleased that the Minister is aware of it and has availed himself of it. I hope that we can ensure that where these technologies can help children with their education and the social aspects of their life, they will not be deemed too prohibitively expensive all the time.
The hon. Lady is a great advocate of the role that information technology can play in the lives of many children and young people with special educational needs. That even led to her persuading me, in Committee, to include elements relating to IT in the code of practice. This is another example of where we have the chance to widen the opportunities for many young people with speech, language and communication needs who, not many years ago, would not have had any of that at their disposal. Yes, there will be costs that must be taken into account, but with some of the new commissioning arrangements that are coming on board, including the joint commissioning in the Bill, and with personal budgets, there is a raft of ways in which, with the right support, many families can start to consider that as a reality, rather than a pipe dream. It is incumbent on all of us to think carefully about how we can help them to achieve exactly that.
I want to touch on an important issue that my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Dorset and North Poole, and for South Swindon, touched on—the Ofqual consultation proposal not to assess formally speaking and listening skills at GCSE. Clearly, pupils need speaking skills for their future progression, and employers value good communication skills and want them to be taught. The subject content of the new English language GCSE will strengthen the requirement to teach pupils how to become more confident in using spoken language in formal settings. The key point is how speaking skills are taught. Often, we dwell on the subject matter, rather than how that will be put across and absorbed by each individual child in such a way that it will endure. We do not want it to be just an exercise in process.
Improvements to the new national curriculum key stage 2 and 3 programmes of study for English will result in students being better prepared for the start of their GCSE courses. We do not want to undermine the robust standard of this subject by including assessments that cannot be externally validated, and that is reflected in Ofqual’s proposals. We have consulted organisations representing students with special educational needs as part of the equality analysis that we published in March. Overall, we believe that the benefit to all students will be positive. Students will follow more robust and challenging GCSE courses that will have real value for their future progression to further education and employment. Those with special educational needs can, through the Equality Act 2010, be supported in their exams through reasonable adjustments, such as extra time or supervised rest breaks. Ofqual, as the independent regulator, will monitor access arrangements and reasonable adjustments as the reformed GCSEs are introduced.
The consultation is still open. I know that the Communication Trust and others have submitted their own reflections on the proposals, and I have no doubt that Ofqual will take those reflections extremely seriously. We shall have to wait for the outcome of the consultation to see what steps are to be taken next, but it is important that Members of the House have the opportunity, both through the consultation and through the debate today, to make their feelings known, so that every angle is properly considered when understanding the ramifications of any changes on which Ofqual is consulting.
The changes that we are making in relation to special educational needs through the Children and Families Bill and through the 20 pathfinders across 31 local authorities are a key feature of our determination to ensure that all vulnerable children, whatever their background, have the chance to reach their full potential, not just in their education but in their wider life socially, culturally and otherwise. It is encouraging that we have reached the halfway point of the Bill’s passage and there is strong consensus on much of what it is designed to achieve and how we are going about that.
We are not talking about a small cohort of children in our country. We are talking about a significant number of children, and as my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon rightly pointed out on a number of occasions, we have a duty to ensure that they have every opportunity to reach their goals, academic or otherwise, that we would want for our own children. I know that as the Bill moves on, many Members here and in the other place will want to continue this dialogue, which has been extremely constructive to date, to ensure that we meet our responsibilities in Parliament to provide the best possible framework for the local agencies that are working so hard on the ground, in the public, private and voluntary sectors, to help to bring about these important changes. I am confident that we have set our stall out in a way that will drive reform and bring about the culture change that we all want and that, as a consequence, many children and families will feel that rather than the system working against them, it is much more on their side.
We are already starting to see, in some of the evaluation of the work that the pathfinders are doing, reports from parents who are starting to feel more included. They are being properly consulted. They are seeing changes in attitude, particularly in the health service, towards their involvement in not just the assessment process, but the delivery of services. The building blocks are starting to be put in place. Some of the relationships are starting to be recalibrated and are starting to mesh; my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon said that was happening already in his constituency.
We still have a huge amount of work to do. We are under no illusions about the fact that it will be a monumental task for all of us to ensure that this is a lasting and fulfilling change for many families, but the signs are encouraging, and I look forward to working with hon. Members on both sides of the House to continue to do all that we can to ensure that these important reforms really do hit the mark.
Dorset Police (Funding)
Good morning, Mr Dobbin. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today and to see the Minister in his place. He and I have communicated on several occasions on this subject. He has been extremely accommodating to date, and I am sure that our good relationship will continue despite what I have to say this morning. I plan to speak for no more than 15 minutes to give him time to reply and to take some interventions. I am sure that my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) will intervene and make points, and I am happy to take their interventions.
Let me praise and thank Dorset police and all its officers who serve with great distinction and honour and who keep the residents of Dorset safe. Dorset police force is one of the best in the country; I have met many of its officers and am impressed by their devotion to duty and their dedication. We are all extremely grateful to them for what they do.
Dorset is now the lowest centrally funded police force out of the 43 in England and Wales. While some forces receive three quarters of their grant from central Government, Dorset receives less than half. The rest of the burden is placed on the local taxpayer, and that inequity is repeated year after year and will worsen when a further £1.9 million is lost in so-called formula damping.
The 2013-14 grant settlement has seen Dorset receive less funding than the formula calculates as appropriate. Had the formula been followed, we would have had an additional £16 million to spend this year alone, which equates to nearly 850 more police officers on the beat at today’s starting salary of £19,000 a year. The reality is that, through cuts, we have lost an astonishing 340 officers since 2007, which is 23% of our total officer strength. By 2018, anticipated further cuts suggest that we will lose 468 warranted police officers, which is 31% of our numbers. That is equivalent to losing every single officer in Weymouth, Portland, Dorchester, Bridport, Lyme Regis, Sherborne, Blandford, Shaftesbury, Gillingham, Sturminster Newton and Beaminster—it sounds a bit like a train journey I have been on a few times. On the urban side of our county, cutting 468 officers would mean losing every officer in Bournemouth and Christchurch and some of those in Poole.
Proportionally, Dorset has lost the highest number of police officers and staff in the country. Back-office functions are already pared to the bone; that was done by the previous chief constable who did a wonderful job in meeting Government expectations and targets. None the less, Dorset police are expected to do more with less. To their great credit, they have one of the highest levels of public confidence in the country, but they will not be able to sustain that because they face unique policing challenges, which are increasing every year.
I am reluctant to ask my hon. Friend to give way because he is making such a powerful case. May I join him in congratulating the emergency services—not just the police but the fire and ambulance services—for the work that they do in Dorset? He is right to say that Dorset is not only one of the best performing constabularies in the country, but one of the worst funded. Does he agree that one aspect of this damping formula is that it does not include visitors or tourism? Places such as Bournemouth and his constituency have an influx of people coming in, giving police extra work to do, which then hinders them from taking responsibility for the residents, and that concerns police.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I will come to it later on. Dorset gets no recognition for the fact that it receives 14 million visitors a year.
Evenly split between a large conurbation on one side and a scattering of rural communities on the other, the “two Dorsets” demand very different styles of policing. Rural policing involves greater distances and time and, therefore, costs, and the night-time economy in our seaside towns, particularly when summer numbers peak due to tourism, demands a significant police presence. That is an area of great concern as stretched resources have to be targeted at weekend trouble spots, leaving the rest of the county with minimal cover. Resources are stretched even further to cope with the 14 million visitors who come to Dorset each year. Added to that, we have thriving sea ports and a busy international airport. None of those factors is recognised in the police funding allocation, which, by 2018, will allow us barely to fund 1,000 officers to police the lot.
Our police and crime commissioner, Martyn Underhill, has fought valiantly for increased funding and continues to do so. As he says:
“We are the lowest funded force and have seen the worst cuts. This is wrong. I will continue to fight this.”
However, in the absence of any new funding, he is obliged to look at sponsorship, which is anathema to most police officers and to me. It has been tried elsewhere in the Met, but there is naturally great concern about the independence of the police when sponsors’ names are emblazoned on every police vehicle, station and letterhead. Admittedly, the rules are strict: sponsorship must not amount to more than 1% of a force’s total income; none of the statutory functions of the force should depend on the sponsorship; and sponsors may not interfere with police duties.
However, the potential for conflict of interest, or at least a perception of conflict of interest, is evident. I should like, if I may, to inject a note of levity here. In the future, when someone asks, why do all police officers look so young these days, the answer will be, because they use Camay! I inject a note of humour, Mr Dobbin, but I think it makes the point rather well. Policing is a serious matter, and this sponsorship business does not bode well. If the police lose their independence through sponsorship deals, can privatisation be far away? Will the Minister tell us whether there are any plans to privatise the police?
Surprisingly, the Treasury seemed less embarrassed than perhaps it should have been over the news of the Dorset police sponsorships. It may even be policy. Chief Inspector Tom Winsor, in a recent speech to the Royal United Services Institute, said:
“The provision of services to police forces by private sector organisations, and agencies and organisations in the public sector, is likely to increase markedly as efficiencies and economies have to be found.”
Whether or not sponsorship is used—and I hope it is not—the funding formula remains profoundly flawed. Its original purpose, which is to achieve a reasonable balance across counties in police service delivered and council tax paid, manifestly no longer works.
Along with Dorset police, I welcome the review of the police funding formula, which I understand from my conversations with the Minister is due in September. Police treasurers met the Home Office yesterday as the first stage in that review. As we are on this subject, may I, on behalf of our police and crime commissioner Martyn Underhill, remind the Minister of the undertaking that he gave him at their meeting on 15 May? In a significant change to the Government’s position, the Minister agreed that PCCs can now be involved in the review, and several will be invited to join the table. As the greatest losers in the funding settlement nationally, and one of the best performers despite it, Dorset should be represented. Mr Underhill would be a worthy representative and if the Minister will kindly give some kind of acknowledgement when he responds, both Mr Underhill and I would be grateful.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and I endorse his congratulations on what all our public services achieve with such scarce resources. It is commendable, and I agree that when an organisation is already cut to the bone, it is very serious to have to tackle further cuts. What is most important to my constituents, who are in the next-door constituency, is their safer neighbourhood teams. If there were any further threats to those teams, we would be in danger of losing public confidence. They have been built up with our scarce resources but are now potentially affected. I endorse my hon. Friend’s request for Martyn Underhill to join the table, because he is hard working and someone who has his feet on the ground and will know what he is talking about when he gets to that table.
I agree with every one of my hon. Friend’s words. The safer neighbourhood teams are key to policing in Dorset, as I am sure they are around the country, and we are now getting to a point where even they are stretched, with officers being removed to deal with the night-time economy and, as I have already indicated, the other target areas of potential crime from which all towns suffer to a certain extent.
I am concerned about the Government’s plan, as I understand it, to begin the review this autumn but not report back until after the next election. We cannot wait any longer to get a proper and fair settlement, and I ask the Minister, most respectfully, to speed the process up considerably and report back before 2015. Need I remind him that there is no guarantee that he and I will be serving in government in 2015, or even be MPs? Policing is a serious matter, and the resources must be there to do the job effectively. Crime may well be down in Dorset, but that should not be an excuse to keep cutting. The previous chief constable told me repeatedly that every time Dorset police did well, more resources were taken away. I am afraid that I do not understand the logic that if someone is doing well they should lose the resources with which they can keep up the extremely high standard they have attained.
I believe, and my constituents tell me—as, I am sure, do the Minister’s—that people ideally want to see police officers on foot, patrolling their towns and villages day and night. I have argued strongly for a return to the days when each village had its own bobby living in the community. Costly though that may be in the short term, catching a potential offender in their childhood would save countless millions of pounds in the longer term.
I would like to dwell a bit on that point, and speak from my previous experience as a soldier patrolling the streets of Northern Ireland. The way in which we dominated the ground, gathered intelligence, fought against the IRA and protected the good people of Belfast and the other places in which I served, was by presence, by showing a face, patrolling the streets, being there for people to talk to, and being there to reassure, listen and pick up intelligence. The modern world relies more and more on technology, but the CCTV cameras, precious though they are, cannot possibly pick up on a patrol on the ground, on the atmosphere, the feedback, the communication and the observation, on the shop that is a bit different this morning from what it was last night because there is a gunman inside with a weapon to the shopkeeper’s head. CCTV cameras will not pick that up; police officers on foot will. When they come back, a huge amount of intelligence can be obtained by asking, “What did you see during that two-hour patrol?” When our soldiers came back everything was logged, pictures were taken and checks were done, and all the intelligence went up the line, meaning we were better informed and could do a far better and more effective job on that mission.
