Tuesday 21 October 2014
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
Relationships and Children’s Well-being
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Damian Hinds.)
I commend the Government for their groundbreaking work in beginning to put relationships at the heart of family policy.
The Minister can be justly proud of the Government’s progress in a number of ways, including: raising the care leaving age for young people who are fostered, acknowledging that ongoing relationships with foster parents can be incredibly redemptive for children whose birth families have been unable to raise them; transforming the adoption landscape, so that heroic adoptive parents get the support that they need, making it far more likely that they can provide a stable, loving family and that the adoption is as successful as possible; building on the existing evidence-based programme and approaches that help couples to strengthen their relationships and prevent family breakdown; and investing in parent-child relationships by launching the CANparent scheme, providing vouchers for free parenting classes in three trial areas.
The coalition must also be congratulated on recognising marriage in the tax system, acknowledging the greater stability of marriage. Unmarried couples with children are at least twice as likely to split up as those who are married, regardless of income. Furthermore, the Government established a cross-cutting Cabinet Committee on social justice—which rightly treats family breakdown as a driver and not simply as an effect of poverty—and appointed the Department for Work and Pensions as lead Ministry on the issue, to bring all relationship support policy under one Department. I also thank the Prime Minister for his speech in August this year in support of strong families.
I could go on, but I want to leave plenty of time to explain why relationships matter so much to children’s well-being and to make it clear that while that is a great start, it is only a start. The agenda has to be seen as a journey with a long distance left to run. It is like a ship that has finally set sail and edged out of the mouth of the harbour, but is still a long way from achieving its purpose in setting forth. What is that purpose? The over-riding priority for family policy has to be to tackle our epidemic levels of family breakdown in this country.
With the exception of our Prime Minister and a few others, some of whom are present—I acknowledge the support of Members attending the debate—politicians often hold back from talking up the benefits of marriage and committed relationships. They worry that by emphasising the need to support and encourage such relationships they will be seen as judgmental or moralising, or as adopting a “nanny state” approach. The costs of family breakdown, however, are enormous; at £48 billion, they exceed the defence budget. Surely it
“is not a nanny state so much as a canny state”
that tackles the issue—not my words, but a quotation from the conclusion reached by the Centre for Social Justice in its July 2014 Breakthrough Britain report, “Fully Committed? How a Government could reverse family breakdown”.
The CSJ has probably done more than any other organisation to put the issue on to the policy agenda. I pay tribute to the CSJ, to the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, for founding the organisation and inspiring so much of its work, and to the excellent work of Dr Samantha Callan.
The CSJ report states:
“Strong and stable relationships and families are indispensable to a strong and stable society. Secure, nurturing, loving and reliable family environments are crucial for the health and wellbeing of children, adults, and wider communities, and where these factors are absent this can have a profoundly damaging effect on the fabric of society. Yet for almost half a century there has been an escalation in family breakdown across Britain—divorce and separation, dysfunction and dadlessness.”
The report and the statistics speak volumes about why we have no grounds for complacency in this country. For example, by the time that children are sitting their GCSEs, nearly half of them live in broken homes. That proportion rises to two thirds for those in low-income communities, and we must highlight the fact that it is the poorest who are hit hardest by family breakdown. Almost half of all children under five in our poorest households are not living with both their parents, which is seven times the number of those in the richest households. One statistic in particular brought home to me the distorted priorities in our society: more teenagers have a smartphone than have a father at home.
We are known as the single parent capital of Europe, with one quarter of families with children headed by lone parents. That figure rises significantly in our poorest neighbourhoods and can be as high as 75%. Other countries are doing much better. In Finland, more than 95% of children under 15 live with both parents, and the OECD average is 84%. Many parents raising children on their own are doing an amazing job against the odds, but few set out to do that—it is rarely a lifestyle choice. They find it incredibly difficult and they do not want their children to be in the same position when they are older.
Why does stability matter so much for children? Surely the most important thing is that they are safe? Surely if a relationship is no longer loving and nurturing for the adults and children involved, it is time to call it a day. Campaigners against domestic abuse often argue against an emphasis on stability, on the grounds that violent and controlling relationships should not be stable and need to end. I will explain why, however, it is overly simplistic to pit safety against stability.
Not for one minute am I saying that a partner who is being subjugated or suffering significant and severe abuse should be under any societal or economic pressure to remain in an exploitative relationship. Nor am I saying that the poor status quo of low-quality relationships, even where there is no abuse, should simply be endured because of an ideological emphasis on stability. Relationship education, support, counselling and therapy represent a spectrum of help for those who do not want their relationship to end, but deeply want it to improve. That is why this and future Governments need to keep investing in effective programmes and research on what works.
Parents’ desire to stay together is often rooted in their awareness that relationship breakdown profoundly affects children. Children whose family splits are more likely to experience behavioural problems, to underachieve in school, to need more medical treatment, to leave school and home earlier, to become sexually active, pregnant or a parent at an early age, and to have poorer mental health and higher levels of smoking, drinking and other drug use during adolescence.
That is explored in another report, which was produced last month by a number of parliamentarians. I was privileged to be involved, under the leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), who I am pleased to see present today. That important report, “Holding the Centre: Social stability and Social capital”, which I hope the Minister will read, if he has not already received a copy, states that social capital is the wealth of our nation:
“While economic recovery is an essential foundation, it is not enough. Debt burdens, housing costs, worries about social care, and lack of confidence that all will share the fruits of domestic hard graft and global competitiveness weigh heavily. Fractured relationships are both a cause and consequence of these issues.
Strong communities and extended families can build both financial and social capital, increasing wellbeing and reducing long-term pressures on public spending. Every department of the government should therefore be crystal clear about the extent to which it relies on family and community relationships and the costs of that contribution being compromised.”
The report welcomes the Prime Minister’s announcement of a “triple test” for family policy, so that
“every government department will be held to account for the impact of their policies on the family”,
and it states:
“He is right to say that ‘whatever the social issue we want to grasp—the answer should always begin with family’.”
The report highlights the Prime Minister’s comment that
“to really drive this through, we need to change the way government does business”.
It makes a number of recommendations that, as I have said, I hope the Minister will look at and will respond to in his speech.
My simple and unapologetic message is that, for children, what matters is a trinity: relationships that are safe, stable and nurturing. The United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the equivalent of Public Health England, treats safe, stable and nurturing relationships—or SSNRs, in our acronym-prone world—as one of the essentials for childhood. It states:
“Safe, stable, nurturing relationships…between children and their caregivers…are fundamental to healthy brain development”
“shape the development of children’s physical, emotional, social, behavioral, and intellectual capacities”,
all of which ultimately affect the whole of their lives as adults. Children’s mental health rests largely on their benefiting from safe, stable and nurturing relationships.
The three dimensions of safety, stability and nurture are all important aspects of the social and physical environments that protect children and are indispensible to their fulfilling their potential. Safety is the extent to which a child is free from fear and secure from physical or psychological harm. Stability is about the degree of predictability and consistency in a child’s environment—including consistency in the people to whom children relate—as well as how they interact with caregivers and others.
Stability gives a child a sense of coherence and enables them to see the world as predictable and manageable. Without it, they may not form the secure and nurturing attachments they need for optimal development. Moreover, if the adults around them are not in stable relationships, it can make it more likely that a child will be exposed to relationships and environments that are stressful and unsafe. Many stepfathers are incredibly caring and conscientious, but sometimes living with unrelated males is a significant risk factor for child maltreatment, as in the baby Peter tragedy and many other serious child abuse cases.
Nurture concerns the extent to which a parent or carer is attuned and responding to the physical, developmental and emotional needs of their child. Nurturing relationships make a child feel safer and able to embrace new situations and explore their world with confidence. I should say that it is not one-way: one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life has been nurturing and bringing up two boys, who are now aged 18 and 21. Safety, stability and nurture overlap, and all matter. Children are more likely to grow up with all of them if their parents’ relationship is intact and high in quality.
In a worrying situation, over the past few days and weeks, world leaders and national Governments have been calling other countries to account over their lack of action on the Ebola outbreak. The scale of such a challenge requires all the wealthy nations of the world to plough in significant resources and make a sacrificial effort. Small gestures will not stem the tide. I would argue that exactly the same can be said about stemming the tide of family breakdown.
Evidence from the Healthy Marriage Initiative in the United States shows that those states that put a significant amount of resource into the poorest communities saw correspondingly significant increases in children growing up with both their parents and declines in child poverty. The states that did not had far less to show for their efforts. Our Government’s own research has already shown that Relate’s couple counselling and Marriage Care’s marriage preparation courses show a more than elevenfold return on investment through savings due to reduced relationship breakdown—that is, for every £1 invested, over £11 is returned to society. Courses such as those show that relationship skills can be learned. We need more of them in our society, in which so many people—particularly young people—embark on relationships with no role model for how to sustain a healthy relationship over time.
I am reminded of a discussion I had with a colleague in my law firm. It had become clear to me that our family department was advising on divorces for couples in shorter and shorter relationships. I asked the head of the department, “What is the shortest marriage that you have advised on now?” He turned to me and said, “The couple did not even end their reception. They had a row during the reception and came to us for a divorce.” Does that not highlight a lack of understanding of what commitment means, certainly in a marriage?
I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment not to allow funding for relationship support to drop below the current level as long as he is in post. But that level is meagre in comparison to the scale of need: it is just 0.02% of the cost of family breakdown. I understand that public finances are tight and that there is concern that the evidence base for effective programmes and approaches is still slender. However, surely the answer is to build on that base. Sir Graham Hart urged the previous Government to do that in the review of relationship support they commissioned him to undertake in the late 1990s. It is important to note that this is a cross-party issue. It concerns colleagues right across the political spectrum and should be above and beyond party politics. Any Government, of whatever colour, should treat it as a priority.
Relationship science is a growing and respected field of research in the US. One of its foremost proponents, Professor Scott Stanley, argues that we know enough to take action and we need to take action to know more. We have already learned a lot about what works in helping and supporting couples, but we need to keep on learning and improving all the time. Evidence matters enormously, so I am delighted that this Government have recently conducted their own family stability review. It is essential that the findings of the review are published soon, for the benefit of local authorities and commissioners of services.
We also need a What Works centre for families and relationships—not a vastly expensive proposition considering its potential return: the Early Intervention Foundation was set up at a cost of £3.5 million and is already making a huge contribution to local authority decision making. A What Works centre would help enormously in refining a curriculum for relationships education in school. It is critical that relationships are the priority in relationships and sex education in schools. There is hardly a person I know who does not agree with that. The subject should be a compulsory part of the national curriculum, drawing in local relationship support organisations as well as specialist teachers. Last week’s heated media discussions over the footballer Ched Evans’s rape conviction show how vital it is for all young people to understand issues such as consent, equality and respect in relationships, as well as commitment and the importance of enduring relationships.
We also need children’s centres in every community to evolve into family hubs where parents can get help with their own relationships, not just with parenting. Although all this help and support has to be delivered at a local level, it is essential that the policy agenda is championed nationally, otherwise it will have no hope of competing for time, money and attention in an already impossibly crowded set of priorities. Although I am aware that individual Opposition Members are extremely concerned about this issue, I am disappointed that apart from the shadow Minister there is only one Member on the Opposition Benches today, from the Democratic Unionist party, the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea).
As chair of the all-party group for strengthening couple relationships, I had the privilege of hosting the launch yesterday, here in the House of Commons, of the Relationships Alliance’s excellent manifesto. That manifesto makes some excellent practical suggestions, including calling for a Cabinet-level Minister for Families with a properly resourced Whitehall Department. That would greatly help to ensure that the recently introduced family test for public policy is meaningful.
The manifesto has 12 points intended to challenge Government and promote cultural change. They include the suggestion that all front-line practitioners delivering public services should receive training on relationship support; that family and relationship centres should be piloted and established in the UK, as in Australia, where the Government have made a 20-year commitment to addressing the issue; that central Government should engage local authorities to develop and extend relationship support at local level; and that both local and central Government should ensure that services are designed to help at life transition points, so as to include a focus on couple, family and social relationships. Lastly, although there are other recommendations I have not mentioned, the manifesto says:
“The expanded Troubled Families programme should include a focus on supporting and measuring the quality and stability of couple, family and social relationships.”
I acknowledge, and pay tribute to, the four organisations involved in producing the manifesto: the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, Marriage Care, Relate and OnePlusOne.
To conclude, the Minister will agree that there is no shortage of ideas. In my brief speech, I have referred to three substantial reports on this subject, issued in almost as many months this summer and autumn. The challenges are huge, but they must be addressed—whatever the colour of the next Government, and by us all. The relationships manifesto states:
“Clearly, government…can only go so far, and it requires collective action from citizens, business, civil society and government to create the condition for people’s relationships to flourish.”
I urge this Government to grasp the nettle of family breakdown more firmly than has been the case before. That will immeasurably help this and future generations of parents to massively boost their children’s life chances, enabling them to face the future full of hope, to reach their potential, and to be fully confident that they are loved and that they matter. As the CSJ’s report says,
“Without concerted action across government and beyond to address our epidemic levels of family breakdown there is a danger that the agenda will be lost”,
and it is the children in our society who will pay the highest price.
It is a pleasure to take part in this vital debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing it and on championing, not only in this debate, but over the years, the importance of supporting the family.
It is extraordinary that the debate is not better attended, but despite the lack of attendance among Opposition Back-Bench Members, with the exception of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), we do face an epidemic, as my hon. Friend said, and it has been going on for many years. This epidemic needs the same attention we would give any other epidemic in our country, and it is interesting to reflect on that as we consider how well we are dealing with the scale of the problem.
My hon. Friend paid tribute to the report from the Centre for Social Justice. She mentioned a number of statistics, and one that struck me was that if we carry on in the same way, it is likely that, by the end of the next Parliament, more than half of children taking their GCSEs will come from broken homes. As she said, that is of particular concern as a social justice issue; in low-income households, half of those from the ages of nought to five do not live with both parents. The issue has been highlighted by not only the CSJ, but the recent Good Childhood inquiry, which said that family breakdown and conflict have the biggest adverse impact on children’s well-being.
I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister, who is with the Department for Work and Pensions, is taking a lead on this issue—quite properly, given the Secretary of State’s long track record on addressing family breakdown. However, it must be said that if our country was facing any other epidemic, Cobra would get together, and the Prime Minister would probably lead the meeting. There would also be a whole set of plans, and a significant amount of money would be thrown in to try to address the problem. I welcome the fact that the lead on addressing this epidemic is being taken by the DWP, but should it not be taken across Government at Cabinet level, as my hon. Friend said?
The Prime Minister has taken a lead—in fact, more than any other Prime Minister—not simply at the beginning of this Parliament, but very much as we get towards the end of it. I attended the speech he gave in August, in which he set out the steps we have taken, which are significant, and what we are doing now. My hon. Friend highlighted those points, but I should also emphasise the significant amount that continues to go into relationship support. That is welcome and important, but in many ways, it is the minimum we need to be doing.
Adoption reform is fantastic; what is happening is significant, and it must be welcomed. The belated introduction of the marriage tax allowance recognises the significance of marriage and helps to support it. The work done in the troubled families programme is also welcome. However, in many ways, that is only the minimum we should be doing to address the tide of family breakdown and instability, which is taking a huge toll on all our communities, but particularly the most deprived.
We should not simply accept that family breakdown is inevitable. We have to look at other countries. Sadly, we top the league of instability and family breakdown. There needs to be a shift, but it is not one that the Government can engineer; there needs to be a cultural shift, which will allow us properly to promote the benefits of marriage and committed relationships.
I do not want to give a commentary; in many ways, we all agree about the problems, the challenges we face, and the good steps the Government have taken. Instead, I want to address three issues. One is fathers. As we all recognise, fathers matter, but 1 million children in Britain today have no significant contact with their father. That is a huge problem and a huge shame. We all accept that fathers matter in family relationships, and we must do more to support fatherhood.
It is interesting that the Minister is here, because we need to do more in two areas. One is the joint registration of births. Schedule 6 to the Welfare Reform Act 2009 provides for the joint registration of births. Mothers are automatically registered, but unmarried fathers are not, and they have to go through a process to get on the birth certificate. I understand that the provisions have not been implemented yet, and they have no doubt been delayed by legitimate concerns about wanting to avoid problematic issues—for example, preventing a violent father from automatically registering and assuming responsibility for the child. However, the legislation does provide for exceptions, and I do not understand why we have not motored on with a decent piece of legislation introduced under the previous Government to ensure that, at the very least, we make it easier for fathers automatically to register. Being registered on the certificate is hugely significant; it says loud and clear that the father, as well as the mother, matters at the very start of the child’s life. Flowing from that, other shifts can take place, in terms of the father’s responsibility and the way in which he can be involved practically. Will the Minister therefore tell us how far we have got with implementing the legislation?
It is also important to look at how registration can happen practically. It does not need to happen at the registry office. Like others, I know the difficulty of getting everyone to the registry office to register. When couples are not married, or there are problems in a relationship, that can be even harder. We therefore need to look actively at registering births at children’s centres. That was recommended by the CSJ, and I ask the Minister to examine whether the Department for Education can look at the benefits. In particular, it has been recommended that we look at our children’s centres as real family hubs, where mothers and fathers can be together to access information and help to support their children. Even if there are problems in relationships, the mother and the father can still be involved in the child’s journey. Children’s centres can operate better as a wider family hub.
The second issue is one that does not always get a mention: grandparents and the extended family. Families come in all shapes and sizes: they go up, down and along in terms of their length, breadth and depth. We should recognise the unsung heroes of families—the 14 million grandparents in Britain today. They range widely in age, and we should not stereotype them. Half are under 65 and one in 10 is aged 50. One in four working families rely on them increasingly for child care. I understand from Grandparents Plus that they contribute some £7.3 billion of child care to society. We need to understand their role. They provide important practical and emotional support for parents, which is particularly needed in crises.
