Tuesday 2 July 2013
[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Swayne.)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, in this debate about the Wright Committee.
In this country, we elect a Parliament, but we do not elect a Government. A Government without legitimacy must find that legitimacy elsewhere; in our case, they do so by taking over and running our Parliament. Almost all the problems of our democracy can be traced to that fundamental failure to have a genuine separation of powers. For example, the public, and even some Members of Parliament, see the parliamentary interest and the Government interest as one.
To be truly a pluralist democracy—one in which many independent and legitimate institutions interact—we need belatedly to tread the path of virtually every other western democracy and to be allowed directly to elect our Government. Only then will Parliament, free from Executive control and domination, be fully functional and fit to fulfil its purpose which, in Gladstone’s words, is not to run the country, but to hold to account those who do.
Until then, those of us who believe in building a broad-based democracy need to point out, not least to Ministers, that by dominating Parliament, the Government cheat themselves of an effective partner, as well as denying the people their separate legislature and their democratic voice. That system has been seen to fail over and over again, and we are still in the midst of it.
We need to recognise the changes that are necessary to get us to a different place, and part of the education and reform effort involves demonstrating how an effective Parliament could work. There is no better example of that than the work of the Wright Committee. Its creation was a fluke; its legitimacy—it was the first parliamentary Committee elected by MPs themselves in a secret ballot—was a miracle; and the timing of its report, which appeared just before the radical and never-to-be-repeated first year of a new Government, was fortunate. The strength of its cause, the determination of its members and the masterful maximisation of opportunity by its Chair led to some significant change.
However, although a tired Government, strong leadership and a radical Leader of the House meant that some change happened, the window soon closed. When the former Opposition came to power, they were soon taught it was their historic Executive duty to prostitute Parliament. Parties that come to power without an understanding of the power relationship between the Executive and the legislature are always doomed to follow that path.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s speech with great interest, and he is making a powerful case. Page 27 of the coalition agreement, which brought the present Government to power, says in black and white:
“We will bring forward the proposals of the Wright Committee for reform to the House of Commons in full—starting with the proposed committee for management of backbench business. A House Business Committee, to consider government business, will be established by the third year of the Parliament.”
Why does the hon. Gentleman think the Government have not fulfilled their pledge, which is written in blood in the coalition agreement?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I also congratulate him on being an obvious example of those colleagues in the House who put the parliamentary interest above the alternative Executive interest, and he is always courageous in doing so. He makes a good point about the coalition agreement, although I do not wish to intrude on private grief between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat partners. However, the Liberal Democrats were always great reformers when they had no chance of being in government. On many of these issues, I agreed very much with their views—even more than with the Labour party’s views. However, the appeal of those views seems to have lost its glitter for them in the past three years, as the seduction of being in government, and of being seen to be the leading personalities in the Government, has overtaken the desire actually to do something about this issue. The Labour party should take cognisance of that.
On the specific point about why the Government have done nothing, I will let the Minister respond, because he is better placed to do so. He will be able to tell us the ins and outs of why the problem has occurred and why nothing has happened. What we have seen is, however, part of the process of integration; it is almost reminiscent of the old show trials, in that people are put through the fire and made to recant. Sometimes they have to appear in the dock, holding up their trousers because their belt has been taken away, as in the 1930s movies of the reformed Communist party in the Soviet Union. However, perhaps the Minister is wearing a belt today—I look forward to finding out.
It is strange that the indignity involved here is crystal clear because, as the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) said, the words are in the coalition agreement. There is no room for equivocation in the words he read out, as the agreement says the changes “will” happen. None the less, the Minister, whom I have a lot of time for, and the Leader of the House get up in public to recant and deny; they tell us what their sins were and say they will not repeat them, even though their earlier words are written, as the hon. Gentleman said, in blood in the coalition agreement, which apparently governs the country. That is a great shame, because hard-won manifesto commitments and sacred commitments in coalition agreements between parties should not be cast aside lightly or quietly. One reason I applied for the debate was so that the House could see—should it wish to—why such a strong promise has been broken.
Those who believe in the parliamentary interest, as I and most other people in the Chamber do, need to prepare for the next opportunity. Opportunities are rare, but in 2015, when a new Government come to power, there will be a brief moment when further progress can be made on reforming the House. We should do that not in a starry-eyed way, but in the certain knowledge that if we press too far, the Executive will block any serious change. We need to be ready for incremental change, and we need leadership and commitment from various parties to make it happen.
The hon. Gentleman has tempted me to talk a little about the coalition. My assumption is that there will be an attempt before the 2015 election to differentiate the two coalition partners. I hope that the Conservative party takes the opportunity to restate its commitment to this issue, particularly as it may, in the past few years, have witnessed Parliament operating more effectively than at any point during my time in the House. I also hope that the Liberal Democrats will rediscover their tradition of democratic reform, which is much needed. I hope, too, that Labour party Front Benchers will see that just running the machine without an effective Parliament—that keeping Parliament down and placated —is choosing to tackle our nation’s serious problems with one hand tied behind our backs. Let us become an effective partnership, with Parliament doing its job and its duty of making the Government better.
The Wright process introduced much of which we can be proud, but still there is a great deal to be done. Many in the large 2010 intake of new Members thankfully take the progress for granted, but they should know that much of it was incredibly hard won, and was fought for over decades. It needs to be preserved and extended in the face of Executive power—a power that is unfettered by a clear constitution. That power will always try, when the opportunity arises, to regain total control over its parliamentary vassal and vehicle, if there are no bulwarks against that inevitable process to prevent the internalised culture in Whitehall from making its mark. That process has been made more difficult by the fact that the Government are a coalition. However, a return to one-party business as usual will bring a strong revival of Executive retrenchment and many people will be licking their lips at the prospect of putting Parliament back in its place where it belongs, to do what it is told. I speak not out of fantasy, but as one who served some time in the Government Whips Office and saw that process. I saw a clear demonstration of how that power is used against the parliamentary interest.
It is incumbent on all of us who believe in an independent Parliament to outline the next steps in the unfinished business of the Wright Committee and to help to formulate some proposals. Then, in the brief window after 2015, if all the other astrological conjunctions occur as they did at the time of the Committee, it may be possible to take a few more steps forward. First, however, let us celebrate and take a rare moment to savour some of the achievements.
The election of Select Committee members by MPs in a secret ballot, rather than their being appointed by the agents of the Government, was one of the biggest steps forward. Some new Members do not believe that things were ever done in another way. I warn them that they were, for my political lifetime, done differently, and that, if parliamentarians are not vigilant, those days could return. The second achievement was the election of Select Committee Chairs by MPs in a secret ballot of the whole House, meaning that they now speak for Parliament and their colleagues, rather than being awarded their chairmanship as a consolation prize for losing office, as often happened. That has led to a glimmer of an alternative path for parliamentarians who want to pursue a legitimate, respected and honourable trade as a member of the legislature, disdaining offers of office and feeling that their role is not to be in office, but to hold the Government to account.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful speech and I agree entirely with the gist of what he says, although I would probably be more adventurous than him by wanting to go a little further. In my view, the Chairmen of Select Committees are more powerful than many junior Ministers, but they are paid less. Surely a Select Committee Chairman should be paid an equivalent salary to a Minister.
Select Committee Chairs, of whom I am one, regard their post as the most incredible honour—particularly now that it is awarded by colleagues. The quality of Select Committee work has improved immeasurably in the past few years. The quality of the reports, and the fact that Chairs speak not only for their Committees but for the House, mean that there is greater strength in what they say. Their effect as well as their status has improved. I can give only a personal answer to the hon. Gentleman, who is strident in his support of the parliamentary interest as opposed to the Executive interest, often at some cost to himself. For me, the honour of being a Select Committee Chair is a great thing, and I did not seek it for recompense. I would be happy to have a personal assistant for the Committee—not a Committee Clerk—because I would regard that as a greater advantage and help to me, in the job that I do, than the extra payment. I do not even know what that payment is, but perhaps we should all put those sums into a pool to strengthen the efforts of our Select Committee structure and build it even more strongly.
The final achievement, in addition to the election of Select Committee members and Chairs by secret ballot, without the assistance of the Government or the alternative Government to help Members decide, was the creation of the Backbench Business Committee, which enabled Parliament to get the smallest toehold to show that it can run even a small part of its own business with maturity and creativity. I commend the work of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who chairs the Select Committee, and I am delighted to see her in the Chamber. She did not always agree with the direction of the Wright Committee, but she has turned herself into a central figure—whether she likes it or not—in the reform of the House of Commons. I congratulate her on the serious and mature approach of the new Backbench Business Committee. Everyone thought that if we had such a Committee, civilisation would collapse, but it has proved its case.
Perhaps above all, the Backbench Business Committee gives us the confidence to say, “We can do this; we do not need some unnamed civil servant”—I shall not name anyone, but they know who they are: the most powerful people in British Government who run the House of Commons. My hon. Friend can do her job capably, and Select Committee Chairs can run their Select Committees very well. The House should take confidence from the progress of the Backbench Business Committee and, instead of fearing that something might be lost, should use it as a base from which to build an ever-stronger and more independent House of Commons and Parliament.
What is the unfinished business? The main thing is the creation of a House business committee. Parliament is not allowed to set its own agenda, or even to be consulted on it, other than in the most ritualistic, formulaic way. Remarkably, the very Government who are meant to be held to account set the agenda of the institution that, theoretically at least, is meant to do that holding to account. If this were any other walk of life, the average High Court judge would throw out such an arrangement as counter to natural justice, but in Parliament we swallow the mythology and treat it as part of everyday life, without challenge. It takes centuries of self-deception to get normally intelligent people to swallow that without question, but we are now being given the opportunity, through the Wright Committee proposals, to question that seriously—perhaps for the first time.
I do not mean that the Government should not get their business. I am clear about that, as was the Wright Committee. We introduced stringent safeguards, up to and including the nuclear weapon enabling the Government to vote through the business statement if they ever felt the slightest bit challenged. It is not a weapon that we give the Government gladly, but it is there if they want to take it up. However, the Government getting their own business need not mean that Parliament cannot be properly involved and consulted on its own agenda. The Backbench Business Committee proved that that can happen without civilisation collapsing. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that I chair will report on that issue soon, and it is no secret that we shall try to propose ways forward—being co-operative, and being partners in the process—that will not make the Government anxious. Parliament might be the emaciated pet mouse of the 800 lb gorilla of Executive power, but we are ever conscious of how sensitive and highly strung our master is, so our proposals will not be too frightening—I say that to all Front Benchers listening attentively everywhere.
There is a lot more unfinished business beyond that of the House business committee. The Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee is still not elected effectively and properly, for example. We are grown up enough, as many democracies are, to elect our own person. It beggars belief in this day and age that we are treated like children incapable of making decisions on such sensitive matters. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire might want to say more in her contribution, but timetabling Back-Bench business for Thursdays lowers its status. A number of Members take the opportunity to go early. If we were properly respected, much, if not all, of that business would be taken at times when we could guarantee greater attendance in the House. That needs to be examined so that we can do that job properly.
I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech immensely. He is making a good point about Thursdays, but of course it is not the whole point. In the early days, Back-Bench business on Thursdays often had a votable motion, and the attendance proved to be large, the votes were well supported and the debates much enhanced.
There is a nuance in the debate on votable motions for Back-Bench business. In setting up the Backbench Business Committee, I certainly felt that we did not want to frighten the Government, and I was not in favour of votable business from the Backbench Business Committee. That now needs to be reconsidered, however, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire, who chairs the Committee, will mention that, too.
One area where we could perhaps make immediate progress is on having more votes on the recommendations of carefully put together, impartial Select Committee reports. The Select Committees of this House, which are now not the creatures of the Whips but are elected independently, should be capable of speaking for the House and making recommendations on policy, with some of the key recommendations heard on the Floor of the House. I hope we can take that matter further as part of the unfinished business of Wright.
Is not one of the problems the fact that the Backbench Business Committee, under the excellent chairmanship of the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), started off very well but that the Whips then got to work? The Whips did not give the Committee dates in advance, and they gave fag-end days when they did give dates—the last day of term or Thursdays. The new doctrine the Whips have invented is that, when a votable motion is carried, the Government can ignore it. The Executive are carefully downgrading something that was working very well.
I am conscious of trying to make this new creation both effective and sustainable, and the hon. Gentleman tempts me to stretch the elastic a little. My fear is of breaking that elastic in the first couple of years of an innovative Select Committee, but I think now is the time to reconsider such things. He makes his point wisely and with great passion, as he is known to do.
I am listening to the hon. Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), who were inaugural members of the Backbench Business Committee and without whose work the Committee would not be what it is today, but Thursdays, even though people think of them as fag-end days, are sitting days—they always have been, and they continue to be so. In fact, even on those days when debates are scheduled that are not on votable motions but are on topics of interest, the Chamber is packed in a way that we have not seen in previous Parliaments. That is because those debates have been chosen by Members themselves, and it is the act of taking responsibility for those debates that means the Chamber is very full and there is always a time limit on speeches.
We still have votable motions, including on Thursdays, and it is down to individual Members to ask for votable motions or general debates. How the Government or the Whips respond to those votable motions is down to them, and it is up to us as Back Benchers to hold them to account for the business that we have voted through Parliament.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. In looking to improve around the margins some of the things that the Backbench Business Committee does, we should not miss the big picture. The Committee has been an incredibly powerful change, it is progress for the House and it gives us great courage and strength when considering what further the House could do. At the time of the recommendation, people were saying, “This is ridiculous. These people will be out of control. They will be doing pet topics. It depends who seizes control of the Committee, and it will be absolute chaos.” Well, people should look at private Members’ Bills if they want to talk about chaos—they are another issue that needs to be resolved and cleaned up. The Backbench Business Committee has proved that the House is capable of executing its own business and agenda responsibly and maturely, and it gives us great faith that that could happen in the proper context of a House business committee.
There are other things that we need to consider, and I have mentioned private Members’ Bills. What a shameful farce it is to talk to members of the public about the process for private Members’ Bills. The process has always been a farce, and it needs to be cleaned up so that the House can proceed with a small number of Bills—perhaps only three or four—that are guaranteed to be given a Second Reading and to go into Committee, if a majority in the House agrees. Such Bills could be voted down if the Government do not like them, but we should end the nonsense of talking stuff out, using procedural tricks and all the other stuff that just brings the House and Members into disrepute. Let us be honest about private Members’ Bills.
There are many other things. Early-day motions are political graffiti. The Wright Committee recommended that a number of motions could be used to secure Members’ debates on the Floor of the House. Again, there would be a small number of occasional debates, but early days could be found so that some credibility is restored to early-day motions, rather than their being used to buy off constituents who have raised a particular issue with their Member of Parliament and feel that signing an early-day motion will change something. Let us actually create a process through which we can change something where there is sufficient cross-party support for an early-day motion.
The Government’s abuse of petitioning also needs to be addressed. The Government have stuck their nose into e-petitioning and have misrepresented what it can do. They have tried to foist the consequences on to the Backbench Business Committee and the legislature. We should send e-petitioning back to the Government and say, “If the Government are petitioned, they must answer and respond.” If people wish to petition and e-petition the House separately asking for a proper debate, the House should take that seriously, but it should not be given a ceiling. Editors in newsrooms tell their journalists they have to pump up the numbers so that they can press the House to have a vote on something that is on their agenda; petitions should be given back to the people. The Government should separate from Parliament on petitioning, and we should address petitions in our own way internally. Hopefully, it will result in a number of debates taking place on which people have genuinely petitioned the House.
We also need to revisit the inadvertent squeeze on minority parties caused by the changes. The Wright Committee proposed that the Speaker be allowed to nominate one person to Select Committees. That power would be used wisely, I am sure, by the incumbent, who would ensure that minority parties were represented where they otherwise would not be.
The question of filling casual vacancies on Select Committees needs to be addressed, and will become ever more pressing as we approach an election and colleagues leave Select Committees, some to go into Government and some to defend a marginal seat a little more assiduously than they attend Select Committees. Some Select Committees are already experiencing that pressure. The question must be addressed now, and as the Executive control Parliament, they must address it, rather than letting it happen and then saying, “Look, these people can’t even fill the Select Committees.” It is the Government who cannot fill casual vacancies in Select Committees. Committee members are not elected. Those vacancies need to be filled—again, ironically—by the very people whom Select Committees hold to account.
I have two last items of unfinished business. One main item is pre-legislative scrutiny. We have invented pre-legislative scrutiny because legislative scrutiny is so pathetic. We have a new process, for which I was partly responsible, but it is a convention, so when very important matters come before the House, it is open to Government to ram them through. When the Government need to react to the media or tomorrow’s newspapers, they can introduce a Bill.
A classic recent example is the lobbying Bill, which will have no formal pre-legislative scrutiny. It will be rushed forward, even though my Select Committee considered the issue and produced a serious report more than a year ago. The Government have not replied to that report. They are pretty casual about replying—“There’s no real need; let’s just chill out and do it when we’re ready”—but given a couple of scandals, they react: “We’ve got to show we’re doing something.” Even though what they are doing has no relevance to the two cases that recently hit the headlines, they are ramming the Bill through quickly to get it into the sausage machine. Prostituting Parliament in that way will not make people respect the laws that are finally produced.
Pre-legislative scrutiny is important. It is not a nice add-on; it should be central business of this House, and in my opinion, it should be in our Parliament’s Standing Orders that as well as Second Reading, Report and consideration by the Lords, pre-legislative scrutiny should be mandatory unless the Speaker, in an emergency, says that it should not take place.
The final issue that needs to be tackled is Report. If there is a Member here who feels that Report is a good process and shows the House in a great light, I will gladly give way. It is shameful how Government and their administrators abuse the House of Commons by flooding the Order Paper with late amendments. Not content to do so on Report in the Commons, they then do the same in the House of Lords and when the Bill returns to the House of Commons. They are treating the House with absolute contempt. It is one of the hallmarks of our subservience to the Executive that we tolerate it and see it as a sensible way to do our business. It is not. It should be sorted out, and when it is, we may have a Parliament worthy of the name.
The Wright Committee did a great job. Tony Wright, the Chair, did an absolutely magnificent job of steering it. Its recommendations were not picked up by the then Labour Government—they were blocked—but we finally made some progress in the early days of the new Government. We must remember that next time: a solemn and binding promise agreed by not one but two parties—arguably, by three—has been broken.
He affirms that that is the case, which I think is sad, and it proves how much work we all have to do if we get into government and do something with government other than just change the bums on the seats. There is an awful lot of work still to do, but the Wright Committee has made great progress.
As far as I am concerned, this debate should be a signal to those who believe that we should have a strong and independent Parliament that it is possible to win small victories, but we must ensure in the longer term that we continue to make our democracy into something with Parliament at the heart of it, where the parliamentary interest is separate, and hopefully separately elected, from the Government interest, which needs to be properly elected and legitimised. When that day comes, we will have two strong institutions working together. Our democracy will be stronger for it, and our nation will too.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on a powerful speech. I entirely agree with its content, so I shall go a little—in fact, a lot—further and faster. I think that his reluctance to do so is due to the fact that unfortunately, he has spent a bit of time in the Whips Office, which does something to dent the spirit.
