Tuesday 28 October 2014
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
Copycat Websites (Government Services)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)
People’s experience of the internet is generally good. Whether for skyping friends and relatives, ordering groceries online or even starting a business, the internet has changed the world beyond all recognition. Like many, I am pleased that older people, who may have viewed computers with suspicion in the past, have embraced the internet positively.
Sadly, although the internet provides great opportunities, it also presents threats. One is copycat websites for Government services, which are part of a growing industry that exists purely to trick the public out of their hard-earned money. That industry thrives by using underhand methods to fool people into paying way over the odds for Government services. In many cases, the victims are too embarrassed to report being ripped off, or simply do not know where to go to complain.
Research by Which? has revealed that more and more of its readers are being exposed to such websites each year. The sites exist for virtually anything, including paying taxes, obtaining driving licences, changing one’s name, applying for passports and birth certificates and even registering a bereavement. People are being tricked into paying up to £1,000 more than they should for such services.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is not only that people are being duped into paying over the odds for Government services but that they are sharing personal information that should be secure? When renewing her driving licence, an 82-year-old constituent of mine thought that a company called Net-secure was the payment arm of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Her bank cancelled her payment to that company, but months later she found a similar payment had been taken from her by a company with a similar name. We should bear in mind that aspect as well.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I raised the matter with the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions last Wednesday. What tends to happen is that people’s personal information is sold to criminal gangs, which then use it for further scams and to rip people off.
Often, as we know, the services I have mentioned are free through official channels. I welcome the extra funding for the National Trading Standards Board that was announced recently, but I have to say that action on the issue has to date been painfully slow. Copycat websites are taking money, through unfair means, from every MP’s constituents, yet in most cases the companies that trick people are doing so legally. It is not just that the sites are able to charge a reviewing and forwarding fee that in most cases is not actually required; many also charge an administration fee, which is not quoted until it is too late to back out of the transaction.
Perhaps most worrying of all, as my hon. Friend said, is the potential for identity theft. The sites collect all sorts of personal data. No one really knows what they do with the information, but there is the potential to sell it to criminal gangs.
In my constituency a gentlemen called Mr Tom Williams was recently tricked into paying an extra £40 for a tax disc. Like many people across the country who have been caught out by such websites, Mr Williams looked at the design of the site, which looked like an official Government site. It ranked highly on search engines, which also suggested that it was an official Government site, and it seemed to be a professional and effective service. Only later did Mr Williams realise that he had paid significantly more than he needed to for his tax disc. His case is not an isolated incident.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I have had constituents caught by precisely the same DVLA scam. Like him, I have been frustrated by the slow pace of change and the almost complacent attitude of the Office of Fair Trading to the implications of this issue.
I absolutely agree. The worst aspect of the DVLA scam is that people need a tax disc. It worries me that, as we move away from the traditional tax disc to a system of paying by direct debit, people could perhaps be scammed monthly, and pay over the odds every single month, because websites will be getting residual income every time.
Research conducted by Ipsos MORI for the Advertising Standards Agency found that the features that are important to people in deciding whether a site is official include the general design, the look and feel, the text describing the service and—perhaps most tellingly—the presence of a professional logo. Most, if not all, copycat websites are designed to look as much as possible like Government sites. They use text that describes services that sound official and many have logos that make them look like they are representing the Government.
On Sunday I checked one such site, europeanhealthcard. org.uk. It carries a picture of a European health insurance card front and centre, and describes itself as “a registered institution” that guarantees
“genuine service and complete secrecy about your personal information”.
“a full and comprehensive review of your application and forwarding within the mentioned time-period”
and states that it will
“make sure that all your details are filled in properly, without any typographical mistakes”
and ensure that
“all the necessary information is presented in the application form for a speedy delivery.”
However, hidden in the terms and conditions of the site, it is made clear that the company is unable to do anything to ensure a “speedy delivery” and that it will not accept any liability if data are spoiled.
In effect, the company promises a service that it is unable to deliver. It promises to help with people’s applications and to keep their data safe, but its terms and conditions make it clear that none of that is guaranteed. Even in the event that personal health information is lost or misplaced, the company claims that it has absolutely no liability. It is fair to say that if a website charges for a free Government service, such as the European health insurance card, but does not guarantee anything it claims to be able to do, it is not offering a fair price. That site is just one example of websites designed to have the look and feel of Government sites; they promise a professional, effective service for a fair price but, when looked into, provide anything but that.
I could give examples of many more websites that act in that manner and make every effort allowed within the law to trick people out of money. What is more telling is the silence of such companies. Many do not have contact numbers available online and are registered to post office boxes. As for those who do list contact numbers, my staff have contacted them but so far have faced a wall of silence, and have been unable to speak to anyone involved with corporate affairs. They have never been allowed past the operator. That is not just our experience. When newspapers have launched investigations, they have found it impossible to get in contact with the operators of copycat websites. It seems that, when faced with scrutiny, the companies that run such sites shut them down. I invite anyone running any of those companies who wishes to defend themselves to get in contact with me personally. I am more than happy to hear what they have to say.
We need concrete action to tackle copycat websites, to deal not just with their presence online but with the companies and people behind them. Since receiving extra funding six months ago, Trading Standards has taken action against a small number of copycat websites and has posted a new web page with guidance. But Ipsos MORI research for the Advertising Standards Agency has shown that people with the lowest levels of online literacy are the most at risk of being tricked by the sites. An online guide will do little to help those people avoid paying over the odds for Government services.
I welcome the decision by Google, working in conjunction with the Government, not to take advertising from a website once it has been identified as a copycat. That is a step in the right direction, as most of the websites pay for adverts that are often placed above the official Government website in search results. However, it takes time to work out whether sites paying for such adverts are indeed copycat websites. As we know, the internet moves far more quickly than Government or, indeed, society.
Although the regulatory agencies try to keep people safe from copycat websites, their actions are limited by the law. I accept that no regulation should make it difficult for legitimate companies to operate, but can anyone really claim that the tactics pursued by copycat websites are anything less than unfair? I fear we are heading towards the same situation that we faced with nuisance calls, when it took years for relevant legislation to be updated.
Earlier this year, amendment 69 to the Consumer Rights Bill would have made it unfair behaviour for a consumer to be mis-sold a service on what they believed was an official site. At the time, the Government argued that the amendment was not necessary—that they were working with search engines and regulatory agencies and that that would stop misleading websites. Since then, five people have been arrested in connection with copycat websites, and 25 sites have been shut down. Those figures are woefully low.
In January this year, The Mail on Sunday reported that a trading standards investigation and enforcement manager had told it that it was “extremely difficult” for trading standards to take action against most copycat websites. The investigation found that many people who ran copycat websites used multiple addresses and registered offices to confound trading standards. Even when the people behind schemes are identified and caught, most are found to have done nothing against the law.
It is time for the Government to look again at the legislation on copycat websites. Although trading standards staff are working to the best of their capacity to tackle these websites, they are dealing with a fast-moving world, and once one website is shut down, another is set up almost immediately under another name. While progress is slow, the least digitally engaged—often older and more vulnerable people—are being tricked into spending more of their hard-earned money than necessary. That cannot be allowed to continue.
I would like to see a three-pronged attack on copycat websites. First, there should be prevention. Transport for London already writes to anyone who has paid the congestion charge through a third-party website informing them that they have done so, and it is also consulting on a proposal to ban payment of the congestion charge through such websites. That is a good idea, which the Government should take on board. In addition, when someone is reminded by letter that they need to renew their TV licence or car tax, they should be alerted to the existence of copycat websites and directed to sites with addresses that end in .gov.uk.
Secondly, there should be regulation. When people are stung by copycat websites, there should be only one agency that they can complain to. At the moment, it can be one of three: the Advertising Standards Authority, trading standards or the Office of Fair Trading. There should one number and one website.
Thirdly, there should be legislation. The Government should look again at the Consumer Rights Bill and the amendment that I mentioned. Where someone believes that they are using an official website, but they are being tricked, there should be some remedy in law and some way for them to be compensated for their loss.
Much has been done in this area, but there is still much more to do. I hope that the Minister will look favourably on these proposals and finally put a stop to people being ripped off online.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I apologise for my tardy entry.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this important debate, and on the clarity with which he described the harm that copycat websites inflict on many of our constituents. As he indicated, they are not always illegal, but they often trick people into paying extra for services provided more cheaply or free of charge through official Government channels.
There are, of course, legitimate third-party services that help people to make transactions with the Government, and we are not here to criticise, for example, the Post Office check and send service for passports, or accounting firms that check people’s tax returns before they submit them, because such services really do add value. However, there are plenty of websites that do nothing other than charge a fee for the regular application or service. As I shall explain, the people who tend to use Government services most are often those who are least digitally literate.
Many Government services are also offered offline, but it is clear that many will be offered only online in future. That has clear benefits for the Government and the people and businesses using those services, but like other Members here, I have been contacted by constituents who have fallen foul of copycat websites, and the Minister must set out for us what he will do to address the issue.
To give one example, a man in my constituency, who was actually comfortable using technology and the internet, renewed a tax disc online. He used what he thought was an official website and was charged an extra fee. He was not a vulnerable person—he was confident about using the internet and digital public services—but he was scammed by this copycat website.
Technology is transforming our lives and will continue to do so for many years to come. It is transforming Government services and the way they are delivered. It has the potential not only to save money, but to empower people. As a country, we are not even beginning to reap the positive benefits that such changes can bring. Technology, and the internet in particular, have often been hailed as forces for freedom, democracy and accountability. As someone who worked as an engineer in technology for two decades before coming to this place, I have spent my life championing the ability of technology to transform our society for the better, as we all want it to. However, technology can also provoke fears and suspicion, particularly among certain groups, and copycat websites are one of a growing number of wider security and consumer rights concerns.
Digital government is a relatively new development in the long history of governance, but the Government have known about the growing problem of copycat websites for some time. As my hon. Friend said, the Opposition tabled an amendment during the passage of the Consumer Rights Bill earlier this year specifically to allow us to look at the sources of mass applications and block websites not providing an actual service. The amendment was withdrawn on the understanding that Ministers were beavering away behind the scenes and that action would be forthcoming. However, seven months have passed, and the only discernible action I have seen is a trading standards press release warning people to
“Wise up to the web”.
When the Minister responds, will he tell us what work has been going on since the debate on that amendment, what is planned and what the timeline is, because I am not convinced that Ministers are doing enough to protect citizens and businesses, or to help them protect themselves? Will the Government support Opposition amendments on this issue to the Consumer Rights Bill when they are re-tabled in the Lords later this year, or will we have more weasel words from Ministers?
When I asked about this issue in a written question in January, the Treasury said that it took no interest in the use of third-party websites, and that it responded on a case-by-case basis. It apparently said that because the Cabinet Office is leading a cross-Government initiative on the issue. The Minister is not from the Cabinet Office, but can he update us on that initiative? Can he at least tell us what it is called and what it has achieved so far?
Ministers need to ensure that individuals, businesses, industry and the public sector are protected as much as possible from digital crime and fraud. Part of that is about ensuring that people have the skills to protect themselves and to be confident online. However, the Government have a lamentable record on digital inclusion and skills. Their own digital inclusion strategy, which took four years to produce, has as its premise that 10% of people will be left behind by technology. I would not say that it was a good start for an inclusion strategy to exclude one in 10 people. Will the Minister therefore explain his view of digital inclusion as one way to address the harm caused by copycat websites?
Right now, as my hon. Friend so elegantly described, many people are experiencing what I call digital discomfort: the sense that the security services know whom we are calling and that Amazon is telling us what we should be buying; concern that online porn is too accessible to our children; or the nagging doubt that the website on which we renew our passport may not be the Government website that we think it is—the one we trust. Not enough is being done across the board to protect and include the most vulnerable. If we do not act quickly to tackle problems such as copycat websites, we risk undermining trust in digital government specifically, and technology more generally. As we know, trust is hard to gain and easy to lose. There is a general issue about trust in digital services, which is why we must work hard to give the public the confidence to put their trust in the digital services offered by Government.
As my hon. Friend mentioned, Ministers announced over the weekend that they would finally take action on nuisance calls. That is a welcome move after years of dithering. It should not have taken so long, or taken so much pressure from Members, to get the Government to move on that. None of us advocates knee-jerk reactions, but copycat websites have long been a growing scam, and I feel that the Minister should now be prepared and able to set out a concrete plan of action.