I am glad to say that policing does not carry the threat of being blown up, although police officers in this country tragically lose their lives in the line of duty. In Dorset, however, we are most fortunate not to have had such an incident, as far as I can recall, for many years, if at all, and long may that be the case. Nevertheless, the threat is there. I urge the Minister carefully to consider the funding formula, and to give a fairer deal to the people of Dorset, who must be treated more equitably. We are not asking for more money. We understand the restrictions that the Minister, the Government and the country face—the austerity we all face. We have heard about that again and again. What the people of Dorset are asking for is a much fairer share of the cake.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax)on securing the debate and on continuing his assiduous pursuit of the issue. I understand, not least through that pursuit, how important police funding is for Dorset and, as he said, we have corresponded on the subject. I very much welcome the interest he has shown in the specific needs of the Dorset police, who of course do much of their work in rural areas. I also appreciate the significance he attaches to the forthcoming review of the police allocation formula.
I had a very positive meeting last month, not only with Police and Crime Commissioner Martyn Underhill, but with Chief Constable Debbie Simpson, and I assured them that the Dorset police and crime commissioner, along with PCCs across the country, will be able to engage fully with the review process. I am happy to repeat that reassurance today.
I should just say that this is not the change of policy that my hon. Friend presents it as; the Government have always intended the process to be a full one, and that is why it has to be longer than he would have hoped. As part of the process, we want to engage as many people as possible, precisely because everyone, understandably, comes to the issue from their individual point of view, and we want to hear all their voices.
While we are testing what might or might not be included, could I provoke the Minister even further and invite him to say that tourism will at least be considered as part of the formula? Bournemouth swells by up to between 15,000 and 20,000 people on Friday and Saturday nights. That places huge pressures on Bournemouth police, and with half of them focused on the town centre, the rest of the town does not get the attention that residents believe it deserves.
I am very conscious that each area has its particular pressures. The pressures can be rural or tourism ones, and there are clearly night-time economy pressures in big cities as well, and I am absolutely sure that during the review people who feel such pressures locally will urge us to take them into account more than the current formula does. I can only repeat that that is why the review will be complex and will take some time.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset made the point that we have the financial background that we do. The action taken has secured stability, and we have positioned the UK as a relatively safe haven, with interest rates at near-record lows, benefiting businesses and families. We have, however, had to make tough spending decisions, and as a service that was spending more than £14 billion a year, the police service must take its fair share of the funding reductions. Nevertheless, in the financial year 2013-14, we have sought to protect the police as far as possible.
On the fairness that the Minister talks about, because Dorset has been at the bottom of the pile for so many years, we do not regard any further cuts across the board as fair. Our cuts do not equate to those for another force that has had a lot more money for a lot longer. I hope that the Minister follows my logic.
My hon. Friend makes that point powerfully, but as he would expect, those in other parts of the country make equal and opposite points just as powerfully. It is in the nature of applying a national formula to 43 forces that there are obviously winners and losers. To repeat myself for about the fourth time—I apologise, Mr Dobbin—the formula is an extremely complex instrument, so changing it to make it fairer will be a long and complex process.
There were further cuts to most departmental budgets last December, but we protected the police from those additional reductions in 2013-14. The Home Secretary decided not to pass on reductions relating to the November 2011 announcement on pay restraint that would have resulted in a fall of £66 million in overall police funding. The further reductions announced in the 2013 Budget have not been passed on to the police. In 2013-14, the police will therefore receive the amount of funding agreed in October 2010.
I understand that PCCs are keen to know their funding allocations for 2014-15 and, in particular, the implications of the last two autumn statements and the March Budget. As hon. Members would expect, we are looking carefully at all Home Office budgets for 2014-15 to ensure that every penny is spent where it is most needed, and we will announce our decision as soon as we can. Obviously, the spending review is next week.
The Minister mentioned the Home Office budget and the Home Secretary. I was delighted to read the ideas she advanced in The Sunday Times about savings that could be made in not just the police, but the emergency services, not least because they are my ideas that I presented to her about six months ago in my report on improving the efficiency, interoperability and resilience of our blue light services. Will the Minister say, for a couple of seconds, where those ideas are going, because greater savings made in the Home Office budget as a whole will have an impact in Dorset?
I should indeed congratulate my hon. Friend on the creative and stimulating ideas about more efficient ways of providing blue light services across the board. As he is aware, we are looking at them carefully, but it is a long-term process. For example, many people have asked whether PCCs could merge the fire and police services in their area, but there is currently no legal power for them to do so, so that will not happen tomorrow. As he knows, the Home Secretary and others are interested in those ideas.
Let me turn specifically to Dorset. As has been said, the overall funding settlement for the police is challenging, but Dorset police and the vast majority of forces are demonstrating that it is manageable. The latest report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary makes it clear that forces are making the necessary savings, while front-line delivery to the public is largely being maintained. As has been said, recorded crime in Dorset was 13% lower in the year to December 2012. Overall crime is down more than 10% since this Government came to power, and in the last set of figures the downward trend was replicated across every police force in England and Wales.
I appreciate that funding reductions have meant all forces having to consider where savings must be made in officer and staff numbers. In Dorset, the number of officers was reduced by 6% in the year to September 2012. Ultimately, decisions on the work force’s size and composition, which are important, are for individual chiefs and PCCs. However, I emphasise that, across forces, the proportion of officers on the front line is increasing. That, together with continued improvements in victim satisfaction levels, shows that the police are rising to the challenge of maintaining and improving services to the public while delivering their share of the savings required, and I congratulate them on that.
I have to make the point that we are at the very bottom of the pile. Yes, Dorset police force is doing a good job, as the Minister said. I question his figure of 6%: it does not tally with mine—I am just thinking on my feet—but perhaps he is looking at a shorter period. The figure of 30% has stuck in my mind, and that would be even bigger if the planned cuts, whereby we would lose nearly 500 officers, are implemented by 2018. We are now at the point where the force is doing a good job, and there are officers on the front line—no one is left in back offices; they have gone now—but we do not have any more to put on the front line. The idea that we do is a complete fallacy for us, because the point is that we are at the very bottom of the pile. With all due respect to the Minister, he seems to be talking about forces across the country, but we are a very exceptional case.
All I can say to my hon. Friend is that at a time of austerity, all Ministers discover that everyone is an exceptional case. He projected the numbers out to 2018, but I do not share his degree of clairvoyance about public spending. I am conscious that we will get the figures for 2015-16 next week. Anything beyond that can be only speculation, but he cited numbers out as far as 2018. I am not saying that there will be an instant turnaround in the public finances—we will need to maintain suitable discipline—but on Wednesday we will know about the numbers for as far as 2016.
Central Government are not the only source of funding for the police, who receive an average of 25% of their funding from the police precept component of council tax. The exact proportion varies from force to force, and the level at which it is set is a matter for individual PCCs. In Dorset, as my hon. Friend said, the proportion, at more than 40%, is much greater than average, which means that it is in a much better position than the majority of forces to manage central Government funding reductions.
I recognise the concerns that my hon. Friend and the Dorset PCC have raised, in that the specific nuances of policing in Dorset may not be reflected fully in the police allocation formula. That includes the various challenges that he and others have referred to about rural policing, visitor influx and the demands created by the night-time economy. The current formula accounts for the needs of police forces that do much of their work in rural areas, and it should ensure that local police forces get funding to compensate for the policing required in areas with high concentrations of pubs and bars. Those and all other elements of the formula will be considered as part of the forthcoming review.
I am pleased that the Minister has mentioned the point about high concentrations of bars. The formula does not work properly because the mathematics are for the whole of Dorset. An awful lot of its rural areas have no pubs and clubs, which are collected closely together in certain pockets. If we look at the maths, and consider the number of pubs and clubs in the area covered by Dorset, it works out that we have about one every square kilometre, but of course that is not the case. That is the dilemma with the current formula.
Indeed. I hear what my hon. Friend says, and there will be a review, as I have said.
On sponsorship, I am aware that the Dorset PCC has said that he wants to ensure that his force takes full advantage of all funding streams. The Government’s position is that it is for the PCC and the chief constable to determine whether any sponsorship is appropriate. There is a financial code of practice, meaning that every force should have its own guidelines about the acceptance of gifts and sponsorship.
I am happy to assure my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset that that is not privatisation. We do not want to privatise the police, but sensible use of private sector skills can help forces to discharge their duties and ensure that officers are on the front line, not trapped behind desks, so improving the protection we give the public. Core functions, such as patrolling and leading investigations, will always be done by sworn warranted officers. The police will remain accountable to the people, and any decisions to engage the private sector will be taken by elected PCCs, which gives local people a say. I am afraid that I do not share his view that it is anathema: if PCCs think that that is a good way to get more resources on to the front line effectively, we should look at it.
The challenge for Dorset police force, as for all other forces, will be to continue to transform its organisation and to build a modern, flexible and resilient service that delivers for the public. I commend the work that it has already done to rise to that challenge, and I hope and expect that it will continue to do so.
Family Migration Rules
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
It is a pleasure, Mr Owen, to serve under your chairmanship. I am grateful for this welcome opportunity to discuss this important matter in this timely debate. Last week, the all-party parliamentary group on migration launched its report on the impact of the income requirement for those sponsoring a partner or spouse from outside the European economic area, and the new rules on adult dependants, almost a year after the new family migration rules were introduced. The media coverage of the rules and the numerous e-mails and phone calls received in my office over the past week suggest that there is great public interest in the matter, which makes this debate even more important.
I thank the APPG on migration and its secretariat, the Migrants Rights Network, for the dedicated and professional support provided to the inquiry and to the group’s members. Thanks are also due to the 280 or so individuals and organisations that took the time to submit evidence to the APPG inquiry. Submissions were received from more than 175 families, who reported that they had directly experienced difficulties as a result of the new family migration rules, and I keep receiving more every day in my office from both constituents and other families who have the same concerns.
One of the main concerns is that the income requirement—£18,600 to sponsor a non-EEA spouse or partner, more if there are also children—is high for many British people and permanent residents of the UK. According to the accounts we received, the income requirement has affected some British people who appear to have more than adequate means to support themselves and family members. Some people seeking to sponsor a non-EEA spouse or partner told us that they were not receiving any benefits and were living well within their means, but that the application process did not allow them to reflect their self-sufficiency.
Many individuals who submitted evidence said that they were in employment in the UK and being paid a wage above £12,850, which hon. Members will recognise as the current level of the national minimum wage. We heard from the Migration Observatory at Oxford university that 47% of the UK working population would now be unable to meet the income requirement through earnings alone.
This seems a pertinent moment to say that it is not just the low-wage areas of the country that are affected. There are so many people in my constituency in Lewisham, Deptford, in London who are getting only the minimum wage. I have a case of a woman whose husband cannot be reunited with her. She is a support worker, which is a valuable job in the community, on £12,800 a year. She is on the minimum wage and fully legal, but she cannot bring in her husband. Surely that cannot be fair.
I quite agree. The amount highlighted in the report and stipulated in the rules has clearly impacted on many families, irrespective of where they live—London or the regions. Some of the British people seeking to sponsor a spouse stated that they were working in key occupations as auxiliary and health support nurses, security guards, clerical assistants and even ordained ministers.
It is clear that jobs and the income from those jobs are not relevant when families are forced to live apart. The income requirement would exclude almost half the UK working population from living with their husbands or wives if they were from outside the EEA. That seems unfair. Should they have to move overseas? We heard from a number of families whose child care commitments prevented them from relocating overseas, or who had other caring duties in the UK—for example, for elderly parents—that meant that the family had compelling reasons to wish to settle in the UK.
In addition, we heard from a number of hard-working, tax-paying British citizens who were determined that being effectively forced out of their own country should not be the only way in which they could live with their spouse and children. I think most of us would have the same reaction, were we in that situation.
Another issue close to those affected by the family migration rules is the manner in which the income requirement can be met. The limited list of permitted income sources has delayed and prevented even those families with clear means, or access to means, from entering the UK since last July. In the case of families who have been living overseas and wish to return to the UK, if the couple wish to meet the income requirement from the employment-related income source, the UK sponsor must show prior earnings of that amount, which may well be difficult for those who have been working in lower-income countries. The prior earnings or prospective income in the UK of the non-EEA partner is not taken into consideration at any point, regardless of whether he or she is the main earner in the family. Even if the non-EEA partner has strong chances of employment in the UK, or has a firm job offer here, it will still not count towards the application. One submission to the inquiry raised the case of a family based in Dubai; the non-EEA national was earning £250,000 per annum, which could not be counted in any way towards meeting the income requirement.
We have also heard that meeting the requirement through one of the other permitted sources is not always possible, even for high net worth families.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for serving with distinction on what was an all-party inquiry. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) is making a powerful case about families being torn apart and children being indefinitely separated from one of their parents. Does he agree that we are seeing some perverse outcomes, in that reunited families could help people go out to work? As the rules stand, even if the combined family income enables them to support an individual with whom they wish to be reunited, they cannot do so.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I quite agree with him; he has made a very powerful point. Yes, these rules are keeping families apart, not helping them to unite and support each other, even where uniting them could help them to progress in their family life. Hopefully, the Minister will make a note of that point.