When I first came to the House in 2005, I had a whole mound of mail, which I spent most of my time throwing in the bin. I opened an envelope, and there was a little book signed by the author, Graham Allen. It was an interesting book about the relationship with the Prime Minister: was he now actually the President? I could not put it down, and I have treasured it. It was nice to get it, but it was also a well-argued book.
One of the debates that the book raises is whether we should have separation of powers and an Executive that is completely independent of Parliament. On balance, I think that is a bad thing, because we have the wonderful opportunity, even if only on a Wednesday now, to ask the head of the Executive questions. There are still advantages to how our system works. However, the problem is that people in opposition who want to be in government or become Prime Minister can analyse things correctly and sensibly. When the current Prime Minister was in opposition, he produced a wonderful speech called “Fixing Broken Politics”, which I urge every Member to read. Everything in it is right. He decided how he was going to correct things. He is now Prime Minister, and none of those things have been corrected. I argue that in many cases, they have got worse.
There are a lot of things that we could easily do to bring Parliament back, even just a little. We can only move the pendulum back a bit at the moment, but one simple thing that we could do is restore Prime Minister’s questions to twice a week, and have one occasion on a Thursday. At the moment, Members come down late on Monday for a vote in the evening, and on Wednesday evening, after Prime Minister’s questions, they want to go. One thing that I have never understood is why so many Members work so hard to be elected and come to this place when, once they are here, all they want to do is get away from it. It is an extraordinary state of affairs. Regrettably, this debate is not particularly well attended. It should be packed. This is what parliamentarians should care about.
As the hon. Gentleman and I recently slept together—[Laughter.] I must explain that a little; it was an attempt by the hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), who is in the Chamber, another colleague and me to take a little power back from the Executive. We spent four nights sleeping outside the Table Office, so that we were first in the queue for presentation Bills. We presented about 50 Bills last week; we took that power away from the Executive, so that we could introduce Bills. One of the Bills that I introduced was for an allowance for married couples, which I did not realise that the Chancellor was to take up this very week. In a small way, doing such things achieves something, although it is ridiculous that we have to spend four nights sleeping in a small attic room to take a little power back for Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) look at the minutiae of how things might get done, but what about the broad idea of considering private Member’s Bills on Wednesday afternoons, rather than on Fridays, so that Members do not have to disengage from their constituencies and stay here for matters that are prioritised by those who are in the ballot?
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. I would argue differently. Absolutely, we need to reform how private Member’s business is done. I do not like the idea of, in effect, reducing the amount of time Members are in Parliament, so I like sitting for 13 Fridays a year. We do not sit that often in the House, and I do not want to consider private Member’s Bills on a Wednesday if that means no one is here on a Friday.
If someone has a really important Bill, which the Member wants to get through but the Executive does not want to put on the agenda, it is incumbent on that Member to get other Members to feel passionately enough to turn up on a Friday. That is one of the hurdles that we should have to overcome; it should not be easy to get a private Member’s Bill through, but it absolutely should be possible, and it should not be possible merely to talk it out, as happens at the moment.
I do not want to speak for long, because other eminent Members wish to contribute, but I will run through some of the things that annoy me about how the system works. One is programme motions. When the Conservative party was in opposition, we routinely opposed programme motions; we thought they were the worst things because they reduced scrutiny, as happened to a terrible degree under Prime Minister Blair’s reign. Yet what have we done? We have come into power and made it 10 times worse. Every single thing, even if it is an amendment to the Scottish provisions for something or other, is timetabled, which is patently absurd. An important issue will be timetabled to such an extent that some of the amendments that we want to debate on Report will not be reached.
I tabled an amendment to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, for example, proposing a referendum, but it was not discussed, because it was not reached in time. When a controversial issue is due to be discussed, it is a sure bet that there will be two statements on the same day, reducing the time even further. If statements are made, we should be able to go through the moment of interruption on a timetabled motion and add on the amount of time taken by the statements.
I would move away from programming; the House is quite capable of running its own affairs. We would not be sitting to 4 o’clock in the morning every night, but if an issue needs proper discussion, we should let it be discussed; if Members want to be here, let them. I do not understand how we have allowed the Executive to make the House of Commons so ineffective that we do not scrutinise Bills properly. Without the House of Lords, most of the Bills would not get the proper, detailed scrutiny that is desired. I would get rid of programming at a stroke, which, in opposition, the Prime Minister indicated needed to happen.
The hon. Member for Nottingham North talked about only the election of Chairs of Select Committees, but we need the election of all Chairs of all Committees. Why on earth can we not do that? Why on earth does the Chair of the Statutory Instrument Committee, for example, have to be appointed? He or she could be elected.
Some key Committees absolutely need to be elected. The Committee of Selection is a farce; it is appalling that the Whips try to appoint its Chair. Earlier this year, we blocked an attempt to throw out the current Chair, but in general that Committee needs to have members elected by the whole House, and it should then do the proper job of selecting the membership of Committees and choosing Members who are interested in the Bill to be scrutinised. That would make a huge difference to how we work.
The Backbench Business Committee has done a tremendous job, and we are lucky to have its Chair, but the Whips are slowly undermining it—there is no question about that. We can have a vote on something in the House of Commons, but the Government might have said to their Members, “Please don’t turn up and please don’t vote.” It is not only the Executive who are wrong about this; the Opposition, or shadow Executive, also do not want to change anything, because they are planning to get into power and to behave in exactly the same way. That is one of the saddest things about how parliamentary democracy works at the moment.
We need a proper business committee, which should run the House on the basis of the Jopling priorities. The Government should have enough time to get their business through, but equally the Opposition should have enough time to scrutinise that business, and Back-Bench Members should have time to bring forward their own proposals. That is what we desperately need. I am agnostic on whether we keep the Backbench Business Committee separate or roll it into the business committee, but a committee for the business of the House must be introduced.
I have heard evidence on the matter, and no one now wishes to change the Backbench Business Committee and roll it into a business committee. That was a thought in the original Wright Committee report, but experience has taught us a better way to do things—separately, electing both Committees.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, although he may hear one such wish, because I am not sure yet. I do not trust the Government or the shadow Executive on the subject. I think that they will say, “Because the Backbench Business Committee is great, that is doing Back-Bench business. The other committee, therefore, must be for the Executive”—a business committee would be an Executive one. That is the danger.
If we have a proper committee for the business of the House, it should have no members of the Executive or shadow Executive on it, it should be elected by the House and it should produce a timetable that is amendable and can be voted on—that might go a little further than the hon. Gentleman intended. That is the real way to do things. We are a grown-up place; if we are to be a Parliament, that is how it should work. Otherwise, perhaps we should go completely the other way and have separation of powers. At the moment, however, we have a pretend Parliament on so many different issues. It breaks my heart that, with rare exceptions, Parliament does not bite back.
Recently, we have had two good examples of how Parliament does and does not work. On same-sex marriages, because all the party leaders and their Front Benchers agreed with it, the Bill was rammed through Parliament without proper debate, and many amendments were not even reached. That was completely what is wrong with Parliament. The week before, we had the amendment to the Queen’s Speech, arising from a revolt among Back-Bench Members that had resulted, unbelievably, within the week, in the Government completely changing their policy on an issue, because Parliament had said, “This is what we want to happen.” We need more of that, and less of stuff being rammed through.
There is so much we can do, but I am disappointed, because I do not think we will achieve any of it. The Deputy Leader of the House will give us a wonderful explanation of why we have not had the business committee in three years. It will be an absolutely wonderful explanation and it will be, of course, total rubbish, because I know the reason why we have not had that committee. I know what the Government care about because of where I sit in the House of Commons. You probably know, Mr Crausby, that I sit on the second Bench, behind the Ministers and the Whips. Any time there is discussion of the business committee of the House, the Whips, including the Leader of the House and Chief Whip, say, “Over my dead body!” I assume that that is what the Deputy Leader of the House will tell us. The Whips are completely opposed to the idea of a business committee of the House—it is just not going to happen.
The hon. Gentleman must have misspoken. Surely the Chief Whip could not have said, “Over my dead body” because it is on the record that the Chief Whip was a huge enthusiast in his previous job for a business committee and surely he cannot have changed his mind now that he is a Whip.
I think we have answered the question then. It is a wonderful piece of magic that these things happen when people change their position. Having said that, however, if I was sitting on the second Bench on the opposite side of the House of Commons, the Labour Whips would be saying exactly the same as the Government Whips, and that is the problem. It is not as if the Opposition are pushing for a business committee; they are not. The Opposition are muted—they say nothing—and I am really sad about that. I hope that what the hon. Member for Nottingham North has said today highlights the problem and I also hope that colleagues take it up. There may be a window of opportunity at the beginning of the next Parliament, but at the moment I see that we are going backwards rather than forwards.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on securing the debate and on his fine, principled and even visionary statement about how the House could and should operate. I do not think that there is anyone in the House with a longer or more robust record of wishing to see reform to parliamentary procedure, so it is a great pleasure to follow him.
On the key question of the House business committee, which is central to the debate, and to which my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) referred, the Government made it absolutely clear in their coalition agreement that such a committee would be introduced within three years—in other words by May this year, which is now two months ago. It is by far the most important of the Wright Committee reforms that have not been implemented so far.
One normally gets only two chances a year to ask a question to the Prime Minister, but I was called at the beginning of the year to ask him about progress on the business committee. The Prime Minister said that the matter was very firmly under consideration, so we would like to know from the Deputy Leader of the House why, after three years, these considerations are continuing to go on endlessly.
The purpose of the House business committee, as proposed by the Wright Committee, was, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North said so eloquently, to enable the House to gain control of its own agenda. At present, the Executive, under Standing Order No. 14, overwhelmingly control the use of parliamentary time, even following the creation of the excellent Backbench Business Committee. The Executive not only decide what business is put before the House, but the scheduling of that business.
The Wright Committee’s proposal was that the House agenda should be determined not unilaterally by Ministers, but rather by the House itself, working in collaboration with Ministers. Ministers would still have adequate time to carry through their own business—no one is challenging that—but the rest of the business should be not a matter for the Executive alone, but for the House as a whole.
The main reform recommended by Wright for that purpose was that the House as a whole should be able to vote on the agenda for the next week or weeks, rather than, as we all know is the case at present, the agenda being delivered to the House ex cathedra by the Leader of the House, although sometimes, of course, that is after prior consultation with the Opposition through the usual channels. I repeat again, because this must not be used as an argument against change, that that process would in no way prevent the Government—indeed, this could be written into the Standing Orders if necessary—from being able to bring forward all their business for proper debate and a vote on the Floor of the House, and within an agreed time scale, so there would be no threat to the Government at all. Instead, the aim was to ensure that the remainder of parliamentary business was managed in a way that required the consent of the House and that was not manipulated in a manner designed to suit the interests of the Executive.
At present, as has been said, Backbench Business Committee debates are invariably shunted to Thursdays. I am very glad that the Chair of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), is sitting beside me, and it is perfectly true that those Thursday debates are well attended.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that 56 Members attended a Thursday debate about cycling.
Yes, but it is also true that when more controversial issues are discussed—although the great advantage of the Backbench Business Committee is that a lot of issues that would never arise in the House, but are of great interest to a significant proportion of the public, are debated—as the last vote is often on Wednesday at 7 pm, those debates are not sufficiently well attended to secure a vote that would properly reflect the balance of the whole House. Of course, many Members depart for other commitments on a Wednesday. That is their choice, even if many of us think that they should not do so, but the temptation to do so, because of the organisation of the agenda, is considerable.
Private Member’s Bills are largely marginalised because they are confined to Fridays, when most MPs are in their constituencies, and there is a high voting bar to secure Second Reading. Such Bills are also subject to severe time constraints, and they can be readily squeezed out due to filibustering on prior Bills taken the same day.
The Report stage of Bills is crucial, but it is often a caricature of scrutiny: inadequate time is allotted to consider extremely important issues; many Members—I will return to this point—are not properly informed about what they are voting on; and many significant amendments are simply not reached at all. Equally, Lords amendments, which generally focus on issues that are not only the most controversial, but the most important, are frequently not given the time and consideration that they clearly deserve. Given the time pressure, less important business is often given a measure of priority that could be challenged.
All those drawbacks and deficiencies could begin to be redressed by the principle of a votable agenda. I repeat that the Government would still command a majority in the House, but they would have to listen much more carefully to the strongly held views of Members, particularly when there was a consensus between the Opposition and Government Back Benchers. Crucially, it would introduce transparency into setting the agenda, which could involve all Members, not simply Front Benchers engaged in discussions through the usual channels behind the scenes.
The Wright Committee envisaged that the votable agenda motion would supersede Thursday’s business questions, and that it would be subject to debate and amendment, with the Speaker having the right to select and group amendments as happens now with other business. If an amendment was selected, it could be debated for up to 45 minutes, with time-limited speeches of perhaps five minutes. If no amendment was tabled, there could of course still be a question and answer session, which would be similar to what happens now.
Clearly a votable motion could be presented by the Leader of the House and amended via the formalities of open debate on the Floor, followed by a Division. However, the whole process of agreeing the business agenda—agreement is the key point—is likely to be far better negotiated, in a more inclusive and participative manner, if there have been detailed discussions between representatives of both the Executive and the legislature beforehand. Surely all Members must agree that openness is key to achieving better democratic accountability. Regular meetings—perhaps weekly—between both sides, in the forum of a House business committee, are much more likely to secure the outcome that the management of Government business is a genuinely shared process that is not subject to hidden traps that the House discovers only later, at considerable cost, as happens all too often at present. The object of the exercise is not in any way to aggravate the Executive or to contest votes, but to build a consensus. It is about involvement in the actual decision making for the scheduling of Government business, not merely the scrutiny of decisions already taken.
I shall say a quick word about how the House business committee might work, as several questions need to be settled. First, it should not pre-empt, incorporate or supersede in any way the excellent work of the Backbench Business Committee, which has been referred to strongly in the debate. That Committee has an entirely separate function and, by general consent, has fulfilled it extremely well. It has established the right of Back Benchers to debate issues that otherwise might never have been debated, which often does not accord with the wishes of either Front Bench team. That should continue and not become confused with the very separate role of specifically scheduling Government business.
Secondly, if the House business committee is not to be the usual channels writ large, it should not be chaired by either the Government Chief Whip or the Leader of the House. Since the essential characteristic of the chair should be exercising a non-partisan role, the obvious person to chair it would be the Speaker.
Thirdly, the membership of the House business committee—of course, considerable discussion of this issue is needed—should be equally balanced between the legislature and the Executive. In a Committee of 15 members, for example, the Executive could choose its own seven representatives, while the other seven might be composed of, say, three chosen by the Opposition parties and two elected by Back Benchers—in other words, excluding Front Benchers—with two ex-officio members, whom I would suggest could be the Chairs of the Liaison Committee and the Backbench Business Committee.
Fourthly, the secretariat would have to be provided both by the seconded civil servants who work for the Executive and by the Clerks whose broad role is to support Parliament in holding the Executive to account. Any disputes between them would have to be settled by the House business committee itself.
I want to make another key point very quickly. An utterly essential and fundamental way of improving the scrutiny of Government legislation is to ensure that Members have a clear and readily available opportunity to ascertain exactly what they are being asked to vote for when amendments or new clauses are considered in Committee and on Report. At present, especially on Report, Members who have not participated in the Bill’s Committee stage often do not know, or have made little effort to find out, precisely what they are voting for. Many times, when the bell rings and, like everyone else, I troop down the escalator through to the Palace, I turn to whoever is standing beside me, of whichever party, and ask, “By the way, what are we voting for?” Perhaps a third of Members shrug their shoulders. Another third say, “Oh it’s the Social Security Bill,” and when I ask, “Yes, but what exactly are we voting for?” I doubt that more than one or two Members actually know. I am guilty of that too—I am not being holier than anyone else, but that seems to be a huge failing.
This is a matter of great significance because Report is often the only real opportunity—especially if the Minister and Government Whip have kept the Committee stage of a Bill on a tight leash—for the House to modify a Bill. The debates on Report are usually focused on important issues about which the public hold strong views. It is a reasonable assumption that if the public were aware that matters of considerable importance to themselves were treated in such a cavalier fashion by many Members, if not most, and that they vote blind without even knowing what they are voting for, there would be a huge outcry that Parliament was abusing its proper functions.
If a Member is diligent—and some are—it is necessary to obtain a copy of the Bill, a copy of the amendments and, on the day of consideration, a copy of the grouping of amendments selected by the Speaker. Of course, a number of Members with a particular interest will do that but, in most cases, they will be in the minority. In the absence of obtaining the necessary documentation, applying it to understand the point at hand, which is quite difficult, and reaching a considered view—perhaps after taking account of arguments advanced by letter or e-mail from interested individuals or organisations—the default position is for Members to troop in, see on which side their Whips are standing, and just follow them into the Lobby like sheep.
Even if a Member took the trouble to get and read the relevant documents, however, it is often difficult for someone who has not been following a Bill closely to understand precisely what an amendment is designed to do. Some amendments—even important ones—may seem obscure to someone who is not familiar with the underlying arguments behind a Bill, and I think that that is a very serious flaw.
A key proposal to remedy that problem from the Wright Committee and the Parliament First all-party group, which I chair, is that every amendment or new clause tabled by the Government, the Opposition, the smaller parties or individual Back Benchers should have a short statement attached to it of no more than 50 words that explains the measure’s purpose. Those statements would be set out on the amendment paper, and one would appear at the bottom of every amendment.
Let me turn, for one minute, to the objections to that proposal—apart, of course, from those of the Whips, whose control over every aspect of the parliamentary process might begin to be questioned more. The only objection raised, as far as I know, is that while the Government have their civil servants to deal with amendments and to provide explanatory statements, the Opposition do not have the same resources, and adding a requirement for explanatory statements would impose too great a burden. To put it simply, I think that that is utterly untenable. It takes a great deal of time to get to grips with a new Bill, to consult outside experts over all its detailed aspects, to identify areas in which modifications need to be sought and to draft amendments in an acceptable parliamentary form. However, once all that has been done, drafting a short statement that distils the essence of the amendment would take no more than seconds. I hope that explanatory statements, as well as the House business committee, are something that the Government will look on favourably and introduce quickly.
Thank you, Mr Crausby. The establishment of the Backbench Business Committee, under the outstanding chairmanship of the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), has been a tremendous success and the outstanding advance of this Parliament. Gone are the days when the Chamber is empty for debates chosen by the Government. Whether the motions are votable or not, Back-Bench business debates attract keen interest, and the public want to see Parliament busy.
The Backbench Business Committee shows that Parliament can run its own affairs, which is why a House business committee should be established along the lines that hon. Members have indicated this morning. E-petitions need to be taken away from Her Majesty’s Government and given to Parliament. After all, the big green bag that sits on the back of the Speaker’s Chair is Parliament’s big green bag, not the Government’s.
The Committee of Selection needs to be elected by the whole House and its hearings need to be held in public. Hon. Members need to present themselves in front of the Committee, under the scrutiny of TV cameras, to justify their place on a Bill Committee.
