Wednesday 19 March 2014
[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Gyimah.)
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea.
I beg hon. Members’ patience while I set out what I want to talk about, which is of a complicated nature. It concerns six territorial support group officers who were based at Paddington Green police station in June 2007: Police Constable Mark Jones, who was my constituent; PC Neil Brown, whose MP is my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes); PC Steven White, whose MP is the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng); PC Simon Prout, whose MP is the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington); PC Giles Kitchener, whose MP is the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May); and Police Sergeant William—known as Bill—Wilson.
My constituent, Mark Jones, first contacted me in April 2012. He told me what had happened to him and his colleagues. I consider every case on the basis of whether or not the person has been treated fairly, so I decided that the only thing to do was to take this matter up.
This whole sorry saga commenced on Friday 1 June 2007, following the arrest of two Arab youths, Basil Khan and Ahmed Hegazy, and the apprehension and eventual release of a third youth, Omar Mohidin, by seven Metropolitan Police Service territorial support group officers who were in a carrier on the Edgware road in London W2. I shall use the abbreviations MPS and TSG from now on.
A complaint was made by the one black officer on the carrier, PC Amechi Onwugbonu, about the treatment of the youths by the six white police officers. PC Onwugbonu had challenged the six officers about their behaviour on many previous occasions. By the nature of the work that these officers did, sometimes some force was necessarily used. When he challenged the officers, they clearly advised him that if he had a problem with the way that they had behaved, with which they saw no problem, he should take his allegations to a senior officer. It is important to note that the youths who were arrested did not make any complaint about their treatment until the following day, and only after they had been made aware of the details of PC Onwugbonu’s complaint via the directorate of professional standards.
During the evening of 1 June, the six officers were made aware that a serious complaint had been made about their conduct, but they were not given details. By that time, the six officers had completed their handover of the youths and their case notes, and the officers had been examined by an independent forensic medical examiner, who checked them for injuries, primarily on their knuckles. The six officers were informed in the early hours of Saturday 2 June 2007 that they were on gardening leave. About five days later, all the officers were recalled to Paddington Green police station. Mark Jones and Bill Wilson were suspended immediately and escorted from the station. Neil Brown, Steven White, Simon Prout and Giles Kitchener were dispersed and placed in separate teams across the MPS.
In about September 2007, the six TSG officers—regardless of their employment status at any particular time, I will refer to them as TSG officers—became aware that a civil claim against the Metropolitan Police Commissioner had been made by Basil Khan, Ahmed Hegazy and Omar Mohidin for false imprisonment, assault and battery, damages for anxiety, distress, inconvenience, stress, pain, humiliation, discomfort and loss of liberty, breach of the Equality Act 2006, and breach of the Human Rights Act 1998.
In October 2008, the Crown Prosecution Service authorised charges against all the officers. Neil Brown was suspended and Steven White, Simon Prout and Giles Kitchener were put on restricted duties. Mark Jones was charged with racially aggravated common assault and a racially aggravated section 4 public order offence, as well as two charges of misconduct in public office; Neil Brown, having been suspended, was charged with a racially aggravated section 4 public order offence, using threatening words and behaviour, and two charges of misconduct in public office; and Bill Wilson, Steven White, Simon Prout and Giles Kitchener were charged with a single count of misconduct in public office. All those charges were hugely damaging to the officers’ careers and reputations.
A plea and case-management hearing was set for 6 April 2009, and a full criminal trial was scheduled for 5 October 2009 at Kingston-upon-Thames Crown court. For 28 months, these officers—and their families—lived with the knowledge that if they, as police officers, were found guilty of racist crimes, they would face prison sentences of three years, minimum. In November 2009, after a four-week trial, the six TSG officers were all unanimously acquitted of all charges at Kingston Crown court.
I should like to return to some of the events that occurred during the 28 months between the charges being laid and the criminal trial taking place. The Metropolitan Police Service concealed and withheld material and substantial closed circuit television evidence from the officers and their lawyers. There were numerous formal requests from solicitors and orders from the court to reveal any CCTV evidence held by the police. The defence team was checking a dusty property store log two days before the criminal trial began. The six TSG officers discovered that directorate of professional standards officers—the police who investigate the police—had seized vital CCTV tapes 28 months earlier, just two days after the incident, and had hidden the evidence. Had the TSG officers not found this log and presented it to the Crown Prosecution Service, the DPS officers would not have admitted their seizure of the CCTV tapes and would never have handed them over.
It was not until the night before the Crown court trial that the DPS handed over 13 CCTV tapes, which held 2,000 hours’ worth of footage, that it had seized about two years before. This evidence was critical in proving the officers’ innocence. The CCTV footage at Paddington Green police station originated from 29 different cameras that covered the relevant time, from 5.30 pm on 1 June 2007 through to 12 noon or thereabouts on the following day.
The DPS officers had seized and viewed those 13 CCTV tapes, as proved by the entry in the DPS log. It is believed that the log was disclosed by mistake. Additionally, there was a CCTV tape from the Boots chemist on Edgware road—the arrests took place directly outside. The DPS officers seized and viewed that tape. The entry in the DPS log states: “viewed, not helpful”. That CCTV tape has not been provided, despite numerous requests, and those present at Kingston Crown court were not told of its existence. The MPS has refused to provide any account of the tape’s whereabouts.
The MPS compounded the problems by producing for the court a false and grossly misleading engineer’s report, which stated that the CCTV cameras were not working and were broken on the evening of 1 June 2007. In fact, the engineer concerned was reporting on a completely different system, rather than the system relating to the officers’ case. The MPS knew that its so-called evidence was false, as officers had already viewed the relevant CCTV footage at that point.
PC Onwugbonu’s initial allegations were numerous and very serious. He told the court that he had not visited the cells of the two claimants, Khan and Hegazy. He was asked about that in court on two separate occasions. He was then shown CCTV evidence that, of course, had only just been disclosed. The officers were watching CCTV tapes at night, once the court case had finished for the day; they were trying to catch up throughout the four weeks of the court trial. The evidence shows him visiting the cells and photocopying custody records. Clearly, there is a data protection issue there, because custody records hold data about people being held in the police station, including their address, phone numbers and other personal information.
PC Onwugbonu told the court that PC Mark Jones had been walking on Hegazy’s back, that he saw Neil Brown offering to fight Hegazy, and that Basil Khan was beaten by Mark Jones in the carrier while it was in the station yard. A specific allegation, later supported by Basil Khan, was made that Mark Jones had attacked Basil Khan with
“in excess of 40 full blown punches and kicks”.
Mark Jones is a muscular man, and one would expect Basil Khan to have been seriously injured; the only injury Basil Khan had was a 4 mm bruise behind his left ear, which may or may not have been a result of his arrest. It defies logic that those allegations were accepted without corroborating medical evidence. The CCTV shows Mark Jones exiting the carrier and entering the police station, rather than remaining in the carrier and beating Basil Khan.
The MPS has chosen to rely on the youths’ complaints because they are similar to those made by PC Onwugbonu. It should be noted, however, that the youths concerned made no complaints until at least six hours after arriving in custody on 1 June 2007. Additionally, they were asked about their welfare by a police doctor, two police sergeants, a police inspector and two independent charity lay visitors. The claimants made allegations only after Detective Inspector Belej from the DPS telephoned custody and spoke to their solicitor at approximately midnight. That call was never logged. DI Belej had received PC Onwugbonu’s allegations by that time. The six TSG officers only discovered that that highly suspicious call had taken place because of the CCTV. The youths’ solicitor was cross-examined at the Crown court trial and told the court that DI Belej
“told me what the case was about”.
After the call, the solicitor was seen to return to Mr Hegazy and spend 90 minutes in consultation. It was after that consultation that the youths’ allegations were first raised.
I now return to the general course of events. In early 2010, Bill Wilson retired from the MPS. It is standard practice for the police to investigate after any officer has been involved in a criminal trial. That investigation involved the DPS. Following the DPS investigation, the six officers were informed in March 2010 that no disciplinary action would be taken against them. In early 2010, however, the six TSG officers made a formal complaint to the MPS about the conduct of the investigation and PC Onwugbonu’s statements, which had been disproven during the trial. Simultaneously, the friends and families of the six TSG officers complained to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, as is their right.
The officers were told that there would be an internal review of the case. In March 2010, Mick Johnson, the chief superintendent of the TSG, told the six officers individually that they were being removed from the TSG and forcibly returned to front-line borough policing, despite their skills and qualifications. The six TSG officers appealed against the decision to remove them. Commander Bob Broadhurst, who headed territorial policing at the MPS, ruled that the officers were to be removed before the appeal was even heard, so that is what happened.
After Bill Wilson retired, the five remaining TSG officers invoked the “fairness at work” process and completed the necessary paperwork. The officers filed their application with the employment tribunal on the grounds of race discrimination in March 2010. Mark Jones and Neil Brown went on sick leave from April 2010. To comply with the MPS employment dispute process, a fairness at work adviser-investigator—a senior civilian member of staff who headed the “fairness at work” department—was appointed. The first adviser-investigator reported that the decision to remove the officers from the TSG would stand but offered some recognition that the process had been handled poorly. The TSG officers appealed on the basis that the finding was unsound because they had evidence that the decision to remove them from the TSG predated their appeal.
A new adviser-investigator, Superintendent Victor Olisa, was appointed. In late 2010 he provided a draft of his final report, which referred to the fact that he could not rule out racism, but the final report did not contain that reference. During the final meeting, he told Neil Brown, Simon Prout and Giles Kitchener that he had had meetings a short while previously with his mentor, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Mark Simmons, and the directorate of legal services, during which he was informed—and he was just passing on the information—that if the officers did not drop their employment tribunal proceedings, the MPS would look to join the defendants into the civil proceedings being taken by the youths. This is known as making the officers part 20 defendants, which makes each individual liable for his actions as a police officer while under the direction of his employer, the MPS. Normally, a police officer acting within the remit of police duties would expect the commissioner to cover the liability for those actions. It is effectively their insurance at work. I understand that this is the first time officers have been joined in as part 20 defendants. MPS officers will be required to defend their actions while on duty and under the direction of their superiors in court. Should that situation continue, there is probably a case for ensuring that every police officer in the UK is made aware that his or her actions might need individual personal insurance cover. It also has implications for discipline. Police officers are required to carry out commands, not negotiate the risks of future court action as a result of any ordered action by a superior officer.
What happened to the complaints of the friends and families of the TSG officers? Following the discovery the day before the criminal trial was due to start on 1 October 2009 that substantial evidence had been withheld by the MPS for two years and four months, the families of all six TSG officers raised complaints about the handling of the investigation by the DPS. Complaints were made that evidence had been withheld from the Crown Prosecution Service, the lawyers, the prosecution and the defence teams. Complaints were also made about the racially biased investigation by the DPS officers in favour of the prosecution team and about the evidence of PC Onwugbonu. The complaints were dealt with in two parts: the IPCC in Cardiff handled the discrete issue of failure to disclose CCTV evidence to the CPS and others, and the DPS handled its own internal investigation into the remainder of the complaints about the investigation, particularly, for example, the contamination of witness statements.
The terms of reference for the IPCC Cardiff investigation were that DPS officers had failed to review crucial CCTV evidence and had subsequently withheld a number of CCTV tapes from the Crown court, the CPS and the defence and prosecution teams. The DPS officers involved were Detective Inspector Belej, Detective Sergeant McQueen and Detective Sergeant Fraser, who is now retired. The IPCC specifically looked at whether the officers failed—and, if so, whether that failure was deliberate—to disclose the internal CCTV evidence of the custody suite and the external view and whether the prosecution and, subsequently, the defence counsel might have been misled by any failure to include the evidence on the used and unused schedules. It also looked at who obtained the CCTV evidence around the Paddington Green police station and when, as well as the subsequent continuity of that evidence. It also looked at any policy decisions, lines of inquiry or communication on the recovery of CCTV evidence and the review, use and disclosure of potential evidence. It considered and reported on whether any criminal or disciplinary offences were committed by any police officer or member of the police staff involved in the incident.
In September 2011, the IPCC in Cardiff concluded that the conduct of the DPS officers in this case gave such serious cause for concern that
“DI Belej and DS McQueen should both have a case to answer for Gross Misconduct in respect of their conduct set out in the Report”.
The IPCC has no remit to rule on the conduct of a retired officer. DS Fraser retired from the MPS during the process and before the IPCC published its report. The MPS initially refused to hold a discipline board, but MPS Commander Julian Bennett put pressure on the IPCC not to go ahead with the hearing and to allow the DPS officers to plead guilty to misconduct only. He said that the view of the panel was that the events in question were misconduct “at best”. If the hearing proceeded, he said that there might be a finding of no misconduct at all. In March 2013, a disciplinary board scheduled to last two weeks was deemed to be over after two days. The IPCC, despite its statutory direction to hold the gross misconduct board, is powerless to insist that the board proceeds to hear the case. A disciplinary board can be organised and listed at the direction of the IPCC, but can be dismissed by the MPS at any stage.
The IPCC directed the MPS to comply. Statute requires the MPS to comply with IPCC directions, but that statute is powerless once the gross misconduct board begins. In this case, Commander Julian Bennett allowed the DPS officers to plead guilty to plain misconduct on day two and passed down a written warning as a sanction for hiding and denying the existence of 13 CCTV tapes and producing a false engineer’s report to the Crown, the prosecution and the defence. The six TSG officers’ solicitor, Lynne Burns, wrote to the Metropolitan Police Service on 30 April 2013, claiming that the decision to allow the DPS officers to plead guilty to misconduct only was irrational and unfair. She stated:
“Just to put this into context, the failure to disclose and knowing concealment of CCTV evidence does not represent one or two requests but numerous letters where questions relating to CCTV were ignored or answered falsely, Advocates Questionnaires, Joint Requests for Disclosure, Orders of the court ordering disclosure all either ignored or responded to in a knowingly false or misleading manner”.
On the DPS investigation, the six TSG officers accused in 2007 were investigated by three officers from the DPS. From that point onwards, the six officers were subjected to a racially biased, dishonest investigation, involving blatant, deliberately withheld and concealed material evidence, lies, cover-ups and falsified evidence submitted to the Crown court as the MPS attempted to secure a conviction against the officers at all costs, even though the legitimate evidence did not support its case. In 2012, the DPS investigated the matter. Officers Detective Chief Inspector Neligan and Detective Sergeant Morley returned a report that indicated that there was no case for the officers—DI Belej and DS McQueen—to answer.
The DPS report was appealed by the six TSG officers to the IPCC in Manchester. In May 2013, that appeal was upheld. The IPCC’s appeal report was damning and highly critical of how the DPS investigation had been conducted. It held that, among many other points, the original investigation by the DPS officers was conducted in a biased manner in favour of the prosecution and in favour of one black police officer over six white police officers, stating:
“On balance the significant catalogue of errors made by the DPS Officers shows a bias in the investigation often dismissing evidence which would have supported the Defence”.
The IPCC indicated that consideration must be given to further disciplinary action against the DPS officers and PC Onwugbuno, and that consideration must be given to potential criminal prosecutions. The IPCC held that the investigation showed bias against the six TSG officers and that the black police officer’s failure to tell the truth on 25 occasions at Kingston Crown court could not be put down to “stress”, as accepted by the original investigating officers. The IPCC referred the case back to the Metropolitan Police Service for re-investigation.
I will now move on to the second investigation. The Metropolitan Police Service referred the investigation back to the same DPS officers—DCI Neligan and DS Morley—who carried out the original, flawed investigation into DI Belej and DS McQueen, who were their own DPS colleagues. The investigation is ongoing. It is worth noting that the DPS officers concerned have, as I understand it, remained in operational posts. DI Belej is a supervising inspector in counter-terrorism and border control at Heathrow, and DS McQueen remains in the DPS, investigating misconduct.
The six TSG officers have been threatened on two occasions that they should withdraw their employment tribunal proceedings or face being joined into the civil action. I have already mentioned one occasion, namely when Superintendent Victor Olisa passed on the message, but in January 2011 the now-retired MPS Police Federation general secretary, Dave Bennett, passed on the same threat allegedly from the DPS commander Peter Spindler.
On the civil, or part 20 proceedings, when the six TSG officers did not withdraw their employment tribunal proceedings against the MPS, the MPS joined four of the six TSG officers—Mark Jones, Neil Brown, Steve White and Bill Wilson—into civil proceedings brought against the commander of the MPS by Basil Khan, Ahmed Hegazy and Omar Mahidin. Such a move might suggest that the TSG officers were being victimised for having the temerity to challenge the MPS’s decisions and to issue proceedings against it. The youths brought their civil claim with the assistance of Bhatt Murphy, a firm of solicitors that specialises in actions against the police. The youths submitted their claims in 2007 and all are funded by the taxpayer through legal aid.
The MPS has presented its civil defence so as to justify joining the officers in part 20 proceedings. The MPS has told the High Court that this civil case is highly unusual, because, in the opinion of the six TSG officers, the black officer—PC Onwugbonu—contradicts the white officers’ evidence. The MPS has effectively delegated responsibility for proving innocence a second time to those six TSG officers—bearing in mind that they already won their case in the Kingston Crown court—rather than acting on the court’s findings and defending them. That was DAC Mark Simmons’s justification for his decision to bring the officers in as part 20 defendants. The MPS, through the director of legal services, has suggested that it should not disclose the IPCC report, which is highly critical of the original DPS investigation, to the youths in the civil proceedings. There is, however, a legal obligation to comply with the disclosure rules and it must be of concern that the MPS has suggested that such a crucial document should not be disclosed.