The prior earnings and prospective income in the UK of the non-EEA partner are not taken into consideration at any time, regardless of whether he or she is the main earner in the family. The cash savings source requires sponsors and applicants to take up to £62,500 out of investments in stock and shares, and to place it in a bank account, which is difficult for people whose assets cannot be liquidated. Again, does that not exclude a substantial number of hard-working families from being united in this country, because the income requirement is not a proper reflection of the resources that will be available to those families once they are together in the UK? The great number of colleagues who are present in Westminster Hall shows the interest in this issue, both inside and outside Parliament.
My hon. Friend is coming close to the end of his remarks, and there is a particular issue—one that I know he is aware of—that should be highlighted. It is the very significant number of circumstances in which a couple who are living overseas might want to come back to the UK to support and care for a vulnerable family member, thus reducing the cost to the general taxpayer of the care needs of that vulnerable family member, and yet they are not able to get through the hoops that the rules require them to get through. Frankly, that is an example of the state cutting off its nose to spite its face.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I accept the point that she makes. There are many other areas of concern, which I am sure Members will highlight. I am just making a few points, so that other Members have the opportunity to speak. I know for certain of the interest that was expressed during the inquiry by the all-party group. Members who took part in that inquiry have already raised those points, and I am sure, having listened to what the Minister for Immigration said last week, that he has taken note of them and will reflect on them—hopefully favourably—in his response to the inquiry’s report.
These families are being kept apart; children are kept from living with both parents, and elderly relatives cannot be cared for by their families.
I am glad that my hon. Friend made that point, because the issue of elderly relatives is another one that many of us have come across in our constituencies; of course, I also agree with what he has said about spouses. Under the new rules, it is almost impossible for a relative over the age of 65 to be admitted to the UK, because their sponsor may not have the income—may not meet the cash requirements—to allow them to come to the UK; if the sponsor does meet the requirement, they will be expected to support their relative in the foreign country, thereby keeping away grandparents and parents who will not cause a major impact on the UK population. It is a very cruel and inhumane thing to do. Would my hon. Friend agree that that is another thing that the Government should review?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I quite agree with his point. It was a very appropriate intervention, because it highlights the fact that we generally expect families to be united, with grandchildren living with their grandparents, so that heritage can be passed on. That applies not only to people from outside the EU, but to people everywhere—wherever we feel that families need to come together. However, these rules are keeping families apart and forcing them to remain apart.
I hope that the Minister will note the intervention by my hon. Friend and by other Members, as well as the contributions that will come later in the debate. We would like to hear positive things from the Minister. I hope that, in the light of this unfairness, the Minister and the Government will allow for an independent review of the impact of these new migration rules, so that the situation can be reassessed.
I am incredibly grateful to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for securing this debate, and I congratulate him on doing so.
I served on the all-party inquiry with the hon. Gentleman and with the hon. Member for—is it Stretford?
I have actually got the hon. Lady’s constituency correct.
Many of us on that inquiry were really horrified by what we found, despite my own experience as a constituency MP and having encountered the frustrations of an awful lot of my constituents as they tried to deal with the new rules. Of course, as the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall said, the new rules have been in place for a year now and there is no doubt that they are proving a significant source of frustration and tension for family life without providing any obvious and immediate benefit to the UK. When the Minister responds to the debate, I will be very interested to see if he can tell us what benefits he considers the new rules have brought to the UK, because they are not immediately obvious to me; I can see many of the harms but I cannot see many obvious benefits.
The first thing that is very apparent about the new rules is that they represent a distinct philosophical shift in approach from the old rules. The system used to be tilted in favour of family life, subject to certain basic conditions being met, such as the ability to support a spouse coming into the UK and the ability to meet a basic income threshold, which was pretty much tantamount to a basic income threshold that we would expect around income support levels. Now, the system is tilted entirely in the opposite direction, and against family life, unless someone can meet certain requirements to demonstrate that their spouse who is coming into the UK is desirable in some way and meets some extra criteria. So rather than having a system that was very much about keeping families together, the system now is about serving an overall objective on immigration policy, with family life being significantly relegated in importance. Of course, it is not only family life that is being relegated in importance, but relationships, children’s best interests, basic human compassion and a certain level of common sense.
The consequence is that we have created a system that is highly inflexible and incredibly rigid, and that fails by its own narrow criteria in terms of preventing a burden falling on the taxpayer. What do I mean by that? The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall raised many of these issues, as did a number of the Members who intervened on him. One of my own reflections from having been on the all-party group’s inquiry was, “If you’re self-employed, woe betide you. You might be earning a fortune, but it’s incredibly difficult for you to demonstrate that you meet the Government’s criteria.” Money must be in certain very specific bank accounts; it must be accessible in a very specific way. Parents’ wealth is disregarded, so someone may have a very wealthy family who are more than willing to support them but that is not taken into account.
As the hon. Gentleman said, someone may have wealth tied up in other ways; for example, it might be tied up in capital. Once again, however, that is not adequate under the new rules. It is only someone’s earned income in the UK that is taken into account, so even if someone has been earning a small fortune abroad that is not taken into account. Equally, even if someone’s spouse earns a small fortune, if they come to the UK that is not taken into account either, and nor are their projected future earnings. Even by the incredibly narrow criteria of wanting income to be the most important factor and wanting people to demonstrate a level of wealth that the Government have decided is desirable, the system at the moment fails to deliver.
That is not to mention the hidden costs, which were highlighted by hon. Members in a number of interventions—the costs that are incurred by refusing someone permission to come to the UK. The obvious ones that we heard about during our inquiry were around caring burdens, particularly if the person who is here in the UK has some health problems, or if they have very young children and they have been separated from their partner. They might be able to go back to work if their partner was here in the UK to share child care. Without the partner, however, it is much more difficult.
Then there are the obvious things that the rest of government knows about. For example, if people are separated from their partner and families are divided up, the effects on mental health and on children failing to bond with one parent or another have a wide-ranging impact on behaviour and educational attainment. Of course, none of those more subtle things is taken into account either.
Among African and Caribbean parents, it is common for a child to be left at home with grandparents, but when the grandparents die, the child is left vulnerable. I have heard about one young girl being abused by the uncle, and the mother is in despair because the rules prevent her from getting the child into this country. Has the hon. Lady also heard about such examples?
I have not seen that specific situation with regard to the rules we are discussing, but I have seen such a situation elsewhere. We heard all sorts of examples in the inquiry, such as one parent being separated from children and children being left in other places. The impact in terms of the splitting up of families and the effect on children is potentially devastating and, of course, none of that is being taken into account at the moment.
Has the hon. Lady, or the inquiry that she participated in, considered the instance of UK citizens coming back to the UK, having married abroad, often in complete ignorance of what the rules now say? Such people are finding that their spouse and child are simply stranded thereafter. Someone in my constituency has done exactly that and is now faced with the prospect of trying to get a job in the UK that will pay £18,000, not being able to access any of his parents’ assistance, and his wife and child remaining outside the UK perhaps for several years, even though he has done everything right in terms of his life and work, and all other factors.
The hon. Gentleman nods in recollection.
One of the most interesting aspects of this policy is that people being caught up in this change in immigration rules would never have imagined that they would come into contact with the immigration system; they are British citizens who went abroad to work as a teacher, perhaps, or to do development work, or were sent abroad by their company for business purposes, then met somebody and came back. This is the first time that they ever thought that they might come into contact with the immigration system.
In my constituency in Leicester, a city with a tradition of welcoming people, these new rules are causing considerable concern. A British citizen came to see me last week who has been living in Syria and fled from there with her children, for obvious reasons, yet her husband cannot get out because of the rigidity of the rules. People might think that, given the circumstances and what is happening in that part of the world, there should be some flexibility in how the rules are implemented.
I agree. Leicester is my home town, so I sympathise with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. The rigidity of the rules makes it particularly difficult for people. Under the previous rules—I will not say that they were perfect; as a constituency MP, from time to time I pleaded for people’s cases to be accepted and reconsidered—there was at least some flexibility to look at somebody’s case, based on compassionate grounds or common sense, whereas now there appears to be no flexibility whatever.
Why are the rules being so rigidly and inflexibly enforced? It is because income probably has nothing to do with it. It is not really about trying to prevent a burden on the taxpayer; it is actually about the Government trying to demonstrate that we are reducing the number of foreigners coming into the UK. That is driving it. If anything else were driving it, it would be implemented in a far more common-sense way, there would be much more flexibility around it, and it would not have been set at a level to keep out as many people as possible.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this important debate on the work of the group. Does my hon. Friend agree that the rules are not only keeping foreigners out but causing some good British people to leave? The response of a number of people in my constituency has been simply to leave the country. These are successful entrepreneurs, those at early stages of what will be well-paid careers, and people coming back, as my hon. Friend said. We risk losing some of our best people, who are internationally experienced, as a result of the rules.
The classic story that we heard in the inquiry was that people are going somewhere else in Europe to make a home, and waiting until their partner gains EU citizenship there. During that time they donate their skills, wealth and significant social contribution to another European country, and they may or may not return to the UK.
It was a pleasure to serve with the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on the Committee. Does she agree that one reason why these rules may be being applied so rigidly is a lack of confidence in the decision-making powers and abilities of Border Agency officials, and that investment in training them to make sensible decisions, rather than imposing blanket rules, would be a fairer and more sensible approach?
I think it would. I have to say that it would be wiser if we were not being driven entirely by an objective to keep numbers down, but that is perhaps another story.
I should like the Minister to respond to what I am now going to say about the best interests of children. When I was a Minister in the Department for Education, we committed the Government to standing by and meeting our commitment on the United Nations convention on the rights of the child and to take into account children’s best interests when decisions are made. What account is being taken of that now by the Minister’s Department, as it looks at the rules and their impact? Has any assessment been done and has any discussion been had with Department for Education officials on this point? If he is unable to answer that question today, I should be grateful if he wrote to let me know.
The impact of the rules on bringing in grandparents and elderly dependants is just as shocking as that of the spousal rules. Almost no approvals have happened since the new rules came in. It was described to me by one lawyer as a ban masquerading as a rule, which is probably a rather more effective way of describing the problem. If almost nobody can come in, that demonstrates what the Government want to do, and it might have been more honest if that had been done in the first place. The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), who is no longer in his place, intervened on the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall and made a similar point. It is almost impossible to meet the rules. People must have a high income and must be clear that their family member will not have recourse to any kind of benefits, and sign something to say that that will not happen. They must also demonstrate that the family member is so sick that they must come here, and cannot possibly have their care needs met in the country where they are, even if they were to pay for it.
Almost nobody will meet those criteria. One lawyer said that he had been thinking through all the possible scenarios and the only example that he came up with where somebody might meet such criteria was if they had an elderly dependent relative in Monaco and had enough money here to meet the first part of the rules, but because care is so expensive in Monaco they would not be able to afford to pay for it there. That would probably be the only way we would allow such people to come to the UK. If we are going to have a ban, let us at least be more honest about it.
The consequences of the rules were drawn to our attention in the inquiry most notably by the British Medical Association, which said that they were among the biggest challenges in planning resourcing around consultants and senior doctors, many of whom are second-generation south Asian and want to bring a relative. For example, two people who are partners, both of whom may be highly paid consultants capable of supporting an elderly dependent relative but with no means of meeting the rules, might end up moving to Singapore. If such highly trained, highly valued people go somewhere else to work so that they are able to be with their family members, that is a significant drain on our national health service.
The current system seems to me to be inhumane and lacking in basic common sense. It cuts across a whole set of areas that the Government say are a priority: it cuts across our commitments on family policy, on early intervention and on our obligations under the UNCRC. We heard in our inquiry that the rules disproportionately affect those from poorer communities in the UK, such as Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, and that women, who struggle to earn the same wages as men, are particularly affected. The system affects not only those people but many highly paid British citizens who may never have thought that they would meet the full force of the immigration system preventing them from having a happy family life. I strongly urge the Minister to review those rules properly and to reconsider them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather). I am sure she will not mind me reminding her of this, but it is the coalition Government, of whom she was a member, who originally proposed the rules and put them through the House. I respect her late conversion to condemning the Government publicly for what they are doing, and I know she feels sincerely about that.
I am sure that is the case, which is why I gave the hon. Lady a wildcard. Of course I am sure that, privately, she was very much against the rules when she was a Minister in the Government who put them through the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), whom I have known for more than 35 years, on securing this debate. Even before he became a Member of Parliament, he took up immigration issues in Southall for almost a quarter of a century through the Indian Workers' Association, as a councillor, as the lord mayor of Ealing and as a prospective parliamentary candidate, so it is no surprise that he should be introducing this debate and that he served on the inquiry organised by the all-party group on migration.
All those who served on the inquiry, including my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), the hon. Member for Brent Central, the noble Baroness Hamwee and others, have done the House a great service. I wish the Select Committee on Home Affairs had time to consider the rules, but being pressed so often by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) to take up new and exciting inquiries, we just did not have time to do so. The all-party group has produced a stunning report, which everyone needs to read with great care.
For those of us who do immigration cases every day, and I see Members here who represent constituencies in Birmingham, Manchester and Leicester, including my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) and others—I cannot name every constituency—there is the line in the Lord’s prayer that says
“Give us today our daily bread.”