This is my personal favourite. If we can hold the Executive to account, it does not matter where in the Chamber hon. Members sit. They should be able to sit on either side of the House, because Parliament’s function is not primarily to represent one’s party; it is to hold the Government to account on behalf of the constituents who elect us all.
I am grateful, Mr Crausby, to have the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship. As I said to you last night, I think that this is the first time that I have had such a pleasure. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on securing the debate. The discussion has been quite lively and thought provoking. Unfortunately, I do not agree with all his analysis, not least the point about separation of powers. There is an excellent book called “Plain, Honest Men”, which I commend to him. It is about the constitutional convention in Philadelphia. It is a thought-provoking book that gives some idea as to why the United States has a separation of powers between the Executive and the legislature, but like many things from the United States, it is in itself a reason not to go down that route. Parliament would be weaker if we separated our Executive from our legislature in the way that I think my hon. Friend was alluding to.
That is a splendid offer. I look forward to receiving the book.
There are seven or eight points that I would like to respond to in the limited time that I have. First, this might be heresy to some colleagues, but the Wright report is not a panacea. There is now this mythology that somehow it got everything right. I think that it is about time that a reality check was applied to that. This Parliament has made huge strides towards modernisation, but not just because of the Wright report. There are three other factors that have changed the dynamic of this Parliament compared with previous ones.
One factor is the 2010 intake of Members. I do not say that just because that was my intake; we have seen that it has been the most rebellious of intakes. In the excellent blog by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), he busts the myths about some of the rebellions that have taken place on the Government side and he points out that some of the most effective and important rebellions were led by Members who were part of the 2010 intake. I am referring to the entirely sensible pushing back against the Deputy Prime Minister’s nonsensical ideas for House of Lords reform, the EU budget vote that took place and what happened on the EU referendum. Those rebellions were all led by Members from the 2010 intake. They have been much more effective and much more willing to challenge their own Government than perhaps was the case in previous Parliaments.
The second factor is Mr Speaker. I am a huge fan of the current Speaker. He has changed how Parliament engages with the wider public and the use of urgent questions. I think that in the last Session, there were 130 days on which an urgent question was granted to hold the Executive to account. That should be commended.
Thirdly—this is not a good change—there is the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. IPSA has changed how Members of Parliament operate. It has driven Members away from taking part in Parliament. I think that, so far, Professor Wright has failed to change IPSA now that he is a board member and that he needs to be held to account for that failure to curb IPSA’s worst excesses.
On Select Committees, I agree that we have some very effective Select Committees, but—I say this very gently—there has been a contradiction today. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North applauded the fact that the choice of Select Committee members has been taken out of the hands of the Whips, but later he bemoaned the fact that keeping hold of Select Committee members as we get closer to the general election becomes harder and harder. This is a valid point. One problem that we have is that because they were elected by colleagues from their own party, many Members went on to Select Committees on the basis of their name. They arrived in the House in the 2010 intake with a reputation from outside and were elected on to Select Committees, but they have not been very effective performers in many cases. We must recognise the drawbacks.
If I may criticise the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North—
May I just finish this point?
I think that the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North meets on the wrong day of the week, at the wrong time. It is an excellent Select Committee—he has mentioned its work on lobbying, for example—but unfortunately it clashes with the highlight of the week, which is business questions. I think that if he moved it off the Thursday morning, he would have many people coming before it or wanting to take part in it.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comment. My point is that this is a balancing act. We should not consider that simply having had an election has made the system better, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North said, some Select Committees are struggling to get quoracy because Members were put on them at the start of the Parliament and have lost interest, been promoted or whatever else. There is also a broader point about whether Front Benchers should routinely be allowed to serve on Select Committees. I think that, in the previous Parliament, that happened. Many members of what was then the Conservative Opposition served on Select Committees. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but on the Education Committee, the Defence Committee and others, there were Front Benchers who served, and there is merit in that, because Select Committees have more opportunity to learn about the intricacies of a Department than Oppositions do.
I will not, because I am conscious of the time and my hon. Friend was given half an hour at the start.
I also disagree about the Intelligence and Security Committee. That must be dealt with by the usual channels, because of the very sensitive work that that Committee, by its very nature, undertakes. The Defence Committee struggled earlier in this Parliament, because, as we all know, there was a problem with one of its members. Not just our Government but other Governments refused to share information with the Defence Committee, because they believed that one of its members was unsound. We need to be very careful about the Intelligence and Security Committee and where we get to with that.
A number of points were made about things such as private Members’ Bills and early-day motions. Let me gently point to the fact that the Procedure Committee has either published reports or is in the process of publishing reports on those two issues. I say to the House that it is worth waiting just a couple more weeks until we get those reports.
The issue of the petitioning system was raised. I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House wrote just last week to both the Backbench Business Committee and the Procedure Committee to invite them to look at the whole petition system—both electronic and written petitions. Again, I refer to the three previous reports from the Procedure Committee about e-petitions. I hope that when the motion comes forward in my name and that of the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), all Members will put it through on the nod to allow e-petitions that reach the threshold to be the subject of a Westminster Hall debate on a Monday afternoon. That worked pretty well in the last Session, and I hope that it continues.
On the House business committee, let me clear up the matter once and for all. As the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), said in front of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee just a few weeks ago, the Opposition remain deeply sceptical about the House business committee. Even after three and a half years, the Government have yet to come up with proposals. We therefore welcome the fact that on 20 June the Leader of the House confirmed—and provided some certainty in the debate—that the Government do not propose to bring forward a House business committee. It could be argued that this is a bit like the proverbial tree falling over in a wood. The Leader of the House has, by my estimation, now said three times that the Government do not plan to bring forward a House business committee, yet we continue to have a discussion about when he is bringing one forward, so we welcome that certainty.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) made quite a lengthy contribution about explanatory statements. Let me gently point him to order 47 in the “Future Business” section of the Order Paper, which is in my name and the names of the Deputy Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House, the Leader of the House and the Chairman of the Procedure Committee. It precisely says that there shall be explanatory statements on a permissive basis and that the House will provide such assistance as is required. I hope that he will add his name to it. [Interruption.] It has to be permissive—I hope that I can eat into the time of the Deputy Leader of the House by 30 seconds—because there will be times when it is common sense that an explanatory statement is not required. I do not think that it requires the time or effort to produce an explanatory statement if all we are doing is changing a date, for example from “2017” to 2014”—to take a private Member’s Bill that may be debated. Furthermore, we cannot bind the Speaker’s hand so that he will accept only amendments for which there are explanatory statements. I gently refer my right hon. Friend to the Procedure Committee’s fourth report of 2012-13, which sets out why that is the case.
I am conscious that I am eating into the time of the Deputy Leader of the House. I commend the debate and I hope I have provided some clarity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, and to respond to this timely debate on the implementation of the Wright Committee’s outstanding recommendations.
We are in the third year of this Parliament, which provides an opportunity to reflect on the success of recent reforms and allows time to deliver further reform in this Parliament, where the case for such reform is made. Before addressing the points raised by Members, which relate to the outstanding recommendations, I would like briefly to reflect on what has been delivered, because there is a positive story to tell. The reform Committee made 50 recommendations in its report, and a majority have been implemented in full or require no further action—in other words, those cases where there was a statement of principle, for example. Specific achievements that directly relate to the recommendations include the election of Select Committee Chairs; the election of Deputy Speakers; the ability to debate substantive motions; the provision of Monday afternoons in Westminster Hall for debates on e-petitions, which I hope we are about to renew; the endorsement of September sittings; and, arguably the most important change, the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee.
In addition, I remind Members of the changes we have introduced for the scrutiny of legislation, which a few Members have suggested is wanting in some respects. Some of those changes were made in direct response to recommendations of the reform Committee. They include an increased number of multi-day report stages, so two days on Report is now common for major Bills, although I would not say that it was routine; the increased use of pre-legislative scrutiny, which Members welcome, with 17 sets of measures published in draft last session; and more time for scrutiny: most Public Bill Committees—nearly 80%—in the 2012-13 Session finished early. The changes also include successful pilots on public readings—for example, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, Small Charitable Donations Act 2012 and the Children and Families Bill; and successful pilots of explanatory statements on amendments, and I welcome the fact that that will proceed. I wondered whether the Opposition’s initial reluctance was because they were not certain what their amendments were going to do, but given that they are going to support explanatory statements, that is clearly not the case.
I agree and I understand the point. It was just a cheap jibe, to which the hon. Gentleman responded. The changes also include the use of social media by Select Committees during inquiries and meetings.
Having put on record some of the substantial achievements, I shall respond to some of the points made in our debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on securing the debate. I do not share his rather apocalyptic vision of our parliamentary democracy. He knows that Parliament and the Executive are not separate. I do not believe, as he seems to, that Government are dominating Parliament. The Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), might have been slightly offended by that suggestion, because it is widely recognised that her Committee has grasped a substantial proportion of what was previously Government time and on the back of that initiated a series of important debates, a third of which have taken place on days other than Thursday. They do not always take place on Thursdays, but as she commented, Thursday is a sitting day. Many of us spent many years campaigning to secure our positions in Parliament, so one would expect Members to be willing to work or stay on Thursdays to participate in debates that take place then.
I think the hon. Member for Nottingham North encouraged me to push reform, if not in government then certainly in a future Liberal Democrat manifesto. David Howarth, who is no longer a Member of Parliament, did a good job of pushing that agenda when he was here, and he continues to do so. I am sure we will want to return to this matter in a future manifesto. We have achieved a substantial amount. The hon. Gentleman threw down the gauntlet to me—as did other Members, including the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher)—over the creation of a House business committee, and I will throw down the gauntlet gently in his face, to mix my metaphors. The Government’s position is that if there were a House business committee proposal on the table it would have to pass certain tests, and some Members outlined what those tests should be. The Government should retain control of their legislative programme, and the committee should respect the remit of the Backbench Business Committee; it should take into account the views of all parts of the House; it should retain the flexibility to change the business at short notice in response to fast-moving events; and it should co-ordinate business with the House of Lords, to which I do not think any Member referred. If any Members came forward with such a proposal, I am sure that other Ministers and I would want to look at it carefully.
I accept all the tests that the Deputy Leader of the House has put on the table. I return the gauntlet unsullied, and with it I will send him the report by the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, which is under consideration at the moment, within a matter of weeks. Its recommendations meet all the tests and I will be keen to see the reforms move forward, and perhaps even the promise kept.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for gently throwing the gauntlet back at me and I look forward to receiving that report, to which we will give considerable attention on publication. He also referred to the importance of pre-legislative scrutiny and said that it should be central to the business of Government. I agree, but there will always be circumstances in which that is not possible due to timing.
To some extent, the hon. Member for Wellingborough shared the apocalyptic vision of our failing democracy. I am glad that he explained why he had been sleeping with the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). I welcome the Sunday columnist’s suggestion that the hon. Member for Wellingborough might be a Liberal Democrat plant, campaigning on behalf of the Liberal Democrats within the Conservative party by pushing an agenda that includes restoring the death penalty. I congratulate him on his commitment to raising such issues and on trumping the Government in securing time to highlight things that he wants to address. He referred to the Committee of Selection. The Procedure Committee is looking at elections to that body.
I am delighted that I can do anything to help the Liberal Democrat party, because it needs help. Is the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) right? Have the Government dropped the idea of bringing in a House business committee? Why are we still in the third year of the Parliament? I reckon it is the fourth year.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. If he looks at the evidence the Leader of the House gave to the Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Nottingham North, he will see that the Government have accepted that we were unable to deliver the commitment within three years set out in the coalition programme. Part of the explanation for that is that the tests to which I referred, which the hon. Member for Nottingham North says will be met in the report he will soon publish, have not been met by any proposals so far.
The right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton shared the significant concerns about the House business committee not being delivered. I am sure that he will welcome the fact that explanatory statements will be provided for amendments. I agree that they are essential for Members to understand what is happening in this place. He will also welcome the “Good Law” initiative, which seeks to make laws clearer, so that Members will be able to understand them more easily. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) was able to make only a short contribution, but I welcome what he said on e-petitions. The Government are willing to look at them and ensure that the House has responsibility for them. E-petitions are under active consideration. I thank the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife for his support—I think—for some proposals that the Government are putting forward.
Saville Products Ltd and HMRC
I am grateful for the opportunity to have this short debate in Westminster Hall. I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, and am delighted to see the Exchequer Secretary in his place to reply. He has been unfailingly courteous and helpful in dealing with this case, as is his usual practice. He finds himself in his current ministerial position towards the end of what has been a 12-year process, and will therefore respond to a debate about events for which, mostly, he carries no responsibility.
The debate concerns the case of my constituents, Mr and Mrs Nelson. They are an impressive entrepreneurial and professional couple who took over a business in Ashton-under-Lyne some 15 years ago and who, for much of the past 12 years, have been forced to endure an oppressive investigation by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. They have had to fight against an unjustified tax charge and to struggle ultimately for proper redress and compensation. As so much attention is now paid to big corporations and the efforts they sometimes make to reduce their tax bills, it is particularly timely to consider the injustice that has been faced by the Nelsons and their small to medium-sized engineering company, Saville Products Ltd. As I have said, the company is located in the Ashton-under-Lyne constituency, and I place on record my constituents’ gratitude—and mine—for the unstinting support of the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (David Heyes), and of their Trafford ward councillor, John Lamb.
The story begins in 2001, with an investigation into my constituents’ business, and then personal, tax affairs, which went on for five years and ended only when the Nelsons sought the personal intervention of David Hartnett, the then chief executive of HMRC. It might help if I gave a brief summary of the case, and the difficulties that Mr and Mrs Nelson have faced over the years, in the words of Mr Nelson himself, who wrote to me for that purpose:
“HMRC demanded information within an unreasonable timescale with the threat of penalties. In order to comply, we had to spend an inordinate amount of time, under pressure, to the direct detriment of the company. HMRC threatened us with penalties to try to bully us into paying tax we knew we did not owe. HMRC have since admitted this. HMRC deceived us by asking us to settle an amount we did not owe in order to bring the investigation to an end. They failed to inform us, and we only found out later from the company’s accountant, that had we agreed to their demands they would have applied that sum to tax bills issued for each of the six previous years and 2 years into the future. This would have bankrupted the company.”
According to Mr Nelson, the HMRC investigator’s
“attitude towards us was vindictive and we believed he was waging a vendetta against us because we had the temerity to stand up to his bullying tactics. We refused to sign inaccurate meeting notes on two occasions…The inspector…made a telephone call to the company’s accountant at 8.00 am one morning, slandering and discrediting me and trying to elicit information to which he was not entitled.”
Mr Nelson’s report goes on the state that HMRC
“inisted that the Nelsons had to provide information about the disposal of two cars they had sold, one of which had belonged to one of their daughters. It transpired from the Ombudsman’s report that this information was already in the possession of”
“and that he neither told us he was seeking the information nor informed us when he had obtained it. Private information about Mrs Nelson’s mother’s financial affairs was demanded by HMRC, causing distress to the family, when this information was not relevant or connected to the enquiry. Notes of a meeting between the Nelsons and the HMRC’s Area Director…were deliberately doctored to try to justify false accusations. We have the original notes as evidence…the HMRC Complaints Department promised to hold a meeting with us and then withdrew the offer…HMRC made us recreate all our personal records which had been lost at the Manchester tax office”
while in the possession of Revenue and Customs. The report states:
“This was an entire year’s personal financial information in minute detail and took us hundreds of hours but the Ombudsman’s report stated that HMRC had the powers to obtain this information themselves.”
Nevertheless, HMRC chose to demand it of my constituents.
Mr Nelson’s account continues:
“HMRC opened an investigation into our personal financial affairs without establishing that there was anything wrong in the company’s records”.
“the wrong information on expenses claims and subsequently denied having done so even though there was documentary evidence to prove”
that that was the case. There was subsequently an apology for that action. Then,
“HMRC opened an investigation into another year (2003) and demanded a statement of affairs”
from the Nelsons, when there was still no justification
“for believing that there was anything wrong in the year already under investigation (2000). HMRC sent a barrage of 23 assessments shortly before Christmas in 2004, without justification”.
One has to assume that that was designed to cause worry and alarm. The Nelsons believed that the company would have been bankrupted had the demands been paid. HMRC claimed that it was the Nelsons’ choice
“to prolong the investigation by answering…questions ourselves but this was disingenuous as the company could not have afforded their fees and they had no knowledge of our personal tax affairs.”
The threat of a potential £70,000 tax bill in 2005 meant that Saville Products Ltd lost the opportunity to acquire its major competitor, Autogem, at what would have been a very attractive price.
“HMRC’s maladministration not only affected Saville’s business during 2001-6 because of the amount of time they had to devote to the investigation but also meant that we lost the chance to create a combined company that would have been worth £10 million. Incompetence and poor service from HMRC staff has resulted in major economic loss because we had to sort out the consequences. One example is that the inspector did not understand the Sage accounting system and therefore claimed that we had not put through hundreds of invoices (these were merely carriage costs, separately coded). Another example was the failure to understand the stock valuation.”
The Nelsons were accused of diverting takings, which they understood to be a criminal offence, and they felt that they were held to be guilty until proved innocent. They also reported that
“a cavalier attitude to our personal and company documents, even from Mr Hartnett, endangered our company’s security and reputation. Documents were sent to third parties, not marked private, sent through post and not properly parcelled.”
Throughout the process, an unpleasant and oppressive attitude was taken towards a small business and the family who owned and ran it, who were trying to make it into a successful company and employer. That is borne out by the Nelson’s accountants, who have stated that what happened had a significant effect on the business. Mr Speakman, a partner at Beever and Struthers accountants, wrote to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman in May 2009:
“What I can state categorically is that whilst the negotiations to purchase Autogem were going on, HMRC dismissed the appeal made by the Nelsons via the Regional Complaints Office and continued to make unreasonable demands on their time. Mr and Mrs Nelson told me that they could not risk proceeding with the purchase of Autogem whilst they had the uncertainty of a potentially ruinous tax bill hanging over them…The frustration of having to contend with HMRC’s repeated failure to look after their personal documents, the fact that they were never believed and that the onus of proof was always on them with the assumption of guilt rather than innocence, the threatening tactics when HMRC bombarded them with tax assessments and demands going back six years and forward two, all these aspects have had a devastating effect on Mr and Mrs Nelson. They are resilient characters but I know they have both suffered stress and disillusion as a result of this investigation.”
Mr Speakman went on to estimate the financial loss that the Nelsons have suffered as a result of the investigation at £2.5 million. From details that I do not have time to go into, that might be a conservative estimate.
In response to the Nelsons’ concerns and finding their complaints largely proved, the ombudsman recommended a significant—by the ombudsman’s standards —payment from HMRC in 2009. In a letter on 25 September 2009, Lesley Strathie, the then chief executive of HMRC, wrote:
“I fully accept that we handled the enquiry badly in a number of key respects. In particular, we failed to apply a proper level of management control which should have ensured that the investigation was concluded much sooner and I understand what an adverse impact this has had on your business and on you…personally.”
Beever and Struthers estimated the scale of that economic loss under the various heads of loss of income, loss in capital value, perpetuating loss of profits and loss of opportunity.