DAC Mark Simmons, who was commander of the DPS at the time, is the senior client and has instructed the MPS legal team to use statements to the High Court that they know to be incorrect. Two examples are as follows. Statement one says:
“The Defendants’ (the MPS’) DPS investigation was carried out appropriately and in good faith in the circumstances.”
The MPS, and DAC Mark Simmons in particular—he was the DPS commander at the time—knew that the DPS officers did not act appropriately or in good faith. DI Belej and DS McQueen had concealed and withheld over 2,000 hours of CCTV footage, a fact which was established at the trial at Kingston Crown court and by two independent IPCC investigations. Furthermore, the officers had pleaded guilty at the misconduct hearing in March 2013.
False statement two reads:
“PC Onwugbonu has, since the day in question, supported the allegations made about officers by the claimant”—
the claimant being the youths. That is untrue. The MPS heard PC Onwugbonu admitting that he had been mistaken or had lied on at least 25 occasions during his evidence to the Kingston Crown court trial, and his evidence was totally discredited. Judge Southwell’s direction to the jury before summing up said:
“My direction is that you will have to be careful in examining PC Onwugbonu’s evidence, important as it plainly is to the issues which you have to decide in the case of each of these five men, before you declare yourself sure that he was honest and reliable in respect of what he said.”
There is therefore no justification for the MPS to make such a statement in its defence to the High Court.
The MPS also tampered with personnel or staff records to produce false records for the six TSG officers. In 2013, as part of disclosure in part 20 proceedings, it came to the six TSG officers’ attention that their staff records had been tampered with. In March 2010, following their acquittal by unanimous verdict at the trial at Kingston Crown court, they were told that no internal disciplinary sanctions or actions were to be brought against any of them. They have discovered, some six years later, that a false account has been created for each of them on their personnel records, illustrating that a finding of guilt was made against each of them, that “words of advice” were given to each of them in 2009 and that the complaint was substantiated. Someone within the MPS or the DPS has manufactured a totally false set of personnel records for each of the officers. It is deeply concerning that formal records have been tampered with just in order to support the MPS’s case. The six TSG officers have tried to discover who was responsible, but the MPS alleges that it is unable to find out.
Such are the extreme lengths that the MPS and the DPS will go to demonstrate how tough and politically correct they are on alleged racism within the ranks that they will accept the word of one black officer over six white officers and then conceal material evidence that contradicts the black officer. The officers strongly believe that this is a case of reverse race discrimination and political correctness gone completely mad. To use layman’s terms, the DPS had tried to fit them up for crimes that they did not commit and knew that everything it had massively undermined the prosecution case. The decisions by the IPCC in Cardiff and the IPCC in Manchester should have triggered a response from the Metropolitan Police Service to admit finally that their DPS officers had acted in an inappropriate and racially biased manner.
Finally, I want to touch on what the officers—and I, having got enraged about this situation—might want. They want some sort of admission of wrongdoing, including an open acknowledgement of how the officers were treated, an acknowledgment that the investigation and referral to Kingston Crown court was seriously flawed and racially biased, and an acknowledgement that the three DPS officers—McQueen, Belej and Fraser— acted dishonestly in their handling of the investigation. They want an acceptance of blame that personnel records have been tampered with, an acknowledgement of further victimisation and an apology for these actions. They want some sort of compensation and settlement of the employment tribunal proceedings, which are still ongoing, for the loss of earnings, damage to reputation by substantive adverse press coverage, and damage to career and stress since 2007—seven years ago. They want the MPS to support its officers fully in the civil actions brought by Hegazy, Khan and Mohidin, and not to insist that they be separate defendants under part 20. In those proceedings, they want the MPS to make the court aware of the serious independent rulings against the DPS officers and PC Onwugbonu. That will help to create a level playing field.
I have written to Commissioner Hogan-Howe. I had a reply from Commander Allan Gibson, which was pretty dismissive. I wrote again to Commander Gibson and I do not think that anything is moving forward particularly. I know that one of my colleagues in the other place has raised the matter and his concerns. He was assured that the whole business would be looked into, but as of the end of January the investigation had not been carried out by a senior officer.
The Metropolitan Police Service must have spent between £2 million and £3 million defending itself in the situations I have recounted. It was trying to secure a conviction against the six TSG officers, but it wasted public funds defending its actions. It refuses to admit any wrongdoing. The MPS refuses to settle the case, preferring to spend substantial amounts of public money defending the actions of those whom the IPCC has found guilty of bias, and whom it has also directed should face gross misconduct proceedings and possible criminal proceedings.
I should be grateful if the Minister would apply herself to the question whether it is sensible and advisable to take police officers into part 20 proceedings when they are acting as police officers under the direction of their superior officers. It seems mad that we must then move to something pretty similar to the American system, where police officers may well have to take out personal insurance for anything they may do on duty, as well as off duty. It would be helpful if the Minister would consider at some point—not today—how the IPCC can have no remit to rule on the conduct of a retired officer. Retirement does not absolve a person from blame, but the IPCC cannot take any action in that case. Will she also comment on the whole charade over disciplinary boards, and the fact that the IPCC can organise, list and give direction on what should happen, but that can be dismissed by the MPS at any stage?
I know that several colleagues want to join in the discussion, but I reserve the right to rise and say something else.
Order. I commend the hon. Lady for bringing such a serious matter before the House. We must give time for the Front-Bench spokesmen to respond, and their speeches will start at 10.40 am. I remind hon. Members that we cannot debate matters in which there are active criminal proceedings.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) on bringing up this difficult, complicated case; it is greatly to her credit that she has done so. It would be easy for all of us, in this age of political correctness and in the light of some of the allegations, to sweep it under the carpet. That is not to say that there are not fundamental, general problems with the Metropolitan Police Service, which I want to deal with more generally, having been a Member of Parliament in London for 13 years. It is perhaps ironic that the MPS has, with good cause, great sensitivity about race-related incidents—I shall talk a little about the Stephen Lawrence affair in a moment or two—but that in spite of that sensitivity it seems to be engulfed in controversies, such as the one that has been outlined in detail this morning. The hon. Lady described an appalling state of affairs, and I hope that the Home Office will pay considerable attention to what happened.
It would be an understatement to observe that the Metropolitan Police Service did not enjoy its happiest decade or so in the noughties and beyond. It is still deeply damaged by revelations over the Stephen Lawrence case, which, distressingly, continue to this day. The organisation was of course brought into fresh disrepute following the controversial shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in Stockwell in July 2005, and the manslaughter in my constituency of the newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson some three or four years ago. I am sorry to say it, because like many people from the right of the political divide, my instincts are to favour authority, including the police service, but I have been worried; I have spoken many times in the House and written articles on my grave concerns about the way the Metropolitan Police Service has operated, and about failings by its leadership. Frankly, there have been mendacious and at times calculated attempts by senior figures in the Met to disguise what happened during various events, including those we have heard about today, and to influence public opinion in its favour.
In the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, we were told at the outset that he was an illegal immigrant who bore resemblance to a terror suspect; that he had vaulted a ticket barrier; and that traces of cocaine were found in his urine. The picture was not entirely dissimilar in the less well-known case of Ian Tomlinson. When the newspaper vendor died of a heart attack on the streets of the City of London in April 2009 during the G20 protests, most people probably instinctively had faith that the police were doing their best in difficult circumstances—and the police do operate in difficult circumstances, as we all know. After people had witnessed sanctimonious street warriors antagonising police officers, a sharp shove to an obnoxious protester would not have made headlines, had the victim in question not died. The official line would be that a stressed officer in a tense situation lashed out, hitting an innocent person in the mêlée. Following the clash, the man walked off, and died only later of a heart attack, as the riotous crowd prevented him from getting medical attention.
The problem, of course, with that version of events, as put out by the Metropolitan Police Service at the time, was that it was plainly untrue. Fortunately—in contrast to the position in the case set out by the hon. Lady—there was a substantial amount of CCTV footage, which was not indiscriminately destroyed by the police. Therefore video clips of the incident appeared later, revealing that the victim had been hit across the legs with a baton by a masked police officer in what was clearly an unprovoked attack. A subtle shift in message followed, through the selective leaking of information about Tomlinson’s background and behaviour. I am very sorry to say that was clearly not an isolated incident for the Metropolitan Police Service. Its apparent relationship with the media continues, and it seems to think it needs to be able to put out its own line on stories, as has been shown in various incidents that I shall refer to.
The Tomlinson matter was of course of some concern to me. I was reassured within days of the incident in a private meeting with the Independent Police Complaints Commission that a thorough investigation of the background to the incident was under way, yet the IPCC’s handling of the case came into question, as did its handling of the case that we heard about this morning, particularly in relation to its cosiness with the police in the capital.
Appalling as both the de Menezes and Tomlinson incidents were, I believe that it was the subsequent public relations management of the events, and the police culture that that revealed, that so harmed confidence, trust and faith in our law enforcers. In the case of de Menezes, I have always suspected that the public would have forgiven the Met had it immediately admitted that a terrible mistake had been made. Similarly, in the Tomlinson case, where media hyped the prospect of attacks by rent-a-mob anarchists, we had a situation not entirely removed from the frenzied situation on the streets of London in July 2005, when the fear of Islamic terrorism loomed large. Once again, I believe that the decent majority of the public would have been happy to accept that the Metropolitan Police are unable to micro-manage the conduct of all their officers at all times. It was the spectacle of coppers deliberately closing ranks and trying to distort the truth that utterly undermined the police force.
After both incidents, we were assured that lessons had been learned, so it has been incredibly disheartening to see controversial events in the current decade handled in a similarly opaque, if not outright deceptive, way. I refer, of course, to the shooting of Mark Duggan on the streets of Tottenham in August 2011 and the so-called plebgate incident a year or so later, which led to the political demise of a Cabinet Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), after his fateful encounter at the gates of Downing street with a dishonest police officer.
On the Mitchell affair, although similar minor tussles occur between police and members of the public each and every day in our city, the damaging aspect of the encounter was that it reinforced the view that the Met goes to great efforts to protect its own, even if that is at the expense of the truth coming out. This makes it difficult for the public to trust that the organisation and its members are bastions of justice for the ordinary man and woman. In addition, when the Met’s top team is embroiled in such squabbles, focus inevitably rests on handling the media and careful construction of a PR narrative, rather than on fighting crime. Londoners can be forgiven for not seeing the plebgate row as especially critical to dealing with the problems on the streets, but none the less, it reflects a deep-seated mendacity in the police’s approach.
Even if Londoners are unconcerned about the fates of Messrs Duggan, Mitchell, de Menezes and Tomlinson, or of the territorial support group officers to whom the hon. Member for Wells referred, such incidents make even middle-class, Tory-voting residents in my constituency doubt the word of the Metropolitan police in a way that would have been unimaginable only 15 or so years ago. Londoners are, I am afraid, finding it increasingly difficult to trust that our law enforcers are law-abiders. Indeed, it is remarkable that many middle-class Londoners who would never previously have questioned the police are now inclined to think again.
At the time of the Tomlinson investigation, The Daily Telegraph advised:
“As a newspaper, we have a long record of defending the police even in the most difficult circumstances...Yet it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so, especially when the police themselves seek to cover up the failings that inevitably beset any organisation.”
Those words could have come from the mouths of many dozens of my Conservative colleagues, and they have certainly come from mine. That whole culture has to stop. For sure, there will always be mistakes, and it would be completely wrong for the errors of a few to undermine the elements of excellent police work done by the many. There is no excuse, however, for the mendacity apparent in the attempts at manipulation of public opinion that follow too many high-profile, controversial Metropolitan police slip-ups.
The immediate reaction of the Met’s leadership should always be transparently and without favour to seek out the truth, to isolate problems and to apply the rule of law to its own officers when necessary. It is understandable and inevitable that the initial police instinct is to close ranks when confronted by public aggression. The leadership, however, should recognise that the majority of those whom they police by consent—thankfully in this country we still have a passion for the notion that policing is by consent—are reasonable and understand some of the real pressures that the police find themselves under, in particular here in the capital city. Only by being honest and transparent with the public when mistakes have been made can trust be restored in the Metropolitan Police Service.
Rather like the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt), I came here because of what was originally a constituency inquiry. I commend her for securing the debate and for the eloquent way in which she went through everything that she has found in her research and been told by constituents. We have had meetings to discuss the subject.
I am not making an attack on the Metropolitan police or the police service generally, and I do not wish to discuss other cases or any of the points ably covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field). I am talking about my constituent, Mr Simon Prout, and his colleagues who were on the TSG detail that night. They have been treated badly by the system, and they were not given any of the rights that we expect for people generally in employment, in public or private service, or as citizens. That is the scandal that I see.
I do not expect the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), to comment on that particular case. I thank her for being present today, because the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims has been taken ill. I am sure that everyone joins me in hoping that he has a speedy recovery. I am sure that the Under-Secretary will deal with the matter in an extremely competent and professional manner, but I understand that she may not comment on the particular case. There are serious points at stake to do with justice, fairness, authority, transparency and, above all, accountability in the DPS, the IPCC and the system generally. Serving police officers have to rely on those things if they are to have justice for themselves.
Even now, despite all the clear and obvious failings, the Metropolitan police refuse to be held accountable or to take proper action. I, too, have corresponded with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and received a reply similar to that of the hon. Member for Wells. The case has ruined the life of my constituent, Mr Simon Prout, and his colleagues. He has done nothing wrong, but he has lost eight years of service, suffered ill health and lost prospects and promotion. It has ruined his whole career. That is not an exaggeration; I have discussed it at length with him, and his colleagues feel exactly the same. Had they been found guilty of misconduct or done things that were wrong, they would have fully expected the consequences—not only losing their job, but facing proper proceedings with ultimately serious effects. Going into their job, they were fully aware of that, but they did none of those things.
What I found so unbelievable about the case when I heard the details from my constituent, and what I will focus on today, is the ability for the IPCC recommendations to be completely ignored and dismissed. What is the organisation there for, if it can be completely ignored and dismissed? The case highlights the serious need to improve accountability within the Metropolitan police. At the moment, there is little procedure to ensure that justice is secured. That is all the more troubling when we consider that in this case the victims of police misconduct were the police officers themselves. Serious issues were swept aside and ignored. If that was the case for serving police officers, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Furthermore, there can be no doubt that there was clear evidence of gross misconduct, and that the two DPS officers, Detective Inspector Bellej and Detective Sergeant McQueen, should have faced such charges and dismissal. The IPCC even recommended dismissal. What happened, however, was that the case was passed around the Met; the two officers were given a first warning on their personnel file, which disappeared quite quickly, because the whole process took so long. In a normal employment matter, such things go off the file anyway. The officers should have been dismissed, but in actual fact they faced no action and got away scot-free. How can that happen? Despite the IPCC’s recommendations, the Metropolitan Police Service held its own hearings and allowed the officers to face only minor misconduct proceedings. They were allowed to continue their work for the Met, as the hon. Member for Wells explained. That is the crux of the matter.
First, why do we have a complaints and investigation body that can be ignored, at such cost to individuals? Secondly, why is there no recourse against that? Thirdly, why are people such as Simon Prout and his colleagues forced to battle to secure justice for themselves, only to be told, even when they are proved right, that nothing will happen and no punishment will be handed down?
I am conscious of the fact that the Minister may not comment on the details of the case but, in summary, I want her to take action. First, the failures of the two DPS officers were put down to lack of experience, despite one having 18 and the other seven years of service. They made basic errors in what I imagine are standard policing steps, such as following up lines of inquiry, taking proper notes and so on. I ask the Minister to write to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to reconsider the case with much more seriousness, and to think about what action should be taken against the two DPS officers. Secondly, does the Minister agree that the case shows a problem with the system, even if she cannot comment on the circumstances? Can the case, and the systemic problems in the justice system that it highlights, be reviewed for all serving police officers?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) on bringing these serious allegations to the attention of the House. I will not comment on the substantive allegations, but will focus on wider issues that arise from her powerful speech. I make one other preliminary point: like all hon. Members present, I have seen at first hand some of the outstanding work done by the Metropolitan police, often in the most difficult circumstances. My experience of the Metropolitan police is that overwhelmingly they are honest, decent men and women trying to do a good job for Londoners. Having said that, there are clearly profound problems that need to be dealt with properly.
Turning to some of the wider lessons in this case, first, it is of course right that we hold the police to account. They must be accountable politically, and in the event of wrongdoing, that wrongdoing must be investigated properly. Secondly, it is important that police officers enjoy fair treatment and due process, including full, proper and prompt disclosure of any evidence relating to allegations against them. Thirdly, with regard to its internal procedures, and the role of the DPS in particular, it is of the highest importance that the Met conducts itself in a way that engenders public confidence, handling allegations of misconduct properly and, where appropriate, initiating disciplinary procedures. Fourthly, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) said, if the police are to command public confidence, it is of the highest importance that there is effective, independent police complaints machinery that is able to get to the heart of things that go wrong.
Turning to the next stages of action, first, I support those hon. Members who have said that serious allegations have clearly been made that require proper investigation. I hope that the Home Office will play its role, as appropriate, in ensuring that that takes place. Secondly, what we have heard today is proof positive of the need for new and much more effective independent complaints machinery. It needs to have the powers necessary to investigate, to hold to account, and to prevent obstruction from the police at any stage in the effective investigation of wrongdoing.