Some 80% of Government interactions with the public take place with the bottom 25% of society, but only a quarter of people living in deprived areas have used a Government online service or website in the past year, compared to 55% nationally. There are still 5 million households that have no access to the internet because either they do not want it or cannot get it. Millions more do not feel confident using it, for one reason or another, be it security fears or a lack of digital literacy. My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn mentioned research by Ipsos MORI for the Advertising Standards Authority, which found that those who were less confident online or had low digital literacy were more likely to go on to or use copycat websites. That may seem obvious, but it is an important point. There is a wider issue of digital inclusion that I am afraid the Government do not take seriously enough. We have some excellent digital services. The DVLA is often praised, and the Government Digital Service’s award-winning gov.uk website recently celebrated its 1 billionth hit.
Further down the track, more and more services will be delivered digitally. Universal credit is one. A copycat website for a tax disc is a problem, but copycat websites for universal credit—should it ever be launched—will be, by an order of magnitude, a bigger problem for many of the poorer and least privileged among us, as well as for the Government.
I am sure that the Minister will talk a lot about cross-departmental working and Cabinet Office initiatives. I know that it is outside his portfolio, but can he tell us what is going on with local government? Research in support of the review of digital government that will soon report to the Labour party has found that local government technology varies considerably. Among local authorities, where so many public services are delivered and where many citizens get most of their experience of Government, there are pockets of greatness but a vastly disparate set of solutions and services. In my constituency, Newcastle council’s trading standards service produces a newsletter informing local groups of the latest scams, including copycat websites, and things to look out for. If we can prevent some scams of that kind at source, local trading standards offices such as Newcastle’s, which is under incredible financial pressure, will be freed to concentrate on other issues.
Research by my office on police capability found that police practices and resources for cybercrime and fraud vary greatly across the country. Again, that issue is outside the Minister’s portfolio, but in his discussions with colleagues has he made an assessment of the scale of the problem and the resources needed to respond, specifically within police forces? On a similar topic, has the Minister had any information from the Government Digital Service on the scale of the problem and of the response required, and the resources it is putting towards addressing it?
Technology offers us an unprecedented opportunity to transform public service delivery. We must ensure that that opportunity is not undermined; we cannot afford to underestimate the possibility. Politicians must champion the positive power of technology and we must not allow emerging threats to stifle the huge opportunities that it offers us, socially, culturally and economically.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing the debate, and I thank the hon. Members for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) and for Newport East (Jessica Morden), and the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), for their contributions.
I share the anger and frustration about the cause highlighted by the hon. Member for Islwyn. I took up the matter when some of my constituents highlighted cases involving passports and driving licences. It was not then formally part of my portfolio, but as my role has expanded, I have had more opportunity to influence the direction of policy. I am pleased to say that I think we are making progress, although I noted that the tone of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central suggested that more progress could and should be made.
To start with my glass half full, I will talk about the success of the Government’s vision for digital by default services, which is driven by a desire to give the public the kind of Government services that they expect. Those are services that are simple, fast and clear, and that can be accessed easily at times and in ways that suit people. There has been a step change thanks to the use of digital services that are now built more and more around the needs of users, not the Government. The Government Digital Service is an unequivocal success story of the present Government that needs to be talked about more, and I hope that whoever takes over—us or them, or anyone—will continue to build on that effective work.
The use of the Government Digital Service has the happy benefit that it saves money. Last year we saved more than £200 million on digital and technology-related expenditure as part of the overall £14 billion of efficiency savings achieved across the Government as a whole, and that was all achieved while continuing to drive improvements in how people access information and services. That is a clear example of how to get more for less.
There is much to be celebrated in the progress we are making, and much of that is down to the head of the Government Digital Service, the remarkable Mike Bracken. There are now 14 new, transformed, digital services being used by the public, and they comply with a stretching Government service standard. Their success is evident. For example, more than half of applications for carer’s allowance now come via the new digital channel. Digital can act as a catalyst for change. However, we recognise that high levels of digital take-up will be achieved only if the public feel confident about using Government services online. As the hon. Member for Islwyn and others pointed out, the problem of misleading third-party websites can dent that confidence.
Let me be clear: sites that try to palm themselves off as legitimate Government services need to be stopped. I am sure that that is something on which we all agree. Abuse involving such services can take a range of forms, all of which can have a negative impact, including brand abuse, which is the misuse of Government logos to imply affiliation with or endorsement by the Government. Phishing—that is with the letters “p” and “h”, Mr Gray, in case you were thinking of fishing, at which you are a dab hand—is the practice by which unscrupulous people try to acquire personal information, such as user names, passwords and credit card details, by masquerading as a trustworthy entity. Scamming websites are third-party sites that levy charges for access to Government services and claim to provide additional services that actually offer little or no value.
The Minister makes an important point, but my correspondence with Government agencies indicates that those copycat websites are operating within the law. There is a compelling case that the easiest way to tackle the problem is through legislation, so will the Minister look again at that?
I will turn to that point in a moment. I agree that some of these websites arguably work within the law. That causes a problem, so I shall explain how we plan to deal with that in a moment.
Citizens can now interact with the Government online by applying for passports, booking MOT tests for cars, obtaining replacement birth certificates and applying for driving licences. I am told that people can also apply online for a licence to be buried at sea. That is the least used Government service at the moment, but now that the application is digital, the attraction may increase. Many Government services are provided free of charge, but some, such as applying for a passport, involve a fee. The process is generally straightforward: follow the instructions and pay the charge—job done.
To find the websites on which to access the services they need, the vast majority of people will have to use an internet search engine, and that is where we come across the first difficulty. Most people inadvertently end up on misleading websites through the sponsored adverts section on search engines such as Google or Bing. The content on the Government’s site, gov.uk, is optimised to ensure that, as far as possible, it tops the rankings in search engine results but, unfortunately, the sponsored adverts section sits above the organic search results, so people who are unfamiliar with the layout of a search engine page often click on to the misleading website by mistake.
The Government have worked with the search engine providers to understand the terms and conditions they have adopted to guide the use of their sponsored ad slots. Although problem adverts are not necessarily illegal, they often break the search engine provider’s terms and conditions, but sometimes they are not actively removed unless complaints are received. We sat down with the Government Digital Service, Google and Bing to agree a mechanism for flagging adverts and websites in breach of search engines’ policies so that they can be taken down. The arrangements are operating effectively. Departments are working with search engine providers when such sites are identified so that the adverts can be removed. Search engine providers have introduced forms so that users can report problem websites, and we will continue to notify them of sites that are brought to our attention.
When we have discovered, or members of the public have highlighted, the misuse of Government logos, we have ensured that they are removed from offending sites. Such sites have included those for renewing driving licences. When necessary, we have used specialist lawyers. I am pleased that there has been a significant drop in the number of reports about websites misusing our logos and thus misleading users.
Some Government services are hit harder than others. Services that tend to involve one-off transactions are the ones to which such third-party websites offer access, such as for passport and driving licence applications, and for booking driving tests. Infrequency of use creates a problem because the users of services provided by Departments and their agencies may not be familiar with the look and feel of those sites, and the wide demographic base of users limits the impact of broad-based communication and education. That does not make the problem insurmountable, and nor does it mean that education about the best way to access Government services should not be part of our approach to tackle the problem, but we must do that creatively.
A further complication, which goes back to a point made by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, is the difficulty of categorising all activities of the websites that we have been talking about as bad or misleading. In 2012, the Office of Fair Trading looked into online commercial practices relating to Government services and concluded that it was not appropriate to take formal enforcement action. Its investigation did not reveal widespread attempts by non-Government websites to misrepresent their affiliation with the Government. Moreover, the OFT took the view that the overall depiction of the sites investigated, including their branding, colouring and images, did not create the misleading impression that they were official Government websites. Many of the sites carried statements explaining the nature of the service provided and disclaiming any official status or affiliation with the Government, and the OFT considered that those statements were sufficiently unambiguous and prominently displayed.
The OFT’s findings and the means by which such sites promote their offerings both bring us back to education. How do we help the users of our services to spot when they are on a Government website or that of a third party? How do we ensure that citizens and businesses can enjoy the benefits and additional value that competition through third-party provision of access to Government services can bring without fear of being exploited?
The number of complaints we receive about misleading websites still represents a small fraction of the total number of service users. Ensuring that the look and feel of Government services become more consistent, as well as providing access to such services through one site, will help our efforts to get users to the right place.
The Minister says that the number of complaints made about copycat websites is quite low. Before raising the matter at last Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s questions, I did some research into scams, and particularly scam mail. Only one in five crimes are being reported because of embarrassment or shame, or because people do not even know that they have been ripped off. Is there any evidence of how many people are not reporting when they are scammed by copycat websites?
I will try to give the hon. Gentleman some evidence before I conclude my speech; otherwise I will write to him. Although he raised the matter at Prime Minister’s questions, I am not aware of the difference between those who report misleading websites and people who choose not to report them, or of what that survey was based on.
We started an education campaign in July using social media to raise people’s awareness that when they want to use a Government website, they should start at gov.uk. To maintain momentum, there has been a focus on Twitter activity in subsequent themed weeks based on some of the main services that are being targeted by misleading websites. We have also worked with external organisations such as Which? In July, it published a consumer piece, “How to spot a copycat website”, which is an excellent guide from a trusted source for the public. We have also worked with digital journalism, and “Government Computing” published an awareness-raising piece on the #StartAtGOVUK campaign. We will continue to work on innovative ways to raise awareness, and any thoughts and suggestions from hon. Members will be most welcome.
We have also been leading a cross-Government approach to address individual complaints. For the first time ever, we have set up a webpage via which consumers can report copycat sites. Full details of that one-stop shop can be found on the gov.uk website, and it represents a modern and dynamic response that is appropriate to the online era.
I shall talk briefly about enforcement. In March, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott), the then Minister, provided £120,000 in additional Government funding to the national trading standards e-crime team to support enforcement action against copycat websites. In late June, four search warrants were executed on properties, leading to the arrest of five people and the disruption of the operation of at least 25 copycat websites. A criminal investigation is ongoing.
Government agencies are individually proactive in this area. The Intellectual Property Office pursues, prosecutes and puts out of business the operators of websites offering copyright-infringing material that can be found through search results. I am pleased that the main search engine providers are fully engaged in supporting us in that.
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has a robust system that includes the use of a third-party security firm to find and shut down rogue sites that are engaged in phishing activity. In 2012-13, it shut down 560 rogue sites, and it has continued to warn taxpayers to be on their guard against fraudulent phishing e-mails after almost 75,000 fake e-mails were reported to the taxman between April and September this year. Those e-mails promised a tax refund, which is obviously incredibly tempting, and asked for the recipient’s name, address, date of birth, and bank and credit card details, including passwords and their mother’s maiden name. HMRC has worked with law enforcement agencies to help to close down more than 4,000 websites that are responsible for sending out such e-mails. It has made it clear that it never contacts customers who are due a tax refund by e-mail, as a letter is always sent through the post.
People’s behaviour and their expectations of online services are constantly evolving. We do not want to stifle innovation, but nor do we want to impact on websites that honestly and legitimately provide value-added services now, or those that could emerge in the future. I fully recognise that there is still work to be done, and we wrote to all MPs and peers recently to outline what activity we are undertaking.
Opposition Members referred to amendments to the Consumer Rights Bill. I am not sure whether the relevant amendments were debated in the Lords yesterday, but the Government did not support them, as they seem effectively to impose a burden to regulate such websites, rather than outlawing them. However, we will obviously look at any suggestions that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central makes.
As I understand the position, we oppose those proposals as they would impose a regulatory burden on the Government effectively to regulate these websites. It is not clear whether an amendment will be pressed to a Division, but I will keep in touch with the hon. Lady about the Government’s position, if it evolves.
I agreed with what may have been implied in some of the hon. Lady’s remarks about the need to work more closely with local government. The Government Digital Service has delivered a revolution in how the Government engage with the citizen, and that revolution could well be cascaded down, as it were, to local government. That is not to say that local government is not doing its own pioneering work, however.
The hon. Lady was right to talk about digital inclusion. On one level, I am on the front line of that, in terms of rolling out broadband and mobile services so that people can actually access online services, but the other part of the equation is encouraging people to use those services once they can access them. As she knows, the charity Go ON UK works with 60 stakeholders to encourage people to use these services. Many of the counties in charge of their own broadband roll-out schemes are also encouraging people to get online. We believe that the best way forward is a grass-roots campaign that works with charities that can get out to individuals, or encourage them to come to local community spaces, so that they can see the huge benefits of being online. As we roll out universal credit, the Government should look carefully at how we encourage people to access benefits online.
This has been a useful debate. Although this might not have come across because of my heavy cold, I feel almost as passionately about the subject as Opposition Members. Given the huge success of the Government Digital Service, with a genuine revolution in engagement with the citizen, it is important that that revolution is not marred by unscrupulous copycat websites. The Government have to strike a balance between those websites that are genuinely innovative and provide a useful service, and those that are either simply trying to fleece the customer or, even worse, to phish their contact details and then do even worse things with them. We are raising awareness through our campaign and working closely with the search engines, which is the right thing to do, because search engines are the means by which most people come across these websites. When there is a clear breach of the law, we are using agencies to enforce the law.