Immigration cases are our daily bread and butter. Every single Friday, immigration cases are 90% of the work I do in my surgery. Although the Minister, who represents the Forest of Dean, and the shadow Minister, who represents Rhondda, do not have the casework that we have, those of us who have seen the Minister perform before the Select Committee and have heard the shadow Minister’s comments know that they understand our concerns on immigration. For us, as constituency MPs, immigration is a big deal. I am glad to see the Minister here today, and I am sorry that he is on crutches. It is better to be on crutches before the debate than after.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall and the hon. Member for Brent Central have already stated the facts—why bring in an arbitrary figure? Tony McNulty was wrong to bring in the points-based system, and I told him so at the time. He thought it was a great invention. I went to see him when he was Minister for Immigration, and he said, “It is very important that people tot up the points, and then you know whether they qualify to come in under the points-based system.” I said, “Where is the discretion in all this? What about those cases that don’t reach the number of points but where there might be grounds for compassion?” The hon. Member for Brent Central talked about that, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall talked about other issues. What about those issues that the entry clearance officers cannot address because the migrant does not have enough points?
Here is another example on the arbitrary figure. Yes, we know that the Migration Advisory Committee advised on the figure and, yes, we know there are lots of statistical surveys that say the sum should be £18,600, but as the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), said, the average wage in his constituency is not £18,600. The average wage is certainly not £18,600 in Leicester East and Leicester South; it is about £16,000 or even less—in fact, it is £4,000 less than the national average according to the Office for National Statistics. I have people coming into my surgery who will never get their spouse into the country—even those who are working very hard indeed. I say to them, “Why don’t you get another job?” They cannot get another job because they are exhausted from working up to 60 hours a week. I know that is not the minimum wage, and it may not be lawful, but that is what is on their little slips.
My right hon. Friend might be surprised to learn the results of a survey carried out among the members of a Southampton mosque by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham). Some 95% of the mosque’s members earn less than £18,000 a year. The rules therefore effectively ban an entire community from rights that we would accede to any other community in this country.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Thousands of people who wish to bring their spouse into this country now cannot do so. For a Government who came to power saying that they wanted to engage with the ethnic minority communities—I have seen the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and every senior member of the Government at big functions for the ethnic minority communities so many times, and they really want to reach out like no other Conservative Government have ever done before—introducing a rule that will cause huge damage to the Government at the next election is electorally disastrous for the Conservative party, not that the Government need advice from me on electoral disasters ahead of the next election. That goes against everything the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have said at Diwali and Eid functions, which is that they want a community in which people feel at peace with each other and get on well together. Introducing an arbitrary figure disfranchises thousands and thousands of people.
As the hon. Member for Brent Central said, why do it? Is it because the Government want to stop abuse? I do not think so because, as I discovered this morning—even I did not know about this, which just goes to show how quickly such things happen—the Government have increased the probation period from two years to five years. People cannot get indefinite leave to remain if they are on benefits, so it is not a question of people arriving and going on benefits, because doing so means they cannot get to the next stage on the way to citizenship. Abuse is better dealt with through face-to-face interviews, such as those the Minister saw when he went to Sheffield—he saw people who are coming here as students being interviewed. If we do that for spouses, we can address abuse much better than putting in an arbitrary financial limit. The purpose, of course, is to limit the number of people coming here.
We are an island, and we all understand that we cannot have unlimited migration to Britain. We understand that, and I hope the Labour party understands that when it was in government it made mistakes in its operation of the UK Border Agency. From what the Select Committee has heard from the Minister, we know he understands that he needs to address the problem. I think he is genuine in his desire to try to address the organisational issues. The fact remains that there is no coherent and cogent reason for the limit. I would like an explanation from the Minister. I would understand it if entry clearance directors were given discretion to tell applicants who had an offer of a job in this country, “You haven’t reached the limit, but you have a job offer in Leicester. You’ll go over the limit as soon as you arrive in the United Kingdom, so we’ll grant you a visa.” However, there seems to be no explanation for the current arrangements.
Let me tell my right hon. Friend of a case I have. A man who has been made redundant cannot get his Canadian wife into the country in the normal way. She was a teacher in this country for three years before she returned with him to Canada and they married. She could get a job immediately she sets foot in this country, but she is not allowed to move here.
I can well understand that case. We all have similar cases, which are heart-rending, but there is nothing we can do, because the rules are so rigid.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the shadow Immigration Minister, stands up, I hope that he will say that the Labour party will look again at the threshold at the next election. I am sorry to tell him that I think the Labour party has been very quiet on this issue. Now that we have the report on migration, which points to the problems experienced at a practical level, we would like to know what the official Opposition will do about the rule. My hon. Friend came to Leicester and listened carefully to what my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South said, but we need to have some thinking on these issues, rather than blanket, rigid rules that seek to stop people coming into this country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) and the hon. Member for Brent Central said that getting dependants into this country is no longer on the agenda and that people simply cannot do it. Frankly, the dependants I know who have come to this country have come only from east Africa, because of the nature of Leicester. They stay only a short time, and then they want to go back; they are just grateful to be able to come here whenever they can.
My last point is about rights of appeal for people who are visiting, which the coalition Government are about to take away. If they do that, they will put even more pressure on our immigration service—this will, I am sure, be the subject of the next report by the all-party group on migration. If they remove the right of appeal, which is extremely important because it means that a judge, rather than the Home Office, can make a determination, they will take away the one guarantee of absolute fairness in the system. I put it to the Minister that there needs to be an independent review when cases are turned down. An entry clearance manager and director should not be reviewing a decision by an entry clearance officer, when they see them every day, in the evening and in their post.
I am not casting aspersions on anyone in any case, but the perception is that things are not fair. We have some fantastic entry clearance directors, such as Janice Moore in Mumbai and Mandy Iveny in Pakistan, but there are only a few we could name as being people to whom we could go to solve a problem. I ask the Minister to look again at the issues of discretion and review. In the time he has been doing his job—certainly in his dealings with the Home Affairs Committee, as the hon. Member for Cambridge will confirm—he has shown that he actually listens and considers what is put forward. I therefore hope he will listen to what the all-party group has said and to what we are saying today.
Let me reassure you, Mr Owen, that I do not intend to take up a great deal of time. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing the debate. I also congratulate all the Members and advisers who put together the report, which has featured very much in our discussions today.
It is a great privilege to follow the Chair of the Select Committee, whose work as a constituency MP and on the Committee means that he brings a great deal of experience to the debate. I was struck when he indicated the range of constituencies represented here, but he probably would not point to North Cornwall as one of those we would expect to feature. That is a measure of the change we have undergone in the system.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, there are issues about the rise in the number of people who have come into the country in recent years. The Government are determined to look at how the issue can be managed differently, and the approach they have taken is to set targets and rigid rules.
Over the eight years I have represented my constituency, the number of immigration cases I have had has been very small, and I suspect I spend much more time talking to the Rural Payments Agency about single farm payments than the right hon. Gentleman does in Leicester East. In recent months, however, a number of people have come to see me about immigration issues. They have mainly grown up in my part of the world, and their circumstances are similar to those other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), have described. These people have gone overseas and fallen in love, or they have met someone who has come to this country as a student or to work for a time. They have formed a relationship and married, but they now have a problem—one that they and their families never thought they would encounter. They assumed it would be relatively straightforward to sort out, but they then found that it is not.
To help the Minister appreciate how we, as constituency MPs, are being affected, I want, without mentioning names, to highlight some of the cases that have been brought to me in recent weeks. One constituent grew up in my area and has been living in Canada. She is now in a permanent relationship with someone in Canada. They both have skills and want to bring them to this country, but they cannot come here together. Given the industry in which they work, and given the wages in places such as north Cornwall, there is no way they can come here and meet the threshold. They would be able to live without recourse to benefits because they would have access to housing and so on, but they cannot meet the threshold. Effectively, someone who wants to return to Cornwall will be unable to do so, and she will have to stay in Canada. That is very painful for her family, who would like the couple to come here. There are no children involved, but it is just as painful for the extended family that the couple have, effectively, had this ban imposed on them.
In another case, a woman who was born in the Caribbean married a British man. She had children here, and she has been here for more than 20 years. Unfortunately, the marriage came to an end. A number of years later, she got back in touch with someone from her home country. They formed a relationship, and they have married, which is a source of great happiness to them and her family, because she has children and a grandchild in this country. However, if the couple are to live together, she will have to leave her children and her grandchild, taking away the support that she could offer them as a grandparent, and return with her new husband to the country in which they grew up. She has a business and the means to provide the foundation for a life together in this country if he joined her. Indeed, he is a skilled tradesman, and there are opportunities here. He has been able to come over, and they have spent some time together, but the system is now saying that he has to leave.
In another case, a young woman born in the constituency married an American citizen. They have a child here, and they have a life together, but he will have to return to the United States. He gave up the job, the base and the support he had there to start a new life here, but it is not possible for him to stay. I could go on with this list of painful cases, which are affecting people who want to make a real contribution here as the new spouse or partner of a British citizen. These cases also affect those who are keen to welcome that new person into their family and to make sure they are part of the community. That is a real shame.
One of the big strengths of places such as Leicester is their diversity and the fact that people are from all sorts of backgrounds. Although I grew up in Cornwall, I spent my first six or seven years after leaving university in the town of Bedford, which is a very diverse place. It was a great experience and education to be part of a community such as that. Cornwall has many strengths. Those who have come from overseas to live there have often done so because they have married someone from the area, and that has added to diversity and enriched the local community. However, we will lose that because, given the wage set-up in Cornwall, there will, effectively, be a ban on people doing that in future. That is a great tragedy; it is not only a personal tragedy for the families, but an issue for society as a whole.
I said I would be brief. I just wanted to give a perspective from an area outside the cities with their more noticeable patterns of migration, and mention that the policy is becoming an issue for us too. I hope that in considering what to do about immigration policy the Government will examine such cases and come up with a system that allows families to stay together and contribute to British society.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate, Mr Owen. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) for arranging it, and for serving as vice-chair of the inquiry. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), who added a great deal of value to our discussions. I also thank Migrants Rights Network, which was useful and supportive in briefing the inquiry committee and gathering evidence for us, and the many people who shared their experiences, either in person or in writing.
For me, as for other hon. Members taking part in the debate, this is a constituency issue. Many of the constituents who have talked to me about the rules’ effect on them and their families are particularly upset, because they have been preparing for family weddings, or have planned for a long time to bring a relative back to care for them. They feel strongly that the rules cut across their strong attachment to the importance of family ties and family life. We recognise, as other hon. Members have said, the need to manage migration and protect the public purse, but the rules must be fair to families, and effective. We have heard of many instances where they were neither.
I recognise that the income threshold, at £18,600, is at the lowest end of the range suggested by the Migration Advisory Committee to take households out of reliance on benefits. However, as the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice—the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith)—and other hon. Members have said, the threshold will have a differential impact on different sponsors, and it will create a significant disadvantage for those who, by definition, are likely to be on low earnings. That includes women sponsors, who typically will be on incomes lower than men’s. They often work part time; also, taking time out of the labour market to care for family members may have depressed their ability to progress at work. Young people will also be disadvantaged. Let us not forget that many who want to bring in a spouse will be young, because they will be starting out on their adult and family life.
The people who would want to make such an application are often precisely those whom the rules will most effectively work against. Others who will be disadvantaged are those who struggle to earn well—people with low levels of qualifications, people with disabilities and those outside high-pay areas such as London and the south-east. Last week in my constituency, I was told of a young woman who has been forced to take three jobs to try to meet the income requirement and bring in her spouse.
It is important to understand that we are not talking just about poorly paid, poor-quality, low or entry-level jobs. The inquiry committee heard evidence from the Royal College of Nursing that health care workers can typically earn between £14,153 and £17,253, so they would be below the income threshold of £18,600. Pay levels in many other sectors, such as retail, security, administration and customer service, and in the public sector, are likely to mean people will not meet the threshold. That is unfair to UK sponsors, many of whom have lived here all their lives—people who are British-born, of British families—who cannot fulfil the income requirement. Those people make a valuable contribution to the economy and provide services that we all depend on. They are being told, in effect, that they cannot carry on living in their own country with their spouse. They are shocked and surprised to find that out.
As to the impact of the rules on the public purse, the picture is more complicated than the Government’s analysis and impact assessment may suggest. The Government suggested in their assessment that there would be savings to the overall welfare state—health, benefits, education and so on—of £660 million over 10 years. However, we must remember that most migrant partners would work and pay taxes. They would therefore be contributing to the public purse. Evidence presented to the committee by researchers at Middlesex university suggests that by preventing up to 17,800 migrant partners from coming to the UK and working here, the income requirement could lead to a cost to the UK Exchequer and economy of as much as £850 million in lost economic activity.
The Government impact assessment took account of tax forgone by reducing the number of migrant partners entering the country, but failed to consider the loss of the wider economic benefits of partner earnings: lost output, lower consumption and spending in the economy, and the loss of their overall economic contribution. Nor is it clear that the benefits bill will reduce as the Government expect.