Thirdly, the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster was absolutely right: what we have heard today, not just in relation to the allegations made by the hon. Members for Wells, and for Watford (Richard Harrington), but more generally, is a sorry litany that demands a fundamental culture change in the Metropolitan police. If we have heard profoundly disturbing allegations today, what has been revealed by the Ellison process is also profoundly disturbing, as are the subsequent revelations about the destruction of evidence. To be frank, although the Met has much to be proud of, it has a lot to answer for.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster was right to say that it is of the highest importance that there be confidence in the police. From the Peelian tradition onwards, in our country we have had a system of policing by consent. Confidence is key for co-operation, to divert people from crime and prevent it, and to identify wrongdoers when crimes are committed. That confidence is damaged at our peril. The case has been made powerfully today for changes in internal and external investigation, for the Met to reflect seriously on these issues, and for the Home Office to take whatever action is appropriate. Fundamental culture change is clearly necessary.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who is unfortunately unwell. If he could possibly be here, he would be, as I am sure you know.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) on securing this debate and on setting out the facts of the case so clearly and comprehensively. She is a determined champion for her constituents, and she and my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) have set out in their remarks the particular issues faced by their constituents. They have been the subject of a number of investigations and legal proceedings, some of which are not complete. Although I cannot comment on the facts of an individual case while proceedings are outstanding, this case, along with others recently disclosed—some going back many years—will undermine the public’s trust and confidence in policing in general and in the Met in particular.
I will ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims to meet the three Members here today who represent the officers involved in the case, as their constituency MPs, and I know he will speak to them in more detail. My hon. Friend the Member for Wells raised three specific points that I will answer now. First, she asked about officers taking part in part 20 proceedings. That is an unusual step for the Met to take. Although I am unable to comment on the details of the case I will look into that matter with the Met. I agree with her that that should not become normal practice. We clearly do not want to require officers to insure themselves.
My hon. Friend raised the issue of the IPCC dealing with retired officers. She will be aware that on 6 March the Home Secretary announced that she would look at the disciplinary system. That matter is part of that work, along with the struck-off list already being compiled by the College of Policing to ensure that officers cannot retire to avoid justice.
My hon. Friend also asked about the IPCC power to direct misconduct proceedings. I understand her concerns about the outcome of the gross misconduct hearing for the DPS officers. The disciplinary system is also being reviewed as part of the work that the Home Secretary announced on 6 March, and this case provides evidence to support changes in that area.
Briefly, my other criticism, which was implied, is of the situation that an organisation can be responsible for investigating itself. When a case goes back out to the IPCC and an order comes for reinvestigation, it cannot be the same department investigating itself, never mind the very same officers. That clearly needs to be sorted out. It is completely ludicrous.
I thank my hon. Friend for that observation. That issue will be included as part of the work being done.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), whose constituency is at the centre of so many high-profile cases concerning the Met, made an interesting and thoughtful contribution regarding this case and others, for which I thank him. The issues he and my other hon. Friends have outlined today only add to the list that the Met and its senior leadership team need to address.
The Metropolitan Police Service polices the country’s most populous and ethnically diverse area, as well as having a number of functions that extend across the UK, in particular the national lead for counter-terrorism policing. Although we all know the Met to be the biggest police force in the country, we may not realise quite how big it is. In fact, Met officers comprise almost one in four—23.5%—of the total number of police officers in the whole of England and Wales. What happens in the Met is relevant to the way our whole country is policed, both because of its size and because, in the course of their careers, many of our most senior police officers will spend one or more periods working in the Met.
At this point, I must recognise, along with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), that the overwhelming majority of Met officers do their jobs well, serving the people of London with dedication and professionalism. But, as the Home Secretary said on 6 March:
“In policing, as in other areas, the problems of the past have a danger of infecting the present and can lay traps for the future…Trust and confidence in the Metropolitan police and in policing more generally are vital and a public inquiry and the other work I have set out are part of the process of repairing the damage.”—[Official Report, 6 March 2014; Vol. 576, c. 1065.]
In 2012 the Government abolished the Metropolitan Police Authority, which was only partly and indirectly elected. For the first time, the Met is truly accountable to Londoners; the commissioner is accountable to the Mayor of London, who is elected by all Londoners, and the Mayor and his deputy for policing are scrutinised by the policing and crime committee of the London Assembly.
I have already mentioned that the Met is responsible for policing the most ethnically diverse area in the UK. While it is the most diverse force in the country, with 10.5% of officers from minority ethnic backgrounds, that proportion falls well short of the proportion of the population; the 2011 census figures show that just over 40% of Londoners are from non-white ethnic groups. As the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims said to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) at Home Affairs questions last Monday,
“While the police work force is more representative in terms of gender and ethnicity than it has ever been, there is still much more to be done by forces.”
He also said:
“The Metropolitan police plan to recruit 5,000 new constables between now and 2015, and their aim is that 40% of them should be from a minority background, to reflect the population of London as a whole. This indeed is a serious issue, which the Metropolitan police are addressing.”—[Official Report, 10 March 2014; Vol. 577, c. 15.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Wells has set out the issues of race and diversity that are at the centre of her constituent’s claim against the Metropolitan police. I want to be very clear on this matter: treating anyone differently on the basis of the colour of their skin—whether they be black or white; police officer or member of the public—is always unacceptable.
As well as the work the Home Secretary has announced, the increased accountability of the Met through the Mayor and the increasingly representative ethnic mix of its officers are a good start in rebuilding the public’s trust in the Met. However, other issues have been identified that the Met needs to address.
There has been criticism of the culture of the Metropolitan police, in particular that it is an obstacle to changing how the Met works and how it deals with members of the public. That is one reason why, as the Home Secretary made clear in her statement on 6 March, we need to continue our work to reform the police and its culture.
From this autumn, all police forces will, for the first time, have the opportunity to bring in talented and experienced leaders from other walks of life to the ranks of inspector and superintendent. Those coming in will receive world-class training and bring fresh perspectives, opening up policing culture. A significant number of those officers will be joining the Met, and I know that they will have the support of the commissioner and his senior leadership team as they get to grips with the issues the Met faces. The Home Secretary was clear in her statement to the House on the significance of those changes, particularly of bringing high achievers from other fields into policing. The public need to know that policing is not a closed shop and that they can challenge the way in which things are done.
Where the police fall short of our expectations, the IPCC has a key role to play in ensuring that complaints and misconduct are dealt with as fairly and as transparently as possible. Hon. Members may have seen the publication on Monday of its “Review of the IPCC’s work in investigating deaths”, in which it recognises that it, too, needs to increase the diversity of its staff and to improve its engagement with families. The IPCC will ensure that, in future, families are involved in developing the terms of reference for investigations and are provided with meaningful and regular updates.
As the House will be aware, we are already moving £18 million this year into the IPCC to enable it to deal with all serious and sensitive cases, avoiding the issue of the police investigating themselves when things go seriously wrong. The IPCC will also receive £10 million of capital funding, so that it can establish further regional bases, enabling it to respond quickly to incidents wherever they occur. In conjunction with the Home Secretary’s announcement of a review of the misconduct system and of additional protection for whistleblowers, that will enable the IPCC to demonstrate clearly that it is truly the guardian of the police complaints system, and that the public can have trust in its ability to investigate allegations of police misconduct effectively.
However, police forces also need to play their part in stamping out inappropriate conduct. Misconduct and gross misconduct hearings, even where there has been an independent investigation, remain for forces to convene. Here, the Met has a good story to tell. Comparing 2012 with 2013, the total number of complaints decreased by 14%, from more than 16,500 to just more than 14,000. Meanwhile, the number of gross misconduct hearings rose from 49 in 2011-12 to 70 in 2012-13, and there have already been 70 hearings in the first nine months of this financial year. The number of police officers dismissed without notice has increased from 30 in 2011-12 to 47 in 2012-13.
I am sure that my hon. Friend understands that I do not have that information at my fingertips, but I will ask officials to look into that and see what information we can provide her with.
Some 42 officers were dismissed between April and December last year. While there has been no scientific analysis of the figures, if the number of complaints is falling, but the number of officers dismissed is rising, that tells us at least that the efficiency of the Met’s disciplinary system is improving. While work remains to be done in the area by the Met and other forces, we can see that the work that has been done is already having a positive outcome.
Clearly, issues of trust and confidence in the Metropolitan police remain for both the public and some of their own officers and staff. While it will take some time to work through the historical issues that have been the subject of so much attention of late, I know that the commissioner is determined to ensure that the Met is fit for the purpose of policing one of the great cities of the world in the 21st century. The Home Secretary and Ministers have trust in Sir Bernard to make those changes and to lead the Met through those challenges, and the residents of and visitors to London can have trust in the Met too.
Illegal Wildlife Trade
It is a pleasure to attend yet again a debate in this Chamber that you are chairing, Dr McCrea. I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to raise this important issue. As Mr Speaker rightly said during Foreign Office questions on 4 March, the issue is of considerable concern not only to right hon. and hon. Members, but to many people beyond this Chamber among the general public. We have a critical situation, because the illegal trade in wildlife is posing a significant threat to a number of species. There are primarily two reasons for that. Encroachment on natural habitats is causing considerable problems for a range of species, but even worse is the illegal trade that goes on around the world, which is posing a significant threat to many species.
After decades of conservation gains, the world is now dealing with what I believe is an unprecedented spike in the illegal wildlife trade, threatening all the gains of recent years. The situation is, to put it starkly, devastating. Let us take the question of ivory. It is estimated that 23 tonnes, representing 2,500 elephants, was seized in 2011, and I suspect that that is just the tip of the iceberg, because by definition, given that it is an illegal trade, one will never be able to get the whole picture. It will inevitably be worse than is shown by the statistics on what has actually been found by the authorities.
Poaching threatens the last of the wild tigers in the world. It is estimated that only 3,200 are left in the wild. That is as opposed to those that are in captivity. The use of tiger parts in traditional medicines is thought to have contributed to at least a 95% drop in the wild tiger population in the last century.
Let us look at the horrendous situation for rhinos. In 2010, an estimated 333 rhinos were poached for their horns in South Africa alone. That is one rhino every 30 hours. But ironically, the world’s largest seizure of rhino horn, which included 129 horns, occurred in Kensington in central London—not somewhere normally associated with rhinoceroses. It is thought that rhino poaching increased by 5,000% between 2007 and 2012, with one killed by a poacher every 10 hours. Last year, the western black rhino was declared extinct, sadly.
Since 2004, the central Africa region has lost 66% of its elephant population. That shows the sheer scale of the problem, notwithstanding the tremendous efforts that many countries in Africa are making to combat the illegal activities of poachers and others.
The problem is not restricted to wild animals. According to an excellent brief provided by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, there is, sadly, a decimation of African vultures going on at the moment. In southern Africa, eight out of nine vulture species are red-listed, with most in the high-threat categories of endangered and vulnerable. Recently, they have been facing the new threat of being poisoned en masse by elephant poachers, who believe that the vultures are exposing their illegal activities to the anti-poaching authorities. The massacre of 600 vultures by poachers in Namibia was preceded by the killing of 300 birds in early 2013 and 250 in Botswana in mid-2012. All those incidents took place during the peak vulture breeding season, so overall mortalities are much higher and there is an even more devastating impact on the future survival of the vulture population.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, the poaching of saiga antelope for the saiga horn trade became a significant and major problem as well. Uncontrolled hunting of the antelope was driven by poor economic conditions and the possibility of selling horns for traditional Chinese medicine through the less controlled borders to Asia. After the ban on trade in rhinoceros horn in 1993, saiga horn was used as a substitute, leading to a decline in saiga numbers of more than 95% by the year 2000. As only the males grow horns, the selective poaching led to massive skewing in the sex ratio of the species, with the inevitable impact that that has on its survival rates for the future.
I am sure that you would agree, Dr McCrea, that there is a significant problem and, although a considerable amount is being done by the international community, we seem to be, in many respects, on a losing wicket, because of the increased activity in different parts of the world by those who are prepared to engage in this illegal trade. As I said earlier, because of the illegal nature of the trade, it is very difficult to get accurate figures for exactly what is going on, but the best estimate is that the global illegal wildlife trade is worth somewhere between £6 billion and £12 billion a year. That puts into perspective the pressures that there are on people to engage in this illegal activity, and the sheer scale of the problem that faces the world in seeking to challenge and reduce it.
Between 1970 and 2000, the population of species declined by an average of 40%, and the second-largest threat to species survival after habitat destruction is the illegal wildlife trade. Worryingly, London is a major hub for Europe’s illegal trade in endangered species. I congratulate the authorities on what they are doing to combat that. Operation Charm, led by the Metropolitan police, has resulted in the seizure of more than 30,000 endangered species items since 1995, but again that highlights the scale of the problem just here in London, and the challenge facing the authorities to maintain the momentum and ensure that they continue to be able to meet the challenges of reducing this crime. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister what more is being done by the law enforcement authorities and the international community to combat the illegal trade in the UK.
I pay tribute to the many dedicated and hard-working people around the world who are working to protect endangered species. At least 1,000 park rangers have been killed in the last decade. What action is being taken to give extra protection to such people? Significant attacks on, and the unlawful killing of, people who are working to reduce and minimise this crime will have an impact on others and discourage them from working in this field, because of the dangers that they and their families would face as a result of the ruthlessness of those engaged in what is essentially an extremely big business—that is what it is for those who sadly are successful in pursuing their illegal trade.
The recent London conference was a significant step towards reaching an international consensus, and towards getting co-operation to increase and enhance our ability to tackle this growing crime. As the Minister is aware, the countries that attended the conference signed the London declaration, which included a number of actions that will hopefully help to eradicate the demand for wildlife products, strengthen law enforcement and support the development of sustainable livelihoods for communities affected by wildlife crime. The international community signed up to a number of actions within the declaration, including support for continuing the existing international ban on commercial trade in elephant ivory; renouncing the use within Governments of products from species threatened with extinction; amending legislation to make poaching and wildlife trafficking serious crimes under the terms of the UN convention against transnational organised crime; strengthening cross-border co-operation and support for regional wildlife law enforcement networks; and further analysis to better understand the links between wildlife crime and other organised crime and corruption, and to explore links to terrorism. The plan includes a commitment to an extended moratorium on ivory sales, and to put ivory stocks beyond economic use.
I am pleased that the UK Government announced that they will provide support to help the initiative get up and running. The London declaration and the elephant poaching initiative come at a critical time. Demand for illegal wildlife products has risen sharply in the past decade. It is laudable that countries attend such international conferences and sign up to initiatives and proposals that are seen as a positive step towards combating such crime, but we must do more than simply sign up to declarations and initiatives. We can talk the talk, but we must also walk the walk. I want to know from the Minister what will be done between now and next year’s meeting in Botswana to ensure that the declaration does not simply pay lip service to a range of laudable and badly needed initiatives, but is translated into real and proper action. What will the British Government do to ensure that countries that do not have a great ability to implement the declaration get assistance from the other countries that attended the conference? We must ensure that they play their full part in tackling the problem. They must roll back the increase in the illegal trade. Conservation and law enforcement measures must once again have a positive effect on crime.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) on securing this timely debate on a subject that is of great concern to the Government and the international community. I know from looking through the record that my right hon. Friend championed it consistently at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other Departments.
As my right hon. Friend said, the rapid increase in the illegal wildlife trade and the poaching that feeds it is creating a crisis. Tens of thousands of elephants were killed last year, more than 1,000 rhinos lost their lives to poaching and trafficking, and tigers and many other species are under ever greater threat. In a debate organised by the Backbench Business Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) characteristically painted a touching and vivid picture about the intelligence and thoughtfulness of elephants. He told the story of two elephants, Jenny and Shirley, who had been in captivity together. They were put in a zoo in early life—one was a calf at the time—and spent a year or so together, but they were then put in separate zoos, where they remained for 20 years. They were unexpectedly reunited at the end of their lives in a sanctuary in Tennessee. As my hon. Friend described it, the love and commitment that those two elephants still felt for each other after 20 years was absolutely touching. It is a disaster that so many of those wonderful creatures are being slaughtered for their ivory. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford said, it is not only charismatic animals such as the African elephant that are threatened, but lots of other species such as the African vulture.
The illegal wildlife trade is not only an environmental crisis but a serious global criminal industry. It is worth billions every year, and it is ranked alongside drugs, arms and people trafficking. There is increasing evidence of involvement by organised criminal gangs using ever more sophisticated weapons and equipment and exploiting political instability.
The lives of those working hard to protect endangered wildlife are at risk. At least 1,000 park rangers have been killed over the past decade alone. My right hon. Friend rightly highlighted that concern and asked what we can do to protect the rangers who do that difficult and dangerous task. Although it is the responsibility of individual countries to enforce the law, several actions in the declaration adopted by the London conference are about strengthening law enforcement. We have announced a £10 million fund, and I can confirm that we are looking at one or two projects to support that type of work and improve countries’ ability to enforce the law and protect park rangers carrying out that difficult task.
Tackling this organised criminality would help enhance the rule of law and improve stability and good governance. Those are the conditions that allow for the development of sustainable economic opportunities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs saw for himself in Kenya last year the benefits that can come from concerted efforts to tackle the trade by working with local communities.