The ombudsman’s decision in 2009 stated:
“Overall, I uphold a significant part of Mr and Mrs Nelson’s complaint. Whilst I am not persuaded (despite Mr and Mrs Nelson’s strong claims to the contrary) that the objective evidence is sufficient for me to find that individual HMRC officers have been dishonest, I am satisfied that there have been significant specific flaws in HMRC’s handling of their enquiry into SF Ltd”
—Saville Fasteners Ltd. She continued:
“More importantly, however, I consider that HMRC’s management of the enquiry was seriously deficient, with little, or insufficient, regard being paid to the compliance cost of the enquiry or to proportionality. I uphold the aspect of Mr and Mrs Nelson’s complaint that HMRC’s internal complaints procedure failed them… I am satisfied that, if the enquiry had been conducted without flaw, it would have concluded very much sooner than it did. I consider that the unreasonable continuance of the enquiry amounted to serious maladministration which has caused Mr and Mrs Nelson significant distress and inconvenience, and diverted their attention away from their business at a critical time. However, I am not persuaded that the very substantial claim Mr and Mrs Nelson have made for economic loss has been made out.”
In response to further correspondence, the ombudsman wrote to the Nelsons in November 2010, stating that one point is
“that any estimate of economic loss based on a departure from a forward projection can only be speculative and a matter of opinion, rather than demonstrable fact. I agree. We can only make recommendations for compensation for financial loss on the basis of firm evidence, and not on the basis of speculation…I therefore consider that we were right to conclude that there was too great a level of uncertainty and contingency to recommend that HMRC compensate you for a specific amount of economic loss.
The alternative was for my Office to recommend what is called a consolatory payment in recognition that the way in which HMRC conducted the enquiry must have diverted your attention from running your business to a significant extent, and caused you considerable inconvenience and distress.”
Consolatory payments by Departments are generally modest and those by HMRC of more than £1,000 are comparatively unusual, so the fact that the ombudsman recommended a payment of £30,000 shows the scale of the wrongdoing and maladministration that she felt she had encountered. However, her terms of reference and her remit did not allow her to venture into realm of compensation for the specific economic loss.
Last September, the Minister kindly agreed to meet Mr and Mrs Nelson and me. Following that meeting, Mr Nelson wrote to me saying that, in 2006, Lesley Strathie
“wrote to us to acknowledge that we should be compensated for economic loss, yet more than 11 years after this pernicious investigation began we have still not been adequately compensated. Mr Hartnett himself told us that HMRC would pay whatever the Ombudsman instructed them to pay yet he knew full well that the Ombudsman did not have the authority to make an award for economic loss.”
He also drew attention to the fact that one of the officials at the meeting, Mr Norris, stated that HMRC would normally consider paying the cost of accountancy fees incurred in an investigation but, as Mr Nelson pointed out, when we obtained the minutes of that meeting at the Treasury, there was no reference to such a statement.
None the less, Mr Nelson obtained from Mr Speakman at Beever and Struthers an estimate of the cost in professional fees of the 3,000 hours that these small-business people were forced to devote to the defence of their business and reputation. A far lower figure than the £2.5 million for the estimated economic loss, which I have already mentioned, the estimated cost of what the professional fees would have been to mount the defence in the case is £279,000. In fact, the case was defended by Mr Nelson and his wife. Mr Nelson, who is a chartered accountant and had been a senior manager in a merchant bank, was well qualified to do that, but he had to devote a great deal of time to it.
In this brief debate, I have sought to highlight the plight of one SME, Saville Products Ltd, and its proprietors, at the hands of an oppressive and unjustified investigation into their tax affairs. The case has attracted sympathy from the Chair of the Treasury Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie), the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), and the Chair of the Public Administration Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), in relation to the ombudsman’s powers. Mr Michael Izza, the chief executive of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, has raised concerns about it. The case has drawn an apology from HMRC and a damning report from the ombudsman.
Compensation of £20,000, plus accounting costs of £2,500, was increased by the ombudsman by 50% in recognition of the personal toll on my constituents, but at no point has the financial damage to the company been compensated. The company’s accountants have estimated that compensation at £2.5 million, which is probably a conservative estimate. Following our meeting at the Treasury, the company has instead looked for the cost in professional fees that would have been incurred.
In 16 years in the House, I have never brought the plight of a local business to the Floor in this way. I have done so because I regard the case as a manifest injustice—an unpleasant spectacle of a Department of State treating a small business with disdain. I hope that the Minister will reconsider the case for the sake of my constituents and their business and for the sake of other small and medium-sized businesses facing similar mistreatment.
A failure by HMRC to conduct a proper inquiry has been proved, a failure of HMRC’s internal complaints procedure has been proved, and a finding of enormous distress to my constituents has been proved. We have seen an SME that cannot afford to take the Goliath of HMRC to court and an ombudsman that does not have the power to make good economic loss. We rely on the Minister to reconsider the case.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Crausby. I am grateful to have the opportunity to respond to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Mr Brady) who, as ever, represented his constituents with great eloquence and made a good case on their behalf.
I should state that in the case raised by my hon. Friend, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—or the Inland Revenue, which was the relevant organisation for much of the time—clearly did not carry out its investigation appropriately and did not complete its review process to the standards expected. I am aware, both from his comments today and from the previous meeting to which he referred, of the distress and worry that his constituents have suffered as a consequence, and I offer my sincere sympathies and apologies for their experiences during that period.
I feel that it would be of most use to address two issues in the course of the debate. First, I shall set out the procedures in place to ensure that all taxpayers, such as my hon. Friend’s constituents, can receive a fair and independent review of any grievance. Secondly, I will address the issues that he has specifically raised involving Mr and Mrs Nelson.
On the first point, I should start by stating that employees of HMRC clearly must understand fully that compliance checks can be stressful to taxpayers. To be fair to HMRC, it sets high standards for professionalism and customer service, and deals with the vast majority of cases fairly and efficiently. With more than 500,000 compliance checks undertaken annually, there are likely to be some cases when claimants feel that those standards have not been met. In such circumstances, it is absolutely right that taxpayers, or their agents, can submit a complaint about the action of HMRC.
HMRC has a well-established two-tier complaints process for such situations and makes a concerted effort to resolve all complaints at the first opportunity. That involves a fully trained and experienced case handler who undertakes a full review of all aspects of the complaint. If the customer remains unhappy following that process, they can ask for the complaint to be looked at again. This second-tier—or tier 2—review is carried out by a different case handler to help to provide an independent perspective on the case. Again, it is worth noting that the vast majority of cases are resolved over the first two tiers. In the tax year 2011-12, HMRC successfully resolved 98% of complaints over the two tiers.
In cases when the taxpayer remains dissatisfied with the response, such as in the case involving Mr and Mrs Nelson, it is right that they can ask the adjudicator or the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman to look into their complaint. The adjudicator is a fair and unbiased referee, and the service provided is free to the taxpayer, provided that the complaint falls within the adjudicator’s remit.
The adjudicator’s role is to investigate and help to resolve complaints from individuals and businesses that remain unhappy about how HMRC, the Valuation Office Agency or the Insolvency Service have handled their affairs, after they have exhausted the relevant organisation’s complaints handling procedure. That can include complaints about mistakes, delays, poor advice, inappropriate staff behaviour or the use of discretion.
As my hon. Friend is aware, a customer can also ask their Member of Parliament to refer the complaint to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. The ombudsman is independent of the Government and investigates complaints impartially, specifically on allegations of complicity or malpractice. Investigations by the ombudsman are conducted in private, and the relevant legislation restricts her ability to provide detailed information about specific investigations.
I can confirm that if the ombudsman decides that a Department or an arm’s length body has made a mistake, she will work with it to correct that error. That could involve acknowledging the mistake, issuing an apology and paying compensation. In all cases, it should involve ensuring that the same mistake does not happen again.
That leads me to the second part of my response: my hon. Friend’s interest in the specific case of his constituents. As I mentioned at the outset, it is clear to me, having taken a personal interest in the case, that significant mistakes were made by HMRC and its predecessor organisation. The original investigation was not handled well, and that was further compounded by the failure of HMRC complaints handlers to acknowledge that.
In the case of all complaints that are referred to either the adjudicator or the ombudsman and that are upheld, HMRC undertakes a thorough internal review and, as would be expected, steps are taken to ensure that lessons are learned by not just the individuals involved, but the entire body, in an effort to ensure that mistakes are not repeated elsewhere. One area in which HMRC has learned lessons from such complaints and improved its processes is alternative dispute resolution. It uses the skills of an independent HMRC facilitator to work with customers, agents and caseworkers to try to reach an agreement and resolve disputes.
HMRC has held a successful pilot and is now rolling out that approach more widely, and I hope that that provides some reassurance that action has been taken, following the ombudsman’s report to improve performance in this area. However, I have seen from correspondence that my hon. Friend’s constituents raise concerns about the “agenda” of the ombudsman in failing to uphold entirely the complaint made, and suggest that if I accept the conclusions reached by her, I am condoning “dishonesty, deceit and collusion”. Although I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend’s constituents, and I understand the frustrations that they have experienced, I strongly contest that suggestion. There can be no doubt about the independence of the ombudsman from HMRC—or indeed any Government Department—and I therefore believe her judgment in this matter to be sound.
My hon. Friend’s constituents have been critical of the level of payment awarded, as it is significantly below the amount they believe would represent sufficient recompense for the expense incurred and anxiety caused by the compliance check. Compensation has, however, been paid for the identifiable and evidenced expense incurred as a result of the extended investigation and, additionally, a compensation payment has been made for the unnecessary suffering caused by HMRC’s handling of the matter, in accordance with the instructions of the ombudsman. As my hon. Friend rightly points out, the payment is much higher than is normally the case in such circumstances. However, the ombudsman did not find sufficient evidence of economic loss and accordingly did not direct HMRC to pay any compensation in that regard.
I reiterate my apologies and sympathies to my hon. Friend’s constituents for the undoubted worry and distress caused to them as a result of failings at HMRC or the Inland Revenue, as it was for much of that time. It is always regrettable when avoidable errors such as those made during this investigation result in the kind of personal hardship that no amount of financial compensation can eradicate.
I have been listening to this debate with great interest and I must say that Mr and Mrs Nelson have inherited the fighting spirit of the great admiral who shared their surname. I have a similar case in which HMRC is pursuing a medium-sized firm for about £1 million in notional lost tax for goods that were bound for export but were stolen. The firm was an innocent party and the tax is notional, but HMRC is threatening the livelihoods of 40 employees and will not let the matter go. When the Minister says that such cases are always unfortunate and that we should put up our hands and say sorry, will he take a sympathetic view and have a word with the organisation to say that sometimes it is better to prevent the wrong from taking place in the first place, rather than having to apologise for it afterwards?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. It is not possible for me to comment on individual cases, although I know that he has taken a close interest in that matter for some time. Perhaps we can have a quiet word about it afterwards. It is not possible for me, as a Minister, to intervene in operational matters, but it is right that HMRC has the correct procedures in place.
To return to the case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West, it is perhaps worth reflecting on the fact that it originated in 2001. The UK’s tax authority has undergone radical changes since then, not least with the formation of HMRC itself. While that does not in any way excuse the errors that were made, the organisation has made significant improvements in the past 12 years. Furthermore, let me reaffirm my faith in the work of the parliamentary ombudsman—in the context of HMRC and beyond. I have trust in her impartiality and independence. Although I appreciate that this is not the answer that my hon. Friend is looking for, and I have no doubt that he will continue to represent the case of Mr and Mrs Nelson strongly, the ombudsman has reached her conclusion and it should be respected.
Local Government and Faith Communities
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) for the huge amount of work they have done to highlight the importance of faith groups in our communities, and for encouraging colleagues, including me, to request a debate on the subject. I am delighted to have been successful in the ballot, and to be in such good company in Westminster Hall today.
The trigger for this debate is the excellent report produced by Christians in Parliament together with the Evangelical Alliance entitled “Faith in the Community”. The report clearly shows that the work of faith groups is thriving, and that their contribution to society is varied and highly valued by local authorities and the communities they serve. All local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales were surveyed for the report, and 155 of them replied, which is roughly a third of the total number. It is clear from the many responses that local authorities see faith groups as valued and vital partners who are committed to their communities, serving the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.
Faith groups provide activities and services for all ages, ranging from mother and toddler groups and youth services to care for the elderly, and from street pastors to food banks. I will pick out a couple of quotes from the many local authorities that responded to the survey. Runnymede borough council commented:
“The strength of the churches is their presence in the communities and their long-term work in the parish. This is of particular benefit when working in areas of deprivation”.
Harborough district council said:
“Faith groups are based within the heart of the local community and are able to identify individuals who may not feel able to come forward and access help and support by themselves”.
The report was not all rosy, and it highlights the concerns expressed by some authorities. Those concerns can be grouped into three areas. First, there is an issue with the “people” capacity for councils and faith groups to engage with each other, and it can be difficult to ensure that they make enough space to understand each other. Examples were given of situations either where a council could not allocate staff to co-ordinate service provision with faith groups, or where churches, on occasion, were unable to deliver a service that they might have undertaken to provide.
A second challenging area is the potential for organisational culture clash. The financial and governance requirements of councils can be quite onerous and difficult to meet for faith groups that want to provide a service to their community. Sometimes local authority terminology and the complex protocols can be a bit of a barrier to success.
For me, however, the most worrying hurdle to good co-working between councils and faith groups relates to the fears and suspicions about what each partner might require the other to do. Councils expressed concern that faith groups might provide services only to their own faith community and might refuse to support people from other faiths, or from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Another barrier was cited by Rochford district council, which said that
“a key challenge would be the potential for faith based groups to use funding for the delivery of services promoting their faith”.
Although the survey provided evidence that these perceptions are not generally borne out, as shown by the wide-ranging access to services provided by faith groups, Tamworth borough council pointed out:
“The mere fact that activities take place within a faith setting will mean that many members of the community will not attend due to a misconception that the event is an attempt to draw them into the faith group.”
North Yorkshire county council drew similar conclusions, but went on to say:
“Generally, all of these perceptions are false or can be overcome through discussion and better understanding of each other—but they do create barriers.”
I apologise for the fact that I was not in the Chamber for the beginning of my hon. Friend’s speech, but I congratulate her on securing such an important debate. Is it not interesting that a consistent theme emerged in responses to the survey regarding organisations that have become prevalent across the country? Street pastors, for example, drive a coach and horses through some of those perceptions. The organisation is based squarely on Christians out there, rolling up their sleeves and delivering a great service, restoring confidence in the streets and helping to reduce crime.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I will come on to the subject of street pastors shortly.
There is a great deal that can be done to lift those barriers, and I will take the opportunity to discuss just a few of the projects and groups operating around the country, including in my constituency, that make a real difference to the communities that they support. Increasingly, one of the best-known groups is Christians Against Poverty. CAP is a national charity, working across the UK to lift people out of debt and poverty. It offers free debt counselling to everyone and anyone, working through a network of 233 centres based in local churches. Each year, they help 20,000 people to find their way out of the black hole of debt, helping them to work out budgets, to negotiate with creditors and even to go through insolvency procedures. It also runs CAP money courses, which teach 10,000 people a year from across all faith groups, all belief backgrounds and so on, to budget, save and avoid debt. CAP has just launched CAP job clubs. There are 32 CAP job clubs across the UK, and the aim is to have 80 up and running by the end of the year.
The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spoke out last weekend in the press against the exorbitant interest rates charged by payday lenders, and he proposed that new credit unions should be set up in church halls. He pointed out that the thousands of churches across the UK are a perfect platform for such practical work to be based in, again without heed to what background, faith or otherwise that any of the individuals who might benefit from it come from.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House for consideration; it is a very important issue. Although the report she mentioned does not refer to Northern Ireland, I think that many of the things that she referred to apply to Northern Ireland. We have CAP in my constituency: it started just over a year ago and it is doing great work. There are also food banks, set up by Christian organisations, that are doing great work. Does she think that such activity, which involves people working for food banks and organisations such as CAP, and helping the less well-off, is a very practical show of Christian beliefs?
Yes. The hon. Gentleman is, of course, quite right that CAP and other faith-based groups work right across the United Kingdom, and they help people from all backgrounds—people of faith and people of no faith. Absolutely no distinction is made between people; everyone benefits from the services. However, the reason that such groups are set up is because people of faith want to help the needy. He specifically mentioned food banks, which do a superb job across the country, and many of them are led and supported by people of faith.
A charity closer to home that I fully support, and of which my husband is a trustee, is the Northampton Hope Centre. It was set up in 1974 by a Christian gentleman who handed out food to rough sleepers—food that he had paid for himself. As more volunteers began to help him, the borough council began to provide small grants to help to pay for the food. By 1984, there were 30 volunteers—mainly Christians—and a daily food service for rough sleepers was provided all year round. In 2006, the charity officially took the name of the Hope Centre to reflect its broader range of support and services, which now included providing training and activities alongside food, showers and clothing. In 2008, the Northampton Hope Centre won the Queen’s golden jubilee award for voluntary services to the community.
Today, the Hope Centre helps those suffering from drug or alcohol addiction, mental illness, crippling debt and family disintegration. It offers a wide range of support, including food, clothing, showers, shelter, social activities, therapeutic workshops and skills development. It aims to encourage its users to recover their independence. Each user’s journey is individual and the Hope Centre aims to support each person at their own pace while creating or finding pathways for people who have all but given up hope of a better future.
The centre’s budget this year is in the region of £400,000, of which only £15,000 will come from public funding. If any Members are around this Friday and find themselves with a spare hour in Northampton, I urge them to pop down to the Hope Centre, where Terry Waite will launch the new “hope café”. One of Northampton’s most exciting initiatives in recent years is the establishment of a street pastor service, which puts compassionate people of faith in the town centre on Friday and Saturday nights, offering practical help to often vulnerable people. I blogged about this in 2006, under the heading “Flip-flops and lollipops”, because, as it was described to me, the street pastors would go out and help young people who were often extraordinarily drunk, providing lollipops to the young men, who would rather suck a lollipop than get in a fight, and flip-flops to the young women, who often lost their high heels on their first steps on the journey of inebriation. It is a practical service that offers sound support and counselling.
Does my hon. Friend agree that no greater love can a parliamentary colleague have than to spend a Saturday night/Sunday morning with my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and their street pastors, as I did a couple of Saturdays ago? The street pastors provide a fantastic service in those towns. They are the only people around, other than the police and the ambulance service, actually caring for people. Large numbers of volunteers provide a fantastic service.
I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a good point. It is right to pay tribute to the street pastors, who form a valuable support group for the police on a Saturday night when, too often, trouble in our streets is common.
I set up a project in 2006 with Richard Johnson, a Christian, who runs a fantastic youth centre in Uganda. He and I set up links between Northamptonshire and Ugandan schools and now each year groups of students from Northamptonshire travel to Uganda for a conference with Ugandan students. They spend their week based at the Discovery Centre in Jinja, Uganda. That has been an astonishing success, building new friendships between teachers and pupils across the miles, and new opportunities for the schools in both countries to take part in a huge range of different cultural activities.