If the resident person was on a very low income, so that they qualified for housing benefit, and they were joined by a partner who was in work, would not the benefit be set aside and no longer claimed? That is a different picture from the one that the Government always go on about, of people depending on housing benefit.
That is right, and that is one of the perversities in the operation of the rules. Some families who could be floated off benefits if there were two adults in the household are being forced to remain on benefits because a second earner will not be coming to support the family—which may be a family with children. The hon. Member for Brent Central alluded to the fact that in some cases parents are forced to rely on benefits because they cannot share the responsibility for care of children with the other parent. Also, not being able to bring a spouse into the country to share the balance of parenting and working will affect the ability of the parent who is already here to enter the labour market or increase their working hours. We know sharing those roles is a feature of lifting families out of poverty; those two sets of earnings are important in keeping families off out-of-work benefits.
Quite a large part of the Government’s assessment of the benefits that would be affected has to do with benefits for children—child benefit and child tax credit. They are paid for children who are British citizens. In some cases they will continue for those children, but in a family in which only one parent is here to support the child; so the overall benefits impact is rather more complicated than the Government suggest.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Did she find that mostly, in the case of people who gave evidence to the inquiry committee and wanted to bring in male spouses, those spouses wanted to work when they arrived, not sit at home? Obviously, they could not claim benefits, because it would be against their undertaking, but most want to arrive and work, so they would soon be over the threshold anyway.
That is right. Indeed, we already know that migrant male workers are more likely to be in work than non-migrant people of working age. The history of migrants, and particularly male migrants, arriving in this country is that they want and intend to work, and contribute to our Exchequer and the wider economy. Women migrants may be less likely to work than non-migrant adult women, but their earnings tend to be a little higher; so, again, the labour market picture is more complicated than the simple notion that may have been assumed—that a spouse coming to this country will simply be dependent. In fact, the opposite is often the case.
As the hon. Member for Brent Central said, we need to recognise some of the more indirect costs that we are piling up for society. I absolutely agree with her about the potential long-term impact on the public purse of separating children from their parents for long periods. We know that separation can have long-standing and detrimental effects on children’s health, including their mental health, and on their educational attainment and behaviour, all of which will increase costs to the public purse down the line. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England has made a strong case for children’s right to have their best interests taken into account as one of the factors considered by the Government, but it is important to recognise that not only a moral and legal but an economic case can be made in relation to children. The Government should also consider the long-term economic impact.
The committee and I ask Ministers for a much more comprehensive review and assessment of the fiscal and economic impact of the policy, in both the short and longer term. The rules are causing hardship. They are riddled with inconsistencies. In some cases, I believe them to be discriminatory under our equalities legislation, and in terms of protecting the public purse, it seems that they may in fact be having a perverse effect. For those reasons, the committee strongly urges the Government to take the time to conduct a full review of the impact of the new rules on families and communities, and specifically to examine further the effect on the public purse.
I will be brief. I am grateful to you, Mr Owen, for allowing me to speak, and I apologise to Members for not having been here at the start of the debate; I was on a Committee considering a statutory instrument. Members will know that I have a great deal of interest in this subject. I will limit myself to two minutes, because I see that an hon. Member who has been here from the start wishes to speak.
I have two points to make. The first is broadly in support of what the Government are trying to do. There is growing consensus across the House that net migration levels in recent years have been too high and need to be reduced. My view is that that should be done in a way that prioritises the forms of migration that are most economically beneficial to the country. The family migration route needs to be looked at. I say to Opposition Members, with apologies for not having heard all their speeches, that it is not enough just to will the aims; we must also consider the means of achieving any reduction.
I have sympathy with the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on one specific point: the income threshold at which the rules kick in. There is a perfectly defensible intellectual logic to what the Government have selected: essentially, the income level at which people no longer need recourse to public funds. However, I have raised the issue privately with the Minister; an individual working full time on the minimum wage would be below the threshold set. The test set by the Prime Minister was that people should be doing their best. Preventing someone who has taken a full-time job that only commands the minimum wage from bringing a partner with whom they have fallen in love into the country seems to me to fail the test of fairness.
I support the principle behind the Government’s tightening of rules, but there is an issue at the margins about the point at which the threshold is set. I hope that Ministers will go away and look at it. I will be true to my word and stop at that, so that the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) can speak.
I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell). I did not come planning to make a speech, but I saw a few minutes remaining and thought that I would jump up. I wanted to ask the Minister a specific question.
I referred earlier to a constituent of mine whose wife is Canadian. I want to fill in a few points about his case. His wife had the right to be in this country; she had taught here for three years. He was a high earner. The two of them established a relationship that led to marriage. They went on honeymoon to Canada completely unaware of the rules, and he, unfortunately, had been made redundant. They were shocked. He wrote an e-mail to me, which I have just received, saying, “Can you imagine a worse way to start your married life?”
He has tried everything. She has a job to go to and his parents have money, but that cannot be accepted. He is now raising the sum that must be lodged as capital—I think that the Minister will confirm that it is £62,500—because he cannot get a job at the moment. He is missing their first wedding anniversary, and he tells me—I have not checked this—that once the money is assembled, it must remain in his bank account for six months in order for the Government to find it acceptable.
That is not how we should behave. A civilised country should not be separating people who married in good faith and have their future ahead of them. All the cases that we have heard from hon. Members are unacceptable. The most tragic cases with which I am concerned are ones in which a split involves children, or children are left alone. It is just not acceptable. I urge the Minister to hear the important message from the committee. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this debate, which has been invaluable, and which demonstrates that this policy is against all human rights and must be changed.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I join the congratulations that have been rightly heaped on my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this debate, and on those involved in the all-party parliamentary group and the report. Without the vast resources that the Government would have for a full investigation, the all-party group has produced an important piece of work, and I was delighted to be at its launch last week.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green)—who made an important contribution to this debate, just as she did to the process of bringing together the report—and the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather). It was a delight to hear from a Conservative as well, in the shape of the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), who, as we all know, has taken a strong interest in these issues and pursued them with an open mind and an interest in getting to the truth rather than dealing with the facile arguments that we sometimes hear about immigration in the media.
I take issue slightly with the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). He said that because the Minister and I represent constituencies without large amounts of immigration casework, we somehow might not be as kosher in this debate as others. I say to him, first, that I suspect that people in the Rhondda take as great an interest in the issue of immigration as people in his constituency, but may come to a different set of conclusions about it. Secondly, in the Rhondda, we would not have the population that we currently have were it not for migration: particularly from Ireland and England, but also from Italy in the 19th century. Learning long-term lessons about immigration and migration is far more important than chasing daily or monthly headlines on those issues, and that is certainly what I hope to do as shadow immigration Minister.
I make one other point to the Chair of the Select Committee. The average wage in my constituency is considerably lower than the £18,600 threshold, so the immigration cases that I do have all arise from the rule change.
I would never accuse the shadow immigration Minister of chasing headlines. The point that I was making is that the Members here today, apart from those on the Front Benches, have a heavy case load. I said—he can check Hansard; I know that he is keen on people reading it—that despite the fact that he and the Minister represent the Rhondda and the Forest of Dean, they do have an understanding of the issues. I urge him to look at Hansard before he gets on his high horse again.
I was not very much on my high horse; I was just using an opportunity to tease my right hon. Friend. Anyway, he has risen to the bait, which is a great delight for us all.
I agree with many of hon. Members’ remarks. Largely thanks to several campaigning organisations, my inbox for the past year has been absolutely full of individual cases, not from my constituency but from all around the country. I will quote a few words from various people; I will not name them. One man wrote:
“I am at breaking point and I can see no chance of being a family, it is breaking our hearts”.
“We feel trapped by our circumstances. I feel like I’m a prisoner in my own country!”
Both are British people unable to sponsor people to come here. Another wrote:
“This makes me feel extremely angry at the present government and very sad to be a British citizen treated in this way.”
There is certainly a great deal of distress out there. That might be because there has been a change in the law and many people were proceeding on the assumption that there would not be, so they have been suddenly caught out, but we should not underestimate the pain caused. At the same time, I accept that a fundamental duty of Government is to protect the public purse, which I do not think anyone would dispute. When there are real financial problems in the UK, which we need to sort out, it is all the more important for our public services to be protected and for the taxpayer to be protected. Furthermore, everyone accepts that a fundamental duty of Government is to ensure that the system is not open to abuse.
Use of the family route to circumvent immigration rules is small; it does exist and, indeed, I have had cases in my own constituency, but we need to look at it as the years go forward. Women have married someone from abroad, and the man has come to the UK, but, as soon as the marriage has happened, he disappears. We need to tackle that, however, as a form of exploitation and criminality—we need to look at whether there are further changes in the law we need to make.
My apologies; I have been in a Delegated Legislation Committee. I was due to speak, so I am sorry about that.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the extraordinary thing is the ordinariness of our cases? We have all come armed with cases; when we read them, they are about a husband, or a child, and how the situation affects an uncle or a carer. The consequences are not unintended; they are things that were obvious to anyone who knew anything about the circumstances.
In political life and legislation, in many cases the effect on an individual is indirect; in this case, the effect is direct, and that is true of immigration policy generally—we pull a lever and something happens. It is, therefore, all the more important to look at our process for changing rules in Parliament. My point is not partisan; we, in the past—it is certainly true in this instance—have brought forward immigration rule changes involving an enormous screed of material, but with a negligible parliamentary process. We need to look at how we do that in the future.
Hon. Members have already referred to some of the real elements of hardship experienced. Inevitably, a significant number of children have been involved, because many of the relationships at issue are those of people who are just getting married and having their first children. My real concern is that children might be growing up now without either a father or a mother for the first three or four years of their life, and I do not know what that is storing up for the future in Britain, in particular in areas where there are already multiple layers of deprivation. That might become a bigger social problem in future than we have estimated thus far.
The right to a family life is obviously an important part of what we all accept to be intrinsic to humanity, but it is a qualified right—it always has been under human rights legislation. If it were not a qualified right, we would not be able to imprison someone who was married. I do not want to say that the right is categorical and exists in all positions, but my hon. Friend makes a fair point.
A Catch-22 now arises for many people: if they are the carer of a child and the other parent cannot be present, they might not be able to engage in a full-time job, so they cannot earn the £18,600 that enables them to bring the other parent in. That puts many parents in a difficult situation, and might end up placing a further burden on the state, rather than removing one, and would be a mistake.
As Members have said, it is also true that the effect of the changes is harsher in some parts of the country than in other parts. I suspect that that is why we have a large number of people from the more deprived constituencies in this Chamber today, rather than those from the country’s leafier suburbs. It is also true that the effect on women is disproportionate to that on men; because of the pay gap between men and women, many fewer women than men can achieve the £18,600 figure. Moreover, as the hon. Member for Brent Central mentioned, the report rightly makes the point that to all intents and purposes the adult dependent relative route has been closed: people have to be able to prove in this country that they have so much money, they can care for those dependants; in which case, people should care for them in the country in which the dependants live, unless they are so ill that they cannot stay there, in which case they probably could not travel anyway. We need to look at such issues.
When he does so, will he tell this Chamber what the official Opposition’s position is on the limit? Will it be removed if the Labour party gets into government, or is he planning to review the limit anyway in the next two years, to look at the impact that it is having on people?
If my right hon. Friend did not intervene, I would have more time to lay out what our plans are. I was about to say that he said the figure was arbitrary, but it is not arbitrary; it is deliberate. The Migration Advisory Committee advised on a range between £18,600 and £25,700—I suppose we should be grateful that the figure is not £25,700—and laid out that, according to its interpretation, at the lower bound of the range, 45% of applicants would not meet the income threshold. In other words, it is deliberate that 45% of people are caught by the limit. It is, therefore, important for us to look at the full impact of the policy—to look not only at the short-term implications, because I understand that it helps the Government to meet their net migration target, but at the full implications in the long run for the public purse and family life.
We undoubtedly have to examine some of the existing anomalies. Many who have written to me made the point, “It is fine if you can come in as a European economic area national; you don’t have to prove anything”, but that seems grossly unfair to someone coming in from outside the EEA. We need to look at such anomalies. We also need to look at what flexibility can be brought into the system. As many Members have said, a non-EEA partner’s earnings cannot be considered at the moment, even though they may be considerable. Ministers sometimes reply that people will be able to come in through a different route—a work route—but that does not apply to many, unless they have a specific job offer and so on. The way in which cash savings are estimated and the earnings of those who are self-employed similarly need to be looked at, as does whether third-party support can be brought into the equation, as it has been in several other countries.
I have already referred to the matter of the parliamentary process. I want us to engage in a proper process, so that Members can go through the legislation for any future change. We also need to assess the effect on the NHS, not only of people coming to this country, but of losing people who are working in the NHS—they might be worried about their elderly dependent relatives elsewhere in the world and decide to leave this country to go there. That issue is already affecting recruitment in south Wales and other places. Also, categorically, we will seek to repeal the Government’s recent abolition of the right of appeal for family visits. It seems quintessentially fair that someone coming to a funeral, wedding or some such occasion should have a right of appeal.