I want to say a little about the London conference, about which my right hon. Friend spoke. We recognise that the illegal wildlife trade is a global problem that needs a global solution. The UK has always been determined to play its part, which is why we were pleased to host the London conference on the illegal wildlife trade on 13 February. The conference was based on three key themes: first, improving law enforcement; secondly; reducing demand; and thirdly, creating alternative sustainable livelihoods for communities that have a problem with poaching.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my DEFRA colleague Lord de Mauley chaired the conference. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry attended the morning plenary session. More than 40 countries attended and 10 international organisations were present. I am pleased to report that the conference was a great success. The ambitious political declaration that was endorsed by the 42 participating countries contained 25 specific commitments, including a requirement for Governments to renounce the use of any products from species threatened with extinction. Countries also committed to support the CITES—the convention on international trade in endangered species—commercial prohibition on international trade in elephant ivory until the survival of elephants in the wild is no longer threatened by poaching.
The declaration also contains a commitment to treat poaching and trafficking as serious organised crimes, in the same category as drugs, arms and people trafficking. Together, the 25 actions, with high-level political support, represent a turning point in the effort to halt and reverse the current poaching crisis that my right hon. Friend so eloquently explained.
The conference heard first hand from the Presidents of Botswana, Chad, Gabon and Tanzania, and from the Foreign Minister of Ethiopia, who announced the elephant protection initiative, which aims to secure new funding from private and public sources for the implementation of the African elephant action plan. The elephant protection initiative includes a commitment to an extended moratorium on ivory sales, as well as plans to put ivory stocks beyond economic use.
As I said, one of the aims of the elephant protection initiative is to generate additional private funding, and we understand that around $2 million has already been identified. The Foreign Secretary has said that, in principle, he is open to looking at whether some of the £10 million fund we have set aside could be used to support that initiative. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford said, it is important that action does not end with the conference and the declaration—we need the follow-through. We must ensure that commitments are translated into urgent, concrete actions on the ground in the weeks and months to come.
I would like to say a little about the next steps, the first of which is to ensure that we in the UK are meeting our commitments as effectively as possible. The London conference was the result of close working between four Government Departments—DEFRA, the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and the Home Office. It was a good example of Departments coming together in a coherent, joined-up way, and that is the approach we want to promote going forward. The issue should not be left to any one Department because it crosses many different briefs. The fact that so many Ministers attended the conference underlined our commitment to such an approach.
My right hon. Friend asked what we in the UK are doing, particularly on law enforcement and the interception of illegal trade. In February, we published the document “UK Commitment to Action on the Illegal Wildlife Trade”, which set out what we are doing across Government. We are committed to reporting against that commitment in a year’s time. Action is already under way. For example, as part of our commitment to fighting the illegal wildlife trade, the UK recently formally extended the convention on international trade in endangered species to the British territory of Anguilla. We have already announced that we will use a £10 million DFID funding package to support our partners in their efforts to tackle the trade, and we will soon announce how to apply for that fund.
The momentum generated by the London conference is also continuing internationally. It is important to note that several countries made announcements at the conference that demonstrated their commitment. For example, Canada announced an additional $2 million in emergency funding to combat the illegal wildlife trade in east and central Africa; Cameroon announced that its ongoing five-year emergency action plan to combat international wildlife crime, worth £120 million, will continue; the US announced its national strategy for combating wildlife trafficking; Gabon announced plans to impose new penalties for poachers and traffickers; and Ethiopia committed to destroying its ivory stockpiles. In addition to all that, of course, was the commitment I mentioned earlier to the elephant protection initiative, which a number of African countries are taking forward.
Those announcements were made at the conference, but it is worth pointing out that momentum has continued afterwards—Chad recently burned its 1.1 tonne ivory stockpile and Vietnam has strengthened its protection of endangered species. The challenge now is to build on and harness that momentum and ensure that the commitments in the London declaration are delivered. As my right hon. Friend mentioned, Botswana will host a follow-up conference in 2015 to review progress against the commitments made in the London declaration. The UK will support Botswana in its preparations for that.
In conclusion, I am pleased to have had the opportunity to highlight the success story of the recent London conference. It agreed ambitious measures, showed new political commitment, and marked a turning point in the effort to halt and reverse the current poaching crisis. The examples I have described of actions that we and our international partners are taking demonstrate the real international commitment to tackling the illegal wildlife trade.
I will emphasise again, however, that I completely understand my right hon. Friend’s point: we must sustain our action. We must not discuss the issue once a year but see little happening in between. The international community must work together to ensure that the 25 commitments made in the London declaration are translated into urgent, concrete actions on the ground. The UK has played a leading role, and we will continue to work with our international partners to maintain the high level of political attention and deliver outcomes on the ground.
We do not underestimate the challenge. Much work remains to be done, but through the London conference we have achieved a solid base for tackling and ending the appalling illegal wildlife trade.
Child Care (London)
[Jim Dobbin in the Chair]
I am grateful for the opportunity for this debate. I should say at the outset that I feel somewhat unqualified to lead a debate on child care. I am not a mum and, on the rare occasions that I am entrusted with the care of my niece, my brother often wonders whether she will come back in one piece. I am delighted that the very prospect of the debate led to a flurry of Government announcements on child care in the past few days. Clearly the power of Westminster Hall debates should never be underestimated, especially when they coincide with Budget day.
I called for this debate because the simple truth is that the cost and availability of high-quality child care in the capital is a real problem for hundreds of thousands of families. The lack of affordable nursery places, after-school clubs and childminders puts a huge financial strain on parents. It stops many women who want to go back to work from doing so, and in some cases means that children miss out on the start in life that they deserve. I welcome the signs that, after four years, the Government may be slowly waking up to the scale of the problem. They are, however, still spending less on child care than the previous Government, and there are questions about who benefits most from their over-hyped voucher scheme.
Help for families who struggle with child care costs cannot come soon enough, but the Government will not be thanked if their schemes hike up already high prices even further. I also cannot help but think that assisting families who earn up to £300,000 with the cost of their nanny, for example, is a step too far. Support is undoubtedly required across the spectrum of low and moderate-income families, but the idea that the Prime Minister struggles with his child care costs will strike most people as somewhat bizarre.
In past few days, Ministers have taken to the airwaves to talk about child care, but the problems experienced by parents have not come about overnight. Although the debate focuses on the problems in London, such problems are, of course, not confined to the capital. Rocketing fees in London in recent years, the comparatively longer journey times to work, and a growing and relatively young population, mean that the child care crunch is more severe in the capital than elsewhere. That proportionately fewer people in London than in other regions have grandparents close at hand and that many people do not work nine-to-five adds a further layer of complexity. In the past year alone, child care costs in London have increased by 19%, which is five times faster than average earnings. Nationally, since the election child care costs have increased by 30%. Add to that spiralling energy bills, sky-high rents and the increasing cost of the weekly shop, it is no wonder that Londoners feel that they are experiencing a crisis in their cost of living.
London is by far the most expensive part of the country for child care. Childminders for over-fives, for example, cost 44% more than the British average, and nursery costs for under-twos are 28% more than average— 25 hours a week of nursery care now comes in at more than £140. That sounds bad, but it gets worse. The 2014 child care costs survey, carried out by the Family and Childcare Trust, found that the most expensive nursery in London costs £494 a week for 25 hours. Over a year, a full-time place, which equates to 50 hours, would cost £25,700. Given that the average salary in London is not a great deal more than that, it does not take a genius to see the problem.
When I found out last week that I had secured this debate, I took to Twitter and e-mail to ask people for their experiences and views on child care in London. Suffice to say, I got interesting responses immediately. Barbara Mercer on Twitter simply said,
“need to do something—it’s hitting our pockets really hard.”
Bex Tweets told me:
“I just gave up my job because, had I gone back, I would have been out of pocket by £200 a week.”
Julia, a civil servant, decided in effect to work for less than nothing because of her desire to get back to her job. Her short e-mail is worth sharing with hon. Members, as it sums up the problem for many. She said:
“I have two small children—aged two and one. I work part time and take home £1,100 a month after tax and pay £1,950 to my local nursery. Obviously this is ridiculous but luckily my husband and I can just about scrape by and it is worth losing money to go to work because being at home full time with the babies drove me crazy! I earn a decent salary and can’t find cheaper child care in Surbiton where I live so you can see there is a problem. I am very lucky my husband can subsidise me working—many of my friends simply can’t afford to work so are losing their career.”
On that final point about women losing their careers, is that not one reason why they are held back in promotions and cannot get to the top? If they have very large gaps in their working life, the rest of their working life is affected. Women who want to take up the option of going back into work but not full time should be able to do that, but child care prevents that.
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. It affects not only their working life, but their home life. If parents are happy and fulfilled in their work life, hopefully their home life will be happy and more fulfilled, too.
I was talking about Julia’s child care experience in Surbiton, which is typical of many women, and indeed men, throughout London. Three quarters of parents in the capital say that child care costs affect how many hours they work. A quarter say that they are unable to work simply because of that cost. Despite being the UK’s richest city, London has the lowest maternal employment rate in the country. The economy loses out because of that: employers lose the benefit of skilled staff and the Government pay benefits when they could be collecting taxes.
Many parents decide that they do not wish to work after having children, or that they want to return on a part-time basis. I do not stand here today to tell mums and dads what they should or should not do. If families can get by and are happy on one parental income and the other parent wants to look after the child or children full time, all power to them, but I want families to be able to make a genuine choice about what is right for them and their children, and not to be boxed into a corner because of soaring child care costs.
For some parents, the double-edged luxury of having to make that sort of decision is taken away right at the start. In some parts of London, the supply—let alone cost—of suitable child care provision that matches families’ needs is a real problem. According to analysis done by the then Daycare Trust of the 2011 child care sufficiency assessments, 15 councils in London—nearly half of all London local authorities—did not have enough breakfast and after-school provision to meet demand. Another 16 councils did not have sufficient school holiday child care and 13 identified that they did not have enough suitable child care for disabled children.
For Londoners who work shifts or those on zero-hours contracts, it can be nigh on impossible to find appropriate, flexible child care. As many as 1.4 million jobs in London are in sectors in which employment regularly falls outside of normal office hours and, as mums and dads know, if a job’s working hours are outside of nine-to-five, they also fall outside normal nursery hours.
The lack of suitable provision may be one of the factors that explains why only 51% of parents in London whose two-year-olds are eligible for the Government’s free 15 hours of child care have actually made use of the scheme. That level of take-up is significantly lower than elsewhere in the country, and it does not really make sense in the context of the relative strength of the London economy. I suspect that there is a range of factors at play to explain why take-up is lower in London than elsewhere. However, I cannot help but think that the serious gaps in child care provision may be part of the problem.
My hon. Friend is making a most excellent speech. Does she agree that the current shortage of primary school places is exacerbating the situation, with parents having to take their children much further than before to get to a local school, which again is because of Government policies that prevent councils from providing more primary school places?
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend, whose constituency neighbours mine in London. She will know the significant problems that exist for families, particularly for parents in work, when they have to take children to different locations, whether it is for primary school or child care. Despite having met the Minister for Schools at the Department for Education last year to discuss this issue, I am not convinced that enough funding is being made available to London to meet the rising demand for school places, not only at primary but at secondary level, where the demand for places will soon feed through.
In December, the Government announced extra money to help to stimulate the supply of flexible child care in London, but I am simply not convinced that that money will go far enough to deal with the problem. I am also not convinced that this week’s announcements make up for the reductions in support to parents that the Government pushed through earlier in their term of office. We know that in April 2011, changes to the child care element of working tax credit led to a reduction in the amount of help that parents get with child care costs. For example, in December 2013, average weekly payments for those benefiting from that element of working tax credit were around £11 less than they were in April 2011. The Government’s changes also led to a drop in the overall number of families receiving such support. In April 2011, 455,000 families were benefiting from that support, but that dropped by 71,000, and in December 2013 only 422,000 families were benefiting. Given those clear figures, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the Government are guilty of giving with one hand while taking away with the other.
Many of those who struggle most with the cost of child care in London are lone parents on low incomes. My constituency in Lewisham has approximately 9,000 single-parent families, and it is estimated that in London as a whole there are more than 325,000 single mums or dads. Contrary to media stereotypes, the single mums I meet are often desperate to find work, but they find it hard to organise their life in a way to make it possible for them to work. Child care is central to their difficulties.
The need to make work pay for those single mums and dads cannot be overstated. One of my big concerns, before yesterday’s announcement, was that the Government were set on a course with universal credit that would have made work not pay but hurt for some of the poorest single parents, who are struggling to get back into low-paid, part-time work. The Government’s U-turn on the amount of child care costs to be covered by universal credit is welcome, but it is fair to ask whether they instinctively understand the issue when their flagship welfare policy was initially designed with such flaws.
The truth of the matter is that the Government have been forced to promise action on child care costs because they know that Labour’s commitment to increase the amount of free child care available to the parents of three and four-year-olds makes complete sense to increasingly hard-pressed families.
Slough is very like London and our child care market is very similar to London’s. Recently, I have been out talking to mums about child care. The demand that I regularly hear from mothers who want to get back into work is that they need access to training and upskilling with child care. What if they cannot find that either at their original workplace or in a new job if they need to change their career, as was the case with a flight crew member I recently spoke to? Does my hon. Friend agree that we should be trying to ensure that training opportunities for those mums enable them to have their children looked after and to get qualifications and skills?
My hon. Friend makes an important point and I agree with her remarks entirely.
Before I bring my remarks to a close, I shall press the Minister on two further policy areas. First, what specific plans do the Government have to ensure that there is greater flexibility in the provision of child care? Ministers have stated that they would like children’s centres and schools to be open for longer, but it is not clear what direct support those centres and schools would receive to help them to achieve that aim. Would the Government consider, for example, giving greater powers to local authorities to influence the decisions of individual schools with regard to extending opening hours? We know that academies and free schools fall outside the control of local authorities, and if we are to give parents the ability to work it seems to me that they need a guarantee of wraparound care, at least in primary schools. It is right that the Labour party has committed to legislate for that, but it is sad that the Government do not seem to see it as a priority.
Secondly, while there is an urgent need for more flexible child care, there is also a need for the Government to encourage employers to offer better paid and more flexible work opportunities. As someone who regularly fights to get a seat on a train into London Bridge in the morning, I know that a move to more flexible working hours could also benefit London’s creaking public transport system.
I acknowledge that some steps have been taken to encourage employers to offer more flexibility to staff who are parents, but as I understand it such flexibility is still heavily biased towards existing employees and comes with the caveat of a six-month waiting period after starting a job—parents must wait six months before they can make a request for flexible work. Does the Minister have any plans to extend rights for flexible working? I would be interested to hear about the discussions that she has had with her colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on that.
In conclusion, I simply say that London is the wealthiest city in the UK and yet 25% of its children live in poverty. Currently, parents in London face exorbitant child care costs, which drain household finances and leave some of them unable to work when they want to. This is clearly a cost of living problem, but it is also about people’s quality of life and opportunities for their children. Ultimately, what we should all be striving for are children who are well provided for and happy, and more productive parents who enjoy more freedom of choice. As I have said, I am not a parent myself, but it has always struck me that happy and fulfilled parents are more likely to have happy and fulfilled children. Tackling the cost and supply of child care in London is undoubtedly a big task, but it would have equally large rewards. I am not sure whether the recent spate of Government announcements provides the radical solution that they claim. What I do know is that Londoners are impatient for action, and that neither parents nor the Government can afford to allow the current situation to continue.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Dobbin.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this debate. Recently, I have found myself on the same side as her on certain issues; that probably comes as a disappointment to her and it certainly comes as a surprise to me. However, in common with her in this debate, I also profess a limited knowledge of this issue, although at one point my wife and I had four children under the age of five. I rightly stand charged of perhaps not doing enough at that time to learn about this subject; I should know more. However, I am pleased that we are having this debate, not just because it is in the context of London, but because it gives us time to reflect on the challenge and on what the Government are trying to do. It also gives us a chance to reflect on the supply side, which is behind many of the challenges we face. I think that hon. Members would agree that, for too long, it has been difficult for many families to find good, affordable child care.
Without going into detail, I shall touch on why child care services and facilities are so important. They help to nurture the child, enhance their education prospects and support families that want to return to work. Given what I have seen in some parts of my constituency, they also help to support the provision of a safe social environment, including the boundaries that children are sometimes, sadly, missing in an increasing number of dysfunctional family situations. Child care can make a massive contribution.
Particularly in relation to my latter point, I am pleased that the Government are seeking to address the welfare of children from less advantaged families, through a cross-Department—almost holistic—response. Part of that, of course, is access to child care facilities, which is an important part of the jigsaw that I have just put together. Having said that, it is inevitable that as the cost of child care increases, the Government’s response has to focus both on supporting and widening the supply side and on mitigating the costs that we face. Whatever we call the policy, I suspect that all hon. Members can agree that Government financial interventions will be mitigating something. The supply side will be fundamental, long-lasting and will hopefully achieve more.
In fairness, I should say that I am struck by the rather candid comments of Labour’s former Minister for Children, Beverley Hughes, who admitted that they got it wrong, saying that Labour’s approach of pouring money into tax credits
“was probably wrong. We were so keen to stimulate demand from parents”
with fiscal interventions,
“but in retrospect that was such a mammoth task. We ought to have focused on the supply side…then we could have done more and quicker.”
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The former Minister for Children was making the point that we should have put more emphasis on supply-side funding and less on the demand side. Can he explain why the Government are not learning those lessons and are instead focusing much more on the demand side with their tax-free child care announcement yesterday?
I think the hon. Lady will find that we are learning those lessons. I am dealing with that point: my two themes are the supply side and fiscal interventions. However, I will concede that the supply-side challenge in London is particularly difficult. I will also bring to the Minister’s attention some weaknesses in the fiscal interventions that I am experiencing in my constituency now.