All faith groups, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or any other, set great store by their support for their communities. It is important that we in Parliament ensure that their voices are heard. Over the years, over-sensitivity to cultural issues and a growing, muscular secularism has meant that the amazing work done by people of faith, often for the most vulnerable, goes unnoticed. Of course, people of faith are not doing this in return for gratitude or recognition, but we should make space in public life for those of faith.
I support many of the report’s recommendations and call for three specific things. First, I should like local authorities deliberately to work more closely with faith groups, taking advantage of the support they bring to local communities, to attempt to simplify processes and jargon, and share best practice between local authorities. Secondly, I should like local authorities to look from a plural rather than a secular perspective at the services faith groups offer in their communities. The leader of Churches Together in Northampton, Ted Hale, tells me that he and many others work for non-Christian organisations such as Arthritis Care and Age UK, and so on. It is often people of faith who run such organisations.
The hon. Lady has been gracious in accepting interventions. In my constituency, an organisation called Youth Link Northern Ireland, which is based in local churches right across the religious strata, funds work to help people who have problems with drug abuse and alcohol addiction. Does she think that the Government, and local government in particular, should work in partnership with such organisations to address the critical issues that many people do not want to bother with at all?
Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. Faith-based groups often work with people to whom others are not really keen to provide support.
Local authorities should consider a plural rather than a secular approach to service provision. They should recognise that even where organisations volunteering in communities are not faith based, they are often staffed by volunteers doing it for faith reasons. They should give specific recognition to that fact.
Thirdly, there is concern about a development from the Charity Commission, which is trying to suggest that certain faith groups should not be given charitable status and is effectively challenging them to provide evidence of the work they do in the community, rather than accepting that a guiding principle of faith groups is that they should contribute to the community in which they live. The Plymouth Brethren are at the moment in disagreement with the Charity Commission about their charitable status. Where we can, we in Parliament should take steps to ensure that there is not an increasing tendency to challenge the very existence of faith-based organisations.
It is important that the charity commissioners realise that faith groups are entitled to their own beliefs, even if those beliefs seem idiosyncratic, even exclusive, to many in the secular world. This is often the nature of faith groups—the nature of their strong beliefs and the way they operate. It is worrying if secular-based organisations impose their own morality and ethos on faith groups.
My hon. Friend is right. That prompts me to reiterate my second call to action: local authorities and all of us in public life must accept and welcome those of faith and not merely tolerate them, or try to exclude them, which happens all too often.
In conclusion, I congratulate Christians in Parliament on this important piece of work and all the support it provides for those of us who are Christians in Parliament.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom)on securing this important, welcome debate. Like her, I congratulate Christians in Parliament—and the Evangelical Alliance, which did much of the work—on the “Faith in Community” report. It is an enjoyable read. I want to contribute to this debate on the basis of my work with the all-party group on faith and society.
The hon. Lady makes an important point: a wide range of contributions are made to communities from a starting point of faith. She is right to draw attention to the work of street pastors and Christians Against Poverty, whose headquarters in Bradford I visited last month. She also mentioned food banks. If we had had this debate five years ago and asked what would happen if hundreds of thousands of people suddenly found that they were unable to afford enough food for themselves and their families, I am not sure that we would have identified faith groups as the institutions that would come forward to meet that need, but they certainly have done. The Trussell Trust reports that 750,000 people resorted to one of their food banks last year. It is currently opening one new food bank per day, such is the scale of the need, which it is meeting impressively.
The all-party group on faith and society, supported by FaithAction, which provides its secretariat, was formed in April 2011 and aims to promote understanding of faith-based organisations engaged in social action in the UK, to promote recognition of their value and to consider regulatory and legislative arrangements that can make the most of the potential contribution of faith-based organisations around the UK. The group took evidence from some innovative faith-based organisations in this country.
We had four meetings focusing on the following areas: welfare to work, in respect of which faith-based groups have been doing impressive work; meeting the needs of children and young people; health and well-being; and international development. For each meeting, FaithAction put out a call for evidence to member organisations, other networks and partners, and asked for groups to make contact if they wanted to present evidence at one of the roundtable meetings. At the meetings, we asked each group to present for five minutes on their current work, setting out what they are doing and the barriers they face.
At the welfare-to-work roundtable, for example, we spoke to the Nishkam centre, which is an impressive Sikh organisation in Birmingham. We also heard evidence at that meeting from Spear, which is based at St Paul’s church in Hammersmith. At the children and young people’s meeting, we heard from the Hawbush project in Dudley and the Pathway project in the west midlands. There were half a dozen organisations at the meeting on international development, including Jewish Care, Parish Nursing, Khalsa Aid, the LifeLine Network and Muslim Aid.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his work supporting the positive contribution of faith, not least in his position in the previous Government. In his role within the all-party group, has he reflected on how one can improve religious literacy across the country? The myth-buster document was, in many ways, one of the best documents to come out of the previous Government. Does he see the need for guidance, or would he seek to follow the role of the Department for International Development? The 2012 document, “Faith Partnership Principles” outlined the Government’s relationship with international aid, and it could be a good framework to follow in our relationship with local government, too.
The hon. Gentleman makes some important points. The all-party group has identified three main areas of concern, the second of which, religious literacy, he has highlighted. Many, if not most, of the concerns are about the relationship with local authorities.
First, local authorities and grant-making bodies often seem to be pretty uneasy about faith playing a part in service delivery, as is highlighted in the report that prompted this debate. Consequently, faith-based organisations often feel that they ought to downplay the role and importance of faith in their work. Such organisations are absolutely clear that they cannot take faith out of their faith-based work, and if they attempted to do so, there would not be much left. That would result in a lack of integrity on their part, because faith is the heart and driving force of what they do.
Secondly, it is difficult to explain what the faith-based organisations call “faith logic” to local authority service commissioners. Jewish Care, for example, talked to us about its struggle to express the faith needs of the Jewish community in a particular local authority area to local authority officers in an understandable way—and that is in a community in which 20% of the population is Jewish. Similar concerns were raised in other discussions, and there is a widespread perception, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, of religious illiteracy among local authority officers—not malice, I do not think, but difficulty in understanding what such organisations are about and how best to relate to them.
Such religious illiteracy has led to local authorities being hesitant to work with faith groups. One organisation that presented to us described how there was often scepticism about whether its services are professional, even though the organisation in question is accredited by Ofsted. Another organisation found that its local authority is reluctant to work with a single faith group in case doing so offended other faith groups. Such problems are often the result of a misunderstanding, rather than malice.
Thirdly, some local authorities are just not aware of the work undertaken by faith-based organisations in their area.
It is even more serious than that. As far as I know, there is not a single Catholic adoption agency left working in this country, despite the fact that they all worked with the most vulnerable people. They were all forced to close down because they were told by local authorities that they had to abide by equality legislation, which trumps everything. Catholic adoption agencies were not prepared to allow same-sex couples to adopt children, so they have all closed down. There is a serious attack on faith-based organisations and their ethos.
I would favour local authorities being encouraged to undertake a faith and service audit, which would potentially identify areas for collaboration between different faith groups. It was emphasised in our meetings that such research is potentially important in discovering good initiatives that may otherwise go unnoticed and unsupported.
It is important to underline that the groups that attended the roundtables have long-term goals. They expressed their commitment to continue serving the needs of their areas, even when funding is hard to come by. Sometimes that is made easier by the resources that come with faith-based organisations, such as a large base of volunteers, resources, motivation and drive to do the work they are doing, which is unique to such faith groups.
I have also been chairing the Demos inquiry into faith, society and politics. Demos has published two of the three volumes in its series of studies, the second of which, “Faithful Providers,” considers faith group involvement in public service delivery. In particular, Demos has considered the concerns that are sometimes raised about what faith groups do when they deliver public services, and from its discussions with a number of groups it found no evidence to support such fears. As Demos is not a faith-based organisation, it is worth drawing attention to what it says. It found that faith groups are “highly motivated and effective” in instilling a public service ethos, and that they
“often serve as the permanent and persistent pillars of community action within local communities.”
Demos also found that faith groups are
“acutely aware of the need to be inclusive, keep religion ‘in the background’ and not abuse the power imbalance between service provider and user.”
That captures well the reality of what such organisations are doing.
Finally, we can all see that there are big challenges ahead for our communities. The pressing question is how we can make the most of the potential contribution of faith-based groups in addressing those challenges. The all-party group proposes to draft a covenant that could act as the basis for a fresh conversation between local authorities, and public authorities more generally, on the one hand, and faith communities on the other hand. Similar things have been considered in the past, and I know that the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) has done some good work on that. The idea of a covenant would be to commit the faith communities that sign up to it to playing their part in addressing some of the pressing community needs and to meeting a set of very high standards, including providing assurances that they would not do the things that sometimes people suspect they might do, while also permitting them to be faithful to the convictions that are the reason for what they do. I hope we will be able to make some specific proposals along those lines quite soon.
The previous Archbishop of Canterbury said:
“The trouble with a lot of Government initiatives about faith is that they assume it is a problem, it’s an eccentricity, it’s practised by oddities, foreigners and minorities.”
It should not be like that, and if that impression has been given by authorities in the past, it must not happen in the future—we cannot afford for that to happen in the future. A clear and fair covenant that recognises the unique position of faith groups may go some way towards addressing those problems.
I warmly welcome this debate, and I very much hope that we can make considerable progress in this important area.
I am wholeheartedly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) for introducing this debate. I endorse everything said by her and by the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms)—I can confidently reassure him that this Government do not treat people of faith as oddities, minorities or foreigners.
Perhaps a couple of days after I was appointed Second Church Estates Commissioner—it was on one of my first visits to Lambeth palace, so it must have been very early in the life of this Parliament and the coalition Government—one of the first visitors through the door was the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Lambeth palace has big doors, and the Secretary of State was the first through them for a gathering with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other faith leaders.
At the outset, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear to the Archbishop of Canterbury, other faith leaders and people such as myself that he and the Government wanted to work with faith communities. He reinforced the Near Neighbours programme, which has done excellent work in Leicester, Bradford, parts of Birmingham and east London, in and near the constituency of the right hon. Member for East Ham. Throughout, the Secretary of State made it clear that he took a practical and pragmatic approach to central and local government working with faith groups.
I appreciate that others wish to speak in this debate, so I shall be brief. However, as this is a debate about Christian action, I hope that hon. Members will excuse me if I make a slightly theological point. There is no way for the state, either centrally or locally, to deliver every human service. The state cannot deliver compassion, comfort the bereaved or relieve people of their loneliness. As it happens, I have hanging in my sitting room at home one of those illuminated Biblical addresses, although it is rather more an instruction than an address, which is from chapter 25 of St Matthew. Jesus is asked:
“Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, naked and clothe you, sick or in prison and go to seek you?”
Jesus does not reply to the Roman authorities or the Jewish state; he replies entirely to us as individuals:
“Then shall he answer them, saying, ‘Truly I say to you, in so much as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, and the righteous into life eternal.”
The New Living Translation puts it another way:
“And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’”
When Jesus was asked, “How do you help those who are thirsty, hungry or in prison?” he said not, “This is the responsibility of the state,” but, “This is the responsibility of you as Christians and as human individuals.” That is a fundamental acknowledgment that we must get our minds around. We, as Christians or as human beings, cannot simply shift all responsibilities on to the state, because the state does not have the capacity to give that human compassion and do all the other things. The state can help to support hospices for the dying, but it is the hundreds of volunteers who help to run hospices who make all the difference.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. A number of weeks ago, I took part with street pastors in some of their outreach work. I witnessed the compassion that he mentioned from young people of the Christian faith who were doing fantastic work among drug addicts and alcoholics. Such work has transformed lives, and our young people have a lot to contribute to that.
I am grateful for that intervention.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) made some observations on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, so I hope that hon. Members will excuse me if I make a couple of observations on behalf of the Church of England. The Church of England is, of course, a national church. The whole point of the Church of England is that it divides the whole of England into parishes, and every parish has a priest who is responsible for that parish. Archbishop Temple once observed that the Church of England was one of very few organisations that existed for the benefit of people other than its own members. The Church has a mission to the whole community. It must be, and is, a national Church.
Recent research by the Church Urban Fund found that thousands of parish churches throughout the country play an active role in their local communities by running lunch clubs for the elderly and after-school clubs for children in deprived areas, and helping to run food banks, as the right hon. Member for East Ham observed. In fact, some 6,500 parishes in England run organised activities to address at least one social need in the community.
What was interesting about the Church Urban Fund’s research findings was that parishes based on council estates and in inner cities were the most likely to be active in the community. Some 80% of Church of England parishes on council estates run activities to address at least one social need. In my experience, they do so with other faith groups. The street pastors, food banks and other initiatives that I have seen involve faith groups working together, and I do not think that there is any problem with that.
Every day, throughout the country, thousands of faith-based volunteers quietly go about helping the elderly, isolated people and toddler groups, or doing more difficult work in drug rehabilitation programmes. In Oxfordshire, we have a programme that meets people who have been released from prison—literally at the prison gate—to give them support as they return to the community. In hundreds of different ways, such work is done patiently and tirelessly every day.
During my time as a Second Church Estates Commissioner who takes a particular interest in this issue, I have not come across any instances of faith groups or churches saying to me that they feel frustrated or thwarted because local government has not understood them. The idea of a covenant, as proposed by the right hon. Member for East Ham, is extremely interesting and probably well worth pursuing, but I would hope—and I see this throughout the country—for partnerships between faith groups, and local government and other organisations. When I recently went to Wellingborough and Kettering to see street pastors at work, what impressed me was that at the beginning of the evening, senior police officers came in to brief them about what was happening in the community that night, how things were in the town and what they expected. Those street pastors had the full support and respect of the local police and the local authority, which was much appreciated. Whether helping to tackle isolation, family breakdown, debt or homelessness, or supporting people on low incomes, or with mental health or drug and alcohol abuse problems, people of faith are present. I would hope that central and local government will continue to work out how to maximise that synergy.
Occasionally, reality breaks out in the Palace of Westminster, and one reality that has broken out in the past couple of weeks is that the welfare budget is not going to grow exponentially. Members on both sides of the House, including the shadow Chancellor, have acknowledged that, so we will all have to be smarter, cleverer and wiser about how we work within the parameters of the existing welfare budget, which is huge. The House of Commons Library tells me that the total spent on welfare is forecast to be £204.1 billion this financial year. In 2016-17, that will rise to £218.2 billion in cash terms, or £206.9 billion at this year’s prices, so we will go from £204 billion to approximately £207 billion in three years’ time, and we will all have to work within that budget. Given the opportunity, faith groups have the capacity and ability to do much with central and local government.
The “Faith in the Community” report, which was produced by the Christians in Parliament all-party group in conjunction with the Evangelical Alliance, is important in many ways, not least because it has helped to highlight the sheer extent and value of faith groups’ contribution to local communities throughout the country. Many local authorities acknowledged that they were unaware of the extent of the voluntary work that is often quietly done by people of faith.
As Andrew Taylor, a minister at Union street Baptist church in Crewe, said in a report aptly named “Hidden Treasure in Cheshire East: Faith Action Audit”:
“One of the calls of the Christian faith, as other faiths, is that we should love and serve our neighbours, usually quietly and without expectation of recognition and reward. This does not mean that acknowledgement and appreciation are not welcome.”
That work is often done quietly, so it has often gone unnoticed and unappreciated, and we have not been as supportive as we could be in our local communities or as a wider society, so I hope that the “Faith in the Community” report will go a considerable way towards changing that and helping to build the capacity of faith groups that have a desire to make an even greater contribution to our local communities. I therefore want to use the debate to say thank you to faith groups across the country and to send a message of thanks from the House to those groups for their invaluable contribution in our local communities. I also want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing this important debate.
I want to say thanks to the more traditionally recognised groups in our communities, such as Mums and Tots. I was interested to note the name of one such group in my local area—the Little Nutters. I also want to say thanks to those who care for our elderly, support the homeless and provide youth clubs. In addition, I want to say thanks to those who provide newer, more contemporary help, such as the debt counselling work done by CAP, Sycamore Trust’s restorative justice work in prisons, and the parenting classes run by the Let’s Stick Together project, which is promoted by Care for the Family, for couples who have had their first child. Such help also includes enterprise coaching, the provision of office space, IT training and free legal advice clinics.
The drug rehab centre in my church—the Church @ The Foundry, in Widnes—is acknowledged by the local authority to be the best in the area. In the church grounds, there are also more than 20 bungalows that were built many years ago to house and care for elderly people. That remarkable work has been sustained over decades and has been supported by the fellowship in the church.
Faith groups provide organisational skills, mentoring, language classes, bereavement counselling, anger management and emergency disaster relief—the list is endless. We also see franchise-format voluntary work, and we have heard about the street pastors. Best practice is shared among such groups, and there is also good engagement with local authorities.
A small but significant category of respondents to the “Faith in the Community” report said that local authorities have entered into formal contracts for services with faith groups. One example is the library in Grappenhall, in Warrington. I know the library well, because I was a councillor when the cabinet was deciding what to do with it. It was clear the local authority could no longer sustain it, and I have watched with great admiration as local church members have taken over that community facility and maintained it. I pay tribute to Jan and John Ashby for their work.
We have also seen collaborative work between Redeeming Our Communities and the police. The organisation, which works in some of the most troubled areas of our country, also sustains a youth project in a fire station. That and the other projects I have mentioned are excellent examples of partnership working between faith groups and local and statutory authorities.
However, such good engagement does not always happen. How, then, can local and, indeed, national Government better engage with and support faith groups to develop their voluntary work and undertake it in as professional a manner as possible, as the great majority wish to? The “Faith in the Community” report clearly states that the first step is for faith groups and local authorities to talk and to develop closer working relationships to break down barriers, whether perceived or real. Such barriers might relate to the language used, concerns about motives, local authorities’ concerns that faith groups’ beliefs will be expressed in a way they consider inappropriate, or faith groups’ concerns that local authorities will not be interested in them and that resources and support will not be available to them just because they are faith groups.
Let me turn now to the “Hidden Treasure in Cheshire East: Faith Action Audit” report, which was produced by the faith community and the local authority in which my constituency lies. I pay tribute to Carolyn McQuaker, who spearheaded the report. The clue to what it is is in the title: an audit of the voluntary and community work of faith groups. The report is interesting because it takes the overview in the “Faith in the Community” report, which the all-party group on Christians in Parliament and the Evangelical Alliance have just produced, and focuses on just one local authority area.
The audit sent out 246 questionnaires to churches and faith communities, of which 154 were returned. Some 150 were from groups that defined themselves as Christian, while one was from a Baha’i group, one was from a Hindu group and two were from Unitarian groups. It is interesting that although there was a connection between those groups and local authority agencies, such as the council for voluntary service, children’s centres and youth services, only 12.5% of the responding faith groups said they had any such active connection with their local authority. Faith groups do valuable work, but how much more could be delivered with just a little more engagement, advice and practical support?