I have one final point to make. The honest truth is that in future there will be more British people falling in love with foreigners. That is simply a fact: more people go on holiday—one in four people go on holiday to Spain each year and one in six to Greece—and they go much further afield for their holidays than they ever have done before. Many of those people are not on vast incomes, but they end up falling in love. That is why we need to—we must—keep the issue under permanent review.
Jane Austen wrote:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
I do not entirely agree, but I suggest a different version: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that every family’s set of circumstances is different.” The law needs to be able to cater for that, rather than the opposite.
I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) on securing this debate. Before responding to him, I want to respond to points made by other hon. Members.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) took well over half the remaining time, so I will probably not be able to take many interventions, and I will struggle to cover some points. In response to the point that the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) ably made, apart from the commitment by the Opposition to repeal our changes to the family visa appeal route, I struggled to hear any commitments from the Opposition on what they would do about our policies. That may be a disappointment to Opposition Members, but the Labour party does not seem to think that it will change any of the rules that we have laid out. That is the impression I got from the speech of the hon. Member for Rhondda, so I suspect that he will be popular with people wanting to bend his ear. Despite saying nothing about the Opposition’s policies, he took a long time in doing so.
I will say a few words about the intentions of our policy, and then try to pick up some of the points ably made by the wide range of hon. Members who spoke. A general point about the immigration system is that we are determined to take control of it and to restore public confidence. We have made considerable progress with the changes on numbers, reducing net migration by more than one third since the election. The issue is not just about numbers—my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) touched on this—but about preventing abuse and setting out sensible rules that people can follow. That was the context in which we implemented the reforms to change the rules for family migration for non-European economic area nationals seeking to enter or remain in the UK on the basis of their family life.
The rules have three aims. The first is to tackle abuse. The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall referred to the extension of the probationary period from two years to five years before partners can apply for settlement. That is to test whether the relationship is genuine and should help to deter applications based on sham marriages. That not only deals with abuse, but protects people who are often forced into sham marriages to provide a mechanism for someone to come to the United Kingdom. That is a welcome change.
Secondly, we want to ensure that family migrants are better integrated into British society, which is why, for example, from October 2013 they will have to pass the new “Life in the UK test” and demonstrate that they can speak English at intermediate level. Our view is that no one can properly integrate into British society without at least intermediate English language skills.
The third aim, which hon. Members largely focused on today, is to prevent a burden on taxpayers, which is why we have introduced the minimum income threshold of £18,600 for those wishing to sponsor the settlement of a partner.
No, I will not give way because the hon. Lady has not been here for the whole debate and I want to deal with points raised by hon. Members who have been here, if she will forgive me.
The central point, which came into all the contributions, is that we welcome people who want to make their family life in the United Kingdom, but we expect them to pay for it and we do not expect taxpayers to pay for it. This may be one area where our welfare system interacts with the immigration system. The £18,600 figure is not arbitrary—I agree that the Migration Advisory Committee did some serious evidence-based work. It is broadly the figure at which a couple are no longer able to have income-related benefits. If the argument is that that figure is high and that many people in this country will not earn that much, we must remember that they may have a level of income at which they may receive income-related benefits. That is the challenge.
I would turn the question that some hon. Members have asked around. If someone is on a very low income and wants to bring a partner to the United Kingdom, they are really saying that they want the taxpayer to support them. Hard-working families around the country would ask why their hard-pressed taxes were being used to fund someone else’s family, because that is what they would be asked to do.
That is kind of the Minister. I was waiting for his speech so that I could ask my question. Will he tell us how many applications have been made by spouses who come here for the two-year probationary period to try to access benefits? He must have some figures, so can he tell us?
The point I was making was about people who come here when they are not entering into a genuine marriage. I will not have a chance now to find the data. If the hon. Gentleman had asked me earlier, or made a speech, I would have been able to find them before the end of the debate. I want to try to answer the questions that hon. Members have already asked.
I turn to some matters that will address the point made by the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock). There are some areas where we have been flexible already. I had a meeting with the hon. Members for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who were here earlier. We looked at some flexibilities, which I agreed to take away and consider. They were about the length of time for which savings must be held if they arise from the realisation of an asset that can be clearly traced to that family. The example that was given to me was someone selling a property that was clearly their property. I also said I would consider the situation where people hold savings in an investment-based account, such as a stocks and shares ISA, and whether that counts as cash.
I am prepared to consider whether we can put in place some rules that are not vulnerable to abuse. The best argument was the example of a couple, one of whom would be working here but was insufficiently skilled to meet the criteria to apply under the tier 2 scheme. I thought one of the examples in the report was a bit odd. I struggled to see how someone who earned £400,000 a year and had £3.5 million of assets could not come here on a tier 2 visa, or would be unable to organise their finances sufficiently to meet the rules. If people can get here under a tier 2 visa, that is fine. However, clearly there are people who could make a contribution but could not meet those criteria.
The situation is not quite as straightforward as people say, because we must guard against abuse. If all people have to do is to show a piece of paper saying that they have a job offer, I know from the number of cases I have seen that it will not be long before people are setting up vague companies and offering jobs that do not exist. There must be a way of putting in place processes that do not lead to abuse. I think that is worth doing and I am prepared to go away and do so. The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee said that I listen, and I do. I see details of cases that colleagues write to me about, and I am keen to ensure that the rules are fair. They have been in force for less than a year, and we have already made some changes to make them more flexible.
Another suggestion was to have a different income level across the country, and the Migration Advisory Committee looked at that. We do not have a regionalised benefit system, with the exception of housing benefit. Most benefits are consistent throughout the UK. The logic for having a different income limit would mean a different benefit system throughout the United Kingdom. I do not know, but I am guessing that most Members who argue for a regional income level to be taken into account for this process would probably not be in favour of a regionalised benefit system.
I have only 50 seconds left and I have not covered all the points. Let me pick up two specific points. The hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) asked whether there had been any discussion with the Department for Education on children’s best interests. Yes, there has been. Our family consultation and the statement of intent that we published were discussed with all relevant Departments in the way that one secures agreement across Government. Our rules and policy on leave outside the rules take into account a child’s best interests. I will give an example. In exceptional cases, those circumstances can be taken into account. Since I have been doing this job, I have authorised the grant of leave outside the rules to an applicant who, with their British partner, was unable to meet the income threshold but had serious concerns about the health and welfare of a child.
Car Clamping (Private Car Parks)
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and I am pleased, on behalf of many of my constituents and many people throughout Northern Ireland, that the Minister is here to provide a response on this vexatious issue.
I have been made aware of the serious problem of dubious and irregular charges being levelled by private parking companies on customers who use private car parks, for example, near shopping centres. There is often little oversight or regulation of the marketplace and many companies seem to operate in a dubious manner. My constituents have made me aware of the problem, which I know exists across Northern Ireland. I am therefore delighted to have secured the debate, and again, I thank the Minister for coming to address the Chamber on the issue.
I am aware that the matter partly falls under devolved competencies, but given that the Department for Transport, or more specifically, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, provide such companies with driver and vehicle information, it is important that the UK Government address these concerns.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way so early on in her speech, and I congratulate her on securing the debate. I reassure her that the concerns are not restricted to Northern Ireland; they are UK-wide. Is not the critical point the role of the DVLA, which she just mentioned, and how, in a largely unfettered way—sometimes inappropriately, it seems—vehicle licence details from the DVLA are released to these companies?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That is absolutely correct, and the Minister needs to look into the unfettered handing-out of that information to private parking companies, because it is placing a lot of people, particularly the elderly and those who are disabled, in great distress.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing the matter to the Chamber; it is important, as she said, to all of us across the United Kingdom, and especially to those in Northern Ireland. Does she agree that many companies seem to have no care whatever for people? In particular, they seem to have a zealousness for clamping the cars of those with blue badges, who are clearly disabled. Does she feel that perhaps the Government should take that on and train them, so that we ensure that they do not do a job that aggravates people, and pick on those who cannot necessarily defend themselves?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I agree with him. He highlighted areas that I will move on to in my speech. These car parking companies are particularly zealous in their desire to overcharge people, and when they are taken on, they withdraw the charge. That makes me ask whether it was ever valid in the first place. He will be aware of some of the experiences that my constituents have had in his constituency, in the town of Newtownards.
I accept that we are talking about a legal marketplace, within which there are many reputable companies, but I would like to highlight the most pertinent examples of bad practice and the existence of less reputable companies. From the outset, it must be clarified that private operators do not have the right to levy a statutory fine. Instead, they are effectively levying a charge for loss incurred by the operator due to breach of contract. However, in practice, in the cases brought to my attention, it would appear that some companies often go to every length to give the appearance to the customer that they are being fined, and that the fine is non-contestable.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. There is a related issue, and I wonder whether it should be put out there as public knowledge. The Government need to come clean about whether we can tidy this matter up. These pieces of land were given a zero rateable value when the companies were given planning permission, or whatever permission it was, and now an income is being made from that land. The Government need to look closely at whether the Valuation Office Agency should try to revalue pieces of land where car parking charges are being applied, on the grounds that as there is now an income from it, the rateable value should be reviewed. I hope that the Government look at that, and I want to put that on the record.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I have found instances of that in Northern Ireland, but the rating of particular properties or pieces of wasteland now used for car parking purposes in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter. In this debate, I want to concentrate on the issues that are particularly the reserve of the Minister and the Department. However, I take my hon. Friend’s point. There is a certain over-zealous attitude on the part of many of the players, but the bottom line is that the ordinary person, whether they are elderly, young with a family, or disabled, is placed at great disadvantage—particularly a financial one—some months down the line.
I would like to give some brief examples of the way in which certain companies go to every length to put a significant amount of pressure on people to settle up as quickly as possible, without querying the nature of what they may perceive as an inescapable fine. Often the correspondence, especially the initial notification letter to the customer, will be designed to look like an official statutory notice of the kind issued by a council or a local authority. For example, they will commonly refer to “parking charge notices”, otherwise known as PCNs, mimicking the “penalty charge notice” title of official council tickets, and that will often be accompanied by an official-looking logo, such as the scales of justice. Such notices are clearly designed to make the person feel that this is something they have to pay, and that its source is a body other than a private company, thus making the person—it could happen to any single one of us—deeply uncomfortable.
In addition, companies will present the possibility of the Debt Recovery Agency becoming involved as early as the first correspondence with the customer. Such a threat is clearly vastly out of proportion for what amount to relatively small civil claims. Again, the purpose of that is clearly to get the person to pay up as soon as possible and not to question the source, reasonableness or accuracy of the claim. People are made to feel under pressure and that they have no right to recourse.
Such tactics are reprehensible, especially in that many of those being pursued are elderly or vulnerable, and they have even been employed in my constituency against people with disabilities who have very specific parking requirements. Surely the Minister agrees that his Department should not facilitate things for companies that operate in that manner, and surely he will confirm that he would act on evidence that companies are harassing members of the public over dubious claims.
The hon. Lady is being very generous in giving way. Is she aware in her constituency, as I am in mine, that when the companies are pressurised on behalf of our constituents, after a period of time, on many occasions, they back down and renege on the original clamping that they did? Does she feel that that underlines the fact that the Government need to be more aware of what the companies do within the law?
Deeply harassed by the companies. These people feel that they are criminals when they are not.
Having considered the manner in which some claims are pursued, we need also to consider the fairness and reasonableness of the claims. Again, it seems that certain companies are pressing claims that are spurious at best. Previous court guidance has said that charges must be proportionate and that an owner is entitled to seek only damages relating to actual loss. For a start, the existence of tiered levels of payment depending on how quickly fines are paid suggests that any real evaluation of loss is not being used. The charges also seem excessive against any determination of an actual loss incurred. The fact that some companies are charging up to £150, which is more than 50% higher than, in our case, the Roads Service’s fine, or a council fine, indicates that it is not actual loss that is being charged to the customer.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so generously. She makes a valid point about the loss. How is the loss quantified? In Hyndburn, there is free car parking everywhere, so how can a car park actually lose money? How can these companies fleece motorists for £100, £60 or whatever, as happens in the case of Eastgate retail car park in Accrington, when there is simply no loss of income? The comparator is that there is free car parking everywhere.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree; that is another point that needs to be investigated and explored by the Minister.
I want to press the issue of the Equality Act 2010. How do these car parking companies square what they do with the Equality Act when they are indiscriminate in their charging? Surely it is illegal to discriminate against disabled people with these car parking charges—and with time limits, when disabled people need more time. It is absolutely outrageous that disabled people are treated in exactly the same way as others when the law of the land says that they should be treated in a different way because of their disability.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I agree that an area of the Equality Act needs to be investigated, but perhaps because these are private car parks, they sometimes fall through various loopholes. None the less, the issue requires investigation.