Kinship care is in some ways the poor relation in family policy. The Government have rightly done a lot about adoption, providing rights, support and access to information for adoptive parents. However, grandparents and other kinship carers are not on the same level. I invite the Government to think about how we can go forward on the reform of kinship care. It has such a significant role—particularly, as the Minister will know, when a child, or indeed a parent, has a disability. Grandparents can have an informal or formal role, and their involvement builds social capital within the family, but they also gain a lot of value themselves from being involved in the care of their grandchildren. It helps with their independence, and can avoid huge bills for social care subsequently. Much more active support for their role would be a win-win situation for the grandparents and the children.
In reality, grandparents struggle, particularly in crises. It is thought that up to 300,000 children are being brought up by 200,000 grandparents who carry out the role of family carers. In many instances domestic violence, drug or alcohol addiction, abuse and neglect are involved in the situation, and the only person who can be turned to is a kinship carer. That might be a grandparent, but it could be a sibling or other family member. Such approaches can also be important in crises, such as when there is a bereavement, an imprisonment or a combination of such factors. The reality is that 95% of children living with members of their wider family do not have formal looked-after status within the care process. Without that, kinship carers inevitably do not receive the same rights and benefit entitlements as those who provide formalised care. The evidence is that children do much better where there is a kinship relationship. Stress, anxiety, depression and isolation affect kinship carers immensely, and without the levels of support available to others, that is growing. Kinship carers may be affected by issues to do with housing and the availability of discretionary payments to enable them to cope during crises.
What can be done about the situation? When he gave the speech that I have mentioned, the Prime Minister was asked a question about kinship care and he said:
“You do see sometimes grandparents stepping in and effectively bring up children, and of course under the rules they don’t get quite the same set of rights as others. What you are saying is that if you can extend to adoptive parents things that birth parents have in terms of rights, couldn’t you do that for grandparents?
That is something I am very happy to look at in terms of manifesto, and we have got some Conservative MPs”—
in fact, there are two hon. Members present for the debate who were there at the time—
“who have got some responsibility for giving me ideas on that front, so I am sure they will take note of it.”
I encourage the Minister to take note, and consider the possibility of a local authority duty to consider the wider family before children are taken into care.
The Department for Education came up with good guidance in April, which states that
“the local authority should identify and prioritise suitable family and friends placements, if appropriate…before care proceedings are issued, as it may avoid the need for proceedings.”
That is very welcome; we need to think about how far that is embedded in local authority practice. The Department also said in guidance in April that foster carers should have 20 days’ paid leave for training and meetings, and that included grandparents who look after children. We should, furthermore, consider entitlement to adjustment leave to give kinship carers time to deal with family crises without losing their jobs. If the arrangement becomes permanent, they should be entitled to that leave. We should consider support based on need, not just legal status.
Quite often, when social services step in when families are experiencing breakdown or trouble, instead of looking first to the grandparents, who may have affection for and a relationship with the grandchildren, they look at them suspiciously. Social services should be looking in their direction.
Yes, there can be almost a presumption that a child should go into stranger care, rather than family care. That would run counter to many cultures, but sadly such an unwelcome culture shift exists in our society. An attempt is being made to shift things through the guidance, but that shift needs to be embedded in practice.
I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says about kinship care. Campaigners such as Grandparents Plus and the Centre for Social Justice talk about bringing in some equivalent to adoption reform. For example, it was welcome that the Government introduced the passport for adoptive parents, to give them access to continuing support for housing and schooling. If adoptive parents can have it, why cannot kinship carers, who play such an important equivalent role, also have the right to request assessments of need, information on legal status, and support? I should welcome the Minister’s views on that, and on benefit system support to enable kinship carers to care for traumatised children. I understand that the Department for Work and Pensions is progressing that, with the distressed children review, and it will be interesting to see the conclusions.
I want finally to mention mental health. A child’s well-being is wrapped up with their relationship with their parents and family, and the need for a stable, supportive, nurturing relationship is also wrapped up with their mental health needs. Whether the parents—ideally two parents—are around is an issue, but so is the quality of parenting, which affects children’s well-being and emotional and mental development. It may perhaps go without saying that when the parents are in conflict, the anxiety, depression and anti-social behaviour emanating from family relationships can have a direct impact on children. It may not go without saying, perhaps, that family breakdown is strongly associated with poor mental health in adults and children. We need to tackle mental health issues. The Government recently advanced a welcome mental health strategy, but it did not mention how conflicts between parents and in fractured families affect children’s mental health. Perhaps that is a given, but it needs to be explicit, because we need to consider how work can be done with whole families to tackle the causes of problems. The Good Childhood inquiry report has recognised poor parenting as a significant contributory factor in increasing mental health problems.
What can we do? The Government deserve to be applauded for the improving access to psychological therapies programmes, which have been extended, and into which a significant amount of taxpayers’ money has gone. They are focused particularly on cognitive behavioural therapy, which is perhaps the normative response, and which has been expanded. I understand that couples therapy for depression has also been expanded within IAPT programmes. Some have expressed concern to me that when someone goes to their GP with depression, the response does not go beneath things, into the causes of the depression within the family, which could well be family problems.
I understand that only a quarter of IAPT programmes offer couples therapy, and that only 0.62% of IAPT sessions have delivered couples therapy. That seems to be out of kilter with what is happening on the ground. It is only rarely considered as an option. Millions of pounds are going into IAPT, particularly for cognitive behavioural therapies, but it seems to be inappropriate that little is going into couples therapy.
I do not want to take up more time, because colleagues have a lot to contribute, but to return to where we started, we have a huge problem. There has been significant progress, but we must pull all levers of Government, together, to promote a cultural shift and show that we are on the side of families and better relationships, in the interests of children’s well-being.
It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my good friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this important debate. The subject needs discussion and careful and considerate handling, but it is right to examine how we nurture children’s well-being and what support exists to ensure that children in this country can benefit from the best possible situation when growing up. It is not enough to observe family breakdown and its wide implications for society and then say it is nothing to do with the state because we are frightened to death of seeming to moralise about people’s private choices.
I am here this morning because I believe we should look at the evidence in our society. As my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) said, the evidence is overwhelming. The Government must look at the evidence, suspend their reticence about getting involved in family circumstances, and act. It is right to acknowledge the Government’s progress. I, too, heard the Prime Minister’s excellent speech in London in August when he set out what the Government have done and his aspiration to go further.
This morning, I want to use my contribution to focus on the importance of children’s relationships with their fathers to amplify some of the points that my colleagues have made.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that good relationships and respect in society start in the home and in the family? Parental responsibility is essential and cannot be handed over to anyone else, not even the state. However, Government policy must encourage and strengthen the family unit instead of undermining the traditional family unit in society.
I agree absolutely that we must look at how relationships are formed in the home and recognise that families exist in a wide range of sometimes sad circumstances. We must not be squeamish about being honest about messy situations, but recognise that solid family relationships give children the best platform to develop good and meaningful lives in society.
I want to focus on the importance of children’s relationships with their fathers, especially when fathers cannot live with their children. I believe that fathers’ involvement boosts children’s self-esteem and confidence and that children with good relationships with their fathers are less likely to experience depression or exhibit disruptive behaviour at school. When fathers are actively involved in their children’s care, children are more likely to feel good about themselves, do well at school, avoid trouble and reach their potential.
Several months ago, a lady came to my surgery saying that her relationship with her partner had broken down after they had lived together for 10 years. During that relationship they had brought up their own child and another child who had been born a year before the relationship began. The acrimony of the breakdown of the relationship had led the departing father to arbitrate on which child—they were only a year apart in age—he would want to have contact with. The one who was not his blood relative—the stepchild—wanted to maintain the relationship because the man was the only father figure he had known, but his birth child was more reticent about seeing his father. The impact of the disruption on those children and the arbitrary removal of that father influence would have tragic consequences. That experience typifies many that we hear about in our surgeries and throughout society, and we must respond to it.
It is highly worrying that the Centre for Social Justice has estimated that more than 1 million children have no meaningful contact with their fathers by the end of their childhood. The shocking but quotable statistic that a young person is considerably more likely to have a smartphone than a resident father is a sad indictment of society.
The coalition’s programme for Government promised to encourage shared parenting from the outset and to look at how best to provide greater access rights to non-resident parents, but I would like to highlight three areas where we could do more. First, we should bring into force schedule 6 of the Welfare Reform Act 2009 on joint birth registration, which requires fathers to register themselves on birth certificates. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate said, there seems to be some ambiguity about why that has not happened. At present, the law on birth registration signals that fathers are less important to children than their mothers and that less is expected of them. If they are not married, the mother, not the father, is named automatically. Crucially, the mother’s approval is required if the father wants to be named. Obviously, there must be appropriate exemptions, such as when the mother does not know the father’s identity or whereabouts, the father lacks capacity within the meaning of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 or the mother has reason to fear for her safety or that of the child if the father is contacted in relation to the registration of the birth.
If that change was made and the mother wanted the father to be recorded, but that was against the father’s wishes, the mother could identify the father independently. Similarly, a father who wanted to be named but was obstructed by the mother could declare his paternity and have his name recorded against her wishes. Being named on a birth certificate confers parental responsibility and the right to be involved in decisions affecting where the child lives, their education, religion and medical treatment. If fathers are not registered on the birth certificate, that predicts both less involvement in their children’s lives and low or non-payment of child maintenance. Australia achieved a reduction of 20% in mother-only registrations during the 10-year period between 1994 and 2004 by adopting a similar measure.
Secondly, if parents separate, it is often highly beneficial to children if they continue to have a relationship with both parents. Yet it can be incredibly difficult to ensure there are well functioning contact arrangements with children. That can be incredibly painful for children, but it is understandable because parents’ inability to work together rarely repairs itself naturally after they have split up.
At this point, I want to refer to a meeting I had on Saturday in Salisbury, where I gave out some awards to volunteers at Salisbury’s contact centre, and in particular to Liz Sirman, who has spent the last five years managing that contact centre. I said then, as I do now, that it seems we can either say that the glass is half-full or half-empty. We can either say that it is lamentable to have children’s contact centres, where parents’ relationships are so broken that they have to rely on volunteers to arbitrate—one partner delivers the child and goes, and another comes to collect the child, and then there is the same process in reverse—or we can pay tribute to the work of such centres, as they try to rebuild relationships and help those families form better relationships in the interests of the children.
We need to be willing to support families once parents have separated. The Department for Work and Pensions innovation fund has invested significantly in better ways of doing that. Additionally, we need family relationship centres, such as those that have been functioning in Australia for several years. Pioneering centres such as Island Separated Families on the Isle of Wight and the Jersey Centre for Separated Families will shortly be joined by other centres in the midlands and the north-west of England. Their help for separated families could be delivered within the system for family hubs mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton.
Finally, although the contributory principle in child maintenance is indispensable, it should not have the unintended consequence of preventing non-resident parents from playing a meaningful role in their children’s lives. Some low-income parents are being left with too little money to look after their children adequately while they are in their care after paying child maintenance. That is because the current thresholds at which maintenance is paid are fixed at 1998 prices, and there is no self-support reserve in our system, unlike in many other countries.
This is a critical and controversial area, but we have to examine the reality of how these dynamics are working for the poorest in our society. We need to look at making interventions that change those rules to facilitate better dynamics between, and more involvement of, both parents in bringing up a child. I know that the Minister, who is universally seen as one of the most capable and thoughtful individuals in Parliament, will reflect very carefully on these points. I look forward to hearing what he has to say in response today and subsequently by letter, if some of these issues cannot be responded to today, but I urge him to reflect on the spirit and the substance of what has been said this morning. We are here because we can see an epidemic of family breakdown in our society. We are concerned about the life trajectory of those children, and I urge him to do anything that he can to improve that situation, such that those children can look forward to better lives, with both parents involved in their upbringing.
The debate is due to end at 11 o’clock and we have two Front-Bench speakers. If they split the time, it is 18 minutes each, but the debate does not have to run all the way to 11 o’clock —it is entirely up to them. I call Steve McCabe.
Good morning, Mr Hollobone. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this debate. It is right that we should consider the impact of relationships on the well-being of our children, and we should take into account how Government policy can assist in this area.
I do not start with a wholly pessimistic view of relationships. It is true that marriage rates are declining, that less than 50% of British households are now headed by a married couple and that half of those marriages may end in divorce, but the divorce rate is also declining.
That may be one explanation, but we are seeing a downward trend in divorce—I simply make that point.
I was going on to say that I was struck by a bit of research done by the counselling organisation Relate, in 2012. It highlighted the fact that 93% of people said that they still regarded their relationship and family network as the most important thing in getting them through hard and difficult times. If we listen to the media or other people, it is at times tempting to think that we are living in a society where family relationships have completely broken down, but that is not quite our experience. Families—albeit sometimes new or reconstituted families—still form the backbone of our support system. In the era of same-sex marriage—which it is difficult for some people to acknowledge—we are not talking about a single model of marriage. We could be talking about cohabiting, heterosexual, homosexual and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It varies in the world we now live in.
Relate also suggests that one of the things that puts the greatest pressure on families is the state of our economy. Relate says that couple relationships are eight times more likely to break down as a result of economic pressures. In the era of austerity Britain, we need to take that into account.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree—particularly in the light of all that we have heard, even in this debate—that the lack of secure, stable and nurturing relationships in a child’s life is a fundamental driver and a cause of inequality and poverty, that tackling it is progressive and that it needs to be a priority, whatever party is in power, over very many years to come?
I certainly agree that, as the hon. Lady’s colleagues have also said, we should be putting a high priority on what is happening to our children, the quality of the relationships they are growing up with, and what we can do to assist and facilitate the best possible outcomes for children in those circumstances. However, we have to be conscious that what happens to couples is not divorced from economic policy either. We need to take that into account when considering some of our spending cuts. I was struck by the assertion by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that an increase in working credits could be related to a 160% rise in the divorce rate. I would like to know a lot more about how he arrived at those figures.
I urge the hon. Gentleman to take a longer view of family breakdown and not just see it as confined to the last four years. He should recognise that before the great recession, family breakdown was a significant issue and was not just a result of Government. We are also talking about a cultural problem that has been around for many years and we have still not dealt with it properly.
I certainly accept that we would not want to try and explain family breakdown over a period of just four years. I will make the point later that there are a variety of issues; I am simply focusing on the fact that if we are considering the impact on how Government policy assists, we should not ignore the economic factors.
The hon. Member for Congleton referred to Dr Coleman and the OnePlusOne group, which makes the point that evidence shows that where couples enjoy a good employment situation, that in itself leads to a stronger relationship. That may be because they have fewer financial worries or a stronger sense of personal identity. I do not want to dwell on the issue unduly, but I do want to make the point that we have heard about family centres and the need to give Government support, and there are a couple of things from the past four years on which we should reflect. We should ask whether the decision to scale down Sure Start has necessarily been in the best interests of children.
I would just like to point out that across the country there are 420 of the children’s contact centres to which I referred, and they have never, throughout their existence, received any support from the state, but are supported by volunteers up and down the country.
The hon. Gentleman is right: contact centres do not receive state funding. Sure Start centres did, but there are 628 fewer of them since the Government came to power, and I suggest that they have in the past been used as a source of support for a number of parents and families.
Likewise, there is an issue about the availability of child care. That is why, to be fair, both parties are putting quite a stress on child care availability at present. We disagree about the best way to provide it. Obviously, I am much more attached to Labour’s model of providing between 15 and 25 hours for three and four-year-olds. We have to recognise the cost of child care.
I noticed that the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), in what was a very thoughtful speech in a number of areas—I certainly agree with him on the question of kinship and grandparents—mentioned the married couple’s tax allowance. It is worth pointing out, if that is an instrument of policy to help families and children, that it is available only to one third of married couples. It applies to only 4 million of the 12.3 million married couples, and only about one third of them have children, so when it comes to targeting a policy to help children, it would be possible to do a bit better.
I entirely agree. It would be possible to do better, and many Government Members hope that there will be an increase in the allowance over the years to come, but the importance of the allowance is that for the first time for many years, and because of this Government, it has sent a clear message that this country recognises and values the commitment that people make to each other through marriage. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that commitment is worth applauding?
I simply make the point that if one third goes to pensioners who do not have children, it is a question of targeting. I can see what attracts the hon. Lady. I am not saying whether a married couple’s tax allowance is a good or bad idea; I am saying that if we are talking about targeting the policy, it is reasonable to say that it would be possible to do that a bit better. We could have a disagreement about that.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate has mentioned that there are many factors besides economics. That is borne out in the briefing that the Relationships Alliance provided for this debate. It talks about a host of other factors that can affect people, including gender, age and marital status. I am not suggesting that there is one single thing. I think it would be interesting to spend some time looking at the factors involved. I noticed that the general focus of the remarks from the hon. Member for Congleton was on child well-being. I am also grateful to the Relationships Alliance for the things it had to say in that respect. It points out that children growing up with parents who have good-quality relationships or ones in which there is a lower level of conflict, even if the parents have separated, tend to enjoy better mental health and do better in a variety of other ways.
I thought that the point made by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) was that we should be careful not to think that this area is something that Government or agents of the Government can always address. Parents have their own responsibilities; they have to decide what the impact will be if they separate. I am not suggesting that people who reach that conclusion should not be allowed to do so, but it does seem—if I can take the example cited at the outset—that very little thought can have gone into the operation if people are capable of separating before the end of the wedding reception. It strikes me that people perhaps need to adopt a bit more responsibility. When people decide that they must go their separate ways, they have a responsibility to consider the impact on their children and to shield them from the anger and bitterness that may be part of their separation but should not be part of their children’s lives. That is a very strong argument for encouraging mediation for couples contemplating divorce or separation.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate talked about some of the mental health implications. It comes as no surprise to discover that children who are regularly exposed to intense and poorly resolved conflicts involving their separating parents often suffer more as a result of that than from the separation itself. The hon. Member for Congleton talked about the value of the return on relationship counselling. She talked about the return on every pound spent. There could be an argument for saying that there should also be counselling for children who are exposed to this situation. I do not know whether that is where the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen) was going with his comments about family centre models, but it seems to me that this is not just about the two individuals who are separating. I am happy to see money spent on providing relationship support for couples and help for couples who are going to separate, but just as much needs to be spent on the children.