As statistics from the local authority show, the reach of the various faith groups and the impact that they have on tackling challenges in our society are immense, and I hope that hon. Members will bear with me while I quote some of the statistics. Altogether, the 154 faith communities that responded are responsible for running 536 projects—an average of between three and four regular caring projects per group. Incidentally, those projects exclude any that are established and held for the purpose of teaching religion, which were not counted in the report. More than 16,300 people engage in those weekly projects. Some 2,239 toddlers and their carers attend 79 groups each week, while 5,087 children and young people take part in 207 projects run for them across the area. Some 1,700 elderly people join in 81 activities, while 2,365 people take part in 64 projects to develop life skills and to help with physical, mental and material well-being. Nearly 5,000 people take part in other community projects.
In addition to the projects run directly by faith groups, their members also contribute regularly to the life of schools. Some 254 members of faith groups are school governors, and there are an additional 89 school projects. Many church members also give time regularly to the life of local care facilities for the old and the young.
If all that work had to be carried out by statutory services, it would require the equivalent of 281 full-time jobs. If those figures are representative of the faith groups in Cheshire East as a whole, 862 projects are being run for more than 26,000 people every week, at a value of many millions of pounds. Of course, that is probably still vastly understated, because many hours go unrecorded, and the figures do not take into account the voluntary time given to activities such as overseeing groups, supporting and managing volunteers and managing the buildings in which events take place.
The “Hidden Treasure” report contains several constructive, practical suggestions to help faith groups to build on their already remarkable contribution. To build capacity, realise potential and achieve best practice, faith groups themselves should work at communicating with, and representing themselves to, the rest of the voluntary and public sector, such as by engaging more closely with local authorities by sitting on local boards set up by, or in partnership with, local authorities. That could help to make the work of faith groups strategic, and prevent opportunities from being missed to develop or follow through an overall vision for an area or a locality.
I was struck by what the hon. Lady said about the proportion of faith groups in her area with pre-existing local authority contacts. Does she think that umbrella faith groups, such as Churches Together or equivalent groups in other faiths, might play a useful role in co-ordinating such links?
I agree. Churches Together provides an excellent way of connecting in many towns. In my constituency, Churches Together in Middlewich has recently launched a good neighbours project, especially to support those who may be lonely at home, in conjunction with the town council and housing association.
It is important for local authorities to encourage church groups to engage with them. As we have heard, the language used by local authorities can be a barrier, and staff need to be aware of that. Councils might consider developing a dedicated faith-based support agency to enable them to understand the challenges faced by faith groups, to form a bridge to the wider voluntary community services and statutory sector, and to provide a resource to enable faith groups to understand what support from local authorities is available to them. It is essential that communication is improved.
As we have heard, the statutory sector is often not aware of the level or range of activity in the faith sector. Equally, the faith sector is unaware of the scope and scale of issues and priorities that the statutory sector must address, or its plans of action. The two should work together on a common vision and direction, pooling resources on several levels—geographically, in localities, and thematically, such as across the youth work of an area—with the aim of facilitating networks and more effective joint action.
True partnerships of trust should respect and honour people’s values and beliefs, and I shall come on to that at the end of my speech with reference to the “Faith in the Community” report. People working with faith groups must connect with them in a way that will enhance, rather than detract from, what they are doing, and protect the ownership of the vision and worth that motivates people of faith. Perhaps the statutory sector needs a little training and guidance to help it to work in partnership with groups that have a faith identity, to help them to maintain that, and perhaps to avoid the heavy bureaucracy that can be so off-putting to the groups.
Local authorities can also help faith groups to improve their research. Faith groups are often very good at measuring activity, but less good at assessing their own impact. Councils could help them to improve that while respecting the fact that it is often church members who have the closest contact at grass-roots level with those in most need in the community. When I was a councillor, a report was done on our youth work—it was not good. One of the problems was that the youth workers worked 9 to 5, and it was the church youth leaders out on the streets, doing the detached work night after night, who understood what young people were coping with and were the most effective. More such joint working and interaction is needed.
A further recommendation of the “Hidden Treasure” report concerns training. Local authorities have huge resources and expertise with which to provide quality training, which could radically help to build capacity among faith groups. I am pleased to note that Cheshire East council has strengthened its offer of training to faith groups because of the report, and that should enable more faith groups to sustain projects. Often they have the passion and vision to start a project, but sustaining one perhaps takes a little more training, support and expertise than many faith groups have.
In addition, often relatively small amounts of money, compared with a local authority budget, can have a significant impact on faith groups’ ability to expand their capacity. However, many do not want to engage in the commissioning process, which they find burdensome, and nor do they have the capacity to do so. A little more financial support would be appreciated, and it would also be helpful if there was an annual audit and review of the kind of work that faith groups do in every local area so that we may celebrate and highlight the sector’s achievements and ensure that local authorities can fully engage with their plans and actions.
I said that I would touch on the “Faith in the Community” report, and I want to clarify two points. It is important that guidance should be issued
“that expresses a clear understanding that it is legitimate for beliefs to be manifested”
as faith communities go about their work within local communities
“without implying proselytisation.”
It is important not to confuse the two. Finally, local authorities should provide reasonable accommodation of religion and belief whenever possible. The report states:
“An approach should be adopted that allows faith groups to be open about their beliefs and values, and the practices these encourage, rather than emphasise a privatisation of belief”,
and suggests that practical provision should be made
“for substantive freedom of religious expression”
and belief. After all, that is the very thing that motivates people of faith to undertake the remarkable work that they do.
The trouble with a debate such as this is that it can be as reassuring and pleasant as a Christmas carol service. We all agree with each other. We are about to hear the winding-up speeches, and I have no doubt that both Front-Bench spokesmen will be extremely polite about faith groups and pay tribute to all their sterling work. We will all go away feeling very happy. However, a more serious situation exists, which needs to be addressed.
I followed what my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) said. I do not blame the current Front Bench, but undoubtedly faith, and particularly action in faith, and faith groups, have suffered during the past century, because the state has become a kind of giant mustard tree—if we are to use biblical references—and all other activity has gradually been drained of irrigation. Faith groups, like other voluntary groups, have suffered from the attitude of mind that it is the state that must always take responsibility. We can have a wide-ranging debate about that, and we all know the arguments on both sides.
However, there is something much more serious going on, and I want to amplify the two points I made earlier. I made an intervention about the Plymouth Brethren. I think that that is an interesting case, because it is almost a throwback to the politics of the 16th and 17th centuries. There is a religious group whose beliefs, frankly, the state thinks are weird. Most Members of Parliament either have no faith at all or belong to well established faith groups with broad views. We find it difficult to understand the viewpoint of a group such as the Plymouth Brethren, who, frankly, treat life in literal accordance with the Bible.
As a result, they want to have closed services to an extent, which is their right; they also want to mix and work together and to educate their children in their own schools. That sits oddly with the modern ethos of audit—that everything has to subscribe to general notions of the right way to do things—but we should consider the attack on the Plymouth Brethren by the Charity Commission as an attack on freedom of belief and association, and it is therefore very important. It is important not only for that admittedly small group of people, but for those of us who belong to Churches that are far more numerous, because we are also under attack from the same attitudes.
I mentioned the Catholic adoption agencies earlier, in an intervention on the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). I noticed that he did not answer my question—perhaps he did not want to, or the answer was too difficult. The situation, however, is serious: a mainstream Church was indulging in extraordinarily important work with by far the most difficult families in the country, trying to place children from very disturbed backgrounds with foster parents, but all those adoption agencies have now closed. An important faith group was doing important work that we all lauded and thought was marvellous, but the agencies have closed because the state said that the adoption groups had an ethos that did not fit with its equality ethos. That is extremely worrying.
We have heard a lot about covenants, and we will no doubt hear more. Furthermore, in the wind-ups, we will hear a lot about the good work of faith groups and about how we want to encourage local authorities to work with faith groups. If we look at what is happening on the ground, however, we see that serious things are occurring. We have had a big debate about same-sex marriage, and I do not want to repeat all the arguments, but the Government have been loud in their acclamation that they want to protect the position of Churches. I believe that the marriage services carried out by Churches in their own buildings will be protected, for a time anyway, but will freedom of speech in Church schools be protected? Will freedom of action in Church groups be protected? Those are much more difficult questions to answer.
Frankly, I am not so interested in covenants and all the rest; I am interested in the state leaving faith groups alone. Leave them alone! Let them run their voluntary organisations, schools, Churches and adoption agencies in the way that they want to run them. Often, the way that the faith groups want to run such organisations will be counter to modern, secular ideas of equality. The trouble with faith, however, is that it is often demanding. The books of faith in any religion make difficult demands of people. Sometimes, admittedly, they are exclusive in their demands; they proclaim a particular truth, and it is difficult for all people to subscribe to those truths. Some people may be excluded because of their set of beliefs, but that is the nature of faith. We have to recognise that they have those strong beliefs, whether on same-sex marriage or anything else, and they are entitled to run their own groups how they want to. In spite of all the warm words that we will shortly hear from the Minister and the shadow Minister, that is not happening, and there is now a war of attrition.
Some people say that the faith groups are whinging and whining and that they live in an entirely tolerant and free country—thank God that we do live in a country that still is largely free and tolerant, compared with many others in the world—but I do not believe that our country is as free for and as tolerant of the faith groups’ views, which are often difficult, as it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago. No one sitting in the Chamber now can gainsay that point of view. No one can deny that the faith groups, although still largely free to carry on their own services in their own churches, mosques, temples or whatever, are not as free as they were, although they are much freer than in many other parts of the world.
The faith groups reach out to the community with their voluntary organisations. The Charity Commission said to the Plymouth Brethren, “The reason why we want to take your charity status away is that you are not reaching out to the community.” The Brethren know, however, that when they reach out to the community, their beliefs immediately run counter to the demands made on their organisations by the local authorities. Paradoxically, that is why the Plymouth Brethren want to retreat into themselves: they feel under threat from the wider world—their ethos is under threat. Therefore, they want to protect their young people, but, having come to the conclusion that the only way in which they can do so is to educate themselves, they find that the Charity Commission says, “That is not good enough. You are not reaching out to the wider world.” They are in an impossible situation.
I ask only one thing of the Minister. Please, ponder the debate and leave faith groups, their organisations and their ethos alone.
It is a pleasure to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, I think for the first time.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing the debate, which is important and has been a good and interesting one. I share her exhortation to local government to work with faith groups, which do such a wonderful job in our communities.
I shall touch on some of the comments made by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) referred to the need to build the capacity of faith groups. That is an important goal to enable faith groups in the community to provide the support facilities that they might wish to see and from which the community might benefit. She also cited a number of good examples of the excellent work that faith groups are doing in her constituency and in the wider area. We can probably all cite such examples of faith groups doing excellent work. She also referred to the partnership activities in her constituency, such as the work of the fire and rescue service with a faith group. The fire and rescue service is doing a wonderful job throughout the country, so it is good to see a collaboration taking place as she outlined. The hon. Lady mentioned a low level of engagement in some parts of the country, which we need to be mindful of and to tackle. It is helpful to raise the issue in today’s debate as one that needs to be looked at.
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) has considerable experience in this area, and he does some excellent work. I am sure hon. Members know of his contribution to the whole agenda. He identified the fact that faith groups not only of Christian denominations, but right across the piece—faith groups of all persuasions—do some excellent work in the community. He also highlighted some of the obstacles to collaboration, which we need to tackle.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) said that the state cannot be responsible for delivering everything. I agree, but the state has a role, and the debate is all about how the state can work alongside faith groups. Nevertheless, I take issue with him on his point that the state cannot be responsible for compassion: the national health service is the very embodiment of the state showing compassion to its citizens. Similarly, the establishment of the welfare state is an example of the state showing compassion to its citizens.
While it is true that the welfare budget has grown, and the hon. Gentleman made the point that it cannot continue to grow exponentially, we should not expect faith groups and the wider voluntary sector to pick up the pieces, if the cap is set at such a level. In such circumstances, the state should not put the onus on faith groups, but ensure that any cap is imposed compassionately. That means ensuring that employers do not exploit their work force but pay appropriate wages, so that people are not reliant on the state. It also means ensuring that landlords do not profiteer and charge excessive rents, leading to a ballooning housing benefit bill, and that unemployed people are guaranteed employment. By doing those things, we can ensure that no unreasonable burden is placed on voluntary organisations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman was not suggesting that having a cap means that it would fall to faith organisations to fulfil the role that the state, rightly, should be fulfilling.
I think the hon. Gentleman might be slightly missing the point of this debate, which is about how to support and empower faith groups to do more in the community. It is not some kind of political talk about austerity and how it might affect the state’s need to depend on faith groups. He might be looking at the issue from the other end of the telescope.
I was merely responding to the comments made by the hon. Member for Banbury, who mentioned the cap and the argument that welfare spending cannot continue to grow exponentially. I was merely pointing out, as the hon. Lady did, that the debate is about how we can facilitate and enable faith groups to fulfil their full potential and work in collaboration. However, such groups should not be a substitution for the role of the state. I think the issue is about a partnership and a collaborative approach—or at least I hope it is. I was responding to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, in case there was any misunderstanding about what he was saying, and I simply wanted to put our views on the record.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) referred to the impact of equalities legislation on the role of some faith groups. He raised the example of adoption agencies that no longer provide a service because of the imposition of equalities legislation. It is important that all organisations and all of us are subject to the law. I do not think that it is appropriate to say that one particular interest group should be exempt from the law of the land. Equalities legislation is the law of the land, and all organisations, whether they are faith groups or otherwise, need to be subject to it.
The hon. Gentleman also said that the state should leave faith groups alone and let them get on with what they do. That also potentially misses the point of the debate, which, as we have already touched on, is about how local government can work more closely with faith groups, so it is a question not of leaving them alone but of how they can work more effectively together.
Faith groups are integral to the fabric of many communities, and they do some excellent work. We have heard some examples of that, such as youth work, working alongside and providing support to homeless people, food banks and street pastors. That is excellent work. I know that many local authorities value the input from faith groups.
I may have expressed myself badly, and I apologise. The hon. Gentleman has obviously misunderstood what I said. I was trying to say that if faith groups are put in a position where they feel that they must be supported by local authorities and conform to the authorities’ ethos—he who pays the piper calls the tune—there is a real danger that they gradually become impoverished in their belief. It will be a kind of vicious circle: as they can survive only because of the money that is provided, they will have to subscribe to secular beliefs and culture. They will lose their very vitality, which is formed by faith. That was the point I was trying to make, perhaps badly.
I am grateful for that clarification. That is a pessimistic view, to be honest. In my experience, local authorities work well with faith groups and try to facilitate their activities. A shared approach is a partnership approach, and sometimes there will be tension. Part of the reason for having this debate is, I hope, to discuss that and look at ways in which some of those obstacles may be overcome.
Some of the difficulties relate to a lack of understanding, and to expectations. Indeed, sometimes there is a lack of awareness or understanding between faith groups. It is important that local authorities try to come up with ways of ensuring that such misunderstanding is overcome. There are some good examples of that happening around the country. In my own constituency, the forum of faith groups, which was established by the local authority, works extremely well. It brings all the faith organisations in the city together and facilitates working between different faith groups and alongside the local authority and other statutory agencies.
The work that faith groups do around the country—certainly where they work closely with the local authority—helps to facilitate community cohesion in their areas, particularly where we have umbrella organisations that bring together the different faith groups and provide an opportunity for discussion. I think that that is valued, and I hope that we will see more of that approach around the country.
To conclude, the key is that the work of faith groups should complement, not replace, the role of local government and public service agencies and the services that they provide.
I feel that the thrust of this debate among contributors and those who have made interventions is to underline the good work that faith groups do, particularly where the Government have not been or are not working. Surely the thrust should not be that the Government should restrict faith groups, but work alongside them.
I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. Certainly the Government should work alongside faith groups, and there are plenty of examples of that. There are some examples of their not working so well together, and I hope that we can overcome that. Rather than faith groups doing their own thing and public service agencies doing theirs, much more can be achieved by working together. Where there can be collaboration, faith groups can add value to the public services that are provided by local and national Government.
The hon. Gentleman is saying that the work of faith groups should complement, not replace, that of local authorities, but what about, for example, the hospice movement, which is largely voluntary? That is not complementary to, but instead of, local authorities. Does he not see that on many occasions faith groups provide services instead of local authorities, not alongside them?
That is a good example, but it does not undermine the general thrust of my point. I am not saying that faith groups should provide services that are already being provided; they are just adding to them. The hospice movement, which the hon. Lady identified, is a good example of an addition that may be provided.
We are probably on the same page; I do not necessarily think there is any difference between us on that point. It is important not only to understand the significant role of faith groups, but to try to facilitate a better understanding between local government, other public service organisations, and faith groups. Facilitating that joint approach would enable the services that are provided by both the public sector and the faith group sector to be much enhanced—
Thank you, Mr Walker. In the time available, let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing the debate and on her thoughtful, balanced contribution, which covered an interesting range of issues. I think that that has been the case for the debate as a whole.
In a sense, underlying my hon. Friend’s powerful argument was her question of plurality, although I do not pretend to have an immediate answer to that. I totally understand the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) about the danger of a society and Government mindset that becomes ever narrower, perhaps for the best of intentions, but nevertheless does not take account of the fact that there are different perspectives that we need to respect in society as a whole.
I strongly feel that faith communities play a very important role at the local and national level. It is about helping many people to strengthen their moral outlook, and about the way in which such groups help people and provide a service to others, by being good neighbours. It is also about the way in which we help those in genuine need. As several people have said, it is true that Governments of whatever political persuasion have tended to ignore or misunderstand the role of our faith groups, and today’s debate gives us an opportunity. I am a Minister in a Department with a Secretary of State who takes this issue seriously, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) mentioned, and we not only welcome the report, but applaud its contents and the work that it records. As we have heard, Governments have perhaps been cautious in the past about engaging with such things. They have perhaps been wary of being seen to take too strong a role in the direction of certain faiths in a society in which, as has been rightly described, aggressive secularism has a strong and powerful voice. As a Government, we welcome the report and the work of faith groups.
The debate and the report have informed us of the huge range of activities in which such groups are involved. Hon. Members have mentioned food banks, fostering services, the work of CAP debt agencies and street pastors. I have been out with the street pastor group in my constituency. Among the flip-flops and the lollipops, they play an important pastoral role. In my case, that was in Bishop’s Stortford, but the project that my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire visited sounds even more exciting. The fact that senior police officers take it seriously and recognise the role of people in the community who give their time to help others is an interesting sign of what can be achieved.
Before I come to the specific questions that have been asked, I will touch on faith groups’ role in homes and homelessness. I have seen marvellous work undertaken, whether that is through the Passage, the Salvation Army, or St George’s Crypt in Leeds. People are making a difference, not only by providing shelter to those who are homeless, but by helping them to change their lives and get back to being able to stand on their own two feet, and that is very much led by faith.
Several hon. Members mentioned the role of Churches Together, and churches and faith groups around them can help new communities as well. In Devon—in Cranbrook, near Exeter—alongside the work that we are doing as a Government with bricks and mortar to establish a lasting community, I was delighted to see the role of the Churches Together, which has ensured that, from the start, there is a minister—not a Government Minister—for Cranbrook, Mark Gilborson, who is helping to bind the community together. Whatever I may do as Minister for Housing, communities will not be defined by bricks and mortar; they will be defined by people and how the community binds together.