I concur with the comments of the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones). Mr and Mrs Sheldon, a disabled couple from Aberystwyth who visited me in my constituency surgery last week, had exactly the same experience. With regard to taking these complaints further, may I ask the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) what her experience has been of the British Parking Association, the body that is supposed to regulate the conduct of its member companies?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I think that part of the problem lies with the British Parking Association—he is right—because it is not doing the job that it is supposed to do. It is letting things fall through the net.
Let me explain some more of the background. People may well be asked for proof of purchase from the car park’s associated store. I do not know about the Minister’s shopping habits, but it would be very rare for me still to have a receipt, months later, for every small item of shopping that I had bought. None of this seems to constitute a fair claim or burden of evidence, and I would like to know whether the Minister agrees.
Given the very uncertain regulations that cover this area, consumers caught in such cases have very little access to recourse, and companies seem to obfuscate where possible. If the operator is approved and controlled by the British Parking Association, there is a more formal appeal mechanism, but it must be recognised that the BPA is not an independent body; it represents the parking industry. Moreover, many of these companies operate outside the BPA.
Surely the Minister agrees that there should be a requirement on companies operating in this market to be BPA registered, at least, and that there should be a clear set of independent guidelines that require companies to provide information on the right of recourse for those being charged. I put it to the Minister that any such guidelines or regulations should also put clear limits on the nature of letters that can be sent to consumers and put a robust burden of evidence on the company demanding the charge.
What exists currently is not fit for purpose and damages not only consumers, but those companies that seek to operate in a reputable manner. We have a private parking regime that is highly inadequate. The Government claim to want people to return to their city and town centres to support small business and the local economy. We have had the Mary Portas report, and we have had an emphasis on regeneration of our town and city centres, but what message does it send when people return from shopping trips and a month later are served with parking notices such as these? I will tell the Minister exactly what they think: “I’ll stay at home and do my shopping online.” That is only those who are fortunate enough to have that option. People will simply stay at home or go elsewhere, where there are not these impediments or hindrances, but they will not go back to the town or city that placed that burden on them through a parking operation.
I have come here today hoping at the very least to gain assurances that the Department for Transport is aware of the problems and, more specifically, will take remedial action to prevent companies that are operating in a disreputable manner from accessing the DVLA’s database. I know that in the Northern Ireland context, my party colleague who is the Minister of Environment there, Alex Attwood, has been talking to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), about this issue, but also about the very important need to devolve the DVLA to Northern Ireland, so that we have our own base there. Perhaps the Minister wants to take that issue away and talk to his colleague about it, but surely there should be a degree of concern that the DVLA information system—
I was about to do that, Mr Owen; I have just one more sentence. The DVLA information system is being used to help process very dubious claims. I want to know what discussions the Minister has had on this matter, and what the DVLA considers when dealing with requests from private car parking companies. Private firms have no right to impose a fine or penalty, and anything that purports to be a charge but is in reality a fine or penalty should be outlawed.
Thank you, Mr Owen. That is quite a challenge, given that my time has been reduced somewhat. May I begin by saying that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship? I congratulate the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) on securing the debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss in detail a matter that is clearly of great concern to her and her constituents and to other hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. I will give the hon. Member for South Down the assurance, because this is a highly complex area and she has covered a considerable amount of ground, that I will get the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), to write to her on those issues that I am unable to deal with specifically in the limited time left to me.
The management of private parking and the release of vehicle keeper details to allow car park operators to apply parking controls can, understandably, be emotive matters. Receipt of a parking ticket is never popular, and some drivers become very annoyed when they are subject to enforcement action, particularly if they disagree with the principle of vehicle keeper information being provided to private companies for such purposes. Unpopular though receipt of a parking charge may be, measures to control parking on private land are necessary to ensure that parking facilities remain accessible and provide value to all who use them. Drivers who choose to park their vehicles on private land do so in line with terms and conditions that should be clearly displayed on signage at the entrance to the car park and around it; I take the hon. Lady’s point about the size of displays and their accessibility.
I will not be accepting any interventions from the hon. Gentleman. This is the hon. Lady’s debate; I do not have much time and I want to address as many of her points as I can.
Typically, conditions relate to the need to pay a fee and display a valid ticket, and to observe the maximum permitted time for parking. There may be other conditions, such as a stipulation that parking is for patrons only. Parking control is necessary to allow landowners who invite drivers to park on their land to exercise their legal rights and gain the benefit to which they are entitled from the use of their property. Without any form of control, I am sure the hon. Lady would agree that errant drivers might park as they liked, breaching reasonable terms and conditions, without fear of any recourse arising from their misuse of the land and the detrimental effect that their actions might have on the availability of parking spaces for more considerate motorists.
It is important to bear in mind that UK law specifically provides for the release of vehicle keeper information to those who can demonstrate that they have a reasonable cause for requiring it. There is no statutory definition of “reasonable cause”, but our policy is that requests for such information should relate to the use of a vehicle, following incidents where there may be liability on the part of the driver. Where a parking infringement may have taken place, it is considered reasonable to provide the vehicle keeper’s contact details to allow the matter to be taken up with the driver responsible.
Those procedures are fully in keeping with the terms of the Data Protection Act, and the Information Commissioner’s Office is fully apprised of the release of information for such purposes. Although the law provides for the release of information, we are committed to striking the correct balance between protecting drivers from unfair or unscrupulous practices that some parking management companies may employ, and ensuring that land owners are able appropriately to control the use of their land and benefit fairly from it.
The management and control of parking on private land has been under considerable scrutiny over recent years, and the activities and standards of operation in the sector have changed substantially. Despite perceptions to the contrary, I assure the hon. Lady that significant control is already applied to the operation of private car parking companies. Unscrupulous operators can no longer put a sign up in a car park that sets outrageous charges and harass motorists for payment. Rogue operators might once have been able to request vehicle keeper details, but that is no longer the case. Unlike in the past, control is now exercised over the charges that can be imposed, the standards for signage and the operating standards for the conduct of staff employed by parking management operators.
Since 2005, when the previous Government were in power, the issues raised by motorists aggrieved by private parking enforcement have been carefully scrutinised. As a result of the first review, the systems for accessing vehicle keeper data were totally changed and formal safeguards were introduced. The review led to the introduction of a requirement for companies that receive keeper data via electronic links to be members of an accredited trade association. The conditions have been strengthened by making ATA membership a requirement for all car parking companies as a prerequisite for access to data. Since 2009, all private car parking companies that want to request vehicle keeper information for private car parking management have been required to be ATA members, regardless of whether they make such requests via electronic or paper channels. That requirement has delivered a regulatory regime for the parking industry where none previously existed.
An ATA must have a code of practice based on fair treatment of the motorist, which requires its members to operate to high professional standards of conduct while allowing them to take reasonable action to follow up alleged parking contraventions. We would expect any organisation that wanted to become an ATA to be able to demonstrate that it has a code of practice that ensures that only a fair parking charge is asked for and that prominent signage is present, which outlines clearly the restrictions on parking and the charges and conditions that apply. There should be no hidden charges or ambiguity for the motorist as to what is and what is not permitted on the land. The code also helps to ensure that contact with motorists is not threatening and that parking charge notices are issued promptly so that a driver can recall the circumstances surrounding the event. A reasonable amount of time must be allowed for payment to be made before any additional charges are imposed or the matter is escalated. That is the case in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom
Even though strong requirements are in place to regulate the actions of parking companies, disclosure of data is also tightly controlled. Even when a company can demonstrate full compliance with the code of practice, the DVLA and its Northern Ireland equivalent, the Driver and Vehicle Agency, operate to the same standards and must be assured that there is good reason to believe that a parking contravention is likely to have occurred and that the company is acting with integrity when requesting data.
Parking management companies are visited to audit their operations and further in-depth checking of individual cases is undertaken to make sure that requests have been submitted for genuine reasons and with reliable evidence to back them up. All requests for keeper details of Northern Ireland-registered vehicles are written requests, and the information provided in support of the application is examined to confirm that the release of the information requested is fair and lawful.
Car parking operators pay fees when requesting keeper details. The fee levels are set to recover the cost of processing requests, so that those costs are not passed on to the taxpayer. The Government do not gain financially from the provision of such information.
It is inevitable that motorists who feel that they have been unfairly treated will complain. The first port of call is usually the ATA, and I have mentioned that an operator needs to demonstrate compliance with the code of practice in order to retain its membership. The ATA is there to investigate and ensure that, where appropriate, remedial action is taken. It is for the ATA to decide whether the operator needs to be placed on notice with additional scrutiny, follow-up audits and checks to monitor future actions closely. In more serious cases, a decision may be taken to terminate an operator’s membership of the ATA, without which they cannot operate. That consequence is serious for a company’s survival and it is an incentive for them to behave responsibly.
The agencies that supply data to operators also play a key role. Where sufficiently serious concerns are raised or ongoing issues are identified, agencies will consider whether continued access to vehicle keeper data is appropriate. Several parking management companies have had their ability to request vehicle keeper data suspended where shortfalls in the standards expected have been identified. In addition, trading standards departments can prosecute companies if they have breached consumer protection law. In short, if a company is not meeting the standards expected, there are serious consequences.
I trust we can all agree that we have come a long way in providing proportionate regulation for the parking sector. I do not have enough time to deal with the hon. Lady’s other points, so I will ensure that my ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon, writes to her. I conclude by urging her to forward to the responsible Minister the details of any cases experienced by her constituents and others that have involved questionable actions and bad behaviour, and where the expected standards of operation have not been met, so that those cases can be investigated.
SMEs (Middle East and North Africa)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen.
The United Kingdom is the sixth largest economy in the world, yet we are, I believe, only the 12th largest exporter. Many colleagues will know about my passion for British exports. Having come from an exports background, I take a strong interest not only in exports but in the region we are discussing, namely the middle east and north Africa.
I have spent the past eight months undertaking a report into UK Trade & Investment—UKTI—and into how it interacts with small and medium-sized British companies in assisting them to export to the middle east and north Africa. Of great interest to me is that we have interacted with more than 220 such companies, which have come from all over the United Kingdom into the House of Commons to give evidence in a very positive and enthusiastic way, about their experiences of UKTI. Small and medium-sized enterprises—SMEs—are keen to improve the service they get from UKTI, and I pay tribute to all their work in helping me to write my report, which will be published in seven to 10 days’ time. I will give a copy of the report to the Minister, for his consideration.
I would like to put on record my thanks to Mr Nick Baird, UKTI’s chief executive, who has been extraordinarily patient with me over the past eight months. I sometimes think he must stick pins into a voodoo doll of me in his office, because of the number of issues that I constantly raise with him. Extraordinarily, I have had to take a lot of the companies that I have interviewed to meet with him directly—and he will testify to that—because they simply have not had the traction that they expect and deserve from interacting with UKTI on the ground in their various regions. I am delighted to help them by taking them to meet Mr Baird, but that should not be for a Member of Parliament to do; they should automatically get the traction and support on the ground that they so rightly deserve.
The hon. Gentleman shows genuine zeal, and I congratulate him on his great interest in and passion for the issue. The agri-food industry in Northern Ireland is worth some £4 billion to the economy. Most of that comes from sales in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, and just some of it from sales overseas. Does he feel that the time has come for a UK-wide promotion of all the regions together, for the agri-food industry to market itself and get those markets in the middle east and north Africa? There is clearly the potential there to do even more for the economies back home.
I very much concur with the hon. Gentleman. He will know that British agricultural products are among the best in the world. The British brand is extremely strong in the middle east and north Africa—they are crying out for dairy, beef and other products—and there should be a concerted approach, promoting the best of British of agricultural products in the region.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his impressive work in this field. He mentioned agriculture and SMEs, but does he also think that important links need to be made between UKTI and the higher education sector, regarding the expertise in the sector and the work we are doing there? Wearing his hat as Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Wales Office, does he acknowledge that Welsh universities can offer a lot to UKTI in boosting our economy?
I agree with my hon. Friend on that point, and I very much hope that he will engage—as I do—with the Minister in bringing directly to him, and also to Mr Nick Baird, examples of how UKTI can get involved with his constituency in Wales.
We must always be evaluating the structure of UKTI, its reporting processes and its accountability to Parliament. We must never forget that the organisation receives more than £400 million of British taxpayers’ money every year. We must also, and I will not flinch from this, be assessing, as with any other organisation, the calibre of its staff, in the United Kingdom and overseas. We must consider whether UKTI should remain in its current form, become a stand-alone entity along the lines of the Technology Strategy Board, or be brought, rather than being between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, into a new external relations department of the Foreign Office, UKTI and the Department for International Development, focusing on our foreign relations interactions.
What there must be, however, is greater scrutiny of UKTI in the House of Commons. Since the general election, this is only the third debate—two of them initiated by me—that Parliament has had on UKTI and British exports, and I certainly will not be able to say everything I wish to say in 15 minutes. I am pleased that there is a Labour Member—the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith)—here today. In the previous debate there were none, so I welcome the fact that a Labour MP is taking an interest. I do not know what mechanism could be used for that greater scrutiny. I do not know if an independent Select Committee just evaluating UKTI would be feasible, but we must always challenge UKTI and its Ministers and raise concerns when things do not go right.