Then, of course, we have to think about some of the broader things. We need better sex and relationships teaching for children in our schools and youth clubs. I know that the hon. Member for Congleton is a great fan of teaching children how to budget and manage their own affairs and how to start a business, but we also need to help them on issues of health, including sexual health, and sexual relationships. The recent Children’s Commissioner report on child sexual exploitation in teenage gangs is frightening, particularly the degree to which children who do not have sufficient support are in danger of thinking that what they see in porn movies is a reasonable model for how they should behave in relationships.
Of course, the issue of fathers is crucial. Like other hon. Members, I am kind of tired of the number of cases that I see at my advice centre of fathers who have really done nothing wrong. Their relationship has simply come to an end. Where there is no question of abuse or violence and no question that the father has done anything other than be part of a relationship that has come to an end, it seems to me that no court and no parent has a right to deprive that father—or that child—of that relationship. In that context, I am particularly impressed by the work of the charity Families Need Fathers, which does quite a lot to try to bring people together in these circumstances.
A key policy ask of the Relationships Alliance is that the Cabinet Office expand its What Works network to include a What Works centre for families and relationships. Will the Minister say whether he has any plans to take up that suggestion?
It is tempting to say a lot more, but I am conscious of what you said about the time, Mr Hollobone. I want to conclude by congratulating the hon. Member for Congleton on securing the debate. She is absolutely right to say that this is an area to which we must give the utmost consideration.
Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, does he recognise that there has been a huge step change in one of the issues that affect well-being, namely the number of children growing up in households with at least one parent in work? The reality is that there has been a reduction in the number of workless households, and there are now some 200,000 more children growing up in households where at least one parent is in work. That must be a huge factor in their well-being. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that step change and the way in which the Government have shifted from children the burden of growing up in workless households?
It is absolutely right that children should not have to grow up in workless households. Of course, the issue about working is the other stresses that it may place on parents, particularly single parents, so we also have to consider factors such as the value of work, the level of pay and child care.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing the debate. I am not the most tribal of politicians, but I note what my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) has said: it is disappointing that only Conservative Members—with the honourable exception of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea)—were present, although the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) made a thoughtful speech. I would have thought that all Members of Parliament would take seriously the question of relationships and children’s well-being. Listening to the remarks made by the shadow Minister and by my hon. Friends, it struck me that we all encounter such difficult family situations in our constituency surgeries. We understand how complex such problems are, and we know that there are no simple answers. The ideas proposed by all hon. Members today are worthy of consideration.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for her supportive words yesterday at the launch of the Relationships Alliance manifesto, where she introduced my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who has been a supporter and champion of this area of policy for some time. She kindly paid tribute to my right hon. Friend for having founded the Centre for Social Justice, and to the work that the centre has done. We are talking about a central area of Government policy, and I know that my right hon. Friend leads it with pride.
My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of focusing efforts at the earliest possible opportunity to prevent the damage that poor relationships can cause, and I will say a little more about that later. I will set out some of the work that we are doing through the social justice strategy and the social justice Cabinet Committee, and some of the progress that has been made on putting into practice the ideas that she talked about.
My hon. Friend mentioned some figures on family breakdown. The social justice family stability indicator—that is a bit of a mouthful, but I will not turn it into an acronym—shows that 250,000 more children now live with both of their birth parents, 75,000 of them in low-income households. Evidence shows that cohabiting parents are four times more likely to have separated by the time their child is three years of age and, by their child’s fifth birthday, more than one in four of those who cohabit have split up. For married parents, however, the break-up rate is fewer than one in 10. That is something that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State focuses on, and I think it is the foundation. It is not any form of prejudice; it is the evidence behind the Government’s wish to recognise marriage in the tax system.
The Prime Minister made it clear in his speech at the Relationships Alliance, at which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton were also present, that we support those who bring up children in all circumstances. It is a difficult job. There is, however, something about the commitment that marriage entails that enables those couples to stay together. That may be to do with the characteristics of those who choose to cohabit compared with those who marry, and the fact that those with good-quality relationships may be more likely to marry in the first place, so one has to be careful about causal links. That is, however, why we want to support marriage.
My hon. Friend gave a good example of people who probably had not given much thought to getting married or, indeed, to staying married. People who are married know that marriage is not a bed of roses and it has to be worked at, as my hon. Friend’s story illustrated. That is the reason for the introduction of the transferable tax allowance for married couples, which my hon. Friends have welcomed, from next spring. The policy sends out an important signal about the value of marriage. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister talked about the proposal he made the point, as did the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, that marriages can be between men and women, men and men, and women and women. The policy is not a discriminatory one; it is available to all who have committed relationships of that sort.
I was delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton set out why we need safe, stable and nurturing families. I will not join her in using her four-letter acronym—one of my missions in politics is to avoid acronyms and talk in plain English—but she made a sensible point. The approach that underpinned the cross-government family stability review was to make sure that children benefit from those characteristics, whatever the structure of the family, and whether the parents are still together or have separated. The point came through clearly from all contributions that the important thing is the relationship between children and parents, whether or not the parents are still together. That review was supported by evidence from a range of organisations, and the Relationship Alliance and its constituent bodies were involved in that process. Most of the points in the manifesto that the Relationship Alliance launched yesterday were picked up in the stability review. As my hon. Friend knows, the key policy findings of our review were announced by the Prime Minister in his speech to the Relationship Alliance summit in August.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate asked what action we would expect the Government to take if this were any other sort of social problem. As he acknowledged, the Prime Minister is leading on this. Family relationship support has been brought together under the Department for Work and Pensions, so there is better co-ordination and oversight, and the Prime Minister has committed to investing at least £7.5 million in relationship support every year for as long as he is Prime Minister, as my hon. Friend acknowledged. It is worth remembering that that is not the only funding; there is also £448 million a year, with an increase of £200 million next year, for the troubled families programme, which my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton and for Enfield, Southgate mentioned. That is a significant sum of money, which will be used to help some of the families who need it most in a joined-up, co-ordinated way so that they have one point of contact with the state and they do not have to deal with a range of organisations. The expanded programme will work across government with an additional 400,000 families from next year.
I thank the Minister for the emphasis that has been given to the troubled families programme. Will he elaborate on how the leadership shown at national level by the Prime Minister and Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions could be replicated at a local level? At present, I do not believe that we see such leadership. We do not see champions. One problem that has been highlighted in several of the reports that I referred to is the fact that local data on relationship strength to inform local authorities’ health and well-being strategies are inadequate. Will the Minister touch on what is being done to encourage local authorities to improve that?
I will say one thing now, and I will write to my hon. Friend about the more detailed work that we are doing. The troubled families programme has helped by bringing together not only bits of central Government but local agencies in partnership with the local authority. In my local authority in Gloucestershire, local leadership and local agencies have been brought together as a result. Let me take away that thought, and I will speak to colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to find out what work is going on at local government level and whether we can do more to create a joined-up process.
The Prime Minister also set out the family test, under which we will test all new domestic policy to see what its impact will be on families and family relationships. I think that is an important step. I will not touch on the other areas in great depth, because I want to talk about some of the issues that were raised in the debate.
My understanding is that the family test will effectively apply from November. From that time, as Departments develop domestic policies they should consider the impact on families. My hon. Friend made some sensible points about grandparents and wider family relationships. I am particularly familiar with the extra responsibilities of parents with disabled children and the help that they receive from grandparents and the wider family. He raises sensible points, and the Government are considering such issues. We have ensured that grandparents can claim child maintenance if they are the main carers. I know he also welcomes the Department for Education’s guidance on care, which recommends that local authorities now consider family options first before taking children into local authority care. There are obviously further ideas, and I think he ascribed both to himself and to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) the Prime Minister’s invitation to contribute ideas both directly to him and to other Ministers on how we can make further progress in this area—not that either of my hon. Friends need inviting to contribute on policy areas in which they both have a long-standing interest.
We are also looking at piloting relationship education in both antenatal and post-natal provision, and we are looking at national guidance for health visitors, who are well placed to spot early signs of relationship distress. Through Early Intervention Foundation pioneering places, we are also considering joined-up approaches that we can take with local authorities. Those ongoing trials may shed light on the suggestions for What Works centres made by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, including using those children’s centres as family hubs. The shadow Minister also specifically mentioned the What Works centres.
I think there is general consensus among colleagues that we should recognise and support the involvement of both parents, and I hope colleagues welcome that following the Children and Families Act 2014 there is now presumed shared involvement of fathers and mothers alike. The welfare of the child still rightly comes first, but there is now explicit recognition that, except where there are specific reasons why not, the presumption is that the child should have contact with both parents. That recognition in the legal system is welcome.
The Government are also spending £10 million on the help and support for separated families innovation fund—it is admittedly not a catchy title—which covers 17 projects aimed at testing interventions to help parents going through a separation to work together and resolve conflict. Up to September 2014 those projects engaged some 53,500 parents. The projects consider innovations in delivering those services and the outcomes that we receive from them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton also mentioned the appointment of a Cabinet-level Minister with responsibility for families. The Prime Minister said in his speech that, as well as bringing together all relationship support policy within the Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will be that Cabinet-level Minister. The Secretary of State has a long history in this area, and he is very pleased to have been given that responsibility by the Prime Minister. The Secretary of State considers himself responsible and accountable for families, and he is already effectively doing that within the social justice Cabinet Committee, which he leads on some of those issues.
Those are some of the things that the Government have been doing, and in the remaining minutes I will address some of the issues that colleagues have raised in this debate. Both my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury and for Enfield, Southgate mentioned joint birth registration, which was introduced in the Welfare Reform Act 2009. I was shadowing this brief at the time, and I distinctly remember those debates. Joint birth registration is a more complicated issue than it seems at first glance because, as both my hon. Friends mentioned, there are exemptions in the legislation for difficult cases. Other ministerial colleagues are considering that issue, so it would be sensible if I arranged for the relevant Minister to write to both my hon. Friends, to all Members attending this debate and, indeed, to you, Mr Hollobone, so that we can have a detailed response. In my constituency I have experienced cases such as those raised by the shadow Minister in which fathers have been involved in the upbringing of their children and want that important relationship to continue, regardless of the fact that their relationship with the children’s mother has broken down. I will consider that carefully.
The shadow Minister spoke about children’s centres. As of February 2014 there are 3,019 main children’s centres, with a further 531 sites open to families and children. Since 2010, despite the significant financial challenges that we inherited from the Labour party, only 76 centres have closed. Indeed, six new centres have opened, and 90% of eligible families in need are registered with their local centre. That sounds like a pretty good record on providing such support at local level, even where there have had to be very difficult financial savings to rebalance the public finances.
I welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate said about mental health. My Department is working on the improving access to psychological therapies pilots with the Department of Health. Those pilots are important for ensuring that we do a much better job not just of addressing children’s mental health—he will know that that is one of the passions of the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who has responsibility for care and support, and it is a passion shared by both coalition parties—but of helping adults with mental health problems either to stay in or return to work. Less than half of adults with mental health problems currently work, so the Government must improve what we are doing. I hope my hon. Friend welcomes what we have done so far, and I hope over the months to come he will welcome our work to improve that still further.
My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury referred to an award he gave to Liz Sirman, who works at a children’s contact centre in his constituency. I am a glass-half-full kind of guy, so I welcome the Government’s support for the work of volunteers in helping to support families and children who have experienced difficult relationship breakdowns. Such work is welcomed, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend was able to recognise it so publicly at the weekend.
The shadow Minister referred to the importance of mediation when a relationship breaks down, and in the Children and Families Act there is now a statutory requirement for people to consider mediation before they rush off to court, which is helpful. There will clearly be cases in which mediation simply cannot work, but the fact that it has to be considered and in people’s thought processes before lawyers get involved is helpful—I am an accountant, so I can be slightly rude about lawyers. Having more mediation to support relationships means that, even if the parents’ relationship cannot be preserved, the relationship with their children can be preserved, which is welcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury mentioned child maintenance thresholds, and the Minister for Pensions has committed to reviewing the formula and the threshold once the current reforms have been safely implemented.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate did a good job of responding to the shadow Minister on the economic issues, but I have a couple of further points. First, children are three times more likely to be in poverty if they live in a workless family. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are now 290,000 fewer children living in workless households, which is good news. That means that there are 300,000 fewer children living in relative income poverty than when the Government came to office.
Finally, the shadow Minister referred to the importance of work and people being in jobs, which is why I am sure he will join Government Members in celebrating that there are now 1.8 million more people in work who are able to bring home a pay packet and contribute to their family. That is a positive note on which to finish this excellent debate, which was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton.
Infrastructure Investment (Stroud)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to see the Economic Secretary to the Treasury in her place. I will raise a number of infrastructure-related issues involving my constituency.
In 13 years, the Labour Government were effectively unable to find funding for the necessary redoubling of the Stroud to Swindon railway line. Just last week, finally and quite properly, we formally opened that redoubled line with the Princess Royal, as a result of the coalition Government’s delivery of £45 million. The project will make it possible for my constituents to get to London faster, for tourists to get to Stroud more easily and for further works on other lines to take place while the redoubled line is used as a relief route. That is exceptionally good news for the valleys and vale, and it clearly demonstrates that the coalition Government are delivering more investment in our rail network. To put it in context, we will have electrified 880 miles of railway line by the next general election, whereas Labour, in their entire 13 years in government, electrified just nine. The contrast between our commitment to infrastructure investment in railways and that of the previous Labour Government is stark.
The second big project for which I have been campaigning successfully is £5 million of investment in the GREEN—Gloucestershire Renewable Energy, Engineering and Nuclear—Skills Centre at Berkeley, a training centre for renewable and nuclear energy and engineering. The great triumph is that the project will be housed in the former Magnox engineering works for the Berkeley power station, which is being decommissioned. The process is effectively complete. It is a useful project for my constituency, in terms of providing opportunities for young people in the key areas of energy and engineering. It has been spearheaded by Stroud college, now merged with Filton college, and it is yet another example of our focus on delivering opportunities for young people by ensuring that further education can develop, and by providing facilities, such as through the infrastructure investment of £5 million at Berkeley.
That is the background to my submission for other investments in the valleys and vale in the forthcoming years. Following the success of getting £45 million for the redoubling of the Stroud-Kemble railway line, £5 million for the GREEN project at Berkeley and a load of other additional moneys, I want to set out the case for more investment in the valleys and vale.
I start with my campaign for a university technical college in Berkeley. When we have the buildings for the GREEN Skills Centre, it will make sense to have a UTC, so that we can focus on engineering and provide appropriate skills for our growing manufacturing sector, particularly in advanced manufacturing, an area in which Stroud already has an excellent reputation. Firms such as Renishaw, Delphi, Dairy Crest, Omega Resource Group and others contribute to an exceptional level of growth and huge opportunities for young people.
That is why we currently enjoy just 1.2% unemployment, a huge change from what I inherited back in 2010, when more than 1,400 people were unemployed. That number is now 630, largely because the real economy has taken off. We are not only translating that into jobs for hard-working families, improving their chances of avoiding poverty, as the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), said in the previous debate; we are also seeing some growth in wages and salaries. That is really impressive, and it is exactly what I want to bring about.
The second project that I will discuss is investment in Stonehouse. It is absurd that people from Stroud and Stonehouse must go via Gloucester or Swindon to get to Bristol. It is not good for growth or for individuals seeking opportunities in Bristol or elsewhere. I want a railway station in Stonehouse, so people can get from there to Bristol easily and swiftly. It is appropriate because the business case stacks up. There is substantial growth in the business parks in Stonehouse, and there is also a case for ensuring that commuters can get to Bristol and Birmingham more easily. The project would be easily facilitated if we could get agreement from various stakeholders, and if it were consistent with the electrification of the line, which is targeted for 2020.
I believe that infrastructure can produce growth in areas that have been a bit isolated. Sharpness is a good example. At one point, it was connected to the Forest of Dean by a bridge over the Severn. There is a case for doing so again. Not only do the communities like to be together—they would like to be reunited—but Sharpness has a huge amount of growth potential, with a thriving port and many industries around it. Connecting it to the Forest of Dean would bring more growth and ease congestion around the A40 and A38.
One project that deserves special mention is tackling the A417 bottleneck. It is bang in the middle of Gloucestershire, and it has a terrible record of road accidents; deaths are all too frequent. We must end the congestion that it causes. Gloucestershire county council has made a strong case for something to be done. I am keen for the Minister to recognise the strength of that case, so that we can deliver for Gloucestershire a solution to a long-term issue that has caused problems for not just the people of Gloucestershire but people going through the area, the industries, supply chains and everything that depends on decent connections.
It is also critical to consider the M5. That is more of a long-term project, but junction 14 is a source of difficulty for commuters and hauliers due to the peculiar traffic arrangement there. It is also important to recognise the need to improve access from Dursley through Cam to the M5. I have not yet made up my mind whether that will involve reconstructing junction 14 or building a new junction, because that is properly a matter for civil engineers to explore, but we need to get that debate on the table.
Essentially, I have set out infrastructure projects for the future of the valleys and vale that make a huge amount of sense in terms of economic growth. There is a good case for each of the projects, and taken together, they will provide opportunities for our young people and businesses to thrive and prosper, which is exactly what we want. I set up a commission to look into those matters, which is why I can use so much evidence and so many facts to support each case. I thank the various members of my commission, including Councillor Penny Wride, John Stanton and Robert Evans. They and many others have contributed powerfully to the discussion on these issues.
I ought to mention that infrastructure is about not just roads and rail, although they are important, but protecting the valleys and vale, so reference needs to be made to the tremendous work that the Government have done to ensure that we are properly protected against flooding. The Environment Agency has done a huge amount, having received funding for various projects, and I am off to Lapper Ditch on Friday to see the results of the £700,000 being spent on a significant flood defence project there. That work is all about recognising that the area I represent has huge value, needs to be protected and has people who make massive contributions to our economy and who need to be supported. I am pleased, therefore, that we have made so much progress in improving flood defences. Of course, there is more to do and I will constantly ensure that flood defences are maintained and, where necessary, improved. We need to be vigilant, but I want to put on the record my thanks to the Government for contributing so much additional money in recognition of the need to defend our beautiful part of England, which is the valleys and vale.