It is a current problem. In the interests of fairness, Opposition Members would recognise that the number of child minders halved under their Government, reducing choice and flexibility for parents. There were 98,000 child minders in 1997 and the number fell to 58,000 in 2010. Westminster Hall is generally a constructive environment for debates, but my main point is that this is not a new problem. Costs have been rising above inflation, consistently, since 2003, and since 2009 they have been rising above wages.
As the hon. Gentleman is comparing Labour’s policies with the current Government’s, can he say whether any child care centres in his constituency have closed since this Government came in?
I will, as I said, come on to the issues that we are facing in my constituency. However, the work force, on the supply side, is equally as important as the facilities. If the numbers halve, the problem of servicing good quality child care provision will be increased.
I suspect that we would also agree that the quality of the work force is important. That is unquestionable. We do not want to create places just to dump a child in, so that people can go off and have some free hours; no one is into that. We need good quality care. I am sure that the Government’s aims and attentions in this regard would draw cross-party support, because Opposition Members would have said, and tried to do, the same.
We can do things to open up the supply side. I do not generally like to intervene in markets, but we should try to work up constructive ways for the Government to apply leverage to encourage schools to admit younger children. We have to deregulate the process of allowing schools to admit younger children. We made it easier for schools to teach children under three by removing requirements to register separately with Ofsted, a move that was well intentioned, but we do not want to make it difficult. So often, by liberating certain elements of the market, we can free it up and increase the supply side.
On helping schools to offer affordable after school and holiday care, I want primary schools to be open for more hours each day—so does the hon. Member for Lewisham East—and for more weeks a year, to better match the working family’s time table. That can be done locally and I am all for empowering people locally to take those decisions—and, boy, are they needed in my constituency.
We should also be helping good nurseries expand, not stopping them. I would be interested to know whether the Minister is working with councils to explore ways that we can expand the supply side in the boroughs, particularly those that are challenged.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about the need to expand nurseries, some of which will, of course, be co-located with schools. Does he recognise that the crisis in primary school places in London, which we discussed earlier, means that the physical expansion of nurseries is even more difficult now than it may have been in the past, because sites are taken up with temporary classrooms and the space does not exist?
The hon. Lady takes me down a path that I am quite interested in, because we have faced an expansion in primary schools, which unfortunately was not planned in advance. I know that London has transition problems, so it is more difficult to plan in London than elsewhere, but some of the planning that we have done has been to meet an urgent, immediate need for the next year, and we could have used the space much better in some primary schools in my area. We need to free up the planning regulations to make sustainable expansion that much easier. We have seen that done actively in schools. The hon. Lady may have encountered the same problem that I have—that temporary expansion encourages complaints from residents—when we try to meet extra demand in our area.
I often feel that we have missed out on long-term planning. If we could free up planning regulations and look ahead, a strategic plan would allow us to expand provision for both the younger child and the schoolchild. I should add that the problem is not just with primary; we are now passing it on to secondary, and that will be the next challenge.
We might all support the hon. Gentleman and think this is a great way forward, but somebody has to provide the finance. It is impossible to build a new school and employ new teachers, in whatever way that is done, if the finance is not available from his Government.
If we expanded schools to take more students—putting in temporary accommodation--we could have more longer term planning, instead of what I call knee-jerk planning, and get better value, as well as the physical premises. We are providing the money to increase demand. Money is much less the issue when schools are being expanded—and we are expanding them—but I want that to be done more cleverly.
On fiscal intervention, the Government’s changes are designed to ease the burden on parents and those from the most vulnerable areas. Of course, that will help to sort out the immediate problems that people are facing now, but that should go hand in hand with a massive improvement in the supply side locally. I really welcome—I am not going to be shy about it—yesterday’s policy announcement. The Government’s new tax-free child care scheme will have a significant impact on child care costs, potentially providing support to up to 400,000 families in London. We should be proud of that, because it will help to ease the financial challenges parents face even in outer-London suburbs, where the costs are not as high as in some inner-London areas. Parents who want to go back to work will start to breathe a sigh of relief because they will feel that the measure is helping them to do so.
I have a brief question. Does he not appreciate what a difference it would make if that money was allocated to those who earn much less? Helping families with an income of £300,000 a year is one thing, but the benefit for families on average incomes is so much more significant. The measure would make a much greater difference to those who are less able to provide for themselves.
Few people in my constituency are on an income of £300,000. I ask the right hon. Lady to wait for the end of my speech, because I will point to how the specific targeting of those on very low incomes has had an unforeseen consequence for those on slightly higher, edging towards middle incomes. We need to be careful of the outcome of any intervention and I will address that shortly.
The hon. Member for Lewisham East touched on this point, but I think the most significant part of yesterday’s announcement was that more families will be helped to move off benefits and into employment. As part of that strategy, the Government announced that they will cover 85% of child care costs for some 300,000 families in receipt of universal credit. I would have expected that to be talked about more widely yesterday because it is a fine example of excellent joined-up thinking. In some ways, it answers the question that the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) has just asked.
We have made money available to help child care providers to support disadvantaged children. Some £50 million will be invested in 2015-16 to offer 15 hours a week of free child care to all three and four-year-olds. That is another welcome intervention. We are helping schools to offer affordable after-school and holiday care. I want to see primary schools open for more hours each day and more weeks each year—I think that will work.
We are also extending free child care to just over 250,000 two-year-olds from low-income families, which kicks in this September, but I want to address the unintended consequences in my constituency. The extension of the scheme to two-year-olds is the pet project of the Deputy Prime Minister, and I would dearly love him to explain the scheme to my constituents who have children at Carterhatch children’s centre in Enfield. About a month ago, parents who have been doing the right thing by working and paying, in some cases for a number of years, for their children to be at Carterhatch children’s centre were, to be frank, brutally informed that their children are no longer welcome because they are fee-paying and the centre’s priority will be those who now qualify for the extended free places for two-year-olds, which from memory includes people on working tax credits of up to £16,900. The centre has said, “We don’t want you because you are paying your way. We are going to focus entirely on those individuals who are now covered by the new Government intervention.” I put it to Members that that is a perverse unintended consequence. People who are working, doing the right thing and paying to get their children into the centre have basically been told that their child can longer attend.
That brings me to the supply side, because being told to find somewhere else is not helpful as there is not much choice in our area. I tackled Enfield council on that, saying, “Look, this is your policy. Have you directed schools on how to implement the Government’s policy?” The council frankly admitted that what happened at Carterhatch is what it would like to see, but says that it is not directing any headmaster to do it; it is entirely the school’s free will. Schools are not working to Government directives, or so I was told by the council an hour ago, but the consequence of intervening in the marketplace is that we have distorted it at the expense of parents who are doing the right thing.
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that it is his Government who have taken away the local authority’s role in planning for places? The strategic local commissioning responsibility no longer exists. It is a free-for-all, and it is the Government who took it away.
I will tackle the point. The choice has been made by the head of the school. He is not responding to a central directive from Whitehall or, it appears, from the local education authority. Although the LEA has expressed a preference, it is not a direction. I am highlighting that we now have a situation in which a head teacher finds it more attractive to follow the direction of the Deputy Prime Minister by disregarding parents, many of whom have used the child care centre for a considerable period of time.
Central direction is not the solution, because it is close to the market intervention that we are talking about and will create another dysfunctional consequence somewhere else. Even if we intervene with the best of intentions, it strikes me as odd that the education establishment thinks it is perfectly acceptable to remove some parents in favour of others. That touches on my supply-side argument: if I was a parent who was told that that was what the school had chosen to do, I would look for somewhere else to go because I would not value the school that had made that decision. We therefore have to accept that the weakness on the supply side, which goes back as far as 2003, is at the heart of our problems. That is what we should address, instead of making the wider interventions with which we seem to be obsessed. That is the ultimate solution to the problem.
I apologise for going on for far too long, but I think I have initiated a lively discussion.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will try to be quick. I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr Dobbin, because I am due to speak in the Budget debate in the House. Will the Minister forgive me for not being here for her conclusion?
I congratulate my hon. and very good Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this debate. I am also grateful for the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) to ensure that the issue of child care is to the fore here in London. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell) is here, and we should remember the work that she did when she was Minister with responsibility for public health to get child care on the agenda and to set up the children’s centres. I suspect that many of us are concerned that the children’s centres are disappearing and are not quite what we envisaged all those years ago. That is the context of this debate.
I reflect, too, on a mother who came to see me last Friday. She is a nurse working in a major London hospital. She is meant to be at that hospital for 7.30 am, and she is a single mum with two kids who have to get to primary school. She is one of the many Londoners in temporary accommodation, and she has been housed by the local authority miles away from the school that her children attend. She is actually housed at the other end of the London borough; I know hon. Members will be familiar with that situation. She also now lives further away from her job. She came to speak to me in tears, asking where the balance was between getting to school for the newly begun breakfast club and getting to work. She faced losing her job. She asked simply whether I, as a local MP, could visit the hospital to ask whether she could have the flexibility to get her kids to the breakfast club and then go to hospital to start work. She is an average Londoner and my heart goes out to her, because I remember my mother juggling the priorities of raising kids on her own and getting to work. The truth is that in the economy we have created—both major political parties have to take some responsibility for it—it is virtually impossible successfully to raise a family on one income in London, particularly if that is one average income.
Child care is a fundamental issue. It takes 31% of the disposable income of London families; that will be 40% in 10 years’ time, and in 50 years’ time, it will be the entirety of their disposable income. We should take the issue seriously. It is not just about child care, however. Local authorities, with their budgets squeezed—we heard in the Budget today that further squeezes are to come in the years ahead—have withdrawn from subsidising breakfast clubs and after-school clubs. Families are having to make difficult choices about how they provide for their children. We should not forget that many working families, when making those decisions, leave younger children in the care of slightly older children; that is what is going on. Those older siblings have to feed younger siblings and marshal the dangers of the internet. They are raising many young Londoners, because of the cost of child care.
To some extent, I welcome the raising of the worth of what is effectively a voucher scheme to £2,000. I suspect that the shadow Minister will raise the issue of who receives that money. It causes me great concern that so much of it will be received by Londoners who can afford child care. Why are we giving subsidies to those earning £300,000? Are bankers, barristers, accountants or senior consultants really complaining about the cost of child care in London? Should we be prioritising them? Child care costs on average £15,000 a year in this city, so let us be honest: £2,000 is a drop in the ocean, and shame on this House if we Members are not very clear about that. It is a drop in the ocean in relation to the demand and the problems that we have in this city.
We should also be clear that the demand among many Londoners and right across the country is for support not just for children aged nought to five, but for those aged nought to 14. People do not want their 11-year-old or 12-year-old in the house on their own, and being expected to make their own breakfast. I am pleased that the Government are shifting the cut-off age for the scheme to 12-year-olds, but I put on the table that the issue is for young Londoners, full stop. The spectrum certainly has to go beyond five-year-olds.
I do not want to get lost in the central discussion on cost and lose sight of quality. Most Londoners are making child care decisions based first on cost and then on location. The real challenge for us in London is to get Londoners making decisions fundamentally based on quality. There are real concerns that a diminution or a stepping back on some of the nursery standards that were in place has led to a drop in quality at nursery level. I have real concerns about our youngest children in London—babies aged nought to 18 months—and the recent changes in regulation regarding the number of child care attendants that should be there for babies.
There is quite a lot of evidence that our youngest children in nurseries should have the one-to-one support that mothers want. It is not just about cost; it is about mum and dad—I should mention dads, as chair of the all-party group on fatherhood—having confidence that the quality and support is there while they go out to work. There is a supply-side issue. We have to drive up standards and ensure that suppliers can flourish and provide the child care that we want. I welcome the debate, but in the end we need a proper 10-year plan. We need to be clear that child care is for those between nought and 14 years old. We need a road map to the universal provision that is required in our capital city.
We must build on the successes that we saw withthe children’s centres, although there were problems. The policy began in the Department of Health under the previous Government with my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood, when she was responsible for public health. While we were in government, that policy shifted to the Department for Children, Schools and Families. As has been said by academics and others, that shift meant that the policy became more about the Treasury, gross domestic product and getting women out to work, when it should have been about a holistic vision of well-being, as it was when it sat in the Department of Health. Things have slid even further recently. Yes, the debate is about cost, but it is also about quality provision. We should be ashamed that so many of our continental partners are making huge strides forward on child care, while here in Britain the debate stagnates.
Several hon. Members rose—
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this important debate, and on laying out so clearly, as other Members have done, some of the issues to do with the high cost of child care in London. I am pleased with anything that secures additional resources for child care in London and goes towards meeting that child care gap, and one thing that can be said about the additional money going into the child care tax relief is that it will, to some extent, help those middle-to-higher earners facing extraordinary costs at the sharp end, particularly in such places as my constituency in central London.
That money is welcome, as is the Government’s recognition of the need to improve the child care offer within universal credit. The organisations campaigning on behalf of low earners were enthusiastic about that recognition. Will the Minister let us know the extent to which that welcome additional assistance for low earners will benefit Londoners proportionately? Historically, the child care tax credit—I am obviously a fan of that investment in tackling working poverty—never benefited London to anything like the same degree as it did other regions of the country. I need to be sure that the universal credit child care offer will benefit London as much as it should.
That speaks to the central point, which is that the investment in child care announced yesterday—welcome as every penny put into child care is—raises a question about whether that marginal pound is best spent in the way that the Government propose. As we know, £750 million of that offer is likely to go to higher earners, with only £200 million going to lower earners. I suggest that the balance of that investment probably does not meet the level of need. We have heard about the cost of child care in London, but it is also important to recognise that not only do we have a supply-side problem, but Londoners are disproportionately likely not to have networks of informal care, so they will need formal child care more than people outside London. Obviously, lower earners are disproportionately more likely than higher earners to rely on informal care. That needs to be addressed if we are to help parents into work, as well as provide an important child development experience, which is what investment in child care should always be about.
One thing that alarmed me—and, I think, a number of organisations—about the universal credit investment is that the money has been identified as coming from elsewhere in the universal credit budget, although as yet we do not know where. I am anxious to know the answer to that, because the one thing we do not want is for support for working parents within universal credit to be taken from the other ways of supporting low-income families. Universal credit is already likely to disadvantage London as the child care tax credit once did, because it does not properly reflect higher costs there, particularly the higher cost of housing. I think that Londoners will lose, proportionately, under universal credit, or will not gain to the same extent as people elsewhere. We need to ensure that the resources do not come from the individuals who are affected by that.
In the couple of minutes that I have left, I want to talk about the extent to which the investment that the Government announced yesterday will help with supply. There is a risk that there will be the child care equivalent of Help to Buy, which helps with buying, not building. The risk is that the announcement will help to increase demand for child care, but do relatively little to increase supply, particularly because major child care providers’ costs are already squeezed. I know that the Minister is familiar with the London Early Years Foundation, which started as the Westminster Children’s Society, and which I hold in high regard. It tweeted about the child care offer for two-year-olds, which is a critical way of increasing supply:
“The challenge of expanding the two year old programme…is whether we can do this for £5.09 in London? How?”
It is a social entrepreneur project, providing child care at the lowest possible cost, yet it wants to know how it can provide that quality offer within the envelope.
I wanted to point out that £5.09 is a national average. The average London rate is higher, because the offer for two-year-olds is adjusted for salaries in each area. It is more like £6 for London.
I am grateful for that clarification. I shall be interested to know why the London Early Years Foundation, probably the major child care provider in London, does not know that. I shall have to have that conversation. Even allowing for what the Minister said, which I accept in good faith, the principal point still applies: as we know, child care workers are disproportionately employed on the minimum wage, and there is cost pressure in the sector because of the cost of providing premises and so forth.
I am concerned, also, about the interaction between the investment and the expansion of the offer for two-year-olds. Councils are being given nursery education grants to expand their places, but the interaction between that investment in expanding places and the money that the Government are putting into increasing supply is leading to interesting anomalies. In my local authority, the child care plan for the coming years states that 400 new places for two-year-olds are needed; 886 families have been identified as entitled, leaving a shortfall of 384. Those places must be provided, and the Government want them to be provided.
What is happening within the cost envelope that we have been given? Guess what: the nurseries in my area have just sent a letter—I saw it today—to all Westminster councillors. It says that Westminster has just announced that it is cutting full-time provision in all its nursery classes and nursery schools in September 2015, so that it can meet the entitlement. It is an extraordinary situation: the day after the Government’s announcement of a boost for child care, Westminster city council is happily telling parents that they will lose their full-time places, on which many people rely to be able to work, so that it can expand the offer. My constituents, and parents looking for provision, will be asking themselves tough questions about the Government giving with one hand and taking with the other. There is much more to say, but I know that other hon. Members want to speak.
All politicians hope we learn from our constituents, and align our priorities with those of the people we listen to and learn from. However, we also come here as people with our own experiences of life. If I am truly honest with myself, probably what provoked my interest in politics and has always been a guiding light is the fact that, from the age of seven, I was brought up by a single parent. For many years, she found it impossible to work, because I was the oldest of three, my youngest brother being three, and my middle brother five. She tried to find child care, but our nan was not around the corner, and she could not find anywhere for us to be looked after to make it possible to work. I remember sitting in a pub back room while she worked in a bar while I was still at primary school. For me, it has always been a matter of huge importance that politicians understand that, for women to be able to play a full role in society and for children to be given a proper chance in the world, politicians must prioritise child care.