Personal Independence Payments
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I welcome this debate.
The measure of a Government’s compassion is their treatment of the most vulnerable members of society. Although we all recognise the unfortunate reality that we must deal with our nation’s deficit, that should never be done on the backs of that section of our society. I requested this debate in response to the dreadful experiences of some of my constituents with personal independence payments. Many of them require the state’s support in order to enjoy a life that those of us fortunate enough to enjoy good health often take for granted. For them, a fair measure of support makes the difference between spending their lives at home, isolated, alone and cut off from the rest of society, and enjoying as active a life as possible and participating in their communities.
Colleagues will know that in the past I have raised the deficiencies of the former disability living allowance. When a constituent of mine endured the difficulties associated with a laryngectomy—the removal of the voicebox, which is almost always carried out as a means of treating cancer—I spoke in the House. The benefits process was so convoluted that it resulted in an individual having to fill out an application form of massive proportions. That would be difficult for many of us, let alone for an individual with a profound physical or mental disability. In this individual’s case, using a telephone was just not possible. Enable, the charity supporting people with learning disabilities in Scotland, has said:
“Whilst it may be possible for many claimants to make this initial call without support, it is our experience that people with a learning disability are often unable to do this and require the physical support of advice services. This is especially true when no family or other support is available to assist.”
Citizens Advice Scotland agrees.
I sought this debate today not least to congratulate Citizens Advice Scotland, which runs the Scottish citizens advice bureaux, on its 75th anniversary. I warmly commend its excellent staff and many volunteers. Crucially, it released a report recently that shows that the rollout of PIP to replace DLA is in an utterly shambolic state. I commend that report to the House for its consideration, and I intend to make a number of references to it. For example, for some rural residents in the north of Scotland the nearest assessment centre is in Inverness, which requires an 80-mile round trip. In some cases, people have to go even further, travelling distances of up to 100 miles, and even in urban areas there are serious problems.
I will give another example of a person who was contacted by Atos for a home visit, so that they could receive a medical assessment for PIP. The individual was receiving in-patient care in hospital on the arranged date and informed Atos, which told her that non-attendance at the meeting would affect any award of PIP. Therefore, the patient had to arrange for an early discharge from hospital and pay for a taxi back to her home. Using a walking frame and with a nasogastric tube in place, she was told by the health care professional who arrived to see her that the assessment could not be carried out because she was too ill. Of course, that left the patient very upset and the health care professional informed her manager of this. Consequently, the health care professional was told that she could carry out the assessment if the patient agreed that it could go ahead. Afterwards, the patient had to get another taxi back to the hospital, at a cost of another £12.
Numerous cases involve what is at best a very sceptical line of questioning and at worst an outright interrogation of a claimant’s circumstances, and I know that many of my colleagues know of similar experiences.
Another decision involved an individual with heart failure who was initially refused any component of PIP, because she had walked from the car park to the assessment centre, albeit with enormous difficulty.
Time and again, the main reasons why people are asking for PIP decisions to be reviewed are, first, the failure to consider fully the impact of a client’s condition during the medical assessment, and, secondly, inconsistencies in the information provided by the Department for Work and Pensions following a decision.
Decisions about the refusal of the mobility component also cause problems. In its comprehensive report, Citizens Advice Scotland states that it has found selective use of evidence in order to make a decision not to award the benefit. Clients feel that not all of their circumstances have been considered, or that they have been over-simplified.
Another awful example is that of a client who had just been awarded a PIP daily living standard rate. He was told that he could drop dead at any time due to a heart condition, and he had a specialist cardiologist’s report from the beginning of last year stating that. The person is so traumatised by the wait and the hardship that have been caused that he cannot face the appeal; he has been told to avoid stressful circumstances at all costs. All that, and much more of what is in the report, is totally unacceptable.
Four in five advisors say that delays are causing worsening health, and in nine out of 10 cases are causing additional stress and anxiety, not to mention financial strain, while claims are being assessed.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate, and I am sure that we will continue to discuss this issue during the course of the day.
What can double or treble delays is the delay upon delay in the appeal procedure. I know of the case of someone who first applied for PIP back in September 2013. She was refused it in the first instance. She was then successful at the first-tier appeal, but the Department has not yet decided whether or not to appeal to the next tier up; because of various delays and errors, that decision has not yet been reached. So, 13 months after first applying, she is still facing nobody knows how many months of delay, and that kind of thing is causing people much tension and pressure, is it not?
I know why my hon. Friend feels so passionate, and the experience that he has shared with us is reflected in the views expressed in the report that I am asking the House to consider.
Another example I can give is of an individual who has serious health issues and who last year was diagnosed with throat cancer. He has been waiting for an appointment with Atos to be assessed for PIP. Due to the length of time that his processing is taking, he is now in a great deal of financial difficulty, with rent and council tax arrears of almost £2,600, despite his wife working full-time.
As we all know, PIP is an important passport to many other benefits, such as carer’s allowance, disability premiums, the mobility scheme, concessionary travel schemes, etc. It is indeed a lifeline for people who could not afford to leave the house otherwise and it is a vital part of their personal finances. It cannot be right that many of them face ruin and destitution while they are waiting for their claim to be processed.
This extreme financial hardship has caused a number of individuals to rely on handouts from friends and food banks, and on the accumulation of debt to an unsustainable degree. I know of an individual who has been waiting for an assessment since November 2013, but now his income has been so reduced that he cannot travel to appointments; if he pays for transport, he cannot top up his electricity meter. He has post-traumatic stress disorder and his current situation is resulting in his becoming more withdrawn and reluctant to request help. His mental health is deteriorating as a result. He has worked his entire life and in his 50s is a first-time claimant.
In Coatbridge, which is in my constituency, on 1 April there were 82 PIP applications for daily living claims and 160 mobility claims. I checked with Coatbridge CAB this morning and discovered that all these claims are lying in the in-tray of Atos or DWP and not being brought to a conclusion. I also clarified the position of the CAB in Bellshill, which is also in my constituency. It is handling a PIP claim that has been pending for 10 months.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) tells me that there are similar problems in his city, and on that point I will give way.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way and I congratulate him on securing a welcome and—in many ways—a well-timed debate. He has just described what we are experiencing in Coventry, including sloppy paperwork and long delays in receiving benefits, especially the earnings supplement, which is claimed by 25% of the claimants in Coventry. CAB time is taken up with that.
We see the same if we look at matters nationally. About 75,000 people are affected nationally, so what is happening in Scotland is also happening in Coventry and the rest of England. I do not want to repeat what my hon. Friend has said. Despite that, we should congratulate the city of Coventry, because it is trying to get on top of what is, quite frankly, an overwhelming problem. This whole facility—the entire benefits system—must be looked at now, because it seems to be a shambles.
I am glad that my hon. Friend intervened to underline my assertion that problems exist throughout the whole United Kingdom.
The truth is that the picture is depressing, and it is not as if the Department for Work and Pensions has not been warned. The National Audit Office, which published a report in February 2014 entitled “Personal Independence Payment: early progress”, investigated the performance of the DWP as it introduced PIP. It found that
“the Department did not allow enough time to test whether the assessment process could handle large numbers of claims. As a result of this poor early operational performance, claimants face long and uncertain delays and the Department has had to delay the wider roll-out of the programme.”
The Department anticipated that it would take 74 days to decide on a claim, but the actual average wait is 107 days. For terminally ill claimants—I underline “terminally ill”—the process was taking 28 days on average against a departmental assumption of 10 days. That represents a wholly unrealistic assumption of the capacities of both the Department for Work and Pensions and Atos in Scotland. The end result is a system that would not work on paper, clearly does not work in practice and is further straining claimants’ finances and health.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said in response to the NAO report:
“The Department need to understand the causes of this backlog to develop a clear plan on how they are going to work with contractors to clear it, and ensure there are suitable processes in place to make sure this does not happen again.”
I have experience in my constituency, as I am sure my right hon. Friend does in his, of people winning an appeal after a considerable amount of time. The person will receive their PIP allowance some six months after, but their housing benefit is not backdated to the point at which they lost their disability allowance. When the benefit is lost, the person also loses their passport to housing benefit, but local authorities do not backdate to the day when the person lost their disability or other benefit. People are therefore left with substantial debts in their housing account that no one will pay for.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. If I may say so, I am pleased that we have here so many Coatbridge-born Members of Parliament, including my hon. Friends the Members for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) and for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham). Not least you, Mr Gray, have close associations with Coatbridge—
Mr Gray, I do not think that anybody would confuse your neutrality in this debate with the opinions that you rightly express when you have the opportunity.
Mencap, when giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee, asked that the reassessments of people currently claiming disability living allowance be stopped until the huge delays in assessing people’s PIP applications were dealt with. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions, chaired admirably by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), released a report in March 2014 entitled “Monitoring the performance of the Department for Work and Pensions in 2012-13”. It found that the current level of service offered to PIP claimants and the length of time that disabled people had to wait to find out whether they were eligible was “unacceptable”. Statistics published by the DWP on 11 February 2014 showed that 229,700 new claims had been submitted up to the end of December 2013, but that only 43,800 decisions had been made. Noting that some claims were taking six months or more to process, the Committee called for “urgent action” on the current “unacceptable service” provided to PIP claimants. While some of the reports were published several months ago, the situation has hardly changed. Statistics released by the DWP in September show that, of the 529,400 cases registered for PIP between April 2013 and the end of July 2014, just over 206,000 had been processed and awarded, declined or withdrawn. That means that just under 40% of cases registered for PIP have been cleared in 16 months, which is a wholly avoidable disaster for claimants.
The problem is not exclusively Scottish. The Government, through the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, are gambling that the British public are suffering from austerity measures and that they have little interest in how people with disabilities are being treated. The Government are wrong, and their standing in the eyes of the public is suffering. People with disabilities have families and friends, and the British people are profoundly fair. In any event, it is morally repugnant for the coalition Government to mistreat vulnerable people as a result of a bureaucratic logjam that they have created and for which they must accept responsibility. In other words, it is a United Kingdom Government problem.
I have congratulated Citizens Advice on its report, but it would be remiss of me not to highlight and promote the outstanding work of local government and their partners, which engage closely with vulnerable people. In my constituency, for example, North Lanarkshire council has recognised the plight of vulnerable people and has impressively put substantial additional resources into tackling their welfare issues, providing even more welfare rights officers. No praise is too high for the marvellous work that they do.
If my hon. Friend allows me, I will not, so as to give the Minister time to reply.
In conclusion, the Secretary of State should have the humility to offer a profuse apology for the stress, hardship and financial inconvenience that the roll-out of PIP has caused to so many people. He should publicly apologise on behalf of his Government. There should be a clear timetable for dealing with the transition to PIP, and it should be agreed in consultation with local government, Citizens Advice, MPs and interested charities. There should be no further roll-out of PIP until all the problems and backlogs have been sorted. There should be a further independent inquiry to identify how the Department for Work and Pensions got into this hopeless mess and how it will respond.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke) on securing the debate. I used to sit in debates that he led when I was a shadow Minister, so I know that he has long-standing interest in disability matters and it is good to hear his views.
I also pay tribute to Citizens Advice. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Citizens Advice Scotland, but my constituency team works closely with the citizens advice bureau in the Forest of Dean. We assist some of its clients, and sometimes it assists a number of ours.
As the right hon. Gentleman referred to our overall treatment of the most vulnerable in our society and disabled people, I will begin by putting on record that the amount of taxpayer money spent on personal independence payments and disability living allowance for working-age people has been more in real terms in each year of this Parliament compared with the year that we came to power. To be clear, more resources are going to support people with disabilities to enable them to live independent lives and to work.
I have been frank in oral questions in the Chamber, and during a lengthy evidence session with the Work and Pensions Committee, that the delays that people face are unacceptable. I have not tried to hide from that and I am committed to putting it right. It is literally my top priority, and it was one of the things that the Prime Minister specifically asked me to address when he appointed me in July. The right hon. Gentleman, having set out his concerns and those in the reports, will want to know what the Department is doing to deal with the issues.
I may at the end of my speech, but if the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will try to deal with the points raised by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. As this is his debate, it would be discourteous if I did not do so.
We have a new team of officials in the Department that is working on a daily basis with our assessment providers. Atos deals with assessments in Scotland, while Capita is the other provider in Great Britain. I look at their performance on a weekly basis to ensure that we are driving through improvements. The capacity of the providers has increased. We have doubled the number of health professionals carrying out the assessments. We have increased the number of assessment centres and extended the opening hours. We have also increased the number of paper-based assessments, which occur when the evidence that the claimant sends to us makes it sufficiently clear that a decision can be reached without needing to get them to attend a face-to-face assessment. We follow that process when we can. If claimants have also had a work capability assessment, we are looking at using the report from that as part of the evidence, and that is enabling us to make more decisions on paper, thus sparing the claimant the need to come in for a face-to-face assessment.