To reinforce my case, I have surveyed a large number of people in my constituency about which infrastructure projects they think are important. They have saluted the projects that have already been delivered, to which I have referred. Indeed, almost all the projects I have announced have attracted considerable support in the survey. It is a real piece of evidence that needs to be taken into account. People understand what we are trying to do and why, and therefore they support our efforts.
I have received a huge amount of advice, and it is critical that I demonstrate that it has underpinned so much of the efforts that I have talked about. For example, the Institution of Civil Engineers has been a really interesting source of advice, in terms of the value that it attaches to infrastructure investment. Closer to home, the local enterprise partnership has been powerful in articulating the case for these projects. In fact, in its former guise, as Gloucestershire First, it was pivotal in helping to secure the £45 million of funding from the Government, and it has also helped to promote the case for the GREEN project at Berkeley through its strategic economic plan.
Gloucestershire county council—and indeed Stroud district council, although it is Labour-led—has been quite good at advancing the case for investment. Stroud district council has, in its plan, the idea for a bridge from Sharpness to the Forest of Dean, and it recognises that Stonehouse railway station needs to be upgraded or moved. I can therefore say that a large number of stakeholders have contributed to this discussion, and I am really pleased to make that point to the Minister as further evidence of the strength of the case I am making.
With the economy growing in the Stroud valleys and vale, there are some pressures. One of them, slightly paradoxically given my emphasis on road transport, is a shortage of lorry drivers, newly trained lorry drivers in particular. I want to put on the record the need for us to encourage young people to consider that career as a possibility, because if we do not deal with logistical challenges, we might find that growth does not happen as quickly as we would like, or in the way that we would like. I make a plea to anyone listening to this debate: consider encouraging young people to move into haulage.
My last point is that for three years I have been running a festival of manufacturing and engineering. I have attracted support from a wide range of businesses, and I have made sure that schools and colleges understand and support the idea that young people can have a future in manufacturing and engineering. If we consider that in the context of how our real economy can grow, it is our responsibility to put in place the infrastructure for that growth to happen unhindered. That is why it is important for us to have better links with London, through rail; why we need improvements to roads through Gloucestershire, such as the A417; why we need facilities to train young people in engineering and the energy industries; and why we need to take the whole package together and consider what we can do next for the Stroud valleys and vale, to ensure that any growth is not only sustained but increases.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. I am delighted to be here in Westminster Hall today, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing this debate.
The quality of a nation’s infrastructure is one of the foundations of its growth and, of course, the living standards of its people, so ensuring that Britain has first-class infrastructure is a crucial part of our long-term economic plan, supporting businesses, creating jobs and providing a better future for all our citizens.
We need to equip the UK to compete on the global stage by giving businesses the infrastructure they need to thrive. That is why the Government have put long-term investment in transport, energy, telecommunications, flood defences and intellectual capital at the heart of our growth plan. Because of the tough decisions we have taken in day-to-day spending, we can prioritise public investment where it is most needed and create the right conditions for private investment in infrastructure, where such investment can bring value for the taxpayer.
The national infrastructure plan sets out the Government’s strategy for delivering the infrastructure that the UK will need during the next decade and beyond. Our intention is to improve further our approach to planning, financing and delivering this critical economic infrastructure as we go through a significant period of renewal. We have outlined a pipeline of projects and programmes worth more than £380 billion, and in the Budget we published further analysis of how we expect that pipeline to be financed. That work builds on the long-term funding settlements we have already announced for sectors such as roads, rail and flood defences, and the steps that we have taken to support private sector investment.
The national infrastructure plan not only sets out the Government’s decisions as to what infrastructure our country will need during the next decade and beyond but sets out our strategy for how we will bring that infrastructure about. It lays out how the pipeline of projects will be financed, building on both the long-term public funding settlements that we have already announced —£100 billion of capital investment in projects during the next Parliament—and the steps that we have already taken to support private sector investment, for example through the creation of the UK guarantees scheme and by ensuring the independence of our regulators for key utility sectors. It also lays out the action that we have taken to strengthen planning, whereby a number of improvements have helped to take the number of planning approvals to a 13-year high.
We are continuing to streamline the system, including through the new specialist planning court for infrastructure, which opened in April, and the measures published in the Infrastructure Bill. The national infrastructure plan also lays out the action that we are taking on delivery, to make sure that we have the capability in the public sector to deliver projects on time, on budget and to specification. That also means having delivery bodies with the right structure to provide the autonomy and operational flexibility that are necessary to ensure success. Corporatisation of the Highways Agency will provide that in the roads sector, where we are about to see the biggest programme of investment since the 1970s.
We are already making big progress. Major infrastructure projects are now being completed, including major improvements at Reading station, smart motorways to relieve congestion up and down the country, and a new terminal 2 at Heathrow to enhance our international connectivity. In fact, more than 2,000 infrastructure projects and improvements have been completed over the last four years.
In this financial year alone, more than 200 projects are due to start and another 200 are due to complete, and that will directly support over 150,000 jobs in the construction industry. These projects are part of £36 billion of investment planned for 2014-15.
The Government are taking steps to ensure that the benefits of investment in infrastructure are distributed across the country to generate growth, create jobs and help rebalance the economy. The south-west region is no exception, with more than £18 billion of planned investment in the published infrastructure pipeline across 31 different projects and programmes. This investment includes a number of key projects within the Government’s top 40 priority infrastructure investments, including Hinkley Point C, the first new nuclear power station in a generation, and the Great Western rail electrification—my hon. Friend knows that work is currently under way to improve one of Britain’s oldest and busiest railways. Other projects include the A380 Kingskerswell bypass, which is currently in construction; the expansion of the National Composites Centre in Bristol as part of the Government’s science and innovation catapult programme; supporting the roll-out of superfast broadband with more than 6,500 premises now passed by the south Gloucestershire and Wiltshire broadband scheme; and the designation of Bristol as a super-connected city.
I, too, welcome the completion of the redoubling of the track from Swindon to Kemble. This key piece of infrastructure will support our wider ambitions to electrify the Great Western main line, significantly improving connectivity for the south-west. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his persistence in making the case for this work. I am sure that it will make a positive contribution to those living and working in his area. I confirm that it was indeed extra cash found by this Government in its very first Budget that enabled the Swindon to Kemble line improvements to go ahead.
Along with my hon. Friend, I welcome the local growth funding provided to the Gloucestershire local enterprise partnership to convert the redevelopment of Berkeley power station to provide a training centre for science, technology, engineering, and maths skills. This is just part of £62.5 million provided to the local enterprise partnership by central Government, and it will bring forward at least £80 million of additional investment from local partners and the private sector.
I thank my hon. Friend for his active engagement with the local community and am interested to hear his further ideas for infrastructure improvements in the Stroud valleys and vale area. He can rest assured that I will write straight away to my ministerial colleagues in the Department for Transport, asking that they provide an update on his proposals for a new station at Stonehouse, an additional Severn crossing at Sharpness, a solution to congestion on the A417 and improvements to the M5 at junction 14.
In the meantime, I hope that both he and I can agree that the Government should continue to focus on their existing commitment to deliver key infrastructure schemes throughout the country, including in the south-west.
Separated Families Initiative
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I understand that the Minister for Pensions, who normally leads for the Government on this area, is unable to be here today, but I am sure we can have a helpful and productive debate. I welcome the Minister for Employment in his place.
Within the past year, the Government have made significant changes to child maintenance policy, implementing the legislation that went through as part of the Welfare Reform Act 2012. First, the Child Support Agency has been wound down. Pre-existing child maintenance arrangements, which are used by nearly 2 million parents, are being terminated over the next three years. Secondly, all would-be applicants to its statutory replacement, the child maintenance service, must first talk to the child maintenance options service, where they are encouraged to make their own arrangements instead. Finally, for those parents who choose to use the CMS, a £20 application charge has been introduced, along with collection charges if parents fail to pay maintenance.
The clear policy intent is to encourage parents to sort out their own arrangements following relationship breakdown. The Government’s argument has been—and, I presume, remains—that family-based arrangements, as they are being called, will be better, because payers will be happier to pay if they have made the arrangements themselves. Further to that, the Government have asserted that the statutory system that has been in place for some years makes relationships between separated parties worse, because it creates bad feeling and anger. They think that the system might reduce willingness to pay, and encourage payers to look for a way to avoid payment.
Throughout, I have been a sceptic about that line of argument. In my experience, the circumstances of separation generate considerable anger and distress, and it is those feelings that often have to be worked with and worked through. As the period of separation continues, a failure to pay maintenance causes ongoing bad feeling. We know that parents with care suffer considerable financial detriment after separation. Indeed, generally both parties to a divorce suffer financial detriment, but the parent with care, whatever their gender, is the one who, in all the research, suffers the most. If proper payment arrangements are not in place, considerable resentment and anger can build up.
Given the Government’s approach, and that the reform is partly about trying to get people to change their behaviour, it is hugely important to ensure that parents get the sort of practical help and support they need to enable them to come to workable arrangements, especially given the changes to legal aid, which mean that people might not be getting the level of legal assistance they once had. That is where the £20 million Help and Support for Separated Families programme is supposed to come in. I will henceforth refer to it as HSSF, rather than saying the entire mouthful. I know it is not always terribly friendly to use abbreviations, but not using this one would become cumbersome and clumsy. I am afraid that the research I have undertaken shows that the programme of support for separating and separated families is piecemeal and inadequate.
There are four main initiatives that come under the HSSF programme, and I will set out my concerns on each in turn. The first is the Sorting out Separation service, which is a key online information and support resource for separated parents, signposting them to relevant help. Between November 2012 and January 2014, only 9,132 users clicked on a signpost to an external organisation, compared with the original target of 260,000. More people visited the front page, but the important thing is whether people are following through to get the more detailed help they need, because the initial information on the website is not sufficient to allow people to enter into arrangements. Given that the website cost more than £400,000 to set up—that was the figure by January, at least—it has cost more than £45 for every user signposted. I emphasise that the figures for this year come after an attempted redesign, which has clearly had a limited effect.
An evaluation commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions and carried out between February and June last year reported that users were often unclear about the purpose of the site and the range of information it offered. They were frustrated by the low level of detail supplied prior to signposting. Videos on the site were felt to be “unreal”, with unrealistically positive endings, and a potentially useful action planning tool was criticised for offering only general signposting and not tailored information. Of particular concern, given that existing formal statutory arrangements are coming to an end, was the finding that the site was “less relevant and useful” for longer-term separated parents. Some 70% of the parents who will have their CSA cases closed have been separated for five years or longer, 40% have no contact with the other parent and 14% describe relations as “not at all friendly”. The inadequacy of the Sorting out Separation service might mean that they will find it unhelpful, and if they find it unhelpful, they will not be able to enter into new informal arrangements and will find themselves back in the formal system through the new CMS.
In April, the Minister for Pensions said that the Department was
“in the process of considering the future direction of the Sorting out Separation web app and will shortly be taking steps to improve the profile of the app through search engine optimisation.”—[Official Report, 8 April 2014; Vol. 579, c. 214W.]
Can the Minister for Employment tell us what the future of the service is, whether usage beyond the home page has risen and what steps have been taken to improve the content so that long-term separated parents are catered for?
The second arm of the HSSF programme funding is the co-ordinated telephone network. It is a telephone service provided by four organisations: Relate, Family Lives, the National Youth Advocacy Service, and Wikivorce. The service began full operation in March 2014 at a cost of £344,000. While I respect all the organisations concerned and the work they do, it is questionable whether they can provide the scale of support necessary for separating and separated parents across the country. Can the Minister tell us more about how the network is working in practice and how many parents have used it?
The third initiative of the HSSF programme is what the Government’s original White Paper referred to as a “quality mark”. It was to
“become a mark that parents can recognise and trust, so they know the service they are accessing is of a consistently high quality and will be able to help them to work together with the other parent.”
It was developed at a cost of £136,500, and 35 organisations have so far been awarded what is now called the HSSF mark. My concern is that the mark is not well understood or even recognised by parents. My impression is that the organisations that put a lot of work into applying for and being awarded the mark have seen little in return. I am unaware of any promotion of the mark to parents by the Department, so I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what steps are being taken in that regard.
The fourth and most significant element of the HSSF initiative is the innovation fund, which accounted for £14 million of the total £20 million to be spent in the current spending review period up to March 2015. According to the White Paper that preceded the legislation, the fund was set up
“to learn what works best in helping separating and separated parents to collaborate and resolve conflict in order to support their children”.
In the first round of funding in April 2013, £6.5 million was awarded to seven projects across the country over a two-year period. Between them, they anticipated reaching just over 280,000 parents. A second round of funding worth £3.4 million came on stream in April 2014 and was awarded to 10 further projects aiming to reach some 12,800 parents. For the first time, projects aimed at longer-term separated parents were also included. I accept that this is relatively small-scale innovation funding; bearing in mind that nearly 2 million parents who have arrangements through the CSA are being taken off that following the new legislation, innovation projects coming in that will reach only perhaps 8,000 or 10,000 parents will not make much of an impression on the large number of parents affected by this major change.
Since starting in Scotland on 14 March, the family decision making service—one of this year’s funded projects that provides internet and telephone advice from Children 1st, One Parent Families Scotland and the Scottish Child Law Centre—has seen more families making informal arrangements. A particularly innovative aspect of its work has been designing publicity material to appeal more to fathers, which has led to more men using the service than would typically be expected. However, only 13 months’ funding was made available, which is a very short time in which to judge the success of any project.
Moving beyond anecdotal evidence of performance is difficult. In the 18 months since the first tranche of money was awarded, we have received little in the way of objective information. In March, we learned in a parliamentary answer that, as at 31 January 2014, 3,724 parents had participated in the seven first-round projects. Although it was early days—I know that the Relate project started late—that does seem low nearly halfway through the two-year funding period compared with the expected figure of over 280,000 parents by the end of the round-one projects. Unless there has been substantial take-up since then, we will fall far short of what is still a modest number of parents coming into contact with such help and advice. Will the Minister give us an update on the numbers of parents who have participated in the seven round-one projects so far and how that compares with expected levels at this stage?
Evaluation has also been significantly delayed, partly due to Department concerns around data protection. That is particularly problematic given that many projects are coming to an end and closing, and staff are likely to move into new employment, meaning that any evaluation that does take place will happen while the projects are winding down, which seems unsatisfactory. Earlier this year, the Minister for Pensions confirmed that the Government were in the process of appointing an external specialist to lead on the evaluation work. Is the Minister who is present today in a position to tell us whether an external evaluator has been appointed, who they will be and what the time scale of the evaluation will be?
This is about not just getting the evaluation started, but what the criteria will be. It was disappointing to hear the Minister for Pensions state in January that the evaluation criteria for the 17 projects would be published with the final results. We therefore do not know the criteria, and will not know them until the evaluation has been carried out, so people have not had the opportunity to comment on whether the evaluation is appropriate. The difficulty that that presents is that, as far as I can establish, the evaluation will not include receipt of child maintenance as one of the criteria by which the success of the projects aimed at improving parental collaboration will be judged. That is despite the fact that the innovation fund projects flow directly from the child maintenance reforms, and despite the White Paper stating that the initiatives would
“seek to support parents to reach their own arrangements, therefore avoiding both the statutory child maintenance system”.
It seems odd that that particular aspect is not to be evaluated in the process. We will not necessarily know, even at the end, whether there has been any significant success in getting people to not only meet and talk, but enter into family-based arrangements, and in getting maintenance flowing.
The HSSF funding ends in March 2015. My final questions concern what future funding will be made available to support the initiative.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on an important subject, and I congratulate her on securing this debate. She mentioned the schemes that have gone ahead, but is she as concerned as I am about the parts that did not go ahead—the local and face-to-face support that people were to be get in places where they felt comfortable? I know from personal experience how difficult separation is when one has a young child. There are many new agencies to contact, but is it not important that people can access advice from places where they feel comfortable?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. That is a hugely important part of the process. It is all very well to have information available through modern methods of dissemination—being able to get basic information online cannot be a bad thing—but signposting to other places appears to be lacking.
The process is personal and can lead to difficult periods in most people’s lives, and people do not necessarily get the best information from word of mouth. Family and friends can offer emotional support, but they do not always give people the best advice in such situations. As a family lawyer, I met people who had been told weird and wonderful things about what they could or could not get. Such sources can also be out of date, because people will talk about things that happened to them in the past. However useful such advice can be as a starting point, it is crucial that those who want to get more personal advice—many will—can do so, whether one-to-one, or in a group setting where people feel comfortable and can ask the silly questions that it takes confidence to ask. We do not appear to have reached the stage of even looking at that, but it is important that we do.
On the March 2015 date, and the innovation projects set up to test what worked and what did not, it would be helpful to know how much information we will have, because there has been little evaluation so far. What guarantees do we have that what has been found to work will be scaled up to the numbers necessary? Even beyond 2015, more than 1 million parents will have arrangements with the CSA that have yet to be closed down. In addition, all the people with new separations, whose relationships are only beginning to break down, will want to come forward for help. What system will be in place to help those families sort out their child maintenance collaboratively? If the Government are serious about wanting people to make such arrangements so that maintenance is paid for the benefit of the children, we have to ensure that proper support and advice is in place.
I disclose an interest as chairman of the Mindful Policy Group, which has done some work in this area. I have listened to the hon. Lady’s comments with great interest. May I take her to a related issue, which is the point at which parents split up in the first place? Does she agree that everything she is talking about in the relationship after the separation of the parents would be so much better if children were placed rather more at the centre of proceedings in the courtroom, so that the parents remembered that although they may divorce, children cannot? The continued welfare of their child should be their prime consideration.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Most people, at least in theory, believe that they are putting their children first; they might not be doing so in practice, but the reason for that is often the huge emotional upset in their lives. In the midst of that, especially if they are not getting the help that they need, they are not best placed to put their children first, even when sometimes they think that they are doing so. I know how difficult it is for many people to behave in a collaborative manner at such a time and to act out the issues around putting the children first.
We need people to be able to work together, not only on maintenance, but in the wider context. The particular change made, however, was about maintenance, and it is crucial to people’s ongoing relationships to get that right. That is crucial to children, not only to ensure that the money is flowing, but because if it is not, the relationship between the parents must be even worse.