I am proud that the previous Labour Government did the amount of work they did to help women, including the fact that we could get nursery education free, as an entitlement, for pretty much the first time. That was something that my grandmother campaigned for and my mother needed. I was pleased to be a Back-Bench member of the party in government that was providing it. However, let us be honest: that was not enough. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) that any penny spent on child care is completely welcome, so we welcome the assistance that the Government announced yesterday. We wonder how effective it can be, whether it could be more effective if used differently, and whether it completely fulfils the priorities we would set. Nevertheless, given that conditions for working parents are almost desert-like, any additional assistance must be welcomed.
The difficulty in London, of course, and the reason the debate is important for Londoners in the context of cost of living, is the fact that child care in London is so expensive. It is 25% higher than in the rest of the country. We live in societies where our nans are not around the corner, and we do not have the extended support that other communities do. People who have moved to London tend to have families elsewhere. People move around. We do not have support networks and rely on professional support.
I am now a privileged woman, but I struggled with child care when I was at the Bar. I give advice to young women and tell them that if they want to go into the world and have a job, and if they want to have children, as so many women do, they must be realistic: unless things fundamentally change, their career prospects will be compromised by not finding sufficient child care. That affects everyone, but statistics for my constituency show, I believe, that 40% of children are under the poverty line. My constituency also has the highest proportion of single parents. Time and again people come to see me and say they cannot afford to go to work because they cannot afford the child care. The statistics bear that out. If a constituent of mine were to get a full-time, minimum-wage job at Kentucky Fried Chicken—I have a constituent with two children in such a position—she would earn £210 a week. If she did not have the assistance of a friend to look after her child and had to send them to the most heavily subsidised nursery place for under-twos in Islington, she would be spending £167.28 of her £210 a week salary on child care. If she was lucky enough to receive a London living wage, she would be earning £293 a week. How on earth can she send her child to full-time child care under such circumstances? There are further problems when children reach school age, such as before and after-school care and care during the holidays. What happens if the child gets ill? The problems continue.
Politicians still have a long way to go in terms of understanding, prioritising and putting our money where our mouth is. We talk about hard-working families, but we do not consider enough how families can work hard and still best look after their children’s interests. It is not right that wages have been frozen and that in-work benefits and tax credits have gone up by only 1% when nursery school costs increased by 11% in 2012. Life is being made harder and harder. It is not right that the London child care strategy, which developed affordable and flexible child care, was closed when Boris Johnson was elected. It is right that we have extended schools and that we increase the number of free hours of child care for three and four-year-olds, but I agree with those who have asked, “What about the 13-year-olds?” A 13-year-old should not have to go home to an empty house and make their own supper and look after their younger siblings. We need to think again about our political priorities, and I hope that Labour will more than match any promise that any Conservative Government ever make.
You will have had my apologies for arriving late at this debate, Mr Dobbin—I was detained at a Delegated Legislation Committee. It is a great pleasure to be here to support the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander). She and other Opposition Members present have given much of their political lives to identifying, recognising and campaigning for improved standards in child care, but I do not want this to become a competition about the monopoly of good intention. I also welcome yesterday’s announcement, in particular because it is in London that children from a range of backgrounds are more likely to grow up together. It is a function of gentrification and of the mixed nature of the communities we represent. It is a good thing that young children grow up understanding the differences in life and family circumstances between them and other children.
Has the Minister studied the experience in Australia in the 1990s? A similar way of funding child care led, as is often the risk in such circumstances, to a multiple increase in the costs of supply. An intervention in the market on cost tends to rig things in the suppliers’ favour and against the interests of parents. I am happy to supply her with the information if she has not yet had the chance to see it.
Different solutions, fiscal or otherwise, are right for different situations. Child tax credits, with the element that recognised the cost of child care, were just that. In the financial life of a family, the period when children are small and when both parents may be working is one of exceptional call on family resources, to which tax credits are a response. I agree that we might come up with different solutions now, but it is important to understand the response in the context of the time.
I will not repeat the point about the extraordinary financial burden that good child care places on family finances, particularly in London, but let us remember that, on average, £1 in every £3 of disposable income in London is spent on child care and that the cost is rising exponentially. I am sure that all Members present have received letters from mothers who doubt whether it is worth going back to work. I recently received such a letter from a mother who took home £2,000 a month when she was working. She wanted to return to work after maternity leave and found that child care for her two-and-a-half-year-old and her relatively small baby was going to cost her £1,870 a month, so she wondered whether it was worth going back. Mothers care most of all about the quality of care that their babies receive, but let us remember that the under-employment of women who wish to work, or who wish to work more, has a substantial economic cost.
Quality is important, and for most mothers quality is assured by their children being looked after by a member of their family, for which they are then rewarded, whether by tax credit or some other means. We must consider family care and remunerated family care, particularly since grandparents are becoming so fundamentally important to the care of small children. I will always remember the horror I felt when, while visiting an extremely prestigious nursery a couple of years ago, I greeted a nursery nurse who had two one-year-olds, one on each knee, and asked what their names were. She replied, “I don’t know.” I would not leave a child with somebody who did not know their name or their little habits and ways. That is the pretty basic thing that we mean when we speak of quality.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) referred to Sure Start, and I want to make two points. First, when I, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), designed the Sure Start programme, it was as a nurture programme, not a welfare to work programme. We now know so much more about the critical 1,000 days that shape a child’s long-term development, and the design of nursery care must take account of that. Secondly, it is just not good for children to be woken up too early when their mothers are doing sequential jobs in order to meet the cost of child care. We need to consider having more flexibility in how nursery staff are deployed. As the economy becomes 24-hour, so must child care.
It is important that we learn from mothers. Last week, I visited an excellent nursery in Croydon and spent the afternoon talking to mothers. I met one group, a number of whom were poorly educated but wanted to be good mothers, and the greatest benefit for them had been the combination of education and child care. One mother, who had four little girls, said that being able to read to her three-year-old was the most important thing that she had ever done, and that she had never thought she would be able to do it.
My final point is on flexibility in pricing sessions of child care, so that people who do not want their child looked after for a whole session might have the possibility of buying part of a session. We should therefore listen to mothers in the grand design, to ensure that child care is as important for the healthy, safe development of children and support of families as it is for our economy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this important debate and on its timely nature. It is slightly humbling to have such a wealth of experience on these matters on the Benches behind me. I cannot possibly make a contribution on this important topic that will match those made by so many hon. Members over the years, but I will attempt to do so in my winding-up remarks.
The issues facing families in London are the exacerbated version of what families around the country face. Child care costs in London, as we have heard, are much greater than in the rest of the country. For example, a full-time under-twos’ place in London is on average £2,500 a year more expensive than it is in the rest of the UK. We have also heard that the supply of places in London is much more difficult than in the rest of the country. London has the lowest take-up of child care in the country. Given the extent of the growing economy in London, and the vibrant economy that we have always had here, it surprises me that take-up of child care should be that much lower here.
That has a direct impact on London’s maternal employment rates, which I was surprised to see are the lowest in the UK—there is a big gap in the rates—especially given the number of lone parents and other factors in London. That low rate has an impact on individuals, who are not able to fulfil their lives or provide for their families as they would like, and on the London economy, because so many women are out of the labour market. That has an immediate effect on gender pay gaps. It is shameful, or should be, that last year the gender pay gap increased for the first time in 15 years. Women suffer the pay and status penalty for taking time out from work. That should drive us all forward continuously to address fundamental issues to do with child care costs and provision, especially here in London.
The issues are not new. I will not lay all this at the door of the Government. These are long-standing problems that we have tried to address over many years. We have to recognise, however, that some of them have got more difficult over the past few years than they needed to, or than they were. If I may, I will use some of my time simply to ask the Minister questions about Government policy, since we have the opportunity to do so.
Many Members have talked about the two-year-olds offer and its impact, but the take-up of the offer in London is the worst in the country—only 51% of eligible children take up the offer, compared with 75% of eligible children in the country as a whole. What is the Minister doing about that? She has earmarked some new money— £8 million was announced last year—but what will it be used for, and how does she envisage that that will increase places and capacity in the system? Does she feel that the money is enough?
We heard about some unintended consequences of the two-year-olds offer from the hon. Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois). We strongly feel that provision and planning of nursery and early years places should be decided locally, and put in place in the context of a longer-term strategy. His Government made a mistake in taking those responsibilities away from local authorities.
The new scheme was announced a year ago, but was revitalised yesterday and in today’s Budget. As others have said, Labour Members welcome any new money or investment in child care, because families are desperate for that help, but we must see this in context. On average, families have lost more than £1,500 a year in child care support over the term of the Government, through loss of tax credits and child benefit. Over the same period, nursery and child care costs have gone up by 30%. Taking those two figures together, families are more than £2,000 a year worse off when it comes to meeting their child care costs than they were in 2010. The scheme and the money are welcome, but they will only get parents back to where they were in 2010.
The issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell) about the Australian model is critical. Will the Minister tell us today what assessment she or her colleagues in the Treasury or other Departments have made of the scheme and whether it will affect price inflation? Will parents feel the benefit of the scheme in the amount that they have to pay?
It would also be fairer of the Government to be absolutely clear about who will benefit from the full amount of the scheme. An average parent tuning in and out of yesterday’s news coverage might be forgiven for thinking that they were going to get £2,000 a year per child for help with child care costs. In fact, the figure is nothing like that. The Government have allocated £750 million a year to the scheme; they say that 1.9 million families will benefit, although in the small print they estimate that the figure will be nearer 1.3 million. Whatever way we do the maths, even the Government’s own figures suggest that the average amount per family on the scheme is somewhere between £400 and £500 a year, which is a far cry from the £2,000 per child that the broadcasters and newspapers were reporting yesterday. Will the Minister confirm that there is no new money for the scheme since what was announced a year ago, which was £750 million, even though the scheme is being extended? Those are the main points that I ask her to cover today.
On the universal credit announcement, as other colleagues have said, we absolutely welcome the plugging of that major gap in the scheme. We have been calling for that for many months. We have to be realistic, however: families on tax credits have seen a huge reduction in their child care support, from 80% to 70% under this Government, and the increase to 85% will not come in until universal credit comes in. We do not even know when universal credit will come on stream for families; it could be 2017 or 2018, and families will have faced a seven or eight-year gap with significant reductions. Will the Minister tell us what steps are being taken to help those families who are struggling with their costs now? Does she recognise that it was a mistake to reduce the rate from 80% to 70% in the first place?
We have not talked about the early intervention grant and children’s centres. On take-up and participation in the offer, certainly in my constituency, a number of parents come through the experience of children’s centres, where they learn to deal with child care, build confidence, and develop their labour market skills. The early intervention grant, however, has been cut by 49% in Westminster. The lights are on in our children’s centres, but no one is home—the tumbleweed is blowing through them, and the services have all been closed—and that is unfortunately impacting on other areas of child care.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I suggest that she tries to secure a separate debate on that issue because of its importance. We welcome yesterday’s announcement, but it needs to be set in context. A remaining real challenge for families is to face these critical issues, which have a real impact on maternal employment rates and the gender pay gap, and that is something the Government should be worried about.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this debate on an extremely important topic. The Government’s various announcements this week, from three different Departments—the Treasury, the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions—show how seriously we take this issue. We have announced that parents will get up to £2,000 per child towards their child care costs. Parents on low incomes will get 85% of those costs paid.
I want to challenge some of the things that have been said in the debate. Under this Government, spending on child care and early intervention has gone from £4 billion to £4.5 billion. I am happy to supply hon. Members with statistics for their local authorities. It is worth making the point that we spend as much money on this, as a proportion of GDP, as countries such as France and Germany. We have to try to get better value from the money we spend. That is the intention of a lot of the Government’s work.
Many Members have pointed out that the problem has not arisen overnight. Child care costs have been rising steadily for the past 15 years. However, this year’s Family and Childcare Trust survey showed that costs in England are starting to come down for the first time in 12 years. In England, costs of nursery care are frozen in nominal terms and have fallen once inflation is taken into account. In Wales, the cost of equivalent nursery care has gone up by 13%, and in Scotland, by 8%.
The use of child care in deprived areas has gone up by 16% in the past year. We have also seen an increase in maternal employment rates and the number of women in work. That is because the Government have made an effort to streamline the complicated child care system we inherited. Whereas there were multiple bodies inspecting child care providers, Ofsted is now the sole arbiter of quality. We have also announced a single child care register that all child care providers should be on.
The right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who is not in his place, made an important point about older children. The Secretary of State has recently announced that for our next manifesto the Conservatives are looking at the idea of enabling and funding schools to open for longer hours to give an integrated offer to parents. The issue is not just about child care but about education.
I raised the fact that councillors are being asked to support our local nurseries and nursery classes, but are being told that they have to cut places from full time to part time because of the funding pressures of the offer. Does that meet the Minister’s objective of providing longer hours of care?
I am about to come on to the issues that are specific to London, and will address that point then.
We are absolutely passionate about quality and improving outcomes, which we know have previously been issues. There is an 18-month vocabulary gap between children from low-income and high-income backgrounds. That is a problem for all of us, because it means that children start school in different positions. We have improved the standards for early years teachers, so that they now have to meet the same standards as primary school teachers. We have seen a 25% increase in the number of early years teachers enrolling on courses in the past year. We are also raising the standards for early years educators. This week, we announced an early years pupil premium for three and four-year-olds, which means that there will be extra money for the most disadvantaged children aged three and four.
We have improved the Ofsted framework, so it now looks at the qualifications of staff in nurseries and is much more focused on outcomes. We have introduced Teach First for early years teaching, to make sure that we are getting the best and brightest graduates into that vital sector. Most importantly, we are working on a coherent framework for the teaching structure from the ages of two to 18, so that early years provision is not seen as an afterthought but as a core part of our education system.
I recognise that there is a greater challenge in London. That is why I launched an £8 million fund with the Mayor of London at the end of last year. That aims to unlock the £1 billion that the Department for Education spends on early years provision in London.
I very much agree with the comments on increasing flexibility. A lot of school nurseries offer parents three hours, five days a week. That does not fit with many people’s working patterns. It also does not use our school nursery resources very well. In London, 45% of early years places are in school nurseries, which are generally open only between 9 am and 3 pm. If those school nurseries were all open between 8 am and 6 pm, that would give 66% extra child care hours. It is not a question of building more facilities but of using our facilities better. Those nurseries could open for two five-hour sessions a day, offering multiple hours.
Forgive me, but I have to keep an eye on the time to make sure that I cover all the points that hon. Members have raised. I wanted to say specifically to the hon. Lady that the figure is even higher in Lewisham—half of all early years places there are in school nurseries. In Enfield, the figure is 42%. Think of the extra places we could provide if all those school nurseries opened for the longer hours I mentioned. It is not that the children should have full-time places; it is a question of parents being able to access places flexibly. Nurseries are entirely able to charge for the extra hours parents take, so they can open to suit the timetables of working parents.
That is why we launched the scheme with the Mayor of London and are working with different London boroughs. I would welcome the support of local MPs. Our officials have been discussing the matter with officials from Enfield and Lewisham in particular, as well as with officials from the three boroughs concerned. I hope that those discussions will help to address some of the issues. At the moment, we have fantastic resources, particularly in London, but we are not using them to full effect. That is a microcosm of the overall problem in child care and early years education: are we getting the best out of the facilities that we have?
If we look at the proportion of places that are in school nurseries, which is up 50% in some boroughs, and the fact that children’s centres provide 4% of child care, there is a much bigger issue to explore with regard to how we best use our school nurseries. In the Children and Families Act 2014, we have legislated for school nurseries to be able to take two-year-olds without having to register separately.
We probably share the same aspirations, but the Minister talks about enabling schools to do things, whereas I am interested in how she is going to make them happen. Some of the time, schools do not want to do those kinds of things, and neither the Government nor local authorities have the power to get us to the position that we all want to get to.
We are instituting a school-led system, and it is important that head teachers and other teachers buy into that. We are making things easier by removing a lot of bureaucratic hurdles for schools. It is in a school’s interest to have high-quality nursery education and child care in the school, to help children start school ready to learn, able to communicate and with the right vocabulary. We need to change the culture in education to embrace early years provision more, and move away from having rigid barriers.
We are looking at how admissions policy can affect these issues, particularly for the most deprived children, so that schools have an incentive to take children on. There is a massive opportunity in that area. Some school nurseries across the country have made those changes. They offer very affordable places for children and help their school to do better. That is why we are working with boroughs such as Lewisham and Enfield. We are producing case studies, getting the data together and encouraging schools. The right first step is to make things simpler and easier for schools. I welcome the support of hon. Members in championing this issue in various areas. We can get much better value for money from what we are doing.
I want the overall child care landscape to be understood, as there is a lot of confusion about exactly what proportion of children are in which type of place. In London, a high proportion of children are in school nurseries at age three and four. We are piloting more places for two-year-olds in schools. A high proportion of children are in private and voluntary sector nurseries. I am working with organisations such as the National Day Nurseries Association so that non-school nurseries can link better to schools, the private sector can learn from the public sector and vice versa, and there is less of a divide between them. That is how we will get positive professional practice in the early years sector—by encouraging more inter-working.
On the use of money and the example of Australia, the key point is that we need to make sure that we expand supply. I agree with the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) that if we do not, but simply push more cash in, there will be inflation. That is why the Government are making it easier to expand.