We have made a number of changes to our processes and IT systems to ensure that the transmission of information from the provider to the Department is streamlined. We have also looked at what we communicate to claimants regarding the information with which they provide us in the first place to ensure that we get the right information that enables us to make a decision earlier in the process.
We have increased the number of decisions we have taken. We made more than 35,000 a month according to the latest published statistics, which cover up to July. Since then, we have continued to build significantly on those numbers week on week. I will not pretend that the problem is fixed, but we are moving in the right direction. We will deliver the Secretary of State’s commitment to ensure that, by the end of this year, no one will have to wait more than 16 weeks for their assessment, and we will look to improve that further next year.
In Scotland specifically, Atos, which is the assessment provider there, has more than trebled its output this year. It is now clearing more cases than we send it and working through its backlog. The picture is improving, but I do not want to take away from the fact that people have been inconvenienced and experienced some delays. In Scotland, we have seen one of the best improvements for any part of Great Britain. There has been a 40% increase in the number of home consultations. The right hon. Gentleman and the report to which he referred said that given the geography and population density of Scotland, travelling to an assessment centre can involve a lengthy journey. More home consultations are taking place, and there is a new assessment centre in Edinburgh, with more to follow in Aberdeen and Dundee in the coming months.
We have improved the communication to claimants at the front end of the process so that they know the best evidence to supply and how long their claim may take to be assessed. We stress the importance of sending us relevant information to speed up the claim. We have also been communicating better with claimants to confirm when we have received their forms so that they know that their claim is in the system.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the performance of the system for claimants who are terminally ill. I am pleased to say that our dealing with those cases is now pretty close to our target. He is right that the performance earlier this year was not adequate. My predecessor, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), put a lot of work into dealing with that, working closely with Macmillan Cancer Support. I think we have got that part of the process working well, as is right, because it is important that we make timely decisions for those with terminal illnesses and give them support. The assessment providers are giving claimants better information about where they are in the process, how long a claim may take and who to contact at each stage of their claim.
On assessment outcomes—while the right hon. Gentleman talked about delays, he also touched on the assessment itself—we want to ensure that people get high-quality, objective and fair assessments. We want everyone to get the right decision first time. The report included several quotes from CAB customers on both sides of the argument, a number of which demonstrated that once people had received their assessment, they felt that the process was fair and that it reached the right outcomes. There were, of course, some quotes setting out other experiences, but I thought that the Citizens Advice report was fairly balanced and demonstrated that the quality of assessment is good.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the impact of some of the delays, and we also heard about that in interventions. Of course, a delay in a claim can cause claimants a cash-flow issue. It is worth saying that if someone is successful in getting PIP, their award is backdated to the date of claim, but I accept that some face such a issue. PIP is not an out-of-work benefit. It is not designed for those who are unable to work, as that is what jobseeker’s allowance and the employment and support allowance are for. Under the ESA, people are paid an assessment rate from when they put in the claim. If people are unable to work because of their disability or health condition, PIP is not the benefit that deals with their lack of income.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the important issue of passporting, which is where getting PIP entitles someone to other benefits. I was asked about carer’s allowance, and when someone gets PIP, that will be backdated, and the carer’s allowance can be backdated, too.
I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said about that. PIP and DLA are not passported benefits for housing benefit. There is a disability premium in housing benefit, but getting PIP or DLA does not entitle someone to housing benefit. If he wants to write to me about a specific case, however, I will look into it. PIP and DLA can give a bit more housing benefit if someone is entitled to that. However, they do not determine whether someone is entitled to housing benefit, so I am not sure I follow his point.
Okay. On other passporting issues, blue badges can be issued without PIP being in payment, so if someone is not getting PIP, it does not mean that they cannot get a blue badge. NHS help with travel expenses and prescriptions is based on the receipt of income-related benefits. Local authorities are able to provide social care or help with adaptations on the basis of their assessments, and they should not exclude people just because they are not entitled to the personal independence payment.
In the couple of minutes remaining, I shall say a little more about claims relating to those who are terminally ill. In addition to the things that I have mentioned, we have put in place a dedicated phone service for such claims, as well as an electronic form so that the medical information we require from GPs and consultants can get to the Department as quickly as possible. As I said, we are now achieving the performance that we would want from the Department, so we have made progress in that area.
I understand the frustrations that people have experienced. There have been cases in my constituency of people waiting too long. I have been frank about that, and my top priority is to improve that situation. We are making progress and moving in the right direction, and we will hit the Secretary of State’s commitment by the end of the year—I give the right hon. Gentleman my assurance about that. I have clearly set out that we are spending more money on supporting those on DLA and PIP in every year of this Parliament compared with the year we came to office. It is not the case that we are dealing with the deficit off the backs of disabled people, and I want to ensure that the customer experience is improved.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about an independent review. He will know that Paul Gray has been appointed to carry out the first independent review. He has taken evidence from a range of people involved in this benefit. He is due to provide his report, which the Department will publish, by the end of the year. It will set out, according to his terms of reference, information about the quality of assessments, how the providers are performing and whether the assessments are correctly putting people into the right categories.
I recognise that the hon. Gentleman represents an English constituency, as I do. We are making progress in England. By focusing on Scotland, I was not trying to say that that is the only place where we are making progress, as we are making progress across Great Britain. I was simply making the point to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill that the performance in Scotland is better than it is elsewhere in Great Britain, and I hope that what I have said will reassure constituents.
Education for Young People with Disabilities (UK Aid)
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I do not know how long we have for our speeches, given that this is a long debate and there are not many of us in the Chamber. However, we are considering an important topic. The timing of the debate presented some challenges for Department for International Development Ministers, who are all over the world as we speak, but I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), are present, because it is important that we hear from the Government and the Opposition. I welcome this opportunity for the debate given DFID’s recent commitments, the progress made on addressing the issue of UK aid to education for young people with disabilities, and the report published earlier this year by the International Development Committee and the Government’s largely positive response to it.
I approach this matter as a former teacher—education is important to me, as it is to other Members of the House—and co-chair of the all-party group on global education for all. Education is fundamental to ending the poverty, discrimination and exclusion faced by disabled people in developing countries, but it is estimated that in most countries disabled children are much more likely to be out of school than any other group of young people. Disability has long been neglected as a niche area of development, deemed by many to be either too complex, due to the wide range of challenges that it presents, or too small to be core to development issues.
The millennium development goals fail to mention disability, but disabled people make up an estimated 15% of the global population, and disability is both a cause and a consequence of poverty. Some 80% of disabled people live in developing countries and the United Nations has labelled them the world’s largest minority. It is estimated that there are 93 million disabled children globally and, as I said, they are more likely to be out of school than any other group of children. In Ethiopia, less than 3% of disabled children have access to primary education. In some countries, being disabled more than doubles a child’s chance of never enrolling in school. Disabled children are also less likely to remain in school. There are huge challenges throughout the developing world in keeping children in schools, but that challenge is heightened for children with disabilities. Difficulties also present themselves when attempting to transition to the next grade of education.
The exclusion of disabled children not only denies them their core human right to education, but makes it impossible, unless we address the matter properly, for the world to reach the millennium development goal of universal primary education by 2015. Some 58 million children of primary age are still out of school. While it is undeniable that progress has been made, it has now stalled. It is estimated that disabled children could make up a third of the out-of-school population. Without specific targets to include disabled people, it is clear that many of the millennium development goals will not be reached.
I welcome DFID’s progress in recent years, including through several commitments made under this Government and the previous one. In 2000, DFID was the first donor to develop an issues paper on disability, and development guidance notes on disability-inclusive programming and education for children with disabilities. DFID also commissioned research to help to address some of the evidence gaps around disability. In 2008, under the previous Government, DFID was the first donor to support the Disability Rights Fund, and constructive progress has been made more recently. The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), has been championing the cause, in particular by announcing that UK aid will fund accessible school construction. DFID is working with partners to improve the data on disabled children and education in developing countries. The UK is playing a vital role in championing a post-2015 agenda that leaves no one behind, specifically by saying that no target will be considered unless it will be met for all social groups, including those with disabilities.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. It is appropriate that disability issues are being debated in the Chamber and Westminster Hall at the same time. It is good that we have an all-party, no-party approach on the matter. Does he agree that while there has been substantial movement from both the previous and present Governments—I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and Ministers, who are receptive to what is said about this issue—the notion of being a young girl in poverty with a disability in the developing world should concern us all, because those girls are literally at the bottom of the pile? Anything that we can do to focus attention on that in the post-2015 agenda is vital.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution. He speaks with passion on such matters in the all-party group. We have examined targets in the past, and he is right that part of the challenge has involved a narrow focus within the broad issue of getting out-of-school children into school. There are key issues affecting gender and disability, and there is often a critical crossover between the two. I concur with his generosity towards this Government and the previous one, but there is still a huge amount to do. If this debate serves one purpose, it is that of continuing to highlight the real need for action.
I welcome the UK’s position as a leading donor to education, including with the pledge of up to £300 million to the Global Partnership for Education in June, and the way in which DFID Ministers have worked with GPE to ensure that disabled children are prioritised. As co-chair of the all-party group, I have visited Nigeria, Zanzibar and Tanzania during this Parliament. I pay tribute to the DFID staff whom I met in those countries, as well as those throughout the world, who are working hard in the educational field to further our aims on the ground.
The Government published their response to the thorough International Development Committee inquiry early this year. DFID committed to publish a new cross-departmental disability framework, and the work to develop it is going on right now. I believe that the aim is to launch the framework in November. DFID has pledged to prioritise education in the framework, which goes back to the point that the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) made about a cross-sectoral approach. There is a package of issues relating to disability, education, inclusion and gender. I look to the Minister and DFID officials to reaffirm that education is prioritised as a key sector and that the educational needs of those with disabilities will be thoroughly addressed.
The framework is welcome. However, one of the past challenges has been that while DFID produced optional guidance for their country offices that said the right things, it did not incentivise action. The Department has just published a new inclusive learning topic guide for its staff, which is an excellent resource, but it is still just guidance. How will DFID ensure that the new disability framework is implemented after its publication? Will the framework include mandatory, action-orientated requirements for, with strong accountability mechanisms for reporting on, the inclusion of disabled people in aid programmes? That is the situation for gender, and that needs to be the case for disability, too.
Will the Minister outline what DFID will be do to support and train country staff on disability inclusion? That, too, is a key principle. We need to ensure that all teacher training programmes that are supported by UK aid promote inclusive teaching approaches, and that all education aid programmes will measure whether they are reaching disabled children and young people. While I commend the Minister for the positive commitment to ensuring that UK-funded school construction projects are accessible to disabled children, that is not all that is needed.
Physical accessibility to buildings must be complemented by an attitudinal change, and inclusive teaching and learning environments. During a visit to a school in Lagos, I remember that the head teacher was keen to show us the DFID-funded toilet block. There was a dire need for the block, as it was a big school and there were issues to do with water and sanitation, so DFID had addressed that. The head teacher proudly showed us the toilet block, with its accessible ramps and equipment, but I saw very few people with disabilities accessing the facilities in that school.
I also visited a school in Zanzibar that had a wheelchair ramp to assist with access to a classroom, but I then saw in that classroom 60 to 70 teenage children in front of the teacher with no desks and no seats, so there was no conceivable way in which a wheelchair user could have accessed it. We need to be mindful of the teaching and learning environments in which schools operate. A ramp is no good unless the needs of the children who would use it are also met through their education provision.
Children with disabilities have the same right to education as all other children and UK aid can help by supporting the resourcing of inclusive education that ultimately benefits all children, not just those with disabilities, and that helps to change negative societal attitudes and discrimination about disability. It is particularly important that we develop inclusive teacher training so that more teachers in developing countries are equipped to include children with disabilities. The UK is a world leader on aid to support teacher training, so we could make a big difference.
The challenge so far has been to address the shortage of teachers and the need to get more children into schools. Getting more children into schools means that more teachers are required, so we have seen short cuts in some parts of the world, especially in teacher training courses and the professional development that is offered. If challenges on teachers’ pay are not addressed, the teaching profession does not get the esteem that it does in our country. Those multi-faceted problems need to be addressed.
I ask the Minister to make a commitment that UK-funded teacher training will promote inclusive teaching methods and curriculums. That must not be lost in the big challenge of training more teachers in that valued profession to address the growing number of out-of-school children across the world.