Ultimately, given the scale of the task—a huge task has been taken on—and the reality of people’s lives, the £20 million so far allocated to the programme is a drop in the ocean. Given the low use of the Sorting out Separation service, the limited nature of the HSSF telephone network, the lack of promotion of the HSSF mark, the small number of families supported by the innovation fund and the lack of local and face-to-face support, the money being spent is simply not helping enough families.
Family-based arrangements have to be made and also sustained. Relationships change, and what happens when people first separate is not all that matters, because as time passes relationships sometimes worsen; they do not necessarily get better. Sometimes that is because of other constraints that come into people’s lives. The financial reality of separation sometimes bites after months or even years of separation, and new relationships can come into the picture, changing the dynamics of the original relationship and what is financially viable for the people involved. Ongoing support, not only initial support, is therefore likely to be required. Family-based arrangements, even if entered into successfully at the outset, might break down under those pressures.
As I have done in similar debates, I put in a plug for the Government seriously to consider copying and promoting the Scottish minute-of-agreement system, which, without going anywhere near a court, can transform a family-based agreement into something that is legally binding and enforceable. The system has been in operation in Scotland for many years. It has enabled many couples to get something down at a time when they are in agreement. It is as enforceable as a court order, and gives the agreement a status and sustainability that is valuable, although the agreement can be changed if that is required.
I am not familiar enough with English family law to know whether such a system needs legislation. If so, however, I strongly recommend it to English colleagues as one that combines the best of both worlds: people may not only reach their own agreement, rather than having one forced on them, but have something that is enforceable and sustainable through the vicissitudes of separation, which is a process rather than an event.
I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to my questions and set out what the Government will do to address my concerns. I would be grateful in particular for greater clarity on the monitoring and evaluation of all four strands of the HSSF programme to ensure that the Government’s stated objective, which is to reduce families’ need to rely on the statutory maintenance service while ensuring that maintenance still flows to the children who need it, is met.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) on bringing this subject before us for debate and consideration, and on the balanced way she laid out the legislative change and her opinion of what we have before us. I also commend the intervention of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who referred to families and to children in particular. I will focus on that, because for me the effect on children is one of the most significant issues.
More than 100,000 children are affected by divorce and it is estimated that one in three children in the UK will experience parental separation before the age of 16. Approximately one half of couples divorcing in 2010 had at least one child aged under 16, and more than one fifth were under the age of five. Those figures are truly distressing, as I think everyone acknowledges, because the family is something that we all cherish. The debate in Westminster Hall at 9.30 this morning, which unfortunately I was unable to attend, was also about the family. In a way, we are following on from that this afternoon, giving the CSA flavour to the wider debate.
I believe passionately in families and in the need to have them stay together as much as possible for all those reasons and for the sake of those birthdays, Christmases, new years, fathers’ and mothers’ days, and all the things that bring parents and children together. Good-quality couples, families and social relationships are the cornerstone of our society and they are vital for the well-being of our children as they become adults and enter relationships themselves. Often, what children see at home is the relationship that they will build themselves over the following years. Poor relationship quality and instability are associated with a wide range of negative outcomes for children and adults, and the impact on adults can include ill health, depression, stress, financial difficulties and unemployment. I welcome the initiative because it sets out to reduce conflict and improve parental collaboration to focus on the needs of children—something which is sometimes overlooked in messy divorces.
However, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East also set out some examples of how we can best bring those things about—perhaps the Minister could confirm those for us. As a Member of Parliament, I have to deal with two or three cases involving CSA problems each week. They are very real to the people affected who come to my office—more often it is the ladies, although occasionally it is a stay-at-home husband who finds himself in a position where, because of the difficulties, he is seeking money from the wage earner. But more often than not it is the ladies, and when they come in, their children are with them, and it is the children I want to focus on.
Looking through my notes before this debate, I came across an important quotation about one gentleman’s experience:
“Long before you get to the welfare state, it is family that is there to care for you when you are sick or when you fall on tough times. It’s family that brings up children, teaches values, passes on knowledge, instils in us all the responsibility to be good citizens and to live in harmony with others.”
Clearly, the family is the core.
The hon. Gentleman follows these issues carefully. The point I was making earlier was about the effect on children. The cost of family breakdown is estimated at something like £48 billion, yet many non-resident parents pay their full dues through CSA, but do not get access to their children because of constant breaches of contact orders. Does he agree that parental alienation, which is an offence in other countries, is another form of child abuse? That is why it is so important that, before we get to all the wrangles in the court system that result in CSA settlements, parents remember that the children are the most important thing and their welfare must be paramount.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman wholeheartedly. There are unfortunately occasions on which one parent is restricted from visiting, as he will know, because of circumstances in their past—so it does happen, although there are exceptions—but by and large, for 99.9% of cases, I wholeheartedly agree.
It is important to consider not just divorce, but separation and conflict within families. The evidence proves that stable homes, where the family enjoy good relations, have a far better impact on children and adolescents than homes where that is not the case. For example, children growing up with parents who have good-quality relationships and where parental conflict is low—whether the parents are a couple or are separated partners—enjoy better physical and mental health and better emotional well-being, and sometimes higher academic attainment and a lower likelihood of engaging in what I would refer to as risky behaviours. At the same time, evidence shows associations between parental relationship breakdown and child poverty, behavioural problems and emotional health problems, as well as an increased risk of the children’s own relationships breaking down. Very often, when the partnership between a man and woman breaks down, the children and the effect on them go unseen, but the children are the ones I see when people come to my office.
Arguments over money rank as the No. 1 source of conflict in relationships. When parents break up, arguments over money continue, only this time as legal arguments through the courts. Research by Relate shows that the couples who were worst affected by the recession were eight times as likely to suffer relationship breakdown. I note that the Prime Minister himself has indicated that the budget for relationship counselling is to be doubled to £19.5 million. Perhaps that is an indication of the Government’s commitment to trying to address this issue. Will the Minister say how the money will be distributed and whether there are areas in the country with greater problems than others?
Wages remain stagnant and the price of living continues to rise, particularly for the thousands of families in the UK facing mortgage repayment issues, negative equity and the need to provide for children. Financial hardship is difficult to escape, so I cannot say I find the statistic I have quoted particularly surprising. Again, it underlines the issue of how the system can work best for the children and the separated partners.
Money continues to be an issue even if separation occurs. For example, statistics show that children in single-parent families are twice as likely as children in couple families to live in relative poverty. Over four in 10 children in single-parent families—some 43%—are poor, compared with just over two in 10, or 22%, of children in couple families. Again, that is an indication of the problems we have.
I am glad the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of the poverty of many separated families, particularly those with the main care of the children, as I mentioned. Is it not particularly important that financial arrangements are put in place and are secure? The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham talked about parental alienation, but money can be used as a bargaining tool as well. If arrangements are too informal, is there not a risk that that will happen?
That is very much the case. In my constituency, many partners came to an agreement before the legislative change. In many cases that has worked, but in others, money becomes another weapon in the armoury to create division or a reason to hit back at the other person and restrict access. I know of such examples, and there were some from other parts of the country in the Library information pack—I have not cornered the market in those examples. For example, the male partner in the relationship might have a job but then decide to go self-employed, and then when he makes his books up at the end of the year, they show a much lower income than he actually has. I cannot prove emphatically that he is making x amount, but we can always judge what someone is making by the car they drive, the house that they live in or their lifestyle—for example, do they eat out? Sometimes people are quite clearly living a lifestyle that does not accord with their tax returns—that could be worth looking into. The hon. Lady is absolutely right: money becomes a bargaining tool. Some people try to make it work and others do not; it is those others who we are trying to get at.
Just over a quarter of households with dependent children are single-parent families, and there are 2 million single parents in Britain today, a figure that has remained consistent since the mid-1990s. That is one reason why I feel the HSSF initiative merits some support. There is too much divorce, separation and division. It is sad that many of our children are unable to grow up with mum and dad together. For that reason, we should encourage counselling for couples to help them work through issues and, we hope, stay together.
The initial information we have indicates that there is a £20 charge for some single-parent families. Nearly two fifths of the UK’s 2 million single-parent families receive child maintenance payments from the child’s other parent. Perhaps putting a £20 charge on those families has meant that the take-up has not been as good as it could have been, which would indicate that the system needs to be reviewed. Again, will the Minister give us some information on that?
Not every child who has experienced divorce and separation will experience long-term harm. I see that with those who come to my office. The quality of parenting, a lack of financial hardship and whether parents go through multiple relationships following separation are also thought to be key to the well-being of the child. Evidence suggests that helping more parents to work together throughout a child’s life means that the number of children missing out on relationships with both parents and their extended families is likely to reduce. If, as I believe, that is the goal of the initiative, we should support it, but we need to address the issues raised by hon. Members in this debate.
There is no doubt in my mind that a constructive and non-confrontational approach is important. Often, fighting through courts can become tit for tat, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East has suggested. That in turn will have only a negative impact on children as time goes by and the problems between the couple remain unresolved.
Of course it would be wonderful if divorce and separation did not have to occur, but at times they do. The least we can do in those situations is to ensure that children remain the focus and the priority. Break-ups will affect children; however, by following the aims of the initiative, the impact can be short term and minimal. I ask the Minister to take on board the issue of the initial cost. A system that tries to get a working agreement between both parties is commendable, but will she tell us what action can be taken if it does not work? As the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said, we do not want the two parents fighting over money in the courts. The fact that two parents are separating or getting a divorce does not mean that they are separating or getting a divorce from their children. Children are an integral part of all this, and we must do all we can to make that very clear to the children who are affected.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) on securing this important debate. I will not repeat the points hon. Members have made, but this is a welcome opportunity to discuss the impact of HSSF, as well as the expectations of it and of the new CMS.
The goal of the CMS must, of course, be to ensure that children are well provided for and looked after by both parents when those parents are separated. At a time when child poverty is rising—latest figures show that one in four children in my constituency live in poverty—maintenance has a crucial role to play. For the poorest single-parent families, it can provide up to a fifth of their household income, which is a huge amount for them. It is therefore important that the Government make this good new project a success, and if they are to reduce the use of a statutory maintenance service, which they have said is their goal, and to support families to form their own maintenance agreements, the success of HSSF will be absolutely fundamental.
The service is in its early stages, but the case of a constituent who came to my surgery last week gave me some concern about its success so far and about how it might be improved. My constituent’s case made me feel that it is not really clear when a case is eligible to be referred to the CMS, and I would love the Minister to give us some clarity today. At the moment, parents are required to seek advice first and then to get a reference number to go to the CMS. I should have thought that that would happen when the parents had exhausted all other avenues in trying to come to an agreement on their own.
My understanding from the information my constituent gave me, however, is that he had paid maintenance regularly every month for more than 10 years and had, indeed, upped the payment following a request from the receiving parent, but that he then received a letter from the CMS with a payment plan. My understanding is that he was not contacted previously about any mediation and was not involved with HSSF, and his record of paying monthly on time for more than 10 years was not taken into account.
As a result, my constituent was assessed as having to pay £236.71. Previously, he was paying £250; now, he has to pay £283.99 because of the 20% fee. There must be a failure somewhere in the HSSF process in my constituent’s case, and I worry that the problem is more widespread. The child in this case now has less money per month, while the father is paying more per month. How can that possibly be of any benefit to the child or the parents involved?
I am quite disturbed to hear of that experience, because it sounds very much like the criticisms we made of the previous Child Support Agency. Often, the non-resident parent was chased for extra money without having gone through an understandable reassessment. That is quite concerning, because the whole point of the new system was to sort cases out long before they got to the CMS itself.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The reason the issue has upset and angered me enough that I have come here to make my case today is that we were all very hopeful when we knew a new child maintenance service was required. As constituency MPs, we all have big CSA work loads—like others, I have personal experience of this issue—and we wanted the proposals to be a big success. I therefore hope that my constituent’s case is indicative just of teething problems, not of how the CMS will work in the future.
My constituent’s case also underlined my general concerns about the introduction of fees and how they will impact on children and families. I therefore renew my plea for the Government to publish, at the earliest opportunity, the information and analysis they have on the impact the measures are having on children. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us today when that might be.
The debate also gives me the opportunity to discuss the closure of cases from the 1993 and 2003 schemes and how those might go through HSSF and into the CMS. Will the Minister update us on what progress has been made? My understanding from a written answer from the Minister for Pensions is that the closure process is due to go on until May 2018 and that the last cases to be covered are those in which
“Enforcement action is under way”—[Official Report, 1 July 2014; Vol. 583, c. 526W.]
In many ways, those are the cases deemed most difficult to deal with.
To return to the matter we are debating, I am concerned that the HSSF initiative is due to be funded only until March 2015, whereas the process of case closure is due to go on until May 2018. The cases involved are the most difficult and would, I imagine, need the support HSSF offers to make a successful transition. Does the Minister share my concerns? Are the Government considering extending the funding of the HSSF initiative beyond March and indeed until after May 2018, when the case closures are due to end?
Let me finish my short remarks by returning to where I started and to the reason why we are all here. Child maintenance is a crucial part of fighting child poverty and making children feel not only financially supported, but supported by both parents, and that is important for their well-being. The Government are continually telling us they are putting families at the forefront of their policy, and I hope they are doing everything they can to make their proposals a success.
It is a pleasure to serve in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. Unlike the Minister—it is good to see her in her place—I am not moonlighting. I am a former director of the National Council for One Parent Families, which has since merged with Gingerbread, so this is part of my brief. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) in thanking Gingerbread for the helpful briefing it has given many of us in preparation for the debate.
I welcome the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend, who raises an important issue in relation to the separation of parents and the financial arrangements that follow separation. The issue is perhaps too little in the public eye these days, which is in stark contrast to the 1990s, when child support issues dominated MPs’ postbags. I fear that the reason is not that the difficulties we saw in earlier years between parents have gone away, but that too many parents have given up hope of ever seeing any maintenance at all.
I recognise that there were considerable difficulties with the legacy 1993 and 2003 schemes, and I strongly recognise the need for reform. I also acknowledge that the new 2012 scheme is being introduced carefully by a stable and respected team in the DWP—there are lessons there for other DWP projects. However, I have long been concerned about the overall objectives of the 2012 scheme. I cannot help feeling that the overarching objective is to get as many parents as possible out of the statutory scheme and into voluntary arrangements to bring in fee income for the Government—according to a written answer from 10 December last year to Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, the income is estimated to reach approximately £1.2 billion by 2022-23—and to cut costs. While it may be argued that voluntary arrangements between parents, freely and equally entered into by them, will often produce the best outcomes, the new scheme means that many more parents will not choose those arrangements but will, effectively, be coerced into them. The jury is out on what that will mean in practice for their success.
Of course, the overarching objective of the new scheme should be to get maintenance flowing for the benefit of children. Yet neither the Government’s express intentions, nor the monitoring data that we have been able to get, nor the help and support for separated families initiative described by my hon. Friends, have focused, as far as I can see, on that specific goal. Yesterday I received a written answer from the Minister for Pensions, who said he could not tell me, with respect to new applications to the scheme, what change there had been in the proportion of children receiving maintenance.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East said, the DWP’s early iterations of the purpose of the HSSF innovation fund gave two key objectives: increasing the number of children who benefit from child maintenance arrangements, by reducing conflict and improving collaboration between separated and separating parents; and testing a wider range of interventions to understand what is effective in encouraging such collaboration and reducing such conflict. However, in later iterations, the object of increasing the number of children to benefit from the arrangements has disappeared.
I can understand that the 17 HSSF innovation pilots differ greatly with respect to the groups that they deal with and the approach that they take; but surely a simple, measurable way to test their success and compare them would be to assess whether something, at least, is being paid towards the cost of raising children by the parent who is not the one with care. Hon. Members have acknowledged that ensuring the flow of maintenance to separated families is one of the best forms of support that can be established. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was right to highlight the pressures put on family relationships by poverty. It is right that the arrangements that we are discussing should be aimed at reducing that poverty.
NatCen Social Research and Gingerbread say that regular child maintenance can lift one in five one-parent families out of poverty. Those families are at a particularly high risk of poverty, and escaping poverty is the route to a host of other improved socio-economic outcomes for families and their children. However, although it is early days, the introduction of application fees this June, under the new scheme, seems already to be having an effect. In May, before they were introduced, there were 9,700 fresh applications to the scheme, but by August the number of fresh applications had dropped by 38% to 6,000. The Government expected a drop of 12%, with 250,000 fewer cases in the statutory scheme by 2018-19; so the rapid fall-off in new cases seems to be well out of line.
Meanwhile, the number of parents contacting the options service who say that they would consider a voluntary arrangement is also falling. According to a recent report by the Public Accounts Committee, the number who say they are considering one is down from 5,540 in August last year, to 3,590 in March 2014. Ministers responded that the phenomenon would be temporary, and that it resulted from the fact that people are now for the first time being required to go through the options gateway. However, the two sets of statistics, showing a decline both in new applications and in the number who think that they will make a family arrangement, are clearly cause for concern. The unavoidable implication must be that some families—perhaps many—will end up with no arrangement at all. That is a worrying prospect. What is more, as has been pointed out this afternoon, the early statistics cannot yet tell us much about parents who intend to make a family arrangement and try to do so, but find that they cannot, or that they cannot sustain it. Will those parents attempt to go on to the statutory scheme, or will they give up at that point?
We will shortly be able to get more information. The Pensions Minister told me in a written answer on 14 October that the Government intend
“to publish the results of the Child Maintenance Options survey by the end of the year.”
I welcome that. The survey is carried out quarterly by the options service and it goes back to callers who telephoned the service in the previous six months or so, to find out what child maintenance arrangements they made, and whether they in fact receive any maintenance. It has its limitations, but it will at least offer some measure of what callers actually did about child maintenance after their call.
Perhaps I can push the Minister for a little more information. Is it the intention to publish the options quarterly surveys of caller outcomes on a continuing basis, rather than as a one-off? What continuing tracking of parents will there be, with respect to their arrangements and the flow of maintenance after the first six months? If we are serious about improving outcomes for children, we need to know not just what families agree or do at first, but what maintenance actually flows and continues to be paid regularly. When exactly does the Minister expect the Government to publish the first results?