It is a pleasure to open this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. My contribution will not be terribly lengthy, which will enable other hon. Members to intervene or contribute, and to hear the Minister. I would like to start by referring to an e-mail that was sent to me recently. Knowing that I had secured this debate, quite a number of people got in touch with and wrote to me, as they feel so strongly about zero-hours contracts.
One gentleman who got in touch explained his life, saying that he lives to work and enjoys work, and wants to feel good about himself and perhaps own a house one day. He is signed up with an agency and has had various problems. Anyway, the agency felt that it could get him a job as a refuse collector. He has written me a long e-mail, explaining how he has turned up for work only to be turned away. He has had the odd day here and there, and he feels that the situation is like something from many years ago, where someone turns up not knowing whether he will be given work. He said that, when it started, he was “a little annoyed”, but “confused more than anything”. He said there were
“about 50 lads in that day and only 40 had work.”
“It just carries on like this. I have been here two months now, and only ever had one full week; to cover a holiday, it looks like. And you daren’t take a sick day; not like I would anyway if it could be helped…you would just lose your place and start at the bottom of the pile.”
Reading that, as I did last night, brought it all back to me as to why my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) and I started a campaign and a discussion on zero-hours contracts last summer. I will go on to talk about the numbers of people whom we do not know are on zero-hours contracts.
The issue is about people who are facing a difficulty in the workplace. It is about how that makes them feel. The indignity of feeling useless through unemployment is very bad, and we must never let up on our passion to get people into work and see the difference. However, it is no better to feel the indignity of turning up for work and being turned away. Zero-hours contracts can be used to make people feel as if their efforts are for no good at all and that they are not wanted. The issue is not just a fact of economics, but a moral question about how people are made to feel by certain features of our labour market. That is why we need real action. I want to say a couple of things about understanding the phenomenon of zero-hours contracts; about what the Government are or are not doing, and what they might be doing; and about such contracts as a symptom of other developments in the labour market.
Regarding counting, the Office for National Statistics said that the most recent labour force survey suggests that there are close to 600,000 people—I think the exact figure is 582,000—on zero-hours contracts in the United Kingdom. That is up from its previous estimate earlier this year of around 250,000. We knew that there was a problem with the survey’s counting of zero-hours contracts, because in a parliamentary response to me, the Minister of State, Department of Health, who has responsibility for care, explained that a national survey of care workers estimated that more than 300,000 people working in social care were on zero-hours contracts. There cannot be 300,000 people on zero-hours contracts in the care sector when there are only 250,000 nationally across all sectors. Therefore we knew that there was a problem, and now the ONS has said that there is.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important issue to Westminster Hall. Does she agree that the recent figure of 500,000 zero-hours contracts is quite conservative? Other analysis suggests that there are more than 1 million people on such contracts. For those 1 million people, there is no production or wages, and they have no economic input whatever. If we have 1 million-plus people on zero-hours contracts, is that not a way of fiddling the employment or unemployment statistics that we are currently being fed by the Government?
My hon. Friend has pre-empted exactly what I am going to say. It is interesting that a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Minister will respond to the debate, but we could do with having the Health Minister here, given how rampant zero-hours contracts are in the care sector. We could also do with the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), who has responsibility for employment, because I want to know exactly how many people we have forced to take jobs with zero-hours contracts to get them off the claimant count.
I join the congratulations to my hon. Friend on securing this enormously important debate. On the care sector, does she agree that such vulnerable contracts are exactly the opposite of what we need to build the status, training and career structure of care workers? Is it not a scandal that care workers are often not paid for travelling between one job and another, and are therefore being paid below the minimum wage for the hours they are working? Does Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs not need to start enforcing that?
My right hon. Friend has hit the nail right on the head. There is no better word for that than “scandal”. I will come on to say a few things about the care sector. He and I are as one in thinking that we need to develop the skills of our care work force.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. It strikes me that we are going back to a 19th century approach with zero-hours contracts. Going back to the ’30s, or even before the first world war, dockers or miners would turn up at the gates of a factory or the docks, a tallyman would throw something in the middle of them, and whoever was lucky enough to pick it up got a job. Whoever did not get it did not get a job. Zero-hours contracts are a 19th century approach. I was disappointed that nothing was said in today’s Budget to address zero-hours contracts and the cost of living. People on zero-hours contracts are badly affected by the cost of living.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Given the plethora of things that found attention in today’s Budget, it was a surprise that the Chancellor did not want to talk about zero-hours contracts, which seem to be at the heart of the Government’s approach to economic recovery.
I want to return briefly to the numbers. If the Minister has not yet clocked the problem, she ought to. The ONS has effectively said that previously it was undercounting due to the definitions in the labour force survey and/or a problem with people’s awareness that they are on zero-hours contracts. We now cannot tell what the trend is. The latest statistics may or may not represent a massive spike in the use of zero-hours contracts—I do not know. We cannot tell whether the statistics show a rise or a fall, because it is clear that the ONS has been undercounting previously. I would therefore like to know what further research DBIS has commissioned. As policy makers, we are in an awful situation—there is a phenomenon in the labour market, but we do not know what is happening. What further research has been or will be commissioned by DBIS, because unless we know whether the phenomenon is radically and exponentially increasing, how can we know what measures should be taken to tackle it?
Secondly, I would like to know what the Government are doing. The Minister will probably stand up and say that they have talked about preventing exclusivity clauses, which is okay and fine, but there is a raft of other ways in which the Government need to tackle the phenomenon, not least the one mentioned by one of my hon. Friends in relation to the Work programme and jobcentres. For example, are jobs on zero-hours contracts routinely being advertised through Jobcentre Plus and are claimants then sanctioned if they do not take them? I am afraid that it will not be enough for me to know whether a policy document exists. I would like to know whether the Minister believes that people are routinely being sanctioned for not taking jobs on zero-hours contracts, because it would be terribly serious if that were the case.
I have always said that if a small business offers opportunities on a zero-hours basis, as and when, and the person taking that job is in no way penalised if they turn down the hours—either they are a student or they just want to keep their hand in with a job but do not want lots of hours—that would be okay in my book. However, the problem is that we are in a world in which Jobcentre Plus is being directed to get the claimant count down, and we know that there are significant problems in the DWP and in that organisation. I am very worried about the idea that my constituents and others are being forced into employment on a basis that they do not really want or feel comfortable with because of current policy decisions.
I stand in this Westminster Hall debate today, proud of Wirral council, the local authority in which I am a Member of Parliament, because it has tried to adopt Unison’s ethical care charter. The council has said—to respond to the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith)—that in its commissioning, it wants to adhere to standards to ensure that, in the very important work of looking after older people or those who are vulnerable and need a bit of help, it is not participating in a race to the bottom. That involves moving away from zero-hours contracts, paying properly for travel time, trying to get to the living wage and ending 15-minute appointments.
Without going deeply into the care sector, we need to look at the role of central and local Government in preventing zero-hours contracts, in both their commissioning and procuring roles. We can try to lead from the front. I would like to know what conversations the Minister has had across DBIS on procurement and commissioning, and across the Government on moving away from zero-hours contracts and saying, “In general terms in our economy, it is not a hugely helpful phenomenon to have people with unpredictable levels of income at the end of each month.” Will the Government lead the way in trying to set the standard in the labour market? What conversations has the Minister had about that?
This issue has been mentioned, but I would also like to know what the Government are doing to enforce the minimum wage properly. It seems to me that there is a group of—not universally, but broadly—women in society who are at risk of not being paid the minimum wage. They are in a workplace in which they are not necessarily powerful, and they often have child care or other caring responsibilities alongside their job, and cannot be expected to expend the time and effort to take their cases forward. It falls as a duty on us in this House and on the Government to ensure that we stand up for those people and ensure that they get the minimum wage.
Without focusing universally on the care sector, there was further new evidence this week that it is becoming more difficult to have a predictable or the same carer all the time. Part of that is about the use of zero-hours contracts and their unpredictability. I repeat my question to the Minister: what cross-Government conversations has she had to find out what actions DBIS needs to take to lead in response to the phenomenon?
I do not know whether the Minister is aware, but zero-hours contracts are not the only problem in this sphere. Often, they go alongside the use of agencies and other ways in which people find loopholes to get around their responsibilities. I would not want us to bear down on the use of zero-hours contracts only to see the problem pop up in another guise. The Minister should be aware of that problem as we move forward. It should not be about closing down one way of getting around employers’ responsibilities, only for the problem to raise its head under another definition. The Minister needs to think carefully about that.
Before my hon. Friend concludes, I want to congratulate her not only on today’s debate, but on the significant work she has done over the past two years. She has concentrated to a certain extent on the care sector, but may I point her towards the fast food industry? With the bakers’ union, we have just launched a campaign in the fast food sector not only for the living wage, but to oppose the imposition of zero-hours contracts, because they are used by managers to intimidate workers. For example, if a worker seeks to join the union or seeks to exercise or make representations about their rights, they will be denied work under zero-hours contracts for the following week. We are seeing them being used as an intimidatory tool, as well as one of exploitation.
My hon. Friend is right. One of the worst things about zero-hours contracts is what I call “zero-hours contracts as a management tool”. People have brought cases to me where, for whatever reason, somebody’s face did not fit and they did not end up getting any hours. That is no replacement for the usual practices of good management and all the rest of it, so it is something that we absolutely need to be aware of.
Another thing that employers can practically do to help us to deal with the situation is encourage people to join a trade union—I would say that, being a Labour MP. People will not always have the capacity to raise such issues themselves, but with workplace representation, they can, and we can help on low-paid work issues, such as getting people skills and boosting their abilities. I am sorry to be so predictable—being a Labour MP and supporting people joining a trade union—but there is a reason for joining a union. A union is a practical bit of infrastructure that can help businesses to give their workers a sense of being involved in the leadership, and help to tackle some of these problems. I think good employers would agree with me on that.
I want to take the opportunity to thank parliamentary colleagues who have taken the time to come along to today’s debate. Most importantly, however, I thank every single person who has been in touch with me over the past week or so since I was awarded the debate. I also thank all the people who have been in touch with me over the past six months to share their experience. I felt the experiences of people working on that basis were totally hidden. They are not hidden now. The question is: what can we do about it?
I thank the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) for securing this debate. It is a very important issue, which has been widely discussed in the media, online and in both Houses of Parliament. She raised some important points.
The term “zero-hours contract” encompasses many different forms of employment relationship, in which the employer does not guarantee any work and the individual does not have to accept it when offered. Such contracts can be direct contracts of employment or can cover people working for agencies and so on, so they include a wide variety of different models of employment. The Government, and indeed most people now, believe that zero-hours contracts have a place in today’s labour market, but we need to make sure that people get a fair deal when they are employed on such a contract. The Government have always been clear that we will crack down on any exploitation of individuals in the workplace and the zero-hours contract consultation that has just closed is an important part of the process.
As the hon. Lady highlighted, there has been some inconsistency in the statistics on zero-hours contracts. The picture has been very mixed. That is primarily because there is no legal definition of a zero-hours contract, so it has been difficult to gather good statistics. The labour force survey, as a survey of individuals, provides an estimate of the number of people who identify as being on zero-hours contracts. The greater media coverage in 2013 is likely to have increased awareness of zero-hours contracts. The Office for National Statistics believes that that has led to the estimate rising from 250,000 people in the final quarter of 2012 to more than 500,000 people in the final quarter of 2013; in other words, it more than doubled. We do need to gather information and analyse it sensibly if we are to know exactly what is going on and to achieve the right balance between the opportunities and the risks that zero-hours contracts provide. The hon. Member for Wirral South asked what is being done on that. The Office for National Statistics has been looking at the issue and will release the results of its new survey in April. That will, I hope, give us more clarity about the current figures and the number of people working in this way.
Let me put the issue in a little bit of context. Zero-hours contracts can give growing companies the opportunity to grow in a relatively safe way and can be used to increase flexibility in the range of services that businesses are able to give their customers or clients—for example, by employing people in specialist roles and in different geographical locations that a permanent staffing model could not provide for.
The contracts are sometimes portrayed as simply a way for businesses to try to reduce labour costs, to the detriment of the people who work for them, but we have also heard in evidence that we have received that the contracts sometimes offer positive work opportunities to people who would find it difficult to take regular work at fixed times. For example, one quarter of all zero-hours contracts are taken up by students, who cannot necessarily commit to a fixed working pattern, as their timetables change. The contracts can allow them, for example, to be more flexible around exams and so on. Zero-hours contracts offer them an opportunity to gain useful work experience and to progress on to other forms of employment when they wish to do so. That is also true of many other people with responsibilities outside work—in particular, caring responsibilities. The additional flexibility that zero-hours contracts can provide can be greatly valued.
Having said that, we must be clear that although zero-hours contracts suit some people, they do not suit everyone and there are people on zero-hours contracts who would prefer to be in full-time, permanent work. I am sure that, as constituency MPs, we have all seen people in that situation.
Does the Minister agree with the comments from Lord Oakeshott, the Liberal Democrat peer, who said:
“A zero-hours Britain is a zero-rights Britain in the workplace—Beecroft by the back door. Being at the boss’s beck and call is no way to build a skilled, committed, loyal labour force”?
As I said, zero-hours contracts can have a place in the labour market. They can suit some people—students, people with caring responsibilities and others—but clearly they are not appropriate for everyone. Anecdotal evidence, including that highlighted by the hon. Member for Wirral South and by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), suggests that some individuals are being pressured into working when it does not suit them and have the implied threat hanging over them of being denied future work, which removes the flexibility for those individuals.
I will give hon. Members just one example. The bakers’ union convened a meeting of fast-food workers a month ago, and a Costa worker turned up. Because he had not smiled enough that day, he was not going to get any work for the following week. These contracts are used as an intimidatory tool by managers, and we all have to condemn that, do we not?
I completely agree. The behaviour that the hon. Gentleman describes is not right and is not appropriate for a responsible employer. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House completely agree with that.
Some individuals have been working regular hours for long periods only to find that they are “zeroed-down”—their hours are brought down—when demand falls, perhaps due to the loss of an order. Clearly, that dramatic change in working hours and the resultant income loss will have a significant impact on the individual, especially if they are the only person working in the household. When individuals have their income supplemented by benefits, an increase or decrease in hours and income can have quite a significant impact on their benefits, which can be very difficult to manage in terms of household income.
Hon. Members raised issues about the link between jobseeker’s allowance and zero-hours contracts. Clearly, the Government’s priority is to help people on benefits to move off them and into work as soon as possible. However, as the hon. Member for Wirral South highlighted, some media reports suggest that people claiming jobseeker’s allowance are being told that they must apply for vacancies that are advertised as zero-hours contracts. I must stress that that is not the case. In such cases, someone’s benefit would not be sanctioned. DWP decision makers cannot mandate claimants to apply for zero-hours contracts, although they are obviously free to apply for such a job if it would suit them. The uncertainty about the hours of work offered by the employer and about the amount earned and so on can present difficulties for individuals, so someone would not be sanctioned for not applying for one of those jobs.
It is very important that individuals make informed choices when applying for or accepting work, and employers must ensure that both job adverts and employment contracts are transparent. People have the right to know up front that a contract does not guarantee work, if it is a zero-hours contract, so that they know what they are signing up to. The evidence that we have received in the Department is that that certainly is not the case for everyone on a zero-hours contract, and that needs to be resolved.
Hon. Members have also raised issues about the care sector and the entitlement to payment for the time spent travelling between jobs. I want to be clear that employers must ensure that their workers are paid at least the national minimum wage for the hours that they work. Time spent travelling on business, including between house calls, counts as time worked for minimum wage purposes. Where the travelling time is time for which the minimum wage should be paid, any associated expenditure incurred by the worker in respect of that travelling is classified as being in connection with the employment. A worker who is paid at minimum wage rates would therefore need to be reimbursed the expenses for the travelling in order for the employer to be in compliance with minimum wage legislation.
I was about to come to exactly that point. We are aware that low pay is an issue for workers, particularly in the care sector, as hon. Members have highlighted. As the right hon. Gentleman just pointed out, HMRC enforces the minimum wage on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and it has been conducting enforcement activity in that sector. In November, it published a social care evaluation, which highlighted a very worrying level of non-compliance. In 51% of the cases that it inquired into, the minimum wage was not complied with, and it identified more than £400,000 of pay arrears.
The Government are trying to improve compliance partly by significantly increasing the penalties so that they act as a more effective deterrent, and HMRC is currently targeting enforcement activity on the care sector in particular. We have also revised the naming-and-shaming scheme—the most recent batch of names was published a couple of weeks ago—and it is now much simpler to name and shame employers that break national minimum wage law. We are trying to ensure that we are taking more targeted action, but also that the penalties are greater, both financially and in terms of naming and shaming, so that they will act as a more effective deterrent.
The hon. Member for Wirral South asked about working across Government on the issue of zero-hours contracts and procurement. Officials have spoken with the Cabinet Office in relation to Government contracts, procurement and zero-hours contracts. We are also working with the Department of Health regarding the use of zero-hours contracts in social care. The discussions are ongoing, and the information gathered during them is also being fed into our consultation response. This is a very complicated issue and, as hon. Members have highlighted, it is of great importance to tens of thousands of people throughout the country. We had more than 36,000 responses to the zero-hours contracts consultation, which closed last week, so people clearly feel very strongly about the issue. We are looking at the responses to the consultation and will publish our response very shortly. I hope that that will respond more broadly to some of the issues highlighted by hon. Members today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wirral South on securing the debate, because it is a very important issue. We all have constituents who have it right at the top of their agenda, and the Government are working on it.