Let me turn to hon. Members’ specific points. It is right to say that there has been a perception in national and local government—sometimes falsely, on the basis of misconceptions or fear, but perhaps also due to a lack of understanding—about what faith groups can be, and of what they do and add. To counter some of the more cautious discussion in the debate, the survey by the Evangelical Alliance, which underpins the report, suggests that things have moved on and that many councils are now positively engaging. There are problems, however. We as a Department are actively involved in ensuring that some problems relating to what is termed overstretch, and to the bureaucracy that can often be overwhelming for small, faith-based groups, can be overcome. It is also important to tackle the problem that even if councils have recognised that faith-based groups are strong, and they are willing to commission services from those groups, we have seen a minority of cases in which they have made it clear to such groups that they need to be quiet about their faith.
The Government do not regard it as reasonable for local authorities to impose such conditions in contracts, even though they may legally be at liberty to do so. We are, of course, not talking about public money paying for specific religious worship—indeed, we all want to ensure that services are open and for a common cause when public money is involved. However, let us face it: the vast majority of church and faith groups are perfectly capable of sticking to those rules. The key point is that people need to be able to be honest about their faith, without necessarily needing to impose it on somebody else. That is the balance that I would encourage councils to consider.
I am not complacent about the challenge, but more can be done to establish a more productive working relationship with some councils, so I want to offer two or three practical points in response to what hon. Members raised. The Evangelical Alliance is planning a series of road shows to bring together church leaders and senior local government officials to work through the report’s findings jointly. The point made by the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) about a covenant might well fit into that dialogue. I am pleased to say that my departmental officials are actively involved in that process, and I strongly encourage councils to take part. In fact, I go further and encourage hon. Members in the Chamber to encourage their councils to ensure that they participate.
There is an issue about the term “religious literacy”. There are ways to improve things, whether that is by starting with those groups who are more actively engaged in the community, or by having, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) suggested, a dedicated officer or councillor who can take the lead, change the culture, open minds, and understand that there is a different perspective, because such a process can start to break down some of the misunderstanding. It is also important that we play a role, which is why we will set up our own seminars that will be deliberately designed to start to look at where there are such gaps and problems, and at what can be done to change that.
Let me turn briefly to the question of the Plymouth Brethren. As hon. Members will know, I need to be cautious, in that the Charity Commission is independent of Ministers and it is not for me to interfere in any individual decision. We should not rush to any judgment about changing the definition of charity. An appeal has been lodged, and I think it will be held in September. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire and others pointed out, the Brethren do good work, as do so many other faith groups. I want the case to reach a speedy resolution and for both sides to resolve the matter. This needs to be done with open minds, not closed minds.
Several other excellent points have been raised. Inter-faith is an absolutely crucial issue, and the Near Neighbours programme and the £5 million we are investing is important. However, let me conclude by saying that this has been a timely debate. It is right to say that, in the past, some of our faith groups have felt either ignored or misunderstood by both central and local government, and that is why I welcome the report. I know that my noble Friend Baroness Warsi, who leads on the issue in the Department, will want to take matters further, particularly with regard to how we increase co-operation between councils. Perhaps rather than using my words, however, I may conclude with those of Dr Sentamu, the Archbishop of York:
“Building strong working relationships between local authorities and religious communities should not be based on mere ‘tolerance’. It should be about talking, listening, and growing together. Together, working in unity of spirit, we are stronger than when we try to do things in isolation.”
Digital Exclusion (Glasgow)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.
Last week, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced further plans to roll out superfast broadband across the UK, so that it will reach 95% of the population by 2017. No one doubts that Government investment in that type of infrastructure is key to promoting further growth; and, in comparison with other parts of Scotland, Glasgow ranks as one of the best for superfast broadband availability and is also benefiting from the Future Cities spending. However, one reason why I have requested this debate is to caution that collectively we may have become too fixated on the rate of installing hardware, compared with the level and depth of usage by our citizens. The two are interconnected, but very often our strategic priorities and procurement policies do not match those needs together. I believe that the Government should do more to link their substantial investment in broadband with investment in citizens’ participation. I hope today, as well as setting out the scale of the challenge, to suggest some practical ways in which the Government could better adapt their policies to provide a more comprehensive strategy.
I have long taken a close interest—I have done so throughout my years in Parliament—in how Government initiatives and policies, whether lottery funds for community groups, the introduction of tax credits or the recent changes in family migration rules, are understood in my local area. Frequently, bureaucracy underestimates or simply fails to understand how, and to what extent, the general public absorb information and application processes. Many Scottish Members will recall the disaster of the 2007 Scottish Parliament election, caused in part by officials simply deleting one line of instruction at the top of a ballot form.
During the past year, I have spent more and more time with local groups and community activists, talking about the impact of the digital divide, particularly in relation to those seeking work and the forthcoming introduction of universal credit. Last year, Ofcom reported that Glasgow had the lowest level of broadband take-up of any major UK city. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) is here today. Sadly, it is not a surprise to those of us who represent a Glasgow seat that it is at the bottom or top of a league table for things that are not very good. There are many historical and economic causes of our city’s ingrained poverty, but in the case of digital access, the scale of the gap should result in a call for action, rather than simply a shrugging of shoulders.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. The statistics from Glasgow show that up to 60% of people have access to broadband. That means that 40% do not. Given that access to many Government services is online only, particularly with some of the welfare changes, does she recognise that that could pose difficulties for the most vulnerable people in the city of Glasgow?
My hon. Friend has raised the point that I was going to raise in the next paragraph of my speech—clearly, he must have had advance sight of it. He has made exactly the right point, because this is a question of social justice, not just access to a certain piece of technology.
Ofcom’s 2012 consumer market report showed, as my hon. Friend mentioned, that only 60% of Glasgow’s households had access to fixed broadband, compared with a UK average of 76%. We know that at-home access is vital to allow our citizens to gain the most value from use of the internet. Against that UK average of 76%, it is perhaps not surprising that the Government, in moving to digital by default from this autumn, are working on the assumption of moving 80% of benefit applications online, but let us dig a little deeper into those figures for Glasgow.
Last month, I was pleased to host a seminar at Westminster with the Carnegie UK Trust, which has recently published a report called “Across the Divide” by Douglas White that is an in-depth review of 200 families in the city and how they are affected by the digital divide. There is much to commend in that excellent report, which is instructive not only for Glasgow but for other areas of the country that suffer from high levels of socio-economic deprivation. It should not surprise the Minister that the author pointed to very similar figures in parts of North Ayrshire, West Dunbartonshire and North Lanarkshire, which surround the city area, but I particularly draw the Minister’s attention to the charts at the start of chapter 3, which show the gap, in terms of both age and socio-economic groups, between Glasgow and the UK average. For the social group C2—a group that is often affected by our social security systems—the divide is an astonishing 25%. Against a UK average take-up of 72% for that social group, the Glasgow figure is only 47%. What happens when age is added to the equation? In the city’s entire 35-to-64 age group, only 35% have access to broadband in their house.
In some of the most deprived areas of the city, housing associations and other community groups estimate that only 20% of their tenants at most have direct broadband access. However, as the figures reveal, this issue affects all sections of the community and all demographics. There are a multitude of reasons for the gap, and the report goes into them in some depth, but cost is the primary one. For people on a low income, a fixed phone line is now a luxury that many drop in favour of pay-as-you-go mobile phones. As the Carnegie report showed, the monthly communications budget for the city’s lowest socio-economic groups is about £30, compared with a UK average spend of about £100.
The Government’s aim to move to digital by default is certainly doing more to raise the importance of the issue, but there is a real fear that we simply do not have the scale of resources required, not only for hardware access but for appropriate software and access to training and support. This is not a problem for which a one-size-fits-all approach will work. It needs a comprehensive and segmented strategy, with political commitment over the long term.
Citizens Advice Scotland, in a report issued in May called “Offline and left behind”, which included interviews with 1,200 clients, found that nearly 72% would struggle to apply for a job online and that almost half those who said that they would be completely unable to complete a benefits application online said that the main barrier was that they had never used a computer. Research conducted this year by the Prince’s Trust with young people who fall into the NEETs category—not in education, employment or training—found that one quarter dreaded filling in job application forms online, while one in 10 admitted avoiding computers altogether. As the Minister will be aware, literacy and numeracy levels play a very big part in that.
Having spoken to my local citizens advice bureau, to welfare rights officers and to my own casework staff, who recently attended a demonstration at the local Department for Work and Pensions office, I understand that the anticipated time to complete a new universal credit application is one and a half hours. Moreover, there is no provision to save information if someone wishes to pause the application process. We all have busy lives. There will be times when we are on the computer and we want to pause it, go away and look for some other bit of information and come back to it, but this is the classic “The machine won’t let us do it” approach. Frankly, it is a completely useless IT approach that by now the Government should have banned from any front-of-house application. Even those experienced in these systems are aghast at the complexity of the process.
In addition, as the Minister will be aware, jobseeker’s allowance applicants are regularly instructed to spend multiple hours each week searching online for work, but little assessment has been carried out of the actual availability of free-to-use computers in local areas. Last year, I started to carry out a survey in my own constituency of where free-to-use computers were available and what training or lessons might be appropriate and accessible if people wanted to go online and complete CVs. I then began to realise that I was the only person trying to collate that information and I was eventually contacted by a Scottish Government agency, which agreed to fund the publication of the list, so that we could distribute it to a whole host of community groups and public offices.
Absolutely no mapping has been done of where computer access is available. I know that the DWP is now trying to establish local job clubs in my constituency and many other areas, where people can access computers on an informal basis. That is all well and good, but it has only just begun that process and it takes time for community groups to find the finance, to get organised and to get the equipment—yet we are facing that radical change in a few months’ time. That is why I urge the Minister to scrap the Government’s aim of starting with a target of 80% of benefit applications being made online. It is unrealistic, grossly unfair and runs the risk of vulnerable people losing essential financial support.
What is the alternative target? I am sure the Minister will respond by saying that there has to be a target. We should all want greater online access for our constituents, because it means not only the ability to apply for benefits and search for jobs, but the opportunity to benefit from cheaper utility costs, new sources of information and knowledge and greater connectivity with the wider community. Such targets are useful to measure and drive success, but they need to be based on evidence, with a clear strategy to improve take-up. There are good examples to follow, and I point to the programme that introduced digital TV switchover as an excellent example: it adapted messages for different segments of the public; it worked with all tiers of government and local community organisations to ensure efficient delivery; and it constantly analysed evidence throughout the project and adjusted its work to suit, to ensure that it became one of the most successful Government programmes of recent years delivering information and change to the entire public.
The question that is always asked in these difficult economic times is, can we find the finance for such work? The answer is yes: to return to the point I made at the beginning of my speech, we need to integrate funding solutions with the provision of the hardware that delivers the service. I suggest that we take a small slice of the funds that we set aside for mass broadband coverage and use it to finance a public community access programme that is fit for purpose.
How do we tackle the depth of the problems faced in my home city? I was struck by the success of a community project that began in Liverpool a couple of years ago, and which has witnessed a substantial increase in usage by the population. There are certainly lessons from its success that we in Glasgow need to learn. Glasgow city council launched a digital participation group earlier this year as part of its new digital strategy, which is good, but we need the UK and Scottish Governments to respond positively to that initiative. Both Governments should look at using Glasgow as a pilot for the wider task of tackling digital exclusion wherever it occurs in the country. We need a comprehensive and segmented approach based on good-quality evidence and clear messaging. We need clear branding, which everyone in the community understands at all levels. The Carnegie UK Trust recommended creating local role models or digital champions.
Government also have a role in assisting local authorities and communities with procurement. Some of our larger registered social landlords, such as Glasgow Housing Association, are piloting special deals for their tenants that directly address the issue of cost, which is good, but given that more and more people are finding themselves in private residential properties or renting from much smaller landlords, we need to extend such schemes to everyone on low incomes. The Government can disseminate best practice, co-ordinate action and ensure that services are delivered to the public we serve. I hope that both Governments and agencies such as Ofcom will assist with a thorough mapping exercise and bring in the expertise and support of the private sector.
I mentioned software and the question of how people with few skills or qualifications can access information on computers if they do not have experience of doing so. We need simplified software that will work for them and to offer support to build their knowledge and experience, rather than just using a couple of apps. Some of the experience has been that those in the lower socio-economic groups, if they have a mobile phone, may use only eight apps in total, so we need to create a deeper and more valuable experience for them.
I appreciate that the Minister has been called in at very short notice to respond to this debate. His colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, has advised me that he has a previous and long-arranged engagement with Her Majesty at Holyroodhouse. I well understand why he is otherwise detained, but I should like formally to request a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State in the near future so we can discuss these issues in further detail. I want to be practical today and offer suggestions to the Government that are achievable and will assist everyone. We do not want people or communities to have a digital divide, but to see a new digital era in which everyone can take part.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) on securing this important debate, speaking in large part to the findings of the Carnegie UK Trust report, on the challenge of digital exclusion in Glasgow. In presenting its findings and some of the difficult and challenging issues raised, she did huge justice to the report. I commend her for the typically practical and constructive approach she has taken this afternoon.
How we involve more people in the digital community is an important subject, which we take seriously across Government. My right hon. Friends the Under-Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Scotland are mindful of the issues the hon. Lady raised this afternoon and are aware of the report. Without wishing to make diary commitments on behalf of the Under-Secretary of State, I am sure that he will be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the topic in greater detail. I will let him arrange that with her. Much of the agenda we have talked about is devolved, and it is in large part the responsibility of the Scottish Government to address the issues, but I assure hon. Members that the UK Government are working hard to raise the level of digital inclusion across the whole of Britain.
The Carnegie UK Trust report says that Glasgow has one of the lowest broadband take-up rates in the UK, which is true, but we should not allow that to overshadow the progress that has been made in the city. Take-up in the greater Glasgow area increased by 20% between the start of 2011 and 2012, exceeding the Scotland-wide rate of increase, which is closing the historic gap between Scotland’s broadband take-up and the UK average. Catch-up is taking place in Scotland and in Glasgow itself, so we can point to a relatively positive picture, but that does not detract from the gap that the hon. Lady spoke about.
The concept of digital inclusion lies at the heart of the Government’s digital strategy. “Digital by default” is our ambition for Government services, but it is not and will not be mandatory for everyone. It is important to stress to all hon. and right hon. Members that we all need to do our bit to dispel any scare stories or myths that suggest that people will not be able to access the services they are entitled to or claim the benefits they need if they do not have access to the internet at home. I was interested to hear the hon. Lady’s point about not being able to pause in the middle of an online application for benefits. That is the first time I have heard about it. I will certainly look into it, and not only from a Scottish perspective.
We recognise that it will not be possible or appropriate for everyone to receive and manage future payments of universal credit online. The Department for Work and Pensions is working closely with local authorities, to provide access to the benefits system in a variety of ways. As part of that, the Department is sponsoring local authority-led pilots around Britain, including in Dumfries and Galloway and in North Lanarkshire. For those able to use the internet, but without their own computer, all the Government’s digital services are available through the free internet access provided at libraries, and in this Glasgow is particularly well served, with 33 local libraries in the Glasgow city area offering free internet access. I completely take her point that internet access at home is particularly important for a jobseeker.
I am grateful to the Minister for replying in such a positive manner, particularly about the online application form for universal credit—my caseworkers were horrified when they came back from a presentation on it. In some parts of the city of Glasgow, where broadband access is at only 20% and there may be only one small library, there are physical issues with the sheer lack of computers, and that is even if all the libraries in the city provided them. There are queues of people trying to book appointments at the library. They are competing not only with other job applicants, but with other users of library services.
I hear what the hon. Lady says. All I can say in response is that the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State meet regularly with Scottish Government officials and Ministers, and with city council leaders as well, and if there is a physical capacity issue, in that there is not enough digital infrastructure for the demand, meaning that people who do not have internet access at home cannot benefit from the publicly available services, they can certainly discuss that with them.
As the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban) has previously said in the House, all jobseekers claiming benefits have a personal adviser whose role it is to support them back into work. If an adviser identifies that someone does not have the knowledge and skills needed to access online services, they can discuss those needs with the jobseeker and arrange for suitable IT training to be provided. In fact, the Department for Work and Pensions is currently piloting a digital skills assessment tool in four jobcentres in the east of Scotland, which will be used by advisers to assess claimants’ digital ability. I hope that what I have said goes some way in addressing the hon. Lady’s point about jobseekers’ lack of skills in relation to making job applications or accessing benefits online.
The hon. Lady slightly humorously talked about Glasgow being at the top or the bottom of the league table of things that were “not very good”—I think that was her phrase. We should remember, however, that some really positive and encouraging things are happening in the city. I am sure that she and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) will be only too aware of those initiatives, and will have done their bit to champion and support them in recent months and years.
I would like to take this opportunity to highlight a few of Glasgow’s recent successes. The UK Government are supporting the city of Glasgow to lead the way in using modern technology to support growth and increase sustainability. Glasgow beat off bids from a number of other cities around the UK to be awarded £24 million as the host city for the Technology Strategy Board’s future cities demonstrator project. The university of Strathclyde recently secured funding for two of the UK Government’s catapult centres, looking at offshore renewable energy and high-value manufacturing, which are important sectors for future growth. In 2013, Glasgow overtook Edinburgh in the global financial centres index for the first time, making it the highest-ranking financial centre in the UK behind London, and Glasgow is to host the Commonwealth games next year, which will be a highlight for the whole of our country.
I thank the Minister for listing all those fantastic Labour achievements in the city of Glasgow. May I add another? Glasgow city council has made a commitment to there being free universal broadband right across the city by the end of this council term, and to every single Commonwealth games venue having broadband by the time of the games next year.
The hon. Gentleman must have had previous sight of my speech, because that is the very next sentence. Glasgow city council is planning for a free open-air wi-fi network to be available in Glasgow city centre in time for the 2014 games, and I think we all recognise that that will mark another major step in Glasgow’s progress towards full digital inclusion.
I point to the fact that the recent spending round announcements include significant extra resources to support infrastructure investment and growth in Scotland. That is good news for Scotland, because an increase in capital spending means better infrastructure, greater competitiveness and more jobs, which clearly shows how Scotland continues to benefit from being part of the United Kingdom.
I conclude by saying that we will make a point not only of ensuring that my colleagues at the Scotland Office see what was discussed this afternoon, but of feeding the comments made and the questions asked through to my noble Friend Lord Freud, the Minister for welfare reform at the Department for Work and Pensions. Some of the issues raised deserve a full response, and we will ensure that the hon. Lady receives that response in due course. I commend the hon. Lady on how she has addressed the issues this afternoon, and the Carnegie UK Trust on its excellent report into digital exclusion in Glasgow, entitled “Across the Divide”.
Recession (Standards of Living)
I think this is the first time you have chaired an Adjournment debate that I have secured, Mr Walker. I am pleased to have been able to do so. As politicians, it is easy to find ourselves speaking about statistics and general trends, but it is important that we take stock and reflect on what it is like to live in our country. What sort of lives are people living? What sort of hardships are they suffering? We have to put ourselves in the position of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society to remind ourselves how much more work needs to be done. We should judge our society on how we treat the worst-off, not on how we treat our millionaires, and we are failing that test.