On the question of the pilots, I recognise that the Government want parents to reach their own arrangements wherever possible, and in the past Ministers have said that 51% of parents with care and 74% of non-resident parents said they would make a family arrangement if they had the help and support of an expert and impartial adviser. I assume that that is, in part, exactly what the HSSF initiatives are intended to provide. However, we must also remember the figures given to Members by Gingerbread and Families Need Fathers, which have been mentioned this afternoon: 13% of parents with care and 14% of non-resident parents say that their relationship with the other parent is not at all friendly; and 42% of parents with care and 41% of non-resident parents say they have no contact with the other parent at all. It would take a heroic effort for those parents to make private arrangements, and I fear that the HSSF will fall well short of what will be required.
In cases where there is no contact at all, or where there is considerable hostility between the parents, it will be particularly difficult and challenging to reach private arrangements, and will need specialist and specific support. Yet most of the pilots appear to have been quite generic. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East pointed out, only the most recent, quite small-scale pilots have focused on those whose relationships might be seen as the most intractable, or those who have been separated for a long time. My hon. Friend also pointed out other difficulties with and deficiencies in the pilots. Some began late. We should bear in mind that they are short term, so a late start has a significant bearing on their impact. Some are offered by only a small number of organisations. Those are, as my hon. Friend said, highly respected, but none the less with only a small number of charities and other bodies engaged in the pilots, there must be some concerns about coverage. As she highlighted, use of the Sorting out Separation online application has been at a level well below what Ministers expected; just 9,132 unique users had clicked through to a signposting action by January this year, whereas the Government said that there would be 260,000 users in year one.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) pointed out, there were plans to strengthen co-ordination of local face-to-face services by identifying and utilising touch points that parents have contact with, providing information and links, appointing regional co-ordinators to develop regional networks of contacts, recruiting and training advocates to promote collaborative parenting across delivery organisations and promoting quality mark use, but those pilots have been dropped from the scheme. It is not clear why, especially when we think of those parents with more difficult or long-standing separations who may need highly skilled and longer interventions that that local face-to-face support could best provide. Perhaps the Minister will explain the rationale for dropping that initiative.
There are questions about the impact of the kitemark. It is welcome, but we must know how widely it is used or recognised, and what improvements in service it has helped to bring about. I understand that 35 organisations have been awarded the kitemark, but there is little evidence that parents are aware of its significance and little effort has been made to communicate that to them.
The innovation fund that the Government have set aside has been underspent. With little time left to complete the pilots, it would be useful if the Minister could explain why, and whether they intend to get the rest of the money out of the door before the pilots are due to conclude and to be evaluated in spring 2015. Meanwhile, very little information has been published about parents’ participation in the 17 projects financed under the innovation fund, nor have details been made public of the evaluation process to assess what works in assisting parents to collaborate. Will the Minister say more about that? Who will carry out the evaluation and what will be the criteria for success?
Most disturbingly—colleagues highlighted this—no commitments have been given to scale up the lessons learned from these projects of what works and can be implemented on the scale necessary throughout the country, yet we are now heading into the period when not only new applications but thousands of case closures from the legacy systems will be coming into the new scheme. In truth, the HSSF initiative is way too limited an offer for the almost 2 million parents who will be steered towards making their own child maintenance arrangements over the next three years.
On the limited offer from HSSF, does my hon. Friend share my concern about couples who have been separated for a long time? It seems that many of the pilots are aimed at those who are separating imminently or have done so recently. Figures from the Department for Work and Pensions have shown that 70% of couples who are using child support allowance have been separated for more than five years.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern and I find it puzzling that it was so late in the organisation of the pilots that we began to see efforts to address that specific and challenging group of separated parents. It is hard to imagine how people would be able to make a private arrangement easily with someone with whom they have had no contact or only hostile contact for a long time. I am puzzled at the lack of attention, given the effort that has been put in to, for example, planning the transfer of the legacy cases. It would be helpful if the Minister could say whether the Government intend to offer more support or different support to couples who have had a long period of separation and little or no contact with each other.
Funding for the HSSF pilots ends in March 2015, whereas the CSA legacy cases closure programme runs between 2014-15 to 2017-18. Will the Minister say whether there are any plans to extend HSSF funding to cover the period of CSA case closure? Can she tell us now what financial resources will be made available post-March 2015 to support the HSSF initiative? What funding plans, if any, are in place to implement the lessons learned from the 17 HSSF innovation fund pilots on a wider scale when they have been evaluated? Without decent answers to these questions, we cannot avoid the conclusion that the HSSF initiative, with its pathetic budget of £20 million over three years, has been intended only as window dressing for the scheme.
In scaling up to meet the level of real need, those 17 projects come nowhere close. How can the Government claim to be serious about the HSSF programme when the £10 million awarded to 17 projects is expected to help at best only around 24,000 families face to face plus around 270,000 online while around 300,000 couples separate every year, and around 1 million CSA cases face closure over the next three years? If the Government are to succeed in reducing use of the statutory maintenance service and at the same time enable more parents to collaborate in fixing and paying their own child maintenance, the success of the HSSF initiative is fundamental. Today’s debate raises big questions about whether it is up to the task.
It is a pleasure, Mr Streeter, to serve under your chairmanship. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions could not be here today, but I am happy to respond as best I can, and if I do not have the full information, I will write to hon. Members individually. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) for securing this important debate. As a former family lawyer, she takes a close interest in the matter. I welcome the opportunity to talk about the support that the Government are putting in place for separated families, including through our child maintenance system.
Before I explain what we are doing and what we are putting in place, it is important to look at the present system—the Child Support Agency. We may view it with rose-coloured spectacles but, as many hon. Members have pointed out, how many people have come to our surgeries complaining that it does not work and has not been helpful? How many people have said they have never seen the money they hoped they would receive? That system has not functioned since it was put in place; only about half of parents receive child maintenance, and we remember the significant IT failings at the beginning.
The system is expensive to run, costing almost £500 million; it awards about £1 billion. It has complex calculation rules and a slow assessment process. We must take that on board when talking about it. On top of that, it never really put the child at the centre, nor did it resolve conflict.
Was the system not set up because the preceding arrangements, which were a mixture of people trying to make their own arrangements and the courts intervening, also had severe failures? This is a complex subject that requires a lot of care and attention. We should not necessarily think that the problem lies in having a statutory system, although that seems to be the Government’s view.
No, we have to look at what has worked throughout this journey, so that we can use whatever worked with the CSA and on the ground with families. We must go into the process knowing that, without a shadow of doubt, it is complex. This is about families, emotions and relationships that are not working, but what are we trying to do? We all agree that the sad reality is that too many people are affected by separation and, too often, it is the children who suffer the consequences. In Britain today, there are 2.5 million separated families, and one in three children live in households in which their mother or father no longer lives at home. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, the cost of family breakdown is £48 billion, and he spoke about parental alienation; what are we going to do there, too?
This Government believe passionately in strong families who can provide the stability that is vital to enable children to thrive. The family environment provides the foundation for raising a child, and we are committed to supporting safe and loving family environments. When parents’ relationships break down, we want to help parents to work together more effectively, so it is important to reduce levels of conflict after a separation and to minimise the negative impacts on the children. That is key. As I think we have all agreed today, this is about moving the child to the centre of what we are doing and focusing on their needs.
We do not need to increase conflict; we want to minimise that as best we can. Where we can help people to have a more conducive family environment, that has to be key, because conflict between parents puts children at a greater risk of anxiety, depression and antisocial behaviour, but when children continue to have positive relationships with both parents, they are more likely to do better at school, stay out of trouble, have higher self-esteem and develop healthier relationships as an adult. That was part of the “Impact of Family Breakdown on Children’s Well-Being” evidence review, so that is the context in which we have to view the changes. How do we support those young children going forward? How do we do the best for them?
That is why we have invested some £14 million in the Help and Support for Separated Families initiative, which has various parts to it: the Sorting out Separation online information tool; the HSSF mark; telephony training to promote parental collaboration; and the innovation fund. On the Sorting out Separation service, we have looked at how many people are using that and going on to the website. Some 205,000 visitors have accessed it since it was launched, 120,000 of those being unique visitors. That is close to what we had hoped for, and not to the numbers mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East.
I recognise the overall figure that the Minister gave for the number of visitors to the site, but the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) and I were making was about the number of people who then click through to a signposting element of the site. I wonder whether the figures that the Minister is quoting are actually about those people, because clearly, merely visiting is not about taking action, or even thinking about taking action, beyond the initial turning-up.
I have spoken to people who use the site, and I have been on the site myself. There is a lot of information that people can get from it, and there are names and links to the various organisations that they might want to go to. It is not a site where people would do everything at once. They would jot the names down, follow up what they want to, and speak to friends and to other people who would signpost them to the relevant places. What I am explaining is that people do not need to link through; they could get all the information just by going through the site. However, the actual linking through is nearly double what the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said; it is over 9,000. I think we need to look at this in the round. Could people get all the information they want? Could they go back to Google and put in the names that they got from that website? Yes, they could. There are different things that people can go to via that website.
Although I would acknowledge that people might want to go back and do it later, one test of a good website—anybody who is designing one or using one will look at this—is whether it is click-through, and how many people do that. Opening up the website up is not sufficient. Why would we think, “It is all right; we expect people to write it all down, and then type it all in,” when it would be just as quick to go through and get that information? Surely the Minister has to look at that and say, “This may be failing.”
As I said, I have talked to people I know who have used the site, and I have used it myself. The number of click-throughs is nearly double what has been claimed. Equally, it is a usable site in its current form, and people can get all the information that they want from it, then and there. People might reflect and, later on, type all the information into a Google search, so I do not necessarily follow the logic that everybody straight away would have to click through. I have done research among people who have used it, and they did not feel that they needed to do it that way. We are measuring all those who have accessed the site, unique visitors and click-throughs.
We have already begun work on improvements and enhancements to the site. One of those, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions talked about, was optimising the service online, making it easier for people to reach out and go to that website. Search engine optimisation also means that users can find the relevant pages without necessarily going via the homepage. More people are coming to Sorting out Separation, clicking beyond the homepage and spending more time on specific pages. If they are spending more time on specific pages, that shows that the information has reached out and is speaking to them, and that they are taking more time to read what is on the page.
There are now over 350 HSSF mark holders; the overwhelming majority of those have been awarded the mark via our five umbrella organisations, which is a real indication that the appetite for the mark remains high, and we continue to receive applications from organisations that wish to be assessed. It is particularly reassuring to see the diversity of organisations keen to carry the mark, and the range of excellent support and expertise for families. I want to pay tribute to all the organisations that do valuable work to support families at what can be, as we all know, a very distressing time.
On the question of promotion, mark holders have told us that they are best placed to promote the mark to their clients. It is encouraging that these organisations want to support the HSSF initiative, and we are working closely with them through regular forums to develop a promotion strategy that can take into account the pivotal role that they play in targeting properly the promotion activity, in explaining to parents what the mark stands for and what to look out for, and in parents knowing what they are getting when they see that mark.
The HSSF telephony training is designed to make sure that separated parents get consistent information, messaging and onward support. It is not a network in the traditional sense of one phone line supported by one piece of infrastructure, but over 300 agents have received the tailored training, meaning that the benefits of collaboration can be promoted to parents, regardless of which of the partner organisations’ helplines parents choose to use.
The bulk of the HSSF investment—some £10 million—is being spent on the innovation fund to support separated families, with the aim of helping parents who are going through separation to work together to resolve that conflict. The 17 projects have collectively engaged with 53,500 parents up to September 2014. The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) asked whether we were reaching out to those who have been separated longest, who might have the most trying of relationships, and yes, indeed, that is what we are trying to do. We have gone for really innovative projects, looking for greater engagement. Those are the kinds of people whom we will look to help. The hon. Lady also asked about a specific case. I am happy to get my officials to look at that case, see what is happening, and see how we can resolve that issue.
Hon. Members will know that one of the projects, the family decision making service, funds three key Scotland-based organisations to work much more closely together to enable parents to get help on the wide range of issues that they face during separation. For example, a father recently called Children 1st in Scotland for help. He wanted to know about his rights, and to find out what he should do with regards to arranging contact with his son. Children 1st advised him of the family decision making service and asked if he wished for further advice. The father agreed that he did, and he was transferred to the Scottish Child Law Centre, after which the organisations worked together to provide the help that he needed on all the issues that he faced.
This is what we are trying to do—to get all the agencies working together to best provide the support that is needed. In these instances, the information that we are getting back is that the system has helped. People have managed to follow a clear process and have got the result that they needed. This method of transfer ensured that the father I referred to did not need to repeat himself, and that all the elements of the situation were dealt with through one joined-up service. As a result, the father said that he left feeling clear about his options and very confident about setting up an amicable, family-based parenting arrangement that covered finance and his contact arrangements with his son. Those are the outcomes that we want to pursue and obtain. We want people to be able to follow the path that that family followed, although we know that everyone’s circumstances are different.
As part of these interventions, most projects try to work with parents to establish parenting arrangements, which include child maintenance. Measuring the success of the projects in helping parents to establish those types of arrangements will form part of the evaluation. Evaluation will be crucial to determining the learning from the projects, and we are in the process of procuring an external evaluator to ensure that there is an independent assessment of the projects. The independent evaluator will assess the performance of each project separately, and those results will be published after the projects close and sufficient time has passed to analyse and assess performance. We do, however, have some good news stories about what has happened so far to help families.
The Minister appears to be telling us that the process of finding an evaluator is still ongoing. Can she say how close that is to being done? We are virtually in November, and many of the projects are due to finish at the end of March next year; that is a very short time in which to carry out an evaluation, and it is very unusual to be evaluating so late in the process, not having set up the arrangement in advance. Is it true that part of the reason for the hold-up was the Department for Work and Pensions having concerns about data protection? Will it be possible to scale up the projects in any sensible way soon after March next year?
I can tell the hon. Lady that we will provide further details as part of our overall evaluation strategy, which we expect to publish by the end of this year.
I was giving details of what was working, what we know is happening and various innovative projects. For example, a Birmingham project run by Malachi recently worked very closely with both the mother and the father of a boy who had been excluded from school because of bad behaviour, and who had not seen his father in three years. Now, following the intervention, the father spends time with his son regularly and contributes financially to the child’s household, and the child’s teacher has confirmed that his behaviour at school has dramatically improved. That is what we want to happen. Those are the outcomes that we want.
Of course this is about finances; we know that. The CSA was not necessarily providing that. We need to work with families and the child’s surroundings more generally, and get the father seeing the son. We need the son not to be excluded from school and to have better attendance, which will allow him a better education and support him later in life. It is right that a key strategy and raison d’être of this Government is fighting child poverty, and fighting poverty full stop. How do we go about that? It is through education. It is about getting people into work. It is about supporting the family. All these things have to be key, and not just now, for those parents who have made their decision. They have brought a child into the world; how do we as a society protect that child? That is the only way to prevent poverty.
The Minister is being rather ambitious if she thinks that the HSSF projects will provide all those very laudable outcomes in and of themselves. The anecdotes are very helpful and give us a flavour of the projects that are being conducted, but can she assure us that the evaluation will go well beyond anecdote? We want to be able to look at data and trends. In particular, Opposition Members want to see the number of parents who are receiving maintenance, the amount that they are receiving, the sustainability of that maintenance and the proportion of children who are benefiting from it.
As I said, we will provide further information on that, and hon. Members will have that by the end of the year.
A point was raised about the 38% drop in applications. Of course we felt that there would be a drop, but not that great. However, as the application fees have been in effect for less than four months, it would be imprudent to draw any meaningful conclusions from the early data—the data that we have so far. The Department will continue to monitor the rates of application to the 2012 scheme, but the correct time frame in which to consider the effects of the reforms will be in the 30-month review. That is what we have to continue to do. The overall objectives and aims were set out in our strategy, in the bids. That is what we are looking for. Of course the projects will be evaluated and monitored. As I said, we are hoping to bring that information to the House by the end of the year.
In addition to the help and support for separated families, it will be helpful to touch on the support available as part of our reforms to child maintenance. We know that after a relationship breakdown, most parents still want what is best for their children. It is increasingly the norm for parents to be doing what is right by their children and contributing to the children’s upbringing, even if they do not live with them any more. Central to our reforms of the child maintenance system is our belief that turning to the statutory service need not be the default position for all families. We do not believe that Government intervention in setting up a child maintenance arrangement is either necessary or beneficial in the majority of cases. It not only puts an unnecessary barrier between parents, but can increase conflict and reduce the incentive for them to work together.
I am grateful to the Minister for reiterating the Government’s position, which is what we have heard ever since the proposals were put into the Bill that became the Welfare Reform Act 2012. The aims are very clear. The issue is: is that happening? Is it working? Is the kind of support and advice that has been set up scalable? Are there any plans to fund this beyond next March?
I will come to those points, but I believe that it is important that we put in context what we are doing, who we believe should be sorting out the arrangements and how best we can help these families—the mum and the dad—to put the arrangements in place. That is why we believe that family-based child maintenance arrangements are often the best option, and we want to encourage and support families to achieve those. We also recognise that separated parents will need a service that helps them to consider all their options in the light of the introduction of charging for the statutory child maintenance system and the process to close Child Support Agency cases, so, since November, the child maintenance options service has also become the gateway to the statutory child maintenance service. The gateway is flexible and personalised to each individual. It uses the same empathetic approach and is designed to ensure that parents can consider the full range of options, including making family-based child maintenance arrangements.
Where appropriate, the child maintenance options service promotes the benefits of making a family-based arrangement with parents, helps them to overcome the barriers that they face to working together, and provides them with the tools to make effective arrangements. The service also continues to signpost to other specialist sources of support.
The Government are committed to helping and supporting the family, which is why the HSSF initiative and child maintenance reforms are a key part of our overall social justice strategy. As part of that, we are bringing relationship support policy into one Department, with the DWP investing £30 million to deliver successfully marriage preparation, couples counselling and relationship education.