Newspaper Supply Chain
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate. I commend the Minister because this is her second debate in a row.
The issue of the newspaper supply chain and independent newsagents is covered by two Government Departments, so it is important that independent newsagents know which Minister and Department they can go to. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister is responding this afternoon. I would be grateful if, in her response, she told us whether there are plans for one Minister to take the lead on this issue and oversee the policies that affect independent retailers.
Independent newspapers have been an integral part of many communities for decades. I am the daughter of former shopkeepers, and I spent more than 35 years living above a shop. My parents would go downstairs at the crack of dawn to open the shop, mark up newspapers and deal with the many challenges of the newspaper supply chain, so I have first-hand experience of the benefits to local communities of independent newsagents and the challenges of the newspaper supply chain.
Today is Budget day, so we should remember that our economy benefits from having prosperous, dynamic, independent newsagents; it is an important sector. Whether it is a friendly face at the counter who knows exactly what each customer comes in to buy, or a paper boy earning money for the first time and getting work experience—I have plenty of experience of delivering newspapers—independent newsagents offer high-quality, personalised services. As much as we welcome choice in where we shop, we all recognise that large supermarkets and online platforms do not do that.
Conservative Ministers deserve credit for taking action to support the sector. In particular, they have cut the small profits rate of corporation tax, increased the cap on business rates—that is an important step—cut fuel duty by more than Labour planned, reduced the burden on employers of national insurance contributions, and cut red tape, which has made a significant difference. The announcements in today’s Budget, apart from the usual increase in tobacco duty, with which we would not argue, also give independent newsagents a helping hand.
However, it is clear that over a number of years independent newsagents have faced difficult challenges that have forced many out of business. New tobacco controls have harmed responsible independent retailers. They have also driven many customers into the arms of illicit traders and smugglers, but that is a subject for another debate. The expansion of supermarkets brought more challenges. Changes to the newspaper and magazine market, including the expansion of existing newspapers’ online media platforms, new entrants to the market and the growth of free newspapers, have led to a decline in newspaper sales. The terms and conditions imposed on independent retailers by wholesalers are a part of the challenge they face.
I want to concentrate on the relationship between newspaper and magazine wholesalers and independent newspapers. The underlying trends and changes in how consumers digest newspapers and the news is highly relevant, because it has led to change in the marketplace.
Since the turn of the millennium, independent newsagents have suffered a fall in sales caused by the emergence of free newspapers—we all pick them up—that target the commuter market. The Metro and the Evening Standard, which are available in railway and underground stations, are two prominent examples. However, newsagents have also felt the impact of technological changes; more and more content is available online. All the main newspapers now invest heavily in their online platforms, which are updated minute by minute, particularly on Budget day. The growth in the use of smartphones and tablets has enabled news groups to provide news in a much more user-friendly way. Consumers are able to seek out and read news stories on other platforms, such as blogs. As a result, hard copy sales are falling. In the past two years alone—between March 2012 and February 2014—sales declined by 16% from 18.3 million to 15.4 million.
Despite the challenges that those changes pose to the traditional ways of selling newspapers, there are still some positive features for independent newsagents. Many people still go to their newsagent on the way to work and value the service they receive, and national news groups still see a role for print editions, which is important for independent newsagents. Few of us would find fault in news groups’ entrepreneurial and commercial decisions to use new technologies—we have all got to embrace new technology—or the cost-effective ways in which consumers digest news.
However, an issue that needs to be addressed, which places independent newsagents at a disadvantage and hampers their ability to compete and respond, is the wholesalers’ control of the newspaper supply chain and their vice-like grip on independent newsagents. The Minister is aware of the campaign that the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, the Association of Convenience Stores and many others in the sector ran to raise awareness about the lack of competition in the wholesale market. The are only two main wholesalers that operate in Great Britain: Smiths News and Menzies Distribution. They operate in what can be described only as a near monopoly, or near duopoly. National publishers of newspapers and magazines sign exclusive distribution rights deals with those wholesalers. Prices are set and there is no scope for independent newsagents to get involved in the negotiations, so their voices are not heard. A third wholesaler, Dawson Holdings, ended its magazine and newspaper distribution activities in 2009 after losing out on contracts with publishers.
Smaller independent wholesalers that traditionally operate at a local or regional level have been squeezed out as publishers have concentrated their contracts with Smiths and Menzies. As a result, if a newsagent wishes to trade in newspapers, they are effectively at the mercy of the wholesaler when it comes to terms and conditions, the quality of service—which many newsagents would question—and charges.
I commend the hon. Lady for raising this issue. Like her, I have been contacted by constituents and small newsagents who are penalised by Menzies and other wholesalers, and have had their contract conditions changed without negotiation or consultation. Will the Minister respond to that issue? If an independent newsagent has a contract, how can they be charged extra money without consultation? There is no thought for the independent newsagent, who makes little money as it is.
I completely agree. That is the reality of what we are dealing with. It is not a new problem; it has been going on for decades. There is a lack of negotiation, and newsagents are just a second thought. Any newsagent will be able to wax lyrical about the poor service they receive. From my experience in my parents’ shop, I have seen the supermarket down the road getting its newspapers first. When the newspapers are taken off the lorry, the independent newsagent is bypassed completely. That is simply not acceptable, but the wholesalers operate a virtual monopoly.
It is astounding that despite the monopoly conditions to which independent retailers are subjected, the Office of Fair Trading decided in 2009 and 2012 against referring the matter to the Competition Commission for further investigation. There is a strong case for opening up the sector and looking at the way those organisations are governed. That outcome is grossly unfair to the tens of thousands of independent newsagents who, as I know, are up at 4 am—before dawn—to serve the public. They work long hours to deliver a service for their customers, but they are forced to accept declining margins, higher charges and appalling service.
In my capacity as chair of the all-party small shops group, I am frequently contacted about this issue. I receive regular communications from newsagents across the country about the problems they encounter as a result of the lack of competition in the wholesale market. If a newsagent is dissatisfied with the products they sell and the terms and conditions they receive, they are hemmed in, because there are not many places for them to go. When it comes to general products, an independent newsagent can go to many cash and carries—of course they can, because there is competition in the marketplace—but they are limited as to where they can go for newspapers and magazines. There is simply no other avenue, which is why so many newsagents feel aggrieved. The market is stacked, rigged against them, and the Minister must review that.
The consequences of a lack of competition in the wholesale market and the dominance of the relationship between the publishers and wholesalers over independent retailers are profound. Notably, the margins that newsagents receive on newspapers are declining, and fast. Just as the cover prices of newspapers are set by the publishers, so too are the margins that retailers receive. When prices increase, the share that the retailer receives does not always follow. Some newspapers, such as The Telegraph and the Express, have accompanied their recent price increases with a pro rata rise in the amount received by the retailer, so that the margin remains the same. Many others, however, have not done so. The Mirror, for example, did not pass on a pro rata rate when prices increased from 70p to 80p in January, with the percentage received by retailers being slashed from 22% to 21%. In Scotland, the equivalent margin fell from 23% to 21%. Since January, it has been reported that one particular publisher has cut the margins received by retailers for 65 out of 138 titles.
It is understandable that publishers and wholesalers are looking for savings and efficiencies; I understand that the marketplace is changing. However, the arbitrary nature of decisions to cut retailers’ margins seems harsh—it is a blunt instrument—and the effect on profitability is pretty stark for independent retailers. I hope that the Minister will look into that aspect of the relationship between wholesalers and publishers.
On top of the fact that margins are being eroded, newsagents face higher costs from what are known as carriage charges, imposed by wholesalers. Originally introduced after the first world war to protect the universal availability of newspapers and their distribution to remote areas, carriage charges have soared over the past 20 to 25 years. I know that because my dad always used to complain about them. Despite the falling volume of newspapers and magazines being sold and distributed, carriage charges are rising and now represent the primary source of profit for wholesalers.
It says something about the effect of carriage charges in recent years when an increase of 2% announced by Smiths last summer was welcomed by some newsagents. That puts the figures into context. The fact that the steep rise in carriage charges has coincided with the signing of exclusive distribution deals between publishers and wholesalers, and with the collapse of competition among wholesalers, adds to the injustice that independent retailers feel—it is the icing on the cake—with a duopoly in place and the OFT failing to take action.
I think the hon. Lady’s dad was right. We debated this issue in this Chamber 10 years ago, when there were more wholesale distributors. We are now down to two, but they have cut their nose off to spite their face; they have forced the costs on to retailers, and now corner shops are going out of business and circulation is declining. Short-term profit-making is significantly undermining the entire industry in the long term.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The shops that we are talking about are the lifeblood of many communities. I have seen, over 35 years, a massive change; there is no doubt that we have seen many big changes. Increases in carriage charges are relevant not only to Great Britain but to Northern Ireland. Newsagents there have faced huge increases in the past 12 months alone. I would be interested to hear from the Minister about where there is scope to review the changes to carriage charges.
On that subject, the costs in Northern Ireland are exorbitant—I believe they are greater than here on the UK mainland. Independent newsagents have informed me and other elected representatives that it is getting to the point where they will have to decide whether to carry newspapers at all, because the margins are so tight. At the end of the day, it does not add up. Let us be honest: small shops are selling perhaps 100 newspapers, or 200 at the very most—there is no profit in that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a really interesting point. I make it my business to visit many independent shops, particularly newsagents, and I always ask about the number of newspapers they are selling. The figures are staggering, because they are declining at such a rate. I remember, when I was a child, the bundles of our Sunday newspapers being enormous—we were dealing with hundreds and hundreds of newspapers on a weekend alone. That landscape really has changed completely.
Along with all the additional costs, independent retailers are frustrated by the appalling service that they receive from wholesalers. Of course, that has a knock-on effect on their business and the quality of service that they can offer to their customers. When their newspapers are delivered late, people stop going to those shops. I hear many reports from newsagents about late paper deliveries. Other newsagents find that the wholesaler has given them the wrong order or the wrong number of newspapers, or that the supplier has gone to the supermarket down the road, and not to their shop.
Although there is a process by which a newsagent can complain, it does not change a thing. It just adds to the stress and frustration of running a business. Newsagents feel increasingly powerless to get redress for their situation. With the latest promotion by one supermarket chain—it gives away free newspapers to customers spending more than £5—the squeeze is being felt even more. Will the Minister update us on what action the Government are taking to investigate possible abuses in the supply chain and to ensure that independent retailers are not unfairly disadvantaged?
In conclusion, independent newsagents, some of which are dependent for 75% of their business on newspaper sales, deserve to be treated with fairness—the debate is all about fairness in the supply chain. Unless changes are made to boost competition and give them a fair deal, including involvement in negotiations and decision making, more and more newsagents will struggle to compete. We will see more withdraw from the marketplace because they will not be able to survive, and our communities will be much poorer as a result. One newsagent put it clearly:
“the big point that needs to be made is that falling sales, shrinking margins and disproportionately high carriage charges will before long drive many smaller news retailers out of the market, to the detriment of consumers—notably the elderly who may not be tech-savvy and digitally aware of the alternatives to print editions.”
I hope that the Minister will give due consideration to the points I have made, and will help us to see what can be done to support the future of independent newsagents. These are small and micro-businesses, and the Government are doing great things for similarly sized companies. The issue should be reviewed by the Competition and Markets Authority, and the Government should work with newsagents to assess the reforms that are long overdue. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
Thank you very much, Mr Dobbin—from one subject to another.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) for securing this debate on such an important issue, albeit one that is not raised as often in the House as the subject of the previous debate. I am present to address my hon. Friend’s concerns as the Minister with responsibility for competition, but I will ensure that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who has responsibility for retail and small shops—indeed, shops of any size—is aware of the debate as well, because it is an important issue.
My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that independent newsagents are an important part of local communities—they can be crucial—and of the UK economy more generally. I was therefore delighted to see figures from the Office for National Statistics—I have said that about five times today—that show that small stores are seeing annual growth of 8%, whereas larger stores are seeing growth of 2.6%. That shows that small stores have an important place in communities, and that their position is quite resilient.
The public’s ability to access a wide range of news, views and information about the world in which we live is absolutely central to the health of our democracy and society. Even in an increasingly digital world, access to a range of newspapers is a critical part of ensuring a healthy and vibrant democracy. It is important, therefore, that the market in the supply and retail of newspapers continues to operate in the best interests of consumers.
Newspaper publishers in the UK operate in a two-sided market, generating income from both advertising and sales. Publishers therefore take into account how circulation affects the revenue generated from both the cover price and advertising. On the other hand, wholesalers and retailers exist in a more traditional, one-sided market, so they are more likely to be interested in how changes to cover prices or delivery charges affect their sales volumes and profit margins. Although different elements of the supply chain clearly have different objectives, it is in their best interests to co-operate to promote effective newspaper sales, particularly in the face of changing consumer behaviour. As part of that, ensuring an efficient, cost-effective method of providing retailers and consumers with newspapers is important.
My hon. Friend raised concerns about competition in the market. Whenever the Government look at competition issues in sectors, they take into account assessments made by the UK’s independent competition authorities. In the case of newspaper supply, the Office of Fair Trading considered the market in a broad and detailed way over several years and, as part of those investigations, consulted widely and collected much evidence. In 2008, the OFT published competition guidance to the newspaper wholesale sector. It did not give the sector a clean bill of health on competition, but said that the industry should assess its distribution agreements against that guidance and make any necessary changes.
In 2012, the OFT looked at whether it needed to carry out a follow-up review, but decided it was unnecessary. As my hon. Friend said, the Association of Convenience Stores and the National Federation of Retail Newsagents appealed that decision to the Competition Appeal Tribunal, but the tribunal supported the OFT’s decision and said that it was right to consider that the likely consumer benefit did not justify undertaking a review.
That does not mean, however, that the UK competition authorities will not consider the issue again in the future. The new Competition and Markets Authority will launch on 1 April and take on the OFT’s and Competition Commission’s competition responsibilities. In the strategic steer to the CMA issued by the Government last October, we asked it to
“consider potential competition concerns in business-to-business markets, including the effects of differences in bargaining power between firms in a supply chain.”
This issue is therefore quite clearly in its remit.
The CMA’s draft annual plan showed that it is aware of the risks posed in particular by the current economic climate. If my hon. Friend has new evidence that anti-competitive practices in newspaper supply are causing detriment either to consumers or to businesses in the supply chain, I encourage her to submit that to the CMA for consideration.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised concerns about contracts being changed without consultation and negotiation. That is clearly wrong: contracts should not be able to be changed unilaterally. If he is aware of evidence of such behaviour, I encourage him to provide that to the CMA because it will have strong powers to take action against anti-competitive behaviour by businesses.
My hon. Friend also raised concerns about the impact on small retailers of supermarket chains offering discounted or free newspapers. I know that that issue has been raised with several Members by their constituents; it is a concern. Large stores can benefit from economies of scale and in this very competitive marketplace they look for inventive ways to increase their market share. That can make it extremely difficult for smaller shops to compete with them; smaller shops simply do not have the same capacity to provide such offers. I have already said this to some Members, but if small retailers believe that local supermarkets are behaving anti-competitively, I encourage them to raise their concerns with the CMA, because it is within its powers to look at this area. The CMA will have wide-ranging powers from 1 April to tackle such behaviour, and I will write to it with a transcript of this debate to highlight the concerns that have been raised today and to make sure that they are on its radar.
Looking more broadly than at the supply of newspapers, the Government are aware of the need to support small retailers, to help to drive sustained growth. My hon. Friend highlighted some of the things that the Government have done. For example, the autumn statement announced the biggest business rate support package for 20 years, to try to support small businesses, with measures including extending the doubling of the small business rate relief; giving a discount of £1,000 for smaller retail premises; and introducing the option to pay bills over 12 months rather than 10. We are keen to support small businesses, particularly as we come out of the difficult financial circumstances that we have been in recently.
Alongside that, in December last year the Government announced the town centre support package, which builds on a range of other measures that have been taken to help high streets. That package could be particularly helpful to independent retailers, many of which are in high streets. They are not out-of-town businesses—I have not seen a small, independent out-of-town newsagent—so that sort of policy can benefit small retailers as well.
In addition, the Government published, “Small business: GREAT ambition”, in December last year, which sets out our commitment to make it easier for small businesses to grow. It was published on small business Saturday, which I know a number of Members across the House took part in. That event gave everyone the opportunity to celebrate small firms and it is important that we do so; often, small firms get crowded out and it is difficult for them to have the opportunity to raise awareness of what they do and the part they play in our communities. One of the businesses that I visited in my constituency on that day is a fabulous newsagent and sweet shop. It is called the Royal sweet shop and it has now been in existence in Cardiff in the same place in the Royal Arcade for—I think—103 years. It has the most amazing display of sweets that I have ever seen—I think people’s teeth practically rot as they walk in. It was very nice to have the opportunity to support the important small businesses that add vibrancy to our town centres and our communities. They have an important role to play, not only at an economic level but in supporting our communities.
I repeat my thanks to my hon. Friend for the opportunity to debate this issue today. I hope that I have managed to make it clear that the Government and the competition authorities are concerned about this issue; it is an important issue that we take seriously. I appreciate the difficulties currently being faced by independent retailers; it is not an easy time for them. I hope that, as the economy slowly starts to return to health, small retailers will be able to take advantage of the opportunities that exist for them, and I encourage hon. Members to raise their concerns with the CMA. As I said, I will write to the CMA myself, to ensure that it takes on board the concerns that have been raised today.
Question put and agreed to.