A key issue that I am keen to stress is that monthly expenses have been bloated by debt repayments and rising transport and fuel costs, leaving families with less spending power. For the fourth consecutive quarter, monthly expenditure by UK families has grown, with current typical outgoings up by 3% since August 2012 and by 22% since November 2011. The rise in living costs has been clearly visible over the past 12 months. Since 2008, the consumer prices index has risen by 17%, but other measures suggest that inflation over that period has been much greater. The minimum income standard used by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation indicates that the cost of a standard basket of goods and services has increased by 25%.
Based on those figures, the minimum earnings required to secure an adequate standard of living would be £16,850 for a single person, £19,400 for a working couple and £25,600 for a lone parent. All those are well above the salary of a job that pays the national minimum wage, and they are dangerously close to the average income level in the UK. Although it is true that the average income in the UK has increased in recent years, those figures show that the increase has been accompanied by a disproportionate rise in the cost of crucial commodities. The obvious effect is that standards of living are falling, as people cannot purchase as much of a commodity as previously, meaning that less is spent on luxury items, personal items and leisure goods. The biggest declines in the percentage of people spending on a certain items between November 2011 and January 2013 involve furniture, appliances, clothing, sports equipment, make-up and the motor industry. I am concerned about the broader impact on the economy, as British industry finds that demand in the consumer base is low.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that pressures on families result not only from the rising cost of food and fuel, but from the fact that most families up and down the country are taking an average £1,200 reduction in their salaries?
I am outlining the consequences of the reduction to which my hon. Friend refers, and I want to look more closely at some of the rising living costs.
The most basic expenditure to affect living standards is surely food. Despite the growth in the popularity of own-brand food labels and budget supermarkets during the recession, outgoings on food shopping are still rising. Inflation of 3.13% means that a typical family now spends £234 more on annual food bills than they did in November 2011, which puts significantly more pressure on the earnings required to secure an adequate standard of living for the whole family.
An inability to respond to that pressure has left families with an unacceptable standard of living. There is evidence of that across the country, including in my constituency and surrounding areas. Research has shown that about one in five people in the west midlands have to skip meals and go without food to feed their family. Some 70% of families who are suffering from food poverty have to rely on food supplied by schools in the form of free school meals, breakfast clubs and other school clubs. As a result, more than a quarter of families suffering from food poverty are unable to provide all the meals for their children during school holidays. I am sure that we all agree that that situation is unacceptable. If we judge our society on the basis of the situation faced by the worst-off, it is clear that something needs to be done to improve the ability of families to provide meals for their children without having to go without food themselves.
Another significant section of expenditure is on travel. Average rail fares increased by 5.9% in January 2013, combined with inflation of 4.96%. Expenditure on everyday travel has grown more than any other costs since November 2011. The typical UK traveller spends £341 more every year, and the fact that there was a further average price rise in January 2013 means that such rises are likely to continue.
I have raised my objections to high-speed rail elsewhere, so I will not get into that today. After a previous Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), described high-speed rail as “a rich man’s toy”, I have not been assured that we will not see transport costs rise even further to pay for high-speed rail. Travel costs do not appear to be a real concern for the Government.
The increasing prices applied by utility providers are putting significant pressure on households. The resulting energy bills have drained an extra £221 from their budgets every year since this Government came to power. Such increases have caused the cost of living crisis that afflicts millions of families across this country, reducing their ability to secure an adequate standard of living. Those issues are compounded by the fact that, according to a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research, 5 million homes are overcharged by energy suppliers. Yet the Government have backed “business as usual” in the energy market, with energy companies having paid out £7 billion to shareholders, which is a clear refusal to challenge the practices, pricing and structures in the energy market that are causing such difficulties for families and individuals alike.
I believe that it is our responsibility to ensure that energy bills are kept at a manageable level for families. When Labour left office, there were 1.75 million fewer households living in fuel poverty, including 500,000 fewer vulnerable households, because our policies—such as winter fuel allowances, cold weather payments and improvements in energy efficiency through the Warm Front scheme and tough requirements on energy companies —ensured that they could spend the amounts of money required to secure an adequate standard of living, rather than having to overspend on energy bills.
Housing expenditure, and specifically rent, makes up a considerable portion of families’ overall expenditure. As a result, the cost of rent can have a huge impact on a family’s standard of living. The greater the proportion of total expenditure taken by rent, the less the family’s ability to spend in areas that would secure it an adequate standard of living.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this massively important debate. May I point him to a comment made by Donald Hirsch, the author of the recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on living standards, who stated that
“the next election is likely to be the first since 1931 when living standards are lower than at the last one”?
Does that not represent a failure of the current UK Government?
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I have just outlined the consequences of that.
If the issue about rent is taken as a reflection of the overall situation across society, there is serious cause for concern. On top of that, the Prime Minister promised 100,000 new homes under the NewBuy scheme, but there were just 2,000 by May 2013. Indeed, home ownership has fallen from 64% in November 2011 to 59% in January 2013, which is the result of families increasingly shifting to rented properties. The increasing trend towards renting means that 25% of UK families are now in rented accommodation, which is a significant rise from 19% in November 2011. Meanwhile, rent in the social housing sector has gone up by 26%, and the number of families using social housing, including council housing, has increased from 11% to 15% in January 2013.
According to the debt charity StepChange, the combination of those factors has caused the proportion of its clients with rent arrears to increase significantly— from 5.6% in 2010 to 8.6% by the end of 2012. I would describe rent prices as one of the most pressing problems affecting living standards today, and I believe that it needs to be urgently addressed.
StepChange’s findings about rent arrears bring me to another key element of expenditure that is rising—debt. Between November 2011 and January 2013, average debt repayments increased by almost £20 a month or £240 a year. That is accompanied by a dramatic rise in the number of families seeking help for utility bills and with council tax and rent arrears.
Although overall debt levels have decreased, households are now struggling with priority debts that many were previously able to meet. More than a third of those seeking help from StepChange are in arrears on at least one household bill. I find it particularly striking that clients over 60 have the highest overall levels of arrears and single parents have the highest levels of rent, council tax and water arrears. The sad result is that 78% of StepChange’s clients felt that debt problems had undermined their self-confidence and their ability to support both themselves and their family.
There are plenty of other examples. According to research by Consumer Focus, the number of households in debt to their electricity supplier has increased by more than 25% to 850,000, and the number in debt to their gas supplier has risen by 20% to more than 700,000. We all know how debt can be extremely destructive: being in debt can affect someone’s quality of life and financial stability. That matter requires urgent Government attention.
That leads me to the related issue of payday loans, which, thankfully, has been debated a good deal recently, so I will speak only briefly on it. Last year, there was a staggering rise in the number of people seeking help with payday loans. More than twice as many people—360,413—contacted StepChange for help with payday loan problems in 2012 than during the previous year. The data show that, on average, a client’s payday loan debt is up more than £400 on last year, and now exceeds their monthly income.
Like every other MP, I have increasing numbers of people coming to see me about debt. My hon. Friend is right to say that we are seeing more and more of those shops opening up on our high streets but, more importantly, nothing is being done about the television advertising that is leading people up the garden path. Payday loans can have a profoundly negative impact on people’s finances, but the problem is wide as well as deep. In March 2013, a compliance review by the Office of Fair Trading estimated that up to 8.2 million payday loans were made in 2011-12, and that a third either could not be paid back on time or could not be paid back at all. We are talking about some 2.7 million loans that could not be paid back on time, which demonstrates the difficulty and the strain felt by the public with regard to payday loans, and that pressure affects people’s standard of living. I fully support any action the Government take to tackle that problem.
Let me comment now on the backdrop of public sector pay freezes. In the spending review last week, the Chancellor announced yet another cap on public sector pay. He said wage rises would be limited to an average of up to 1% in 2015-16, thereby extending the clampdown by a further year. He also announced plans to seek savings by reforming the system of pay progression in the public sector. The incomes of millions of teachers, nurses, firefighters, council workers and civil servants will be squeezed even further in future.
Furthermore, the long-established and simple principle of pay progression based on experience looks to be the next target. That will be far more complex and potentially damaging to services. I am particularly concerned about the disproportionate impact that the measure will have on equality. Those who will suffer the most from such a freeze in increments will be low-paid women, who tend to have shorter service and not to have reached the full rate for the job. Given the sheer numbers of public sector workers affected by the pay squeeze, the effect on the economy cannot be ignored. Each public sector worker who suffers a continued pay freeze, combined with the rising cost of living, will have a much squeezed budget indeed. If we limit the spending power of such a large sector of the country’s work force that will be sorely felt in other industries.
The Government’s cuts are being felt in many other areas. However, they are perhaps most keenly felt in local government. Local authority services can have a significant impact on people’s lives, and they are being hit very hard by the cuts. In the spending review last week, the Chancellor confirmed that a further 10% in local government funding will be cut. Coventry city council has already lost £24 million of Government grant funding in the last three years and will lose a further £19 million next year. Last week’s announcement made it clear that councils will lose a further £18 million in resources. This year’s budget means that the council can spend £200 less on each resident than it could three years ago. I know that the council is working hard to minimise the impact of such cuts on front-line services, but however hard it works, the cuts will be felt by those who need help the most, and that is the case up and down the country.
No discussion of current living standards would be complete without reference to the bedroom tax. It has been discussed at length in the House, so I do not wish to dwell on the matter now. The Government estimated that 660,000 claimants will be affected by the removal of the spare room subsidy in the social rented sector, and the average loss in benefit is £14 per week. Those affected include 60,000 working-age housing benefit claimants living in the social rented sector in the west midlands at the time of its introduction in 2013-14.
The Government say that if people do not want to face the housing benefit cut, they can simply move into a smaller property, but where are those properties? There are simply not enough smaller homes available in the housing market. Tens of thousands of people throughout England are being forced to suffer a cut in housing benefit because they are unable to downsize. Like many other MPs, I have heard greatly distressing stories from constituents about how they are being hurt by the bedroom tax. I want to make it clear that I am extremely saddened by the tax and very much hope that the Government will review it in future. We should take every opportunity to make the Government aware of the hardship that they are putting many people through as a result of the under-occupancy penalty.
With children spending almost seven hours a day at school, the quality of the school environment has, without doubt, a key impact on their standard of living. In May 2012, the Government announced that work would begin immediately on the priority school building programme, which was welcome. However, of the 261 schools promised, only one has been started. Although the completion of that programme would undoubtedly improve the quality of the school environment for children, delays stand as a considerable barrier to progress on securing a better standard of living for children in our society. Perhaps children’s standard of living could be better secured and enhanced by investing more realistically, and in other ways, in schools.
Finally, let us consider for a moment what should happen to people who come into contact with the law. Unfortunately, that is something that happens to many people during the course of their life and, often they are totally unprepared. Equality before the law is fundamental to our society. Quite simply, we do not want to live in a society in which the rich can win legal disputes by hiring lawyers, and poor people lose because they have to represent themselves. The Government’s cuts to legal aid threaten that basic equality. Funding has been removed for private family law such as divorce and custody battles; personal injury and some clinical negligence cases; some employment and education law; immigration where the person is not detained; and some debt, housing and benefit issues.
Access to justice through judicial review will be restricted, as lawyers will be more reluctant to take on such cases due to the threat of not receiving payment should the case not get past the permission stage. That also restricts consumer choice for the public. The focus on the quantity of cases, rather than the quality, will lead to more miscarriages of justice, as providers will become motivated by case volume and efficiency, rather than the right to see justice served correctly. There is a good chance that the quality of legal service provided will deteriorate, as the lower fixed fees paid to lawyers under the new proposals cause them to focus on the quantity of cases that they take on, rather than the quality of each case. I am raising the issue of legal aid in the context of living standards because I see treatment before the law and access to justice as an integral part of our quality of life.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Through you, Mr Walker, may I thank Mr Speaker for granting the debate and compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on his comprehensive reply to the impact of the rise in costs of living, particularly on those on minimum wage and below-average wage, whom it has bitten hardest?
I am pleased that the Economic Secretary is responding to the debate. I am conscious of the fact that he was, as a Back Bencher, vociferous in his support of Government policies and he is eloquent in his defence of them, now that he has earned his much-justified elevation to the Front Bench, but I do not think that we will have much by way of change in his reply or, indeed, in Government economic policy, which lies at the heart of the problem of the cost of living.
The three central objectives of any economic policy for a country as a whole have to be, first, to secure growth—without economic growth we cannot achieve any of the objectives—secondly, to secure sound public finances and, thirdly, to ensure that our whole population has a rising standard of living. Those are the three basic social and economic objectives of economic policy. I regret to say that the Government have failed on all those and today we are debating the direct consequence of that.
Denis Healey, a distinguished former Chancellor—I am sure that the Economic Secretary will be aware of this—used to say, “When you are in a hole, the first golden rule is to stop digging,” but all we do is dig deeper. We were promised 6% growth and we have achieved 1%, and we have promises that, by the austerity policies adopted throughout Europe, we will see the deficit eliminated in 2015, but we now face not a small deficit in that year, but one of approaching £100 billion, and the prospect of eliminating the deficit put off almost indefinitely, but certainly for another three years and, with it, a further three-year squeeze on the standard of living of the ordinary people of this country. It need not happen. Even now, the Government could change course and alter the inevitable further erosion of standards of living in the country.
The Minister will try to blame it all on the previous Government, but that is wearing terribly thin now. The Government have been in office for three years. They own this policy; it is their creation and its failure is their failure. We plead now that the Minister takes note of the harm that this policy is imposing on the country as a whole and on individuals, as my hon. Friend so comprehensively detailed. I hope that we hear some change of tone, if nothing else, from the Minister.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this important debate and presenting his case so eloquently. I also thank the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) for his contribution. I will try to respond to the points raised by both hon. Gentleman.
It is fair to say that we all want to see the UK economy performing strongly. It is also fair to say, probably, that although the hon. Member for Coventry South and I agree on that objective, we differ in our views on how best to achieve those goals. I will do my best to respond to the points raised, but it is only right to point out that when the hon. Gentleman came up with the title for the debate, on the effects of the recession on the cost of living, he must have been referring to the most recent recession, which was the one that took place under the previous Government. As we saw last week, the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that not only was that the most recent recession, but it was far deeper than originally thought. Originally, it was thought to be a 6.3% contraction in GDP, which would in itself have been the deepest peacetime contraction in GDP in this country, but it turns out to be even deeper, at 7.2%. No doubt it would have hurt many families throughout the country. This Government are trying to help those families with the cost of living and other issues, and trying to repair the damage done by the previous Government.
Let me talk about some actions that we have taken and the results of those. First, there is a lot to discuss about overall economic policy, but the main point is the deficit—the hon. Member for Coventry North West mentioned it—which is down by a third. We still have a long way to go, but our policies on the deficit have brought economic credibility, which has lowered interest rates to a near record level. In fact, interest rates on Government debt are almost half what they were when this Government first came to office. That has a direct impact on the cost of living for families, most notably through their mortgage bills. If interest rates rose by just 1%, the average mortgage bill for a family would rise by almost £1,000 a year.
It is right to mention the impact on employment of our economic policies. As we heard in a statement from the Chancellor last week, we were told by the shadow Chancellor and many others that our policies would lead to record rates of unemployment. Some left-wing economists were even predicting that unemployment could reach the record level of 5 million. In fact, the opposite has happened. The private sector has created more than 1.3 million net new jobs in the last three years and employment reached the highest level in history.
We will continue to build on the measures that we have taken, such as, for example, our cuts in corporation tax, which will from next year make ours the lowest corporation tax rate in the G20. Our employment allowance scheme will make it even cheaper for companies to hire employees. I think that we can all agree that more paid employment is one of the best ways to deal with cost-of-living challenges. Of course, we have to do more. We have to do things that put money in people’s pockets and we have focused on that.
I do not have enough time to mention all the measures, but I will focus on three or four key measures that will, I hope, reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are helping families across the country.
Our changes to the tax-free personal allowance, which will rise to a record £10,000 a year by April 2014, are putting almost £700 per annum into the pockets of the basic rate taxpayer. Anyone who enjoyed the 10% tax rate under the previous Government is now effectively paying a 0% tax rate. Anyone working full time on the national minimum wage will find that their tax bill has more than halved because of that single measure.
We have also frozen council tax for up to five years—the term of this Parliament—which will save the typical household some £600 over the period. We have frozen fuel duty, which the previous Government planned to raise year-on-year by inflation plus the escalator. As a result, fuel prices today are 13p a litre lower than they would have been had we continued with the plans that we inherited.
The Government have done, or are going to do, a number of interesting things, but is not the bottom line that living standards have fallen? Perhaps the Minister will tell us when living standards are scheduled to improve, rather than another empty, completely impossible Treasury promise. If living standards do not improve, we shall face the first occasion since 1931—that was the last real recession—when a Government have sought a new mandate with living standards lower than they were at the beginning of their term.
I would take the hon. Gentleman a bit more seriously if he respected the fact that the policies of the Government whom he supported are the reason that so many people face such challenging conditions on the cost of living. We are doing everything we can to address the damage that was done: the deepest recession in post-war history, the biggest budget deficit of any major industrialised country and the largest banking bail-out the world has ever seen. That was our inheritance, and he would get a lot more respect if he accepted that the policies of the previous Government were damaging and are the single most important reason why people are facing such challenges in relation to the cost of living.
In the time remaining, I will address a few points raised by the hon. Member for Coventry South. He was right to mention payday loans. There is evidence that some families, despite the action we have taken, are turning to payday lenders to meet their monthly bills, but he also rightly recognises that the Government are taking a lot of action, both on their own and with the regulators. As he knows, the Office of Fair Trading has been responsible for regulation in the sector until now. We have introduced a step change to that regulation, which will now be under the Financial Conduct Authority. The FCA will be a lot more pervasive, and it is a regulator with teeth. Payday lenders will feel the hand of the regulator on their shoulder. Yesterday, I attended a summit set up by the Government with lenders, charities and other interested groups, and the head of the FCA made it clear that he will not hesitate to take action. He has broad powers if he sees further evidence of consumer detriment.
Finally, distribution and fairness have also been mentioned. Before 2010, the richest 20% of society contributed about three and a half times as much in tax as they received in public spending; that has now increased to about four times as much. In fact, in every year of this Parliament, the rich will pay a greater proportion of income tax revenues than they did in any one of the 13 years under the last Labour Government. We have taken steps to ensure that the most vulnerable groups on low incomes are protected against the effects of the economic circumstances. For example, pensioners have seen above-inflation increases to their state pension, and the introduction of universal credit will make 3 million households better off, the majority of which will come from the bottom two fifths of the income scale.
I once again congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He obviously and quite rightly feels strongly about the issue, which I respect. As I said at the start, we might have different views on how to address the issue, but I fully respect that it is very important to him and his constituents. I assure him that we understand the financial pressures that hard-working families are facing, and I also assure him that we are taking what we believe are the right steps to help.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).