We will take forward recommendations from the family stability review. We will introduce perinatal pilots to provide information to expectant couples about the impact that having a baby will have on their relationship, as well as strategies on how to address conflict. All of that is part of a journey—having a family, and understanding those extra pressures and what will happen in a way that maintains family stability. The hope is that parents will not get to the point at which they are looking to separate and have to deal with the fallout from that. All this has to be part of an ongoing strategy.
We have also announced our plans for local family offer trials—
Domestic Energy Efficiency
I believe this is the first time I have served under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, in what I hope will be a constructive debate. I want to focus on the effect of the Government’s changes to the energy companies obligation on domestic energy efficiency and the local schemes to improve efficiency in my area. I welcome the opportunity to discuss those things with the Minister.
When the ECO was devised, the architects of the scheme aimed to improve the energy efficiency of dwellings exactly like those in Haslingden and Hyndburn. However, since the last time I spoke in the House on the subject, the help provided for home energy efficiency has been significantly reduced. In terms of energy efficiency, Hyndburn has some of the poorest-quality housing stock in the country, with 45.1% of all dwellings built before 1919, which is well above the English average of 23.6%. Terraced properties of that age tend to have hard-to-treat cavities. It is estimated that 90% of such stock has a cavity of some sort that can be insulated, but doing so is costly and requires a subsidy. Because of the age of the stock in Hyndburn, 50.2% of category 1 hazard properties are so designated because of excess cold, and for category 2 hazard properties the figure is a staggering 78.5%. The housing health and safety rating system states:
“If the score produces a Category 1 hazard, for example if there is a high risk of serious health implications”—
such as damp—
“from exposure to cold then the Authority have a duty to take action. If there is a Category 2 hazard, for example there is risk that exposure to cold may have an adverse affect on health, the Authority may take action.”
Hyndburn borough council therefore has a duty to take action on properties where excess cold is a category 1 hazard, but such is the scale of the problem that that legal duty cannot simply be a matter for a small district council.
My constituents face having to live in homes that were designed a century ago, with no thought for thermal efficiency. Hyndburn borough council undertook a comprehensive housing condition survey in 2009, which noted that the rate of thermal comfort failures was 24.5%, compared with an English average of 18.3%. My constituents, therefore, are the very people to whom the ECO can offer most, but Hyndburn borough council’s warm homes energy company obligation scheme has come under threat before it has even begun in earnest. Moreover, the businesses in the green economy in my constituency that were innovating and creating jobs as a result of the ECO are now concerned about their futures. Indeed, 49 of the 149 schemes nationally have been cancelled.
As I have said, nine out of 10 stone terraced properties of the sort that are prevalent in Hyndburn have hard-to-treat cavities that would benefit from the ECO. For that reason, the ECO presented a particularly welcome opportunity to my constituents and to local councils across east Lancashire to tackle insulation, fuel poverty and the UK’s climate change obligations. The most recent Government statistics state that 5,088 households in my constituency are living in fuel poverty, which equates to some 13.1% of homes. On the alternative measure, which is based on the number of households forced to spend more than 10% of their household income on energy, there are 6,712 such households. The fact that 17.3% of households struggle to heat their homes is a tragedy, and it comes as no surprise that the poor live in the older terraced stock. There is a direct link between the age and condition of the housing stock and the high levels of fuel poverty in my constituency.
I raised that issue in the Energy Bill Committee in June 2011, and the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), told me that the ECO would
“play a huge part with regard to harder-to-treat properties.”––[Official Report, Energy Public Bill Committee, 14 June 2011; c. 199.]
My question to the new Minister is simply this: what has happened to that aspiration? Is it still an aspiration, or was it only ever an aspiration? My constituents would be right to feel let down by the Government’s domestic energy efficiency policies.
As I have indicated, my constituency has an incredibly high number of hard-to-treat properties. Plenty are in the private rented sector, where there are excessive problems, and many are owner occupied. Thanks to the roll-back of the ECO, my constituents who are in most need will miss out. When that is coupled with the Government’s record on place-based housing regeneration, the outlook is depressing.
Even more galling is that despite the Prime Minister’s claim that cutting levies would save consumers £50 on their energy bills, four of the big six energy companies refused to pass on the full £50 reduction to customers on fixed-price deals. Not only did those customers not receive insulation, but they did not receive that discount, lamentable though it is in comparison with the savings that would result from energy efficiency measures. In January this year, the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, said that for the energy companies not to pass on the full savings to consumers “would not be acceptable”. However, no action has been taken to ensure that the 3.8 million people on fixed-price deals do not miss out on that saving.
In response to the consultation on the future of the ECO, the Government openly stated that energy companies were
“likely now to be in a position to make greater savings than they had originally projected in December”.
When the Government make no effort to recoup those savings for consumers, the result is more money for the energy companies. In attempting to kick the long-term problems of the cost of energy, market failure and domestic energy efficiency into the long grass, the Government have effectively cut the energy companies some slack, with no noticeable reduction in prices for millions of people and at the cost of thousands of much-needed domestic energy efficiency projects, such as those in my constituency.
I apologise for missing the first two minutes of the hon. Gentleman’s argument, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate during energy week. Although great progress is being made, I accept that there are gaps that the Government need to address. The hon. Gentleman is talking about cavity wall insulation, but surely his constituents would be entitled to and eligible for boiler replacement under the affordable warmth element of the ECO.
Yes, they would, but the terraced properties in my constituency seep heat. We need to look at energy conservation; it is not enough simply to lag the loft. There is no point in having a new boiler without also implementing a range of measures to capture the heat that it generates. If we continue to allow heat to flow out of stone terraced properties with semi-solid walls, we do a disservice to those properties. They will remain energy-inefficient. I accept that there are some modest improvements that can be made, but the main beneficiaries of insulation and energy efficiency improvements will be householders who live in properties with hard-to-treat cavities.
Another point that has seemingly been absent from the debate on the changes is that the energy companies’ revenue streams are protected by inefficient, uninsulated houses. Rather than reducing the use of gas through greater energy efficiency, the energy companies have a perverse disincentive to support energy efficiency because they are making profits from selling so much gas to my constituents.
There is concern in the cavity wall insulation industry about the effects of the changes. Isothane, a company in my constituency that produces cavity wall insulation, stated to me recently that the cavity wall industry is effectively “at a standstill” due to the changes. That was after the company had prepared itself for increased demand under the ECO. The carpet was pulled from under the company after it had been encouraged to be part of the green revolution. Job losses across the industry, which has a strong base in the north-west, make for sad reading.
Twelve jobs have been lost at Isothane Ltd in Accrington in my constituency, which I have been told may have a further impact, with job losses in Dukinfield in Manchester. There have been job cuts at Viscount Insulation in Blackburn and Castleford. There have been 85 job losses at Home Insulation Services in Preston, and 600 jobs went this summer at Domestic & General Insulation as a direct result of the Government’s policy changes. Many smaller companies have also laid off workers whom they had previously hired after the Government talked up the demand that would be created by the ECO and green deal schemes. I am afraid those job losses will not be the last. The majority of people in the UK would rather know that the levies are supporting a growing green economy and creating long-term financial and environmental savings, rather than simply being handed back to the energy companies without cast-iron guarantees that they will be passed on fully and without exception.
Before the hon. Gentleman concludes his speech, I will give him a slightly contrary view. In my constituency in Northumberland, which has similar properties—old stone buildings—the expansion of the energy sector is something that I welcome and applaud. Organisations such as the Centre for Green Energy and the multitude of biomass and other green and diversification suppliers are showing that there is a future for that type of energy.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comment, but he cannot deny that job losses have occurred due to the changes. Changes bring uncertainty, and I am sure we all agree that there should be less change and more consistency, because that will lead to more jobs in the sector. If we chop and change our energy efficiency policy, we will find that companies are reticent about entering the market because they are unsure about the future. Certainty is the bedrock of business, as I am sure he would agree.
I will conclude by asking the Minister a number of questions. Does she recognise the job losses that have directly resulted from rolling back the ECO? How many jobs does she estimate have been lost nationally? What does she see for the future of this important industry? The Government predicted that there would be 35,000 people working in the sector by 2015-16. Does she still seriously expect that to happen? What future plans does she have for areas with a prevalence of hard-to-treat walls and cavities, such as mine in Haslingden and Hyndburn, and clearly those in Hexham, which will no longer be economical under the changes to the ECO scheme? It seems obvious to many people that hard-to-treat, cold and damp properties are in most need. Why has that not been reflected and prioritised in Government policy?
Finally, has the Minister investigated where the remaining ECO money is being spent? The green deal home improvement fund opened in June and shut five or six weeks later in mid-July. Where has that money been spent? My constituents did not get an opportunity to apply for that money, and it included measures such as solid wall insulation. What happened to that money, and where was it spent? What proportion of that fund, the ECO and other schemes was spent on properties that are most in need?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.
This debate comes at the start of big energy saving week, a joint campaign between the Department of Energy and Climate Change, Citizens Advice and the Energy Saving Trust that will highlight the support available to help people keep warm this winter. It was good to see so many parliamentary colleagues at yesterday’s launch. During the last big energy saving week, 300,000 consumers received help and advice through events, by phone or online. This year we and our partners want to make big energy saving week even bigger than last year.
The independent review of fuel poverty enabled us more fully to understand the problem and to measure fuel poverty effectively. That has helped us to put in place policies that can target assistance at those most in need, which the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) spoke about earlier. We already have strong policies working on the ground, such as the ECO, the warm home discount scheme and the big energy saving network, but we recognise that the most vulnerable may still need extra help.
To highlight the Government’s commitment to making a real and lasting difference on fuel poverty, we have tabled draft regulations to create a new fuel poverty target in law. We want to ensure that as many fuel-poor homes as reasonably practicable achieve a minimum energy efficiency standard of band C by 2030. We have also consulted to help us to prepare for a new fuel poverty strategy.
I welcome the Minister’s comments, but I asked a fundamental question. How does she anticipate that constituencies such as mine in Hyndburn, which have a considerable mass of such fuel-poor people and hard-to-treat and uninsulated properties, will be addressed in the next five and a half years?
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman wants me to get straight to the point and address his key questions. I have a few minutes, and I would like an opportunity to set out what the Government are doing.
We recognise that improving domestic energy efficiency helps consumers to control energy bills, thereby reducing fuel poverty. Of course, it also contributes to our challenging carbon reduction target, which is, by 2050, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to at least 80% below 1990 levels. To drive up domestic energy efficiency, we have put in place a long-term programme that reflects fundamental underlying challenges. Much of the easy energy-efficiency work has been done. Nearly all homes have at least some loft insulation, although many could benefit from a top-up, and most of the easiest cavity walls have been filled. We need to move away from a culture of unsustainable grant dependency to a different, market-based approach. Our long-term aim is for consumers to be motivated to improve their homes and to be ready to meet some of the costs, with real, effective help for the most vulnerable. That is good for all bill payers, as subsidy will go where it can have the most effect; and it is good for our economy, as innovative businesses will enter the market and develop better, cheaper products.
In private meetings and in meetings with my constituents, I have spoken to the Minister about oil companies having a 500-litre minimum limit for delivering to people who are off-grid. If the Department were to change that minimum delivery to a lower figure, it would have a massive impact on people who are particularly fuel-poor and off-grid. Could she please look at that and get back to me?
I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. He has raised the matter with me previously, and I will get back to him.
I do not want to try the patience of the hon. Member for Hyndburn, so let us move on to the ECO, which is the particular element of support that he has asked me to address. We have made changes to the ECO, and the vast majority of customers pay for the ECO as part of their energy bills. With bills rising, it was right to review the impact of the policies on household costs and to ensure that the benefit of the ECO is directed where it can make most impact. This much is clear: we have not reduced the element of the ECO aimed at helping low-income and vulnerable households. Approximately two thirds of the ECO that is currently collected goes to the fuel-poor, which, overall, is the same amount as was previously set, despite the reductions. The hon. Gentleman talks about the Government cutting the energy companies some slack, but we have felt obliged to cut taxpayers some slack. At the same time, we have ensured that the people who are most in fuel poverty, the vulnerable, are still being given the assistance that was pledged. Dedicated fuel poverty activity within the ECO stays at the original level of investment of £540 million a year reaching 230,000 households, and we have extended activity on the same scale to 2017.
We are also making the ECO easier and cheaper to deliver, and we have extended the carbon saving community part of the ECO to cover the bottom 25% of areas on the index of multiple deprivation, extending it to more households in low-income areas. That will not only help more hard-pressed families; crucially, for the first time, extending the obligation to the end of 2017 will give industry and other partners maximum certainty. The hon. Gentleman discussed business’s need for certainty. We have delivered that by extending the obligation to 2017.
I appreciate that the Minister is giving way on her time. I generously admit that the carbon savings target for individual households was reduced, rendering the scheme worthless in that it could not actually be used, but how will the community target have an impact on district councils such as mine? It was essentially designed around local authorities, but small district councils such as mine are cash-strapped, and the shire does nothing. How can local district councils such as mine help community schemes meet the community target? It is not happening.
I urge the hon. Gentleman’s council to consider what it can do within the current ECO arrangements, which as I said have been extended for the next two years.
Turning to the green deal home improvement fund, which I also urge his council to consider, he is absolutely right. The green deal home improvement fund opened in June and was closed at the end of July, such was the take-up. It was more popular than any of us had expected. We had always said that the pot of money available was limited and that once it was gone, it was gone, but we did not anticipate that demand would be so strong, and we have acknowledged that that was not ideal for householders, industry or local authorities such as the hon. Gentleman’s, which might have promoted the scheme to residents.
However, the good news is that we have sourced additional funds and will reopen the green deal home improvement fund next month. We are working closely with industry, local authority and other partners to get their views on how the first phase worked and their ideas on how we can improve the scheme.
Can the Minister ensure that authorities such as mine that are deprived according to the index of multiple deprivation—our district council has challenges in trying to bid for the money quickly; they will inevitably be slow out of the blocks, because they do not have scale and size—are prioritised and given first dibs on the fund? That would be helpful in meeting some of the concerns that I have outlined.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that suggestion. We are keen to get the green deal home improvement fund absolutely right. I will take his suggestion back to my officials. We are getting a lot of contributions on how to ensure that the new green deal home improvement fund is correctly launched in order to get the maximum benefit for communities, particularly the most vulnerable communities, who have been suffering.
I hope that we can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the green deal home improvement fund will be an additional source that his council can access to help the people who need help, particularly with solid wall insulation, as he said. I recommend that his council contact my Department to find out more about a previous fund called the green deal communities fund. His council might be interested in finding out about its best practice. It had particular success in going street by street, door to door and working with community leaders to build trust among householders so they could use the fund.
I wanted to take a few minutes to comment on the private rented sector; I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has a particular interest in that area.
That is good. We want to support and encourage landlords to make improvements to their properties and empower tenants to request them. That is why, on 22 July 2014, we launched our consultation on energy efficiency regulations for the private rented sector. As a result of our proposals, from April 2016, private tenants will have a right to request consent for energy efficiency measures, which may not be unreasonably refused by the landlord. From April 2018, private rented properties will need to achieve a minimum energy efficiency standard before being let to tenants, except where certain exemptions apply.
I am grateful to the Minister; she is being very helpful. I point out to her for the record—she may or may not wish to comment—that I sat on the Energy Bill Committee in 2011 when that proposal was introduced. I voted against it, because I thought that the dates should be brought forward to 2011 from 2018. For seven years, people in the private rented sector have had to suffer. The Government are not doing this today; it was in the 2011 Energy Bill. I wanted that to be a matter of public record.
I think I can accept that as cautious support for the proposals, although they are less timely than the hon. Gentleman would like. He may rest assured that my Department is committed to delivering them, and we will use our best endeavours to do so.
I point out that although the hon. Gentleman’s constituents may be able to access the green deal home improvement fund, green deal finance is also available and is now picking up. It is also an important element for the private rented sector, where the electricity bill payer is normally the tenant, who contributes towards the cost of improvements through savings on their electricity bill. Tenants will benefit from a warm, healthier home while landlords will gain improvements to their property. The ECO and incentives announced as part of the autumn statement 2013 provide additional funding support for landlords to make improvements. Landlords took advantage of both the green deal cash back and home improvement funds, and nearly 115,000 households in the private rented sector have benefited from the ECO measures so far.
I point out to the hon. Gentleman that with the arrival of smart meters, which are now being rolled out, constituents will hopefully be able to control their use of energy and heating more effectively and efficiently. We are also making good progress on encouraging the take-up of local renewables. The number of installations, mainly of solar photovoltaic panels under the feed-in tariffs, now totals more than 590,000. The domestic renewable heat incentive was launched in March this year, and 10,000 homes are already being rewarded for switching to biomass, ground or air source heat pumps and solar thermal technologies.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate and agree that although he has certain frustrations that the ECO is not reaching some in his community, this Department is leading many other initiatives to assist everybody, including his constituents, to have warmer homes for less. It is an ambitious long-term programme. We are making progress and learning what works best. The scale of the funds that we have made available shows our determination to improve homes, reduce bills and fuel poverty and meet our carbon reduction commitments.
I hope I will get three minutes extra, as we are starting ahead of the clock.
I applied for this debate about three months ago and rather forgot that I had made the application. It only popped up in the system in the last 10 days, and quite a lot has changed since then. None the less, some of the fundamental points that I hope to raise are as important now as they were then.
First, to be positive, UK broadband roll-out—I will touch briefly on Wales, too—is a very positive story. A significant number of businesses and households are benefiting from it, and the link between economic regeneration and good-quality broadband is not disputed. However, importantly, 9.5 million UK adults lack the basic skills required to get online, and more than half of British businesses do not have an online presence to sell goods and services. That is an important underlying feature that the country and the coalition Government must address.
I appreciate that responsibility is devolved in Wales; none the less, it depends on UK taxpayers to the tune of £250 million or thereabouts. I will touch on three things that are important to the UK Government, rather than the Welsh Government, as a consequence: first, the take-up of broadband once it is installed; secondly, the issue of isolated rural communities, which has been raised many times in this Chamber and elsewhere; and, thirdly, Openreach response to customer concerns. That final point is the one on which I suspect there has been significant improvement during the past few months, but there are still concerns across the country—not just in Wales—about it.