Will DFID put in place disaggregated data for its programme and funding to measure how many, and to what extent, children with disabilities are reached and supported into education? The biggest challenge is to identify the scale of the problem that we need to address. Will DFID encourage an increase in its targeting of resources into the area of disability and education, such as through the creation of a disabled children’s education challenge fund? Such a fund would be similar to the laudable girls’ education challenge fund, which I remind hon. Members is an innovative £355 million fund to tackle the extreme marginalisation from education of the poorest girls. May we have something similar for disability? We all know that disabled children suffer from extreme marginalisation in developing countries and that they should be supported with targeted additional investment, as well as mainstreamed, in a twin-track approach. I would be grateful for the Minister’s thoughts on creating such a fund.
I welcome the commitments already made that DFID will work with partners to strengthen data. Lack of data at a national level both reflects and compounds the invisibility of people with disabilities in development efforts. That is a major barrier to the recognition of disability as a core development issue.
Information is often speculative and out of date. I am aware from my friends in the third sector—I pay particular tribute to Results UK, which was responsible for my trips and provided the secretariat for our all-party group—that DFID held a conference on disability data last week, so I would be grateful to know what outcomes arose from those discussions.
What is DFID doing to support the capacity of national Governments and international organisations to collect and use data on children and young people with disabilities. How many of them are in or out of school? We need to ensure that the UK champions the strengthening of data in developing countries so that our development efforts mean that no one is left behind, although I realise that that task is huge.
Let me set out two ideas that could well be used. In Nigeria, I saw that DFID had successfully promoted school-based management committees to try to create a community leadership in schools to encourage young people into school and to liaise with parents and stakeholders in the community. In effect, the committee would operate like a school governing body, but with tentacles that were more developed for attracting young people into schools. We talk about disability issues being hidden, so community engagement and empowerment should be a great tool in assisting those who are currently excluded.
I saw another project, albeit in a health context, in a rural part of Zanzibar, where we were looking at malnutrition and early-years education. Volunteers went out into villages and communities to talk to young mothers about malnutrition. They located children who were suffering from malnutrition and encouraged their mothers to go to the hospital or health centre to get the support that they needed. We know about the hidden problem of disability, so I am looking for strategies to empower communities to make information available so that action can be taken.
Research by the Global Campaign for Education has noted that DFID has undertaken some activities in Nigeria on the inclusion of children with disabilities in its education work. It has supported censuses of out-of-school children, with results aggregated by gender and disability. Good, practical work has therefore been done on the ground, but while the information contains three sub-indicators on inclusion, the Department’s business case makes scant reference to disability. Nigeria is one of the largest recipients of UK aid, including through the education sector support programme, which will provide up to £134 million between 2008 and 2017. The programme is delivered by a consortium headed by Cambridge Education. Given the scale of funding it receives, one would expect that children with disabilities would be a much more prominent element in it.
Finally, our attention turns to the post-2015 agenda. I welcome the Government’s championing of an agenda that leaves no one behind, and that should be our guiding principle, especially as it is expressed in the idea that no target will be considered to be met unless it is met for all social groups, including people with disabilities. As we know, the millennium development goals did not mention disability at all, but 2015 gives us a crucial opportunity to change that.
How are Ministers seeking to ensure that the needs and rights of disabled people are recognised as an agreed priority in the final goals and targets? We particularly need to consider a tangible measure of how we ascertain that no target is met unless it is met for all. International negotiations are always challenging, involving many different agendas, but I hope that the Minister will reassure us that DFID is working with other Governments to consolidate support and ensure that the “leave no one behind” target does not get lost.
I have not mentioned any individual examples and will refrain from doing so, but I should reiterate that behind every one of the statistics, there is a real human story. Handicap International came to see me last week and showed me a charming photograph of Fanta, a seven-year-old girl with cerebral palsy from the Kono district of Sierra Leone. The photograph shows her smiling because, as part of a DFID-funded GEC project, she had just received a wheelchair that will allow her to access her local primary school for the first time. That will be to the benefit of her school, of Sierra Leone, and, above all else, of that young lady.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing this excellent debate and on his contribution to it; there was little, if anything, that I disagreed with in what he had to say. It is a real shame that there are not more Members in this Chamber. I suspect that we are preaching to the faithful.
I will start by quoting from article 26 of the universal declaration of human rights, which the UK signed back in 1948. Back then, we said:
“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory.”
So, 66 years ago we signed up to free primary education for all—not just for those in the developed world, or those who could afford it, or those who were not disabled, but all children. However, for many children, particularly those living in the developing world, that is as far away from becoming a reality as it was 66 years ago.
Even in countries where children get access to primary education, millions do not complete it, or else leave school with limited skills and poor levels of reading and writing because the quality of teaching is variable, to say the least. Women and girls fare poorly, with less than 50% of girls making it to secondary education in some African countries. Across the world, women make up almost two thirds of the 796 million adults without even the most basic literacy and numeracy skills.
Although those statistics in themselves are awful, as has already been pointed out, the children who fare worst in this situation are those with disabilities. The United Nations millennium development goals committed to providing universal, free primary education for all children by 2015, yet we are still short of 1.8 million teachers to deliver that, with 1 million needed in sub-Saharan Africa alone. That situation is unsatisfactory for everyone, but for disabled children and their families the picture is far worse. Disabled children are far more likely to be out of education than the general populace and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) said eloquently, a disabled girl has virtually no chance at all of going to school.
For those few disabled children who get access to education, what is provided is far from appropriate and in the vast majority of cases falls well short of meeting their educational needs. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Ceredigion spoke about physical access, which is part of the issue, but making education accessible in terms of access to the curriculum and an inclusive culture is as important—if not more so—as ramps, wider doors and so on.
The UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities has forced some recognition of the rights of disabled people to be involved in their own development. It places an obligation on signatories, including the UK, to ensure that their overseas aid programmes include disabled people. However, the millennium development goals are largely silent on disabled learning, and so miss out a whole 15% of the world’s population. Data on this subject are not good—although I congratulate the Department for International Development on its recent work to improve data—but even from the poor data we have, it is estimated that disabled children make up one third of the out-of-school population across the world.
I want to set our debate in the context of what is happening to disabled children across the world. I do not think that we can afford to be smug about this issue in the UK. We require disabled children to attend school, but far too often we provide for disabled children by segregating them in special schools. In my experience, too many of those schools have low expectations of their pupils, and I say that as a supporter of special schools—I am a strong supporter of inclusion, but it must sit firmly on a foundation of good special schools. However, in my experience, even in 2014 too many of our special schools have low expectations of children with disabilities.
Even those countries that we consider progressive and enlightened often have a far worse record than we do. The hon. Member for Ceredigion mentioned that the UK is something of a beacon of good practice in this regard. I am a member of the Education Committee. Last year—or the year before; I am not sure—we travelled to Denmark. When I asked what percentage of children with disabilities there attended special schools, I was told it was 6% of the school population. I was amazed; in the UK, 1% of our children attend special schools. That means a huge number of children in this country are attending mainstream schools and having their needs met very well in those schools.
I never quite got the previous Secretary of State for Education to accept this point, but when we look at the PISA—the programme for international student assessment—tables we are not comparing like with like. In this country 1% of children with disabilities attend special schools, but 6% or more do so in some of the jurisdictions at the top of the PISA tables, and in countries such as Singapore or China disabled children never get access to mainstream schools at all.
On that trip to Denmark, we clearly looked shocked when we learned that fact, and officials were quick to tell us that they were going to do something about the situation because they recognised that it could not continue. I then asked how many children attending special schools in Denmark went on to university. Basically, the officials said it was none, as children from special schools went on to get Government pensions, by which they meant benefits. Although the situation is better in the developed world, when it comes to disabled children, none of us can afford to be smug.
Most disabled children in the developing world who manage to go to school face learning in segregated schools with very large class sizes, poor teaching from teachers with inadequate training and skills, and a lack of resources. We know that education is fundamental to reducing and ending poverty. Good quality, free education should be the right of every child, including every disabled child. More than anything else, education has the power to transform lives, and will help economic development and poverty relief, contribute to social stability and promote global health. We know that children whose mothers have received five years of education are 40% more likely to live beyond five years of age. That is as true for a disabled child as it is for every other child.
I call on DFID to introduce a disability strategy that gives disabled people full and inclusive access to its programmes, with clear baselines, milestones and success criteria. The strategy should make it easier to access funding for programmes that support disabled learning, and should make sure that all mainstream civil society organisations that DFID funds do the same. To do that, DFID must build a larger team of disability specialists, so that it can champion disability learning in its programmes, provide disability training for its own staff and even—here is a revolutionary idea—employ a few disabled staff in its programmes overseas.
I welcome the Government’s response and commitment to the report by the Select Committee on International Development. DFID has argued that a disability strategy is not the right approach and prefers to take a more holistic view in its social inclusion programme.
Before I came to Parliament in 2010, though not immediately before, I was the person who turned up in a school or local authority the week after a school had gone into special measures and the senior management team had gone. The two things I did immediately were: first, make friends with the secretaries, because they made life bearable; and secondly, put together a strategic plan with clear goals for what I would achieve and by when. I then measured periodically how far I had achieved those goals. The bottom line is that what gets measured gets done. Taking a holistic approach generally means faffing about a bit with nothing really changing. A strong framework setting out clear goals, milestones and success criteria, and measuring impact, is the only way to change things. Anything else is just nice warm words. Will the Minister be brave and ambitious today?
I started by quoting from article 26 of the universal declaration of human rights from way back in 1948. Sometimes it feels as though we had greater aspirations and hopes for our children and ourselves back in 1948. We were living in a time of austerity, and the UK was practically bankrupt and saddled with massive debts after fighting total war for five years, but we had ambitions for ourselves and our children. We created the NHS, a welfare system with a safety net for the poor and a free, compulsory education system for our children. We had a commitment to provide the same for others throughout the world. The Minister can be the new Clem Attlee. What better time to rediscover the same ambition, aspiration and courage we had in 1948, and to secure the universal free education for every child, including disabled children, that this country has promised to deliver, but has failed to for more than 60 years?
It is a great pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship. It is also slightly intimidating to follow two former teachers. In my duties as a Member of Parliament, I am never more nervous of my presenting skills than when following teachers. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing this debate on such an important issue.
It is true for many that we remember the people who taught us, although I am sure that they do not remember the many hundreds of children they taught. It shows the great contribution made by former members of the teaching profession in the House and we should be proud of that, not least the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) who, as ever, showed her expertise on the subject and her absolute determination to achieve for children not just in this country but around the world. I agree with so much that has been said. It is good, helpful and right that we can speak as one across parties on such an important issue as the rights of children with disabilities wherever they are in the world.
We know from our constituency experience how often disability is closely tied to poverty or disadvantage. The matter is being discussed on the Floor of the House now. In the developing world, that problem is magnified many times, and when reading the International Development Committee’s recent report on disability I was struck by what Professor Groce of University College London said:
“If one goes into the poorest…slum or the most marginalized rural village and asks ‘who is the poorest person in your community’? one will almost invariably be directed to the household of a person with a disability.”
The World Bank estimates that eight out of 10 disabled people live in developing countries, and that people with disabilities make up 20% of the world’s poorest people. In reality, I suspect that that figure is probably an underestimate. The great philosopher and economist, Amartya Sen, has pointed out that the poverty line for disabled people is significantly higher than for many other people because, as we recognise in our social security system, the cost of day-to-day life is often inflated by the sheer fact of disability.
The debate today is focused specifically on education for children and young people with disabilities and with good reason, as we have heard. In many cases, young people with disabilities in developing nations find themselves doubly disadvantaged, living in nations where youth unemployment may be as high as seven or eight in 10, where poverty wages are most prevalent among the young, where access to education remains far too low, and where young people disproportionately lack access to health, or are more likely to face violence and displacement. On each and every one of those counts, a young person with a disability is more likely to be negatively affected.
It is often suggested that the very welcome forward movement in poverty reduction that has been achieved under the auspices of the millennium development goals has in part been a case of picking the lowest hanging fruit and upping the incomes of those closest to the poverty line. If that is the case, young disabled people are perhaps the hardest to reach among that group. A key focus of the sustainable development goals that will replace the millennium development goals next year must be to address the hardest parts of poverty reduction, to ensure that no one is left behind and to include within the development agenda help to bring those with disabilities out of disadvantage and poverty, not simply focusing on income, although financial disadvantage is significant. I agree that education for the most excluded people in society must be at the heart of what we try to do in the coming year within the sustainable development goals.
I do not want to dwell on the negative, but there is no question but that being disabled as a child in a developing country makes them far less likely to access education. Some of the figures are startling and bear repeating. Some 85% of children not in school in Nepal are disabled and only 3% of disabled children in Ethiopia complete primary education. Ethiopia has made great strides in poverty reduction, but still only 3% of disabled children make it through primary education. For those who do receive education, the correlation between disability and poor outcomes is striking.