I shall now turn to the subject of the debate—north Africa. I feel passionately about French-speaking north Africa because of its proximity to the United Kingdom and its importance strategically, for security reasons, and from an economic perspective. When I went to Mauritania two years ago, I was the first British MP to do so since 1960, when the current Father of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), went there for its independence day celebrations. Regrettably, most MPs I talk to do not even know where Mauritania is, yet it is an important and rapidly growing country. It is close to Morocco, and is part of the Arab League and of north Africa. There are huge opportunities in its oil and gas sector, as well as in mining, education and construction, yet on the UKTI website no opportunities whatever are listed for the country.
I know that we have representation in Mauritania. Following my report about the country, the Foreign Secretary visited Mauritania, and we have now established a diplomatic presence on the ground in Nouakchott. As UKTI has a website for SMEs to look at and interact with, to find out what opportunities there are in a country, it is rather daunting to look up Mauritania and find nothing there. We must ensure that if we have a website it is properly populated.
Last week I took Nick Baird to have lunch with the Moroccan ambassador, Princess Lalla Joumala, and we talked about the importance of partnering with and working constructively with Morocco in joint venture operations. Morocco has tremendous relations from a banking, cultural and linguistic perspective with the other countries in the region—not just in north Africa—including Senegal, Mali and Niger. The Moroccans are keen to engage with us, so I was pleased that Mr Baird came with me to that lunch. I hope that there will be an increased focus on the Moroccans and on partnering with them to work constructively on penetrating the French-speaking north African market.
Luckily I speak French, because I studied it at university, but we are too guilty in this country of going only to places where English is spoken. If the first national language of a country is not English, we tend to gravitate away from it, and we cannot afford to do that any longer. All of the north African French-speaking countries are very keen to interact with the United Kingdom.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on his work on the report, which I look forward to reading when it is produced. I share his enthusiasm for the effort that must go into backing up and making a success of exports by our SMEs. Does he agree that everything he says about French should also apply to Arabic, a language to which more attention needs to be given in our country?
I absolutely agree, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. A recent media report expressed concern at the number of British diplomats operating in Arab countries who do not speak fluent Arabic. If we are to send such people overseas, they must speak either fluent Arabic or fluent French.
I have been to Tunisia, where 60 British companies operate compared with 1,700 French ones, which I emphasise because it is a staggering difference. Interestingly, by far the biggest investor there is British Gas. I want to ask the Minister what we are doing in conjunction with British Gas to ensure that its network of contacts, particularly in the petrochemical industry, is harnessed so that more of our companies are encouraged to operate in Tunisia.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. It is important because if we are to get out of this recession well, we have to look to other markets, and UKTI is absolutely fundamental to that. I recently received a delegation from French-speaking Mali, which is desperately keen for our mining engineers and electricity people to go there to provide power and infrastructure in a country that has been in turmoil, but is now doing much better. We need to encourage such people to come and give presentations, and UKTI could play a much bigger role than it does currently.
I completely agree. We have seen what happens in countries such as Mali. When we are not present, not trading with them and not on the ground, a vacuum is left for others to fill, and the costs involved in sorting out the mess are greatly increased.
I met the President of Niger when he came to the Foreign Office. He informed me that bilateral trade between Niger and the United Kingdom was £4 million per annum—only £4 million with an incredibly important strategic country that has a rapidly growing population.
On Libya, I met Deloitte yesterday and was informed that it is setting up offices in Tripoli. I am very pleased about that, and I want to pay tribute to Deloitte for taking that plunge. I am concerned that media coverage of instability in Benghazi is preventing more British SMEs from exporting to Libya. I have a small company in Shrewsbury that has successfully managed to win contracts to provide metal piping to various projects in Libya. I urge the Minister to ensure that UKTI does more to encourage British companies to go to Libya, which is a hugely important market for us. We have spent nearly £1 billion helping the Libyans to throw off the shackles of dictatorship, and we must not fall behind our German, Italian and French counterparts, who are banging the drum for their companies in that country.
I am frustrated that UKTI does not engage more with parliamentarians. I have been the chairman of the all-party group on Libya for the past eight years. I have led many delegations to Libya, and I have an extensive network of contacts throughout the country. Before the revolution, I even wrote a biography of Colonel Gaddafi. Yet I have not had a single exchange with UKTI about anything to do with that country or the delegations I go on. It is almost as though it is impervious to, ignorant of or has no interest in what parliamentarians are doing.
Having prime ministerial trade envoys is a very good step that I want to be expanded. There are also catalysts—they are hired by UKTI as such—who have expert knowledge of a country. I want to mention one to the Minister: Mr Ali Mosawi, who came to see me, has been selected as an Iraqi catalyst. He has expert knowledge of the country, being from one of the best-known Iraqi families and having a network of offices throughout the country. He is an official UKTI catalyst, but he came to see me because he is getting very little traction with UKTI, which is not using his services at all. He has even offered UKTI free use of his extensive network of offices throughout Iraq, but nobody has responded to his very generous offer. I want the Minister to investigate that and I want his officials to ensure that Mr Mosawi is contacted.
On inward investment to the United Kingdom, I want to know—I will ask a series of parliamentary questions to find out—where UKTI staff are based and what areas they cover. I think that the UK is still No. 1 for inward investment in the European Union, although Germany is rapidly catching us up. It seems to me that the vast bulk of inward investment from the middle east, particularly Qatar, comes into London.
With the Shropshire chamber of commerce, I recently met UKTI staff in Shrewsbury. I asked them who was responsible for ensuring inward investment into Shropshire, and I was told that there is nobody. We have huge opportunities in Shropshire, with both the council and the chamber of commerce for Shrewsbury and Shropshire. It is vital that inward investment to the United Kingdom is spread more evenly and that professional staff in UKTI cover more rural constituencies. For the record, I will not rest from badgering UKTI until at least one of its members of staff is responsible for and dedicated to working with my local companies and authorities to attract inward investment into Shropshire.
The Prime Minister has set a target of £1 trillion of exports by 2020, which is a hugely important issue. We spend so much time in this House debating between Labour, Liberal Democrats and ourselves and having huge arguments about how to cut up the cake. I respect that, but we must come together as three political parties—with those from Ulster—to talk about and work collectively on how to increase exports. That should not be a party political issue; we should come together and work together to ensure that SMEs, which are the lifeblood of our country, are given every assistance to export.
The Prime Minister’s target of £1 trillion will not be met unless we radically change the way exports are carried out. I met Lord Green over breakfast at 8 o’clock this morning, with other parliamentarians, and he told me that the £1 trillion target would be rather challenging. He seemed to give the impression that it would be good to get to 80% of it, but I think that we should aim to exceed that target. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
On behalf of us all, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Owen. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for giving me the opportunity to explain in more detail the breadth and depth of support provided by UK Trade & Investment for UK SMEs in the middle east and north Africa. Let me reassure him that there is a very good story to tell. This is a large and growing marketplace, in which there are tremendous opportunities. We export more to the United Arab Emirates than we do to India, more to Saudi Arabia than to Brazil and more to Qatar than to Mexico. Equally, there are challenges, particularly in markets such as those in Iraq and Libya that he mentioned, where the business environment is clearly more challenging.
My hon. Friend will be familiar with some of the services that UKTI provides. A typical example is support for trade missions, of which 20, involving 150 SMEs, have visited Saudi Arabia alone since mid-2012. Indeed, independent research undertaken on UKTI’s behalf demonstrates that, for the year to September 2012, the organisation delivered 4,500 services to businesses across the region. Some 60% of businesses surveyed reported that those services generated significant business benefit, including an average additional profit of £84,000.
In addition to supporting companies in-market, UKTI brings its specialists from the region back to the UK to speak directly to SME exporters. For example, earlier this month, in partnership with private sector sponsors and other partners, UKTI organised a UK tour for specialists from the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. My hon. Friend will be interested to know that they met more than 200 companies in four cities—Glasgow, Manchester, Bristol and London. Those events were organised in association with UKTI’s extensive domestic regional network, which is dedicated to supporting exporters across our country. I do want to reassure my hon. Friend, because he asked this specific question, that there are UKTI staff in every region, if not in every council area.
The work of UKTI officials to support SMEs is increasingly enhanced by the activity of the Prime Minister’s trade envoys and our British business ambassadors. As senior business leaders, they are well known internationally, and they consistently generate significant interest in overseas markets. For example, one of our business ambassadors, Malcolm Brinded, recently led a trade mission to Jordan, significantly helping the companies concerned to position themselves to secure a share of Jordanian business.
I should also highlight that SMEs in the region will benefit from another UKTI initiative—its high value opportunity campaigns. Those campaigns cover 100 of the world’s largest commercial projects, 19 of which are in the middle east and north Africa. Each will open up for our SMEs huge supply chain opportunities in projects as diverse as Qatar’s World cup stadium infrastructure, Dubai’s airport expansion and huge oil and gas projects in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. We want success in those major overseas projects to mirror the positive benefits of investment in our national infrastructure by Gulf sovereign wealth funds. Indeed, we are tendering for the provision of private sector support in the Gulf to help to grow that opportunity.
Looking forward, my hon. Friend will want to know that my colleague, Lord Green, and UKTI’s chief executive officer, Nick Baird, intend to build on the excellent services already provided to make the organisation more attuned to what its competitors offer, in line with their desire to bring more private sector expertise to bear in support of exporters. One of the key differences between us and our major competitors, especially Germany, is the range of business-to-business services available in overseas markets from organisations such as chambers of commerce. That is a difference that we need to address. Lord Green and Nick Baird also want to see a much stronger connection between domestic and overseas business networks. A strong case has been made, and British chambers and other British business groups offer a potential means to extend such services to UK SMEs. However, in most cases, that will require a substantial upgrading of those business groups’ own capacity to offer the requisite level of service, which is why the Prime Minister announced last year a transformational change to the support that business can offer to business.
UKTI has now launched a pilot campaign in 20 markets that will radically enhance the support to UK SMEs over the next three to five years. The pilot focuses on high growth and emerging markets and includes Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Our aim is that by 2017 the support available to UK SMEs from Government and business groups will have significantly increased in range, quantity, impact and quality in at least the first 20 markets. It is then planned to roll out the programme to include all markets and connect our overseas business-to-business support to UK business networks, so that we have one global British business network that is operating on a par with our competitors.
At home, UKTI’s broader official business offering needs to adapt to the actual needs of business rather than to what we think they need. UK Export Finance understands that and continues to provide invaluable support to UK companies, many of which are SMEs, during turbulent times in the region. It was one of the first export credit agencies to resume cover for Libya, and even at the height of the Arab spring uprisings, UK Export Finance took a long-term view of the risks involved and remained on cover for the majority of countries.
I hope that my words demonstrate to my hon. Friend that UKTI intends to continue to build on its success in supporting SMEs in the middle east and north Africa, while at the same time developing new programmes of assistance. We want, for example, to be able to help more companies such as Apton Partitioning Limited of the west midlands, which designs, manufactures and distributes office partitioning systems for commercial offices.
The Apton story shows how a British business, dependent on the UK construction industry, lost 50% of its business in 2008, but emerged, with the help of UKTI, to be an international business operating in countries with major construction growth across the world. It is now exporting to Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
My hon. Friend raised a number of specific points, which I will touch on if I may and write to him if I miss. He announced the publication of his report. We all look forward to reading that when it appears in the next few weeks. He asked about scrutiny of UKTI. I think today has been about scrutiny, but I take his point that there have not been sufficient debates on that important issue. It is of course open to the Select Committees to take up the work of UKTI.
My hon. Friend asked me specifically about Libya. We were one of the first to open an office again in Libya. Some 250 British firms have been to Libya since the end of the conflict, but I wholly accept that we need to do more than that. He mentioned Mr Mosawi in relation to Iraq, and I will certainly follow that up and reply to it. I repeat the reassurance that there are UKTI staff in every region of our country.
I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured that UKTI takes seriously any scrutiny and comments on its activities. I hope he has had engagement with senior UKTI staff in response to any concerns that he has had. The fact that some companies occasionally feel that they are not getting the service they expect is, in my experience, the exception rather than the rule. Across the globe, countries that have used UKTI sing its praises. There may of course be exceptions to that, and if there are we need to learn why that is and to build on it. Nick Baird has made improving all levels of customer satisfaction one of the top priorities for him and his top management team. They are challenging the organisation and are seeing a response. Current indications are that, over the last calendar year, UKTI hit its target of 32,000 businesses assisted, up from just 25,000 the previous year. This year, UKTI aims to help 40,000 companies. Its target for 2015 is 50,000 businesses.
I hope that hon. Members will be reassured to hear that, of the tens of thousands of businesses that were helped and supported by UKTI in the year to September 2012, 90% of which were SMEs, more than 75% were either satisfied or very satisfied, and those companies say that UKTI has helped them generate additional sales of £49 billion. I hope that my hon. Friend and others will agree that that is an impressive performance. It is not a performance that we are complacent about, but one to which we should none the less pay tribute.
Question put and agreed to.