On take-up, it is a worry to me that in Wales we are averaging about 17%; the figure went up a little bit to 19% in August in certain areas, but it has dropped back to 17% overall since then. Anglesey is doing rather better, at 25%. However, if we compare Wales with Cornwall, South Yorkshire and Northern Ireland, where the average take-up figure is nearly 30%, we appear to be underperforming. I have described the situation as being a bit like investing millions of pounds in High Speed 2, and then having no passengers using the service. To the tune of almost £490 each, UK taxpayers—including Welsh taxpayers—are creating this fantastic piece of infrastructure, yet use of it is not being properly taken up. We need to address that, for the reasons I gave earlier.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. We used to have debates about the extent to which broadband could be rolled out in our rural communities; there were figures of 96% and 97%. However, like him I fear that the debate is now about take-up. Where does he think the responsibility to promote take-up lies? Should it be with our National Assembly Government, with the Minister’s Department or with BT? I ask because, as he said, one way or another we are not getting the message across, are we?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. It seems to me that once the infrastructure is in place, it is unclear who is responsible for persuading, cajoling or seducing people into using it. It was mentioned to me this morning by employees of Openreach that take-up is reliant, to a great extent, on local authority enthusiasm and energy. However, that does not seem to be a strategy; it seems to be just an aspiration. I would suggest—I would be interested to hear the Minister’s response to this point—that this is a UK-wide problem. Broadband is a very expensive infrastructure project, so it is a UK Government responsibility to ensure that everybody knows that the service has been upgraded, or whatever expression one wants to use, in their area, and knows how to go about accessing it at a sensible and reasonable price. However, that does not appear to be the case at the moment. Most MPs seem to have a fairly full postbag when it comes to broadband-related issues, and yet the figures I have given show that a relatively small number of people are aware of, and therefore signing up to, the new provision.
The second issue I want to raise is isolated rural communities. We always talk about the 4%—those people who fall outside the 96% aspiration—and what the future holds for them. My question to the Minister is this: what are the UK Government’s proposals as far as those people are concerned? The Welsh Government have already given an indication that there will be some kind of mop-up scheme at the end of all this activity, which will possibly rely on wireless or satellite. However, the time scale is unclear; the method of installation, if that is the right word, is a little unclear; and it is certainly unclear what the cost would be to UK taxpayers.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I wonder whether he is in the same position in Wales as I am in England; I am trying to get from BT a map that shows clearly the 4% of people who are not in the system, so that one can try to deal with the situation and ask why they are not in the system. The little bits of information that we glean seem to indicate that there is no rationale in terms of isolated communities. I can cite a place called Glasson Dock; BT tells me that it is not in the system, yet it is in no way isolated. In fact, it is a very large community just on the outskirts of Lancaster.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. There are various online methods through which one can find out when one’s community is likely to be connected, but of course there is an irony there, because part of the problem is that not all of these communities have an online capability, thanks to the problems that we are discussing, so it might not be as easy as it seems to gather that information.
In defence of Openreach, I must say that the situation is a little clearer than it was, and I can only urge my hon. Friend to do what a lot of us seem to end up doing, which is pestering the company until such time as it says what is going on, just to get us off its back. Nevertheless, it seems to me that for reasons that are not entirely clear—they may be competition reasons, or just technical reasons—it is sometimes difficult to acquire the information that we need. There is a financial consequence to that, because companies need to know how, and indeed whether, they can invest in growing and sustaining their business, and it is very difficult for them to do so if there is no clear indication as to when they might reap the benefits of this fantastic new resource.
There are two ways that Openreach can help, in relation to my hon. Friend’s first two points. The first way is through data. Openreach has a large amount of data on who is taking up broadband services, which at the moment it does not release. It is really important that Openreach considers whether it can release more data. The second way is through this new concept called fibre to the node, which Openreach has held on to for some months now, and which we really need to get rolled out, because it is the key to accessing many of the very rural communities that he and I represent.
I am grateful, too, for that intervention. I have to say that I had not heard that expression until lunchtime today; I vaguely understood it when it was mentioned then, but now I completely understand it. Coming from a rugby nation, however, I think that the only thing I can do is pass the ball sharply to the left to the Minister, because ultimately decisions about that concept are for the UK Government, or at least that concept is an opportunity for the UK Government to deal with the problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) and—I have to say—plenty of other hon. Members have raised.
I will illustrate the point about isolated rural communities. The Country Land and Business Association is just one of many organisations that have helpfully made contributions to this debate, and it estimates that about 100,000 businesses with a combined turnover of up to £60 billion are affected by the lack of broadband, including many farmers, who of course have no option these days but to submit many of their Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs-related obligations and VAT returns online. It is an irony that in certain parts of my constituency farmers have to go to McDonald’s to access the free wi-fi there, in order to fulfil their legal obligations. I cannot believe the Government are enthusiastic about that reality.
First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Will he note that when those farmers go to McDonald’s, which often gets a very bad press, they can be reassured by the fact that it has a very good supply chain, using British-sourced beef and produce?
I am casting an eye in the direction of the Chair, who will very possibly rule me out of order; I am almost surprised that he did not rule the hon. Gentleman’s intervention out of order. However, I agree with every word he said—I say that before I am admonished.
Thirdly and finally, I will discuss the Openreach response to customer concerns. I know that this is a controversial area; that it is very easy for people such as MPs to come up with a long stream of examples that are probably the exception rather than the rule; and that we only ever hear of the things that go wrong, rather than the many occasions on which things go right. However, there is a pattern—it has improved, but there is none the less a pattern—among constituents of mine that suggests Openreach has some way to go to reassure its customers that it has sorted the problem of addressing customer concerns, and that it is their servant, rather than their master.
I will highlight two examples of customer concerns, and I hope that the House will indulge me while I read from my notes. The first example is of three customers on the same line who were waiting for work to be done, including work to replace a repeatedly broken line that needed to be buried underground. After waiting for more than 12 months, the customers were told in the spring that work could not be carried out until the autumn, because the farmer across whose land the line was to be buried would not allow Openreach to do so until the crop on that land had been removed. In fact, the farmer in question was actually one of the three customers affected, and that was simply not the case; the land was a grass field, and he was happy for the work to be carried out as soon as possible.
That example shows a little more than just a lack of communication, or some kind of mistake in the system; it appeared to my constituent, who was a customer of the company, that the company was almost deliberately trying to push him to one side. The fact that the work took so long and in the end required him to seek what I suppose is the ultimate sanction—of going to his MP—is an indication of the distance that we still have to go to restore customers’ confidence in the company.
My second and last example is of a customer waiting for work to be done who was told that it was necessary for the council to approve the use of traffic lights on a road in order for the work to be carried out, and that a request for their use had been submitted. Fortunately, the customer’s brother worked for the relevant department in the council and knew that, first, no such request had been submitted and, secondly, there was no such requirement for traffic lights. Once this was highlighted to BT, the work was carried out and no traffic lights were used.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Those examples, from places 200 miles away from my constituency, are identical to issues faced in mine. I have heard about Openreach blaming a local authority for failure to act, yet the local authority says that Openreach has not contacted it. I am concerned, because Openreach has said that it needs to work with local authorities to get broadband use higher, but if it is blaming local authorities with no justification, surely that will not build a positive relationship.
My hon. Friend’s remarks probably reflect those of a number of hon. Members. I hope that the new regime at Openreach, which is highly focused on customer relations, realises that these are not necessarily isolated examples, that there is a bit of a pattern, and that it needs to treat them with the seriousness they deserve.
Of course, for customers there is that torturous process of trying to make a complaint to a machine of such magnitude that it is almost impossible ever to talk to the same person twice, or to get through the endless helplines, despite being reassured that “Your call is important to us”, and all that nonsense. People want action, and they want it quickly, not appeasement; yet the system seems to be geared against that.
To ensure greater openness in its provision of services, BT has added features to the “Expect Openreach” site, including a local network status checker to show information about incidents such as cable breaks, weather-related information and so on. However, the problem with isolated rural areas is that, with a lack of mobile phone coverage and poor broadband, it is almost impossible to check the “Expect Openreach” site to ascertain what caused damage to the process in the first place. There needs to be some reflection of the fact that the normal way that members of the public and customers can identify problems are not exactly open to people in more isolated areas.
I shall give the Minister a lengthy opportunity to answer two questions. I have secured a few Westminster Hall debates, and always optimistically finish by asking one, two or three questions. However, four and a half years in, no answers to those questions have been forthcoming. I hope and pray that the Minister will break that record. I am asking in the most helpful way that that I can.
First, will the Minister explain what the UK-wide strategy is for ensuring greater take-up, so that we can move our take-up figures in Wales from 17% to a much higher proportion? I hope that there will be a similar improvement across the whole UK. Secondly, will he set out the Government’s plans to deal with the 4%? What is the time scale and cost, and what is the expectation for the 4% of people who will fall behind the rest of the UK, unless we deal with their broadband demands in exactly the same way as we deal with everybody else’s?
I am grateful for the chance to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for securing this important debate.
My hon. Friend asked two clear questions, but also pointed out that in four and half years in this place no Minister has ever answered his questions. I am a loyal Minister and I do not intend to break ranks with my colleagues. I will try to use the next 17 minutes to avoid, in any shape or form, answering my hon. Friend’s questions. If at any point it appears that I might stray towards an answer, I rely on my colleagues to intervene to prevent me from doing so. My hon. Friend needs to reach five years in this place without an answer, so that when the election hustings come he can say to his constituents, “In five years, no one has ever answered my questions.”
Of course, my hon. Friend will be re-elected, because he is a fantastic Member of Parliament. It is debates such as this one, in which he raises issues of concern to his constituents, that show why he is such a superb MP for his constituency.
I speak on a constituency matter. The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire made a good speech, in which he talked about rurality. I would like the Minister to answer one question. Does he recognise that, in Wales particularly, rurality affects almost every constituency? My constituents, Darren Hughes, Haydn and Pat David, Gill Dowling and Justin Legg are in Pencoed and Heol y Cyw, which are only two miles from the M4, yet they have intermittent service disrupted by bad weather. However, when they approach BT Openreach they do not get satisfactory answers, let alone compensation. Does he agree that they need to receive good customer service and satisfaction?
I am not clear what question the hon. Gentleman is asking me. Is he asking whether every constituency in Wales has an element of rurality? [Interruption.] I agree—I answered that question directly. Do I agree that his three constituents deserve the help of Openreach? I agree. I have ensured that key executives from Openreach are within 50 yards of the hon. Gentleman, to take up his constituency case the minute this debate finishes.
It has been a bit of a broadband day for me. I started in the television studios of “Rip Off Britain”, with the great Angela Rippon, Gloria Hunniford and Julia Somerville, talking about broadband speeds, where, to my absolute astonishment, a member of the team told me that they lived in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) and he was an excellent Member of Parliament, in tune with his constituents.
I went on to a meeting with the Federation of Small Businesses, which told me its concerns about broadband and its ambitions for the Government. Obviously, I was fresh from answering all the parliamentary questions last Thursday, where a lot of my colleagues raised their concerns. The Secretary of State was nowhere to be seen, because he was in India, so I had to answer every question.
I am pretty broadbanded out, but now is the time to turn that around and give the positive message. First, the broadband roll-out programme is going well. We have passed more than 1 million premises and we are now passing up to 50,000 a week. It has really gathered speed. We are working in all the 44 areas where we have contracts.
In Wales, a scheme of some £200 million—if BDUK, Welsh Government and European money is taken into account, and not even including BT money—will cover some 750,000 premises by spring 2015. We have already reached almost 250,000 premises in Wales with superfast broadband. Let us not forget that BT’s commercial roll-out has also achieved superfast broadband for some 600,000 premises. By spring 2015, some 1.3 million premises in Wales will benefit from superfast broadband, if ours and BT’s rural broadband programme are combined.
The programme is on track. I pay tribute to the leadership of BT—Mike Galvin and Bill Murphy—on its rural broadband programme and on its tireless, hard-working engineers, many of whom worked in difficult conditions during the floods last winter to maintain it, as hon. Members will recall. While not ever losing sight of those who feel that they are being left behind by this programme—I will turn to that in a moment—it is important to celebrate its achievements and the enormous impact it has had.
I have decided to change my mind. This is a red letter day, because I am going to answer the two questions asked by my hon. Friend. What is the UK-wide strategy to promote greater take-up of broadband? He makes a good point. We are rolling out superfast broadband and it is important that people take it up. It is also important that people remember that superfast broadband is an engineering programme. We cannot wave a magic wand and deliver it overnight. We must also remember that there is a reason why this entire programme is not commercial and that, although we all see the benefits of superfast broadband, it is not necessarily taken up by everyone to whom it is available. That may be because people have decided that they do not need superfast broadband or because people are not aware that it is available in their area. We may be able to work with them to show them the benefits that superfast broadband would bring them.
In the very best cases, local authorities work hand in glove with BT and other providers to promote superfast broadband. One good example I can think of is Digital Durham, which from the beginning has had a take-up strategy embedded within it. Another good example is Cornwall, where there has been an ongoing project for several years. BT was originally contracted to reach 80%, but with the same money it is likely to reach 95% of the county. Cornwall has had digital take-up at its very heart with broadband roll-out.
There are two other issues that I hope will increase broadband take-up. First, working with BT, we are sharing data on how well take-up is going in particular areas. I opened the first broadband cabinet of our programme in North Yorkshire, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), and I am pleased to say that after my visit, take-up in that village soared to 60%. Clearly, although I am a pretty remarkable fellow, I cannot visit every single cabinet in the country, so that strategy has been ruled out. We are sharing the data on take-up by ward, so that we can identify areas where there is good take-up and areas where there is poor take-up to try to see whether any particular factors are behind that.
I am pleased to hear that the pilot scheme is happening and that data are being shared. When I was at a presentation in North Yorkshire a few weeks ago, there was a still some reticence on the part of BT Openreach to release much of its data, so I urge the Minister to continue his campaign and to persuade it to share as much data as possible.
We have made great progress with BT. Naturally, it is a commercial organisation, so sharing data with Government and more publicly is quite understandably an issue, because those data could be shared with commercial rivals. We have reached an agreement to share data by ward level on broadband, and that will begin to feed through.
Secondly, we have our SuperConnected Cities scheme, which offers business vouchers in 22 cities in the four nations of the United Kingdom. We have an advertising campaign promoting the take-up of those vouchers, and we have seen an uplift. We should therefore seriously consider whether a national campaign is needed to promote the benefits of superfast broadband. I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire loud and clear when he said that he felt that responsibility ultimately rested with the Government to promote broadband and broadband take-up. While I have talked about the need for BT and others and local councils to work together, I understand that point. We will look seriously at the role the Government can play in increasing broadband take-up.
The decision on getting those data was taken at the level of BT working with Broadband Delivery UK, and those data will come via BDUK. We will work with the Welsh Government, as we do on the whole broadband roll-out programme.
The second question that my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire asked was about how we will deal with the last 4%, and I will answer that question, too. It is a bit like a goal drought followed by a goal festival. It is clear that we cannot leave anyone behind in the broadband revolution. As I said, it is an engineering project and cannot be wished into existence overnight. Having seen the success of phase 1, which was to take us to 90%—I think it will actually go to 93% in Wales, if not further—we instituted phase 2, to take us from the 90% headline to the 95% headline. There was £500 million for phase 1, plus local council money and BT money. Phase 2 is an additional £250 million to take us to 95% nationwide. Phase 3, as it will effectively be called, will be to get to the last 5%. My hon. Friend talked about the last 4%, but we say that it is 5%, broadly speaking.
The last 5% are the most difficult homes to reach. They are the proverbial hockey stick on the graph, where the cost gets significantly higher, and we need to ensure that we get value for money. Under the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), we instituted a £10 million fund, where we invited different providers to provide pilots to test new technology for the most hard-to-reach areas. Those pilots are under way, and I think I am right in saying that we are evaluating their impact. The fund opened in March 2014 and we launched the pilots in June. One is in Wales and there are others in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Hampshire, Northumberland, Kent, north Lincolnshire, North Yorkshire, Devon and Somerset. The pilots have put their feasibility studies in to BDUK, and that will give us a good idea of what the best technology is to use—those who are critical of BT will be pleased to know that other companies are part of the pilots—and allow us to come up with a number that we can seek to fund the last 5%. That is an important point.
The third question, which my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire did not ask, although I think it formed the bulk of his speech—the reason why he did not ask me is because, arguably, I am not directly responsible—was on the performance of Openreach on customer service. Again, I know that he has a good relationship with Openreach. He has met their senior executives on at least one occasion, and possibly today as well, to talk through his concerns and issues. It is right that every colleague can raise concerns on operational performance. On Openreach’s operational performance, I am pleased that it is in the process of hiring some 1,600 additional engineers. As an aside, I am particularly pleased that many of those engineers have come from our armed services. It is good to see people who have served their country having the opportunity for a career in a company such as BT. I meet the chief executive of Openreach regularly. He is conscious of the need to continue to improve Openreach’s customer service and to meet his targets. My hon. Friend’s concerns and those raised by many other colleagues have been heard by Openreach.
I return to the high-level points that I want to make. With this programme, we have one of the most successful Government-sponsored roll-out programmes anywhere in the world. In terms of speed and the cost to the consumer, we have some of the best broadband infrastructure anywhere in the world. It is certainly better broadband than the other big four countries of the European Union. We have a great story to tell. We are a nation that was an early adopter of e-commerce, so we know that our fellow citizens are adopting this technology.
We will not, however, lose sight of those who are frustrated and left behind. Broadband has caught up with us and has become essential and important, whether for leisure, because we all access the BBC iPlayer or the numerous other internet applications, or—as my hon. Friend alluded to—as part of business, whether it is a farmer wanting to interact with the Rural Payments Agency, a citizen wanting to interact with Government services or a small business person wanting to sell their products and services not just locally, but across the globe. We will continue to strain every sinew to ensure that we deliver world-class infrastructure across all four parts of the United Kingdom. I am grateful indeed to my hon. Friend for raising these important issues and I end with an apology for having broken his four-and-a-half year unbroken record of being stonewalled by Ministers by simply answering his questions as directly and comprehensively as I could.
Question put and agreed to.