The underlying reasons are manifold, but all too often are based on negative attitudes and discrimination. Disabled children are hidden away or placed in segregated education and Governments provide low prioritisation or split responsibilities for the education of disabled children. Teacher training is vital in poorer countries, particularly in helping disabled children to meet their potential. Those fundamental problems must be placed at the centre of development policy.
The Government inherited a strong focus in DFID on disability issues. In 2000, Britain became the first donor to develop guidance notes on disability-inclusive programming and specifically on education for children with disabilities. In 2008, we were the inaugural donors to the Disability Rights Fund. The Government have continued to take important steps. In particular, I welcome on behalf of the Opposition the decision to require all school building funded through DFID programmes to incorporate the principles of universal design and to tackle the huge data gaps on children with disabilities and education. It can be hard to get people excited about data, but they are at the heart of developing effective policy in this and every other development area. The sustainable development goals have the potential to take forward our ambitions for the poorest people in the world, so they must be rigorously data focused.
The sustainable development goals will, I hope, address the fact that the millennium development goals noticeably failed to mention disability as an issue to be addressed. I would, however, offer a warning. The fact of having something codified does not guarantee progress in itself. The Indian constitution directly protects disabled people from discrimination, but in few nations are disabled people more discriminated against than in India.
We want the sustainable development goals to be focused in a way that encourages development that works for all, including the most marginalised groups. The UN high-level panel recommended that the post-2015 goals should specifically state that no target should be considered met unless it is met for all social groups, including people with disabilities. The Government have publicly backed the inclusion of such a caveat, and I support them in doing so, but it has disappeared from the outcomes document of the UN open working group on sustainable development, which was published in July. Will the Minister therefore update us on where the negotiations stand on ensuring that the sustainable development goals do, indeed, work for all and do encourage Governments worldwide to tackle some of the hardest development issues, including education for children with disabilities?
If we are to be successful in encouraging other nations—donors and recipients—DFID must lead the way. In its recent response to the Select Committee report, it promised to publish a DFID disability framework in November. Will the Minister confirm that the Department is on track to publish that framework and that education will be a key focus? Will he set out how the Department will ensure that what will no doubt be the finest of words also become concrete actions? Will DFID country offices report back frequently on how they are supporting and including disabled people?
I have a further question on some of the practicalities. Does the Minister believe that DFID has the skills base genuinely to develop world-leading disability policy? As we have heard, the UK plays a proud role in the field, and we want to see Britain at the heart of new thinking. In response to the Select Committee, the Department promised to increase the number of disability specialist staff, but only to two. In comparison, 21 staff are working on gender issues. I have absolutely no interest in playing gender off against disability, because they are both vital issues, but the comparison is striking. Does the Minister think that the Department has the advice and support it needs on disability issues?
In conclusion, this has been a useful debate on a crucial issue. DFID has a good track record on disability issues within development, and I feel sure we can be a world leader. However, we need a genuine commitment throughout the run-up to the next set of development goals to make sure that the global development agenda is clearly based on the principle of “no person left behind”.
The Deputy Leader of the House has many interesting roles to perform in life, but today’s might be one of the more interesting, because he is standing in for Lynne Featherstone and he has been asked to be Clement Attlee, so let us see how it turns out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am indeed playing a rather unusual role today, but it is refreshing to be taking part in a consensual debate, with cross-party agreement about what DFID does. I wish the same could have been said about our debates on the Bill that became the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, for which I was one of the responsible Ministers. The House’s consideration of the Recall of MPs Bill has also not involved the unanimous cross-party support demonstrated in this debate.
We heard about the background of the participants to the debate, which I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing. I was interested to hear about his past life as a teacher. Indeed, the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) was also a teacher. I have not been a teacher, although both my parents were at some point in their working careers, so we are all in good company. Given that this is a cross-party, consensual debate, I would like to acknowledge the role that the Labour Government played in helping us to get to our current position in respect of international development, our spending on it and the prominent role we play on it internationally.
I do not think that I am going to be the next Clem Attlee, but those of us in this select group of Members of Parliament can play an important role in making sure the priority that successive Governments have placed on international development remains. There is an awful lot of pressure on the international development budget, and one prominent party—the UK Independence party—would, if it had its way and was represented in large numbers in this place, simply seek to do away with it, or at least a significant part of it, even though one can only imagine what impact that would have on things such as Ebola. I therefore welcome the fact that we are having a consensual debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on the role he plays as co-chair of the all-party group, which monitors these issues.
My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development is in Bangladesh on a departmental visit, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development, is in Berlin at a conference on the Syrian refugee crisis. They have asked me to pass on their apologies for not being able to attend this important debate, but the issue is a particular priority for the Department, and my right hon. Friends will pay close attention to the debate and respond to any points that I do not have a chance to deal with. If I have any credentials at all in terms of my ability to respond to the debate, they will be that I was the Liberal Democrat international development spokesman for a number of years.
In the global context, disability continues, as we have heard, to be one of the primary causes of educational disadvantage and exclusion, creating the largest single group of girls and boys who remain out of school. Even in those countries close to achieving universal primary enrolment, children with disabilities continue to miss out on education and, as a consequence, on opportunities to access meaningful employment and a sustainable route out of poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion cited an example of a school with a ramp, but said that in practice, however, if any child managed to get into that school in a wheelchair, they would not physically be able to get into the classroom because of overcrowding. Anyone, including me, who has been on such visits abroad—in my case to Ghana—will know that a very basic school with little more than mud floors will not be an ideal environment for someone with a disability to access education.
What is positive is that all Members have probably been lobbied in the past few months by school children in their constituencies about the need to ensure that all young people, including those with a disability, go to school. I certainly have, and I congratulate St Mary’s in Carshalton, which joined the Send All My Friends to School campaign. The school asked me to go along and receive the cut-out figures the children had created of pupils and to send them off to the Prime Minister. I did that, and I am pleased that he responded to the pupils’ letters about that important campaign.
The challenges involved in ensuring that disabled children can learn are fourfold. First, responsibility for children with disabilities in the countries in which we work is divided across education, health and social protection, which often results in a focus on social welfare and special treatment, rather than on inclusion and equity. Secondly, there are often school-level barriers, including physical access, inflexible and inappropriate curriculums, inadequate teacher training—that has been mentioned frequently in the debate—and discriminatory attitudes that reinforce the marginalisation of children with disabilities. Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion referred to that. It is not simply a question of providing accessible schools; it is also about changing the mentality of some of the people responsible for ensuring that children get to school and, once there, are fully involved in the educational process.
On the first of those points and the issue of cross-departmental responsibilities, and given the visits that my right hon. Friend has made to Ghana—hon. Members have no doubt visited other countries where this would apply—does he share my frustration that in the Government Departments of countries I have been to there is all too often a silo mentality, meaning that that the issue gets lost? Kind and generous words can be heard in health, social services and education Departments, but action on the ground is impeded by a failure to work together. I should be grateful for anything we can do to encourage countries to leave the silo mentality behind.
I agree entirely, but even in a well-run Government such as ours, there is still always a risk that there will be a silo mentality and that Departments will not communicate with each other as would entirely befit them. There are ways for us to help, but we have not managed to perfect that even within UK borders.
The third of the four challenges is that we struggle to understand the extent of the problem, because of a lack of disaggregated data by sex, type of disability and level of functioning. That makes educational planning for inclusive learning extremely difficult. Linked to that, the evidence base on learning outcomes for inclusive education for children with disabilities focuses largely on high-income countries—particularly the US and UK—and there are challenges in identifying good-quality evidence from low and middle-income countries. Finally, there has been a lack of the political will and commitment needed to drive improvements in learning for children with disabilities, and that has limited the ability of Governments, donors and others to assess, monitor and address the situation of those children.
I am pleased to say that the UK is at the forefront of seeking to address those challenges. Through DFID’s work, the UK is committed to ensuring that all children are able to complete a full cycle of quality education, and we are increasingly focusing on the most marginalised as part of the “leave no one behind” agenda, which includes a special focus on children with disabilities. In September 2013, we made two public commitments: first, to ensure that all directly funded school construction is fully accessible; and, secondly, to work with partners to improve data on children with disabilities and special educational needs in and out of education. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), made the point that getting quality data is one of the keys. It is not possible to deal with a challenge without knowing the scale of it, and it is fair to say that at the moment we do not.
Across DFID’s global and country programmes we are supporting a range of activities to support access to education and learning for children with disabilities. Depending on the context, we are working through either partner Governments or local and international partners. In the majority of our programmes we support an inclusive approach to ensure that all children can be educated in mainstream schools. In our most mature and innovative programmes, such as Pakistan’s Punjab programme, we are looking at new partnerships with respect to children with learning disabilities. The Pakistan office is currently assessing the feasibility of implementing our school construction standards in the £104 million reconstruction and rehabilitation programme. Current projections indicate that 50,000 classrooms may be reconstructed or rehabilitated. That work is really about extending the present programme of ensuring that all new schools are fully accessible. DFID’s policy on accessible construction has since triggered similar commitments among other global partners, including UNICEF.
Often children can suffer many types of disadvantage. DFID’s girls’ education challenge, which targets the most marginalised girls, is funding disability-focused projects in Uganda, Kenya and Sierra Leone, totalling more than £9 million. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion referred to that and asked whether DFID would be able to create a disability education challenge fund. I suppose the answer is that the girls’ fund is clearly a new model, which has not been tried before, to ensure that 1 million of the most marginalised girls get the quality education that they deserve by 2016. As it is a new programme, its effectiveness will need to be assessed, and we perhaps need to get through that challenge before we embark on a new disability education challenge fund. However, I shall draw the proposal to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.
My hon. Friend talked about disaggregated data. There is a critical gap with respect to evidence and data on disability prevalence, on which DFID is focusing. As he will know, the Government hosted an important conference jointly with the UN on 23 October to improve disability statistics. During the conference we committed to developing guidance on disability data disaggregation with the UN’s Washington group on disability statistics. We are certainly working towards the goal that my hon. Friend set out of ensuring that disaggregated data are available, and that we can identify where the key problems are and what is effective in ensuring that education reaches the most disadvantaged. To improve education-specific data, we are supporting UNESCO’s institute for statistics in regularly publishing education indicators disaggregated by specific population groups, including people with disabilities, and in developing new standards for school censuses and surveys related to marginalised populations.
As hon. Members know, the true benefits of education accrue only if children achieve good learning outcomes. Our recently published inclusive learning topic guide brings together for the first time evidence on what works in inclusive learning for children aged 3 to 12 years in low and middle-income countries. It focuses on the varied learning needs of children who either are not benefiting from the learning opportunities available to them, or do not have the opportunity to engage in learning at all, owing to their impairments and disabilities. It explores the role of inclusive approaches in contributing to inclusive societies and, ultimately, inclusive growth, and addresses some of the contested and debated issues around terminology, discrimination, and segregated and inclusive schooling. The topic guide supplements our guidance note on educating children with disabilities, and both resources are available freely to all policy makers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and the hon. Member for North West Durham asked what was being done to train staff in inclusion. DFID is rolling out training to its in-country staff on the inclusive learning topic guide. Once the framework has been developed, we will consider how we can continue to upskill our country staff. That is work in progress.
At the global level, we are working closely with the World Bank, the Global Partnership for Education, UNICEF, Australia, Germany, Sweden, the United States Agency for International Development and Norway to ensure that more countries eligible for GPE funds implement an inclusive approach to education, with a specific focus on children with disabilities. Our influencing efforts made disability a priority for the June replenishment of the GPE. Twelve countries pledged at that event to do more for children with disabilities, including Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Pakistan, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Ghana.
My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is an unrelenting champion for children with disabilities and I know that she raises the issue at every opportunity, in every meeting, with ministerial counterparts when she travels to partner countries. I do not know, but I imagine that she has travelled to Nigeria recently. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion raised the issue of disability not being mentioned in the business case for the Nigeria education programme. I reassure him that the programme is in line with DFID’s three priorities in education: improving learning, focusing on girls and ensuring that the most marginalised can learn. DFID business cases are used primarily to assess the evidence on and financial basis of programmes, and do not contain all the detailed information on programme delivery. Disability will clearly be part of the programme.
The International Development Committee’s recent inquiry into DFID’s work on disability recognised that we are doing some impressive work already, but that more ambition would be transformational. DFID is committed to developing a framework to strengthen our work on disability further, and it will be published on 3 December—I think that my hon. Friend referred to the end of November.
My hon. Friend asked how the framework would be implemented. As he knows, we have made two public commitments: first, about accessible schooling; and, secondly, about improving disability data. Through the second commitment, we are working to develop disability-sensitive indicators, which currently do not exist, to measure progress on disability-sensitive education and inclusive learning. That is how we will be able to monitor that things are, in fact, working, and that this is not just fine words without matched fine action, to which the hon. Member for Wirral South referred.
I thank the hon. Lady for her support. I am sure that the teachers present will have given her top marks for her presentation, so I do not think she needed to worry about that. I hope I have answered most of her questions, but I might need to return to her point about whether DFID has the skills base to develop disability policy. If I do not get inspiration about that point, I will make sure that my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary hears that that is a particular concern, and I am sure that she will want to respond directly. As my right hon. Friend makes disability issues a priority, however, I am sure that she would not want a situation in which there were not the necessary skills in her Department to deal with that critical issue.
As the 20th anniversary of the Salamanca framework for action passes, we must ensure that co-ordinated action from Governments, donors and other key stakeholders is able to secure better access to schooling and inclusive learning outcomes for disabled children, as well as wider benefits for inclusive societies. The economic and social costs of exclusion are high. Many low and middle-income economies suffer greater losses from maintaining large out-of-school populations than they would from increasing public spending to achieve universal primary enrolment. It is clear that enrolling all children in basic education is a productive and smart investment. The economic benefits of education are well established and the inclusive growth to which it can contribute is, by definition, grounded in societies that are open, equitable, tolerant and just.
As I have just received inspiration, I can say in response to the hon. Member for Wirral South that DFID has increased the specialist headquarters staff to two. We also have a secondee into the Australian Government, who are world leaders on disability policy. There has been some strengthening of the team but, none the less, my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary may want to respond to that point in writing.
Recognising and valuing diversity within learning communities and welcoming all children into the classroom must be pivotal components in all learning strategies. Leaving no one behind at school and in wider society is essential not only to a sustainable approach to development and poverty eradication, but to the attainment of the freedoms, dignity, tolerance and respect that are fundamental to our common humanity.
It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As I give the Minister time to settle, I advise her that I will be sitting down sooner than I would otherwise in order to let the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), my friend and constituency neighbour, contribute to this debate, which is at least as important to his constituency as to mine.
The Furness line is a vital rail route through my constituency. It is an arterial route used by residents in the Kent estuary and across the wider Cartmel peninsula. I am therefore grateful for this opportunity to highlight the large challenges facing the line and, as a result, the communities and the economy to which it is so vital. I will talk about the future of the line, its immense significance to the local and national economy, the need for new investment and the need for the Department for Transport to take seriously the responses to its recent stakeholder consultation on the TransPennine Express and Northern Rail franchises.
The Furness line takes passengers and freight from the main line at Lancaster through to Barrow, with the largest section of the line running through my constituency and the South Lakeland district. There are stations at Arnside, Grange-over-Sands, Kents Bank and Cark, which are well used and take tourists, commuters and schoolchildren, among others, to and from destinations along this economically vital and uniquely picturesque line.
I am hugely indebted to the work of those who put together the exhaustive 90-page Furness line study created by the Railway Consultancy Ltd, which the Minister displays. The study was supported by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness. The Minister has already seen the report, but as she has demonstrated, I made a point of forwarding an additional copy to her ahead of this debate.
The Minister will see that the report is dedicated to the memory of Peter Robinson, whose sudden death on 6 August devastated all of us who knew him. Peter was chair of the Furness Line Community Rail Partnership and the source of all knowledge and wisdom on Furness line matters. I was with him at a meeting on the future of the Furness line just a day or three before he passed away. It was an honour to know Peter, and he is hugely missed.
The report that Peter helped to author is an extremely important piece of work. I am a regular user of the line, but I was nevertheless shocked by the full extent of the failings of the current transport infrastructure and its wider impacts. The report concludes that the Furness line is not fit to meet present demand, much less to cope with the expected population and employment booms in Barrow and Ulverston in the coming years, which I am sure the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness will talk about in due course. We are committed to working together across parties to build a future-proof Furness line.
As well as thanking those who created the report, I thank its funders—local councils, businesses and rail operators—and the hon. Gentleman, whose work has been instrumental in bringing the report to fruition, and whose commitment to defending the line is second to none. The report highlights the line’s short-term and long-term needs. In the short term, the report calls for the urgent return of the two-hourly Manchester airport service and additional trains during the tourist season. Given that this is the line that serves the western Lake district, I hope the Minister will publicly indicate her support and give a clear signal to the rail operators that residents, commuters, the vastly important tourism sector and the wider business community all need the service.
The report also suggests a rationalised timetable and highlights the inadequate number of trains between Barrow and Lancaster on weekday mornings, which prevents residents from commuting by train. The undermining of the line in recent times is apparent in the fact that the Barrow to Manchester airport service has reduced from eight to five trains a day; the Manchester airport to Barrow service has been reduced from 10 to five trains a day since 2007.
Manchester is the business capital of the north-west. Barrow-in-Furness is at risk of being left as one of the few major towns in the north of England without high-quality direct access to that regional capital and its international airport. Many of my constituents, particularly in Grange, Flookburgh, Cark, Cartmel, Allithwaite and Arnside, commute by train and have been hit by that downgrading. Children who would have had safer, quicker journeys to school are now forced to take longer, more costly and more dangerous trips instead. The hugely significant local tourism economy, which is worth £3 billion a year, has been damaged unnecessarily. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us much more encouraging news. I would be grateful if she confirmed that she sees improving the Furness line as being in the long-term economic interests of the region and the nation, and that its success will be prioritised.
The reduction in through trains to and from Manchester means that many passengers now have to use the Manchester to Scotland services between Lancaster and Manchester. The new four-coach electric trains have shorter carriages than the previous three-coach class 185 diesels, and the limited increase in capacity is proving to be dramatically insufficient to meet the needs of both Scottish and Furness passengers—standing is a regular, if not daily, occurrence. Additionally, the downgrading of those services has exacerbated problems with bus links, which the Furness line study identifies as a major issue. Joining up the connections between public transport is vital, and I hope that the Minister will give her support to significant improvements.
The study calls for train operators to co-operate with the area’s biggest businesses to ensure that arrivals and departures coincide with shift patterns. The report states:
“Timetable analysis shows some very significant failings in the level of service provided… the current service is not fit for purpose, through failing frequency, capacity… We have been appalled to discover that significant existing markets are not being addressed, leading to major losses of traffic. The shortfall in service provision is so great here that there is an overwhelming case for immediate action.”
Looking to the future, the report has a vision for the line right through to 2030. It takes into account the expansion of BAE Systems in Barrow, GlaxoSmithKline in Ulverston and the proposed nuclear power station at Moorside. It accurately envisages significant increases in local population and employment, due in part to the far-sighted and successful land allocation strategy of South Lakeland district council. The report is also correct in foreseeing that industrial developments for major employers at Ulverston will lead to a 16% increase in jobs over the next few years, and that all those people will need to get to work.
There can be no doubt that demand will continue to rise. In the longer term, a regular hourly local service calling at all stations needs to be supplemented by faster regional services to and from Manchester airport. The lakes line between Oxenholme and Windermere is scheduled to be electrified in 2016; the study suggests that an increase in the number of trains on the Furness line would justify its eventual electrification by 2030. Virgin Trains should be asked to investigate the operation of through-to-London services from Barrow, with their introduction possibly on an initial two-to-three-year “use it or lose it” basis. Will the Minister use her good offices to help us make that case to Virgin Trains?
Industrial growth, an expansion in resident populations and a huge increase in the tourism economy suggest that the Furness line’s future should be very bright indeed; the purpose of this debate is to seek the Minister’s help in ensuring that it is. However, as we seek support to protect and enhance the line’s long-term future, we are horrified that short-term decisions in the immediate future may fatally undermine that work.
The Minister will know that the Department’s suggested remapping of the TransPennine Express and Northern Rail franchises has undergone a recent stakeholder consultation. She will also know that, along with many others, I responded to that consultation. On behalf of my constituents, I once again urge her not to proceed with the proposed transfer of the Furness and Windermere lines to the new Northern franchise. She should be clear that making that decision would significantly downgrade the Furness line and would constitute a huge blow to our local economy.
The majority of services on the Furness line are operated by TransPennine Express. Since the announcement last March that TransPennine Express is to lose its fleet of nine class 170 units, there has been intense speculation about the effect on train services in the north. Despite efforts to find a solution, there are apparently no spare diesel units available. Unless there is political intervention at a high level, we could see TransPennine Express move out of the Furness line at the timetable change in May 2015, when the class 170 units are due to transfer to the south of England. We can only assume that the Furness line will be relegated to being a branch service between Barrow and Lancaster, operated by Northern from next May using lower-quality trains.
The Minister will know that Northern has accumulated a reputation on the Furness line for its high number of cancellations. That has been going on for some years now. I am sure that both the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness and I would be happy to furnish her with details of those cancellations. Northern is aware of the debate, but still cancels trains. She will understand why residents and business leaders of south Cumbria are staggered by the Department for Transport proposal that all Furness line trains be transferred to Northern at the commencement of the new franchise in 2016.
The Minister will know that I have written to the Secretary of State on the matter. I am hopeful that the Department will understand the hugely damaging effect that such a transfer would have. Will she agree to rethink the suggestion and consider retaining TransPennine Express services on the Furness line? I am sure that the Minister will agree that at a time when we need the Furness line to be geared to the forthcoming high level of investment and job expansion in the area, the initial proposals make depressing news indeed. [Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
It continues to be a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Given the strategic importance of the Furness line and the clear and impressive expansion of demand into the future, surely now is the time to plan to upgrade services, not downgrade them. Nothing would strengthen confidence in the line more than a commitment to electrification. Will the Minister help to provide that confidence by setting out a timetable for electrification of the Furness line, and will she give us an undertaking that at the very least a feasibility study will be done of that electrification project?
I want us to be positive and optimistic about rail services in Cumbria, in north Lancashire and across the whole region. This week’s talk of High Speed 3 is music to my ears, although the suggestion that it might only be an enhanced line from Manchester to Leeds is somewhat underwhelming. An HS3 to boost northern England would run from Hull to Liverpool, creating a coast-to-coast corridor of growth. Electrification of the lakes line shows that our ambition in the south lakes has paid off, but that optimism is challenged when it comes to the Furness line. I want that to change. The line serves a uniquely booming industry, Britain’s most important tourist destination—the Lake district—and a growing and vibrant residential and commercial community in South Lakeland. There is no logical reason for the Furness line to be anything other than equally booming. My plea to the Minister is to use her influence to prevent the mistakes that would undermine that success, and to instead back a winner.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing this debate, on making such an excellent case, on being generous in his words and on giving me the chance to contribute. Before I move on to the substantive part of my speech, I echo his words about Peter Robinson, whose death was a sad loss to his family and the community.
There has been much talk about investment in the northern rail network over the past few days, but once again, the so-called HS3 proposal concentrates on linking the major cities of the north, ignoring smaller towns and communities. It comes down to the kind of country we want to be. If we are not prepared to see smaller communities decline and fade, it is not good enough just to say it. Our rail links in the south Lakeland and Furness area are just as vital as those anywhere else, and yet in the case of the Furness line they are under threat of being downgraded.
Amazing things are happening in south and west Cumbria in addition to the great potential of the visitor economy. We have the most advanced manufacturing in the country at Barrow shipyard, which will be taking on an extra 1,000 people in the years to come; civil nuclear expansion up the west coast; cutting-edge biopharmaceuticals at GlaxoSmithKline in Ulverston; offshore wind; and increased estimates of gas reserves in the Irish sea. This is an economy powered by entrepreneurial talent and an incredibly skilled work force, but we need the Government to play a role in tackling our biggest challenge, which is geographic isolation.
We know that the Government can act. Just yesterday, Ministers confirmed £2.8 million to rescue the air link between Newquay and Gatwick. In many ways, the south-west peninsula’s transport situation resembles that of south and west Cumbria, and yet the potential economic, energy, defence, and research and development contribution to the nation that would be unlocked by the Furness line is significantly greater than that of links in the south-west peninsula.
I am proud to have launched the Cumbria Better Connected campaign, and to have seen the way that people have rallied around it. When I questioned the Secretary of State for Transport last week, he promised to read our report carefully; in truth, he may have meant that he wanted the Minister who is here today to read it carefully. The report makes it clear that not only is the current service on the Furness route already below the required standard but that the threat to direct services to Manchester and its critically important international airport has the potential to damage our economy severely, putting in jeopardy all our amazing potential.
My constituents have already seen our rail service deteriorate in recent years. In addition to the cuts to services that my hon. Friend outlined, we have of course seen the reintroduction on the line of the depressing Pacer units, which are 30-year-old buses on rail bogies and which are completely unsuited to journeys of more than an hour along the Furness line. Now the axe hovers over the direct service to Manchester again. The recently closed consultation about the new specifications for the Northern and TransPennine franchises raises the possibility of removing Barrow and Ulverston’s direct trains to Manchester entirely, downgrading them to stopping services or diverting them away from the airport. Electrification of the rest of the TransPennine network leaves Furness as a diesel outlier that is under threat of returning to a branch line, which is hardly fitting or suitable for an area that is about to receive industrial investment on the scale of the investment in the London Olympics.
I would be grateful if the Minister could answer the following questions. When will the Government publish their response to the consultation on the Northern and TransPennine franchises? Will she listen to the clearly expressed voices of the passengers and businesses in the area saying that a fast, regular and high-quality direct service from Barrow to Manchester airport is essential for the area? Will the next franchise holder be provided with modern and fast diesel units, enabling them to operate on the busy west coast main line, regardless of whether those services are part of the TransPennine or Northern franchises? Given the ongoing need for such units in the north on routes such as the Furness line, will the Minister prevent any further transfer of express diesel trains to other areas, which—as my hon. Friend has said—happened with nine TransPennine units that moved to the Chilterns? Will she commit to the removal of Pacer units from the Furness line at the very earliest opportunity, please? And finally, so that representatives of Cumbria do not have to restage this battle every few years, will she ensure that, as my hon. Friend suggested, a serious study of the economics and practicalities of electrifying the Furness line features in future Network Rail work programmes?
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship; the phrase “the Thin Controller” is running through my mind.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing the debate and the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) on his stirring contribution. It is quite clear that everyone who is in Westminster Hall loves their trains and is passionate about the railway. I also pay my own tribute to Mr Robinson for all he did in working with the group that secured, saved and promoted what is a vital railway line. The Furness Line Community Rail Partnership has done sterling work over the years, as indeed has the Furness Line Action Group, whose reports and submissions my team and I have gratefully received and read.
Community rail is a vital and innovative part of the rail industry. It gives responsibility for services to local people who care so much about them. On this line in particular, community rail provides a wonderful—indeed unique—travel experience for passengers. I myself use a wonderful line—it runs down to Pewsey, Bedwyn and beyond—but although Wiltshire offers beautiful scenery of white horses, we cannot offer passengers anything on the scale of the Furness line. Of course, it is for that reason that the Furness line particularly boosts tourism, as it helps us to show off some of Britain’s most beautiful areas.
We do not want community rail simply to survive. We want it to thrive, and that most certainly goes for the Furness line. However, as the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness so eloquently put it, the line is about not only taking people to see wonderful scenery, tourist opportunities and wildlife, but providing a vital economic artery for south Cumbria.
I was struck by page five of the report to which the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred, which says that the Furness line has a “twofold” purpose:
“To carry local traffic, and to provide a…link to the regional centre of Manchester and its airport.”
That is absolutely right, and I recognise all the work that the community rail partnership has done to promote the service locally and to improve the station facilities. We already see that work starting to come through. However, I also recognise the disappointment that was caused when the through services between Barrow and Manchester were reduced in May.
One thing I have learned in this job is that our rail network is terribly complicated. We end up with all sorts of dependencies against a backdrop of unprecedented passenger growth. There has been a doubling of passenger growth in the past 20 years, and in this particular area, the fare-box revenue—the value of growth—went up by 6.4% just last year. Indeed, some of the most crowded services in the country are now outside London. Against that backdrop, may I say that we have had decades of under-investment? Investment has failed to keep up with the growth, so we end up with operators struggling to deal with some of that growth and sometimes having to make decisions about reorganising train services.
In this case, as we know, the reduction in the through service was prompted by the launch of the new timetable for TransPennine Express, which takes advantage of the widely acclaimed electrification between Manchester and Scotland. That allowed for an increase in services, including a fifth TransPennine Express train each hour between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York. However, that had the consequence that some other services were lost, although the Furness line’s services to Manchester airport are still over and above the minimum set out by the 2014 passenger requirement.
Part of the direction of travel is to allow operators to change services, especially when there is unmet demand, and I shall say a little about the overall structure of the TransPennine franchise. However, in a way it is a testament to the busyness and value of the line that the operator decided to deliver over and above the service requirement. Of course, there is still a vital weekday peak-time morning service from Manchester, which is timed to arrive before 11 am.
I reassure the hon. Members for Westmorland and Lonsdale and for Barrow and Furness that the reduction of services in no way reflects the importance that the Government place on the line. Let me put things in context. As I said, the national network suffered from decades of under-investment, and we have been dealing with huge growth in passenger numbers on an ageing and intensively used network throughout the country. That is why we need High Speed 2, of which I am a strong supporter, not only because it will reduce journey times, but because it will deliver vital increases in capacity to these north-south links. I also take the point about HS3 being a vital east-west link. The view of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that it should go from Hull to Liverpool will be of interest not only to passengers, but to the freight industry, as we have important freight paths across the country, running north, south, east and west. That is why the delivery of this £40 billion rail modernisation programme—the biggest investment since Victorian times—will transform services right across the country, especially across the north of England, where there has not been investment for decades. There will be more capacity, better connectivity, shorter journeys, cleaner trains and greater reliability.
Hon. Members will have seen the improvements in the stations to which our constituents travel. The new Manchester Victoria station is nearly complete, and other schemes will follow. I say gently to the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness that the last time the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises were let in 2003 and 2004 by the then Labour Government, that was done on a zero-growth and zero-investment basis, which was an incredibly short-sighted decision. If we believe in growth throughout the country, we have to invest in the vital rolling stock that moves people and goods around. I am passionate about the need to change that mindset, which is why these enormous capital investment programmes are coming to fruition. We have signed the agreement to provide the first electric trains on the Northern Rail network at the end of 2014.
To refresh hon. Members on the timetable for the letting of the franchises, earlier this year we launched the competition for the TransPennine and Northern franchises. The process is due to start in February 2016. Planning for passenger growth and better services will be at the heart of those franchises. Crucially, we are taking the franchises forward in concert with local authorities. I do not underestimate the importance of the involvement of Rail North and Cumbria in specifying what these communities need and what the service should look like. We do not want to leave that to officials sitting in Whitehall. We want local communities to say what is important to them, what services work and what sort of trains are required to run those services.
The hon. Gentlemen raised a vital point about the importance of rail to the overall economic vibrancy of a region. We cannot think about rail just in a silo. It is a vital part of stimulating economic growth and also of responding to economic growth. As we heard, this is an area that is attracting huge investment from a business point of view.
The consultation posed tricky questions about the future operation of the Furness line, and it is important to ask tough questions so that we get answers. We asked about the appropriate number of through services and shuttle services to Lancaster, and the more than 20,000 responses to the consultation that we received enable us to see how we can design the specifications for the two franchises. I assure hon. Members that we are giving careful consideration to views that are expressed. They will understand why I cannot go into details, but the invitation to tender will answer a lot of the questions, and that will be issued in December.
The question of the class 170s has been raised several times. Hon. Members have my personal commitment, along with that of the Department, that the cascade problem will be solved by the end of the year. The situation is unfortunate, but there is a huge desire to resolve it and to ensure that there is no interruption in rolling stock.
Work is already being led by Network Rail to consider the strategic priorities for further investment for the next control period, starting from 2019. Again, as the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness rightly pointed out, rail investment cannot be thought of in a narrow cost-benefit silo within the Department. We have to think about gross value added and the vital importance of connectivity to economic growth, and such thinking will inform future investment strategies for the railways.
Of particular interest to the future of the Furness line will be a refresh of the industry’s electrification strategy, on which consultation is due next year, and the northern route study, on which work is due to start in 2016. I understand the importance that the hon. Gentlemen place on the future electrification of the Furness line. I hope that they are both aware that the Secretary of State announced last December the creation of the northern taskforce, which is made up of three north of England MPs and two council leaders nominated by Rail North, with representation from Network Rail, to advise on priorities for the next generation of electrification projects in the north of England. The task force is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), and its members include my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) and the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling). It is considering all remaining non-electrified rail lines in the north of England, including the Furness line. Its interim report is due in early 2015 so that the recommendations can be put against Network Rail’s draft electrification strategy.
We will continue to hear how the Government are progressing HS2, which will provide the capacity and connectivity that the country needs in the long term. As I said, the Prime Minister and Chancellor have given their backing to the development of HS3 to create a northern economic powerhouse.
I shall try to answer the specific questions asked by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness. If the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale would like to write to me about some of the specific things he asked today, just to make sure I get the full detail, I would be delighted to respond.
We are expecting a response to the 20,000 consultation responses at the same time as the invitation to tender is published in December. We will of course listen to all views before taking decisions, and I will be happy to meet any or all hon. Members affected. New diesel rolling stock is absolutely vital, and I want to flag up that although electrification is a hugely important part of the rail strategy, passengers want to be able to get on a train, have a reliable journey and pay a reasonable amount for their tickets, and that may well sometimes involve a diesel train. Even if there is an electrification ask further down the line, it should not prohibit us from putting in place new investment right now.
The point about the Pacers—the buses on bogies—which I saw lined up at Doncaster station only last week, was very well made by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness, and he is not the first to make it. He will know that the ITT will ask for a fully priced option to replace the Pacers. However, I am told, following reading through responses to the consultation, that there may be times when the use of a Pacer might be appropriate. Indeed, local communities have said they would rather have a Pacer than nothing at all. I do not want to make blanket statements about Pacers, but I do take the point about using them on commuter lines, as many people have explained their shortcomings.
I hope I have answered the majority of the questions that I have been asked. I hope also that I have been able to provide some reassurance to the hon. Gentlemen that the Government are addressing the problems that have held the railways back in this country, which invented the railways, for so long. For me and for the Government, investment in railways is investment in growth, and that is just as relevant to the Furness line and to south Cumbria—
UK Visa Applications (Malawi)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone. We are debating in the presence of the Malawian high commissioner to the UK, who is here to observe our proceedings. I am pleased to have been able to secure this debate this afternoon. I am grateful to the Home Office Minister for being here to respond to it. I am aware that he has a full range of responsibilities. Although Malawi is important to me and to many other Members of this House, I am sure that it is not necessarily at the top of his agenda. I took the opportunity earlier to provide him with a list of the points I want to raise, so I hope he will be able to respond to at least some of those points this afternoon.
I declare an interest as the co-chair of the all-party group on Zambia and Malawi. I chair the Malawi part. As I am sure Members are aware, Malawi has strong links, through David Livingstone, with Blantyre in my constituency in Lanarkshire. That is the basis for my interest. It is a long-standing interest also shared by many of my constituents, which is why I am keen to pursue some of the issues this afternoon.
I should also say that I am indebted to the Scotland Malawi Partnership, a non-profit organisation in Scotland that works to ensure that relationships between projects and communities seeking to support Malawi are well linked up. It works as a resource for a range of charities, some large and some very small, that support communities in Malawi. It has provided me with some of the case studies and detailed information that I want to touch on this afternoon.
This is not a new issue. Through the all-party group, I have been involved in meetings with the Minister’s colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development over the past year to express some of these concerns. Each time, they have said that they understand that there are frustrations, acknowledged the issues and said that the matter was really for the Home Office. That is why I am grateful that a Home Office Minister is here. I hope that he will be able to respond to some of these issues.
As the Minister will be aware, there was a short general debate on Malawi last week in the other place. In the debate, Lord McConnell, the former First Minister of Scotland, who was involved in the founding of the Scotland Malawi Partnership, and Lord Steel, the former Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament—I visited Malawi with him and others last year—raised the frustrations that had been expressed to them about the way in which the visa system operates for applicants from Malawi. They did so in the context of a much wider debate on Malawi, which focused on the UK’s relationship with Malawi and the strong community relationships with Malawi that exist in many parts of Scotland.
The context is significant for this debate, because the point I want to get across to the Minister is that there is real concern that the relationship is being undermined by the frustration, the difficulty, the bureaucracy and the cumbersome nature of the visa application process, which enables people to visit the UK in support of many charitable, educational and religious projects at a community and local level. The nature of that relationship is important, particularly because with Malawi, due to issues that are rightly of concern to the UK Government, it is not possible for there to be direct grant aid from Government to Government. A lot of the aid and support is channelled through charitable and other projects. That makes the issue even more significant, and the frustration is in danger of undermining the relationship.
As such, there appears to be a contrast between some of the language and ideals that the Government say underpin their international development efforts and those that inform the way in which this aspect of the immigration system works. They talk about inclusion and equality as core principles, yet it is near impossible for anyone other than the wealthiest of the urban elite in countries across Africa to secure visas to visit the UK. These visits are often for legitimate purposes. In many circumstances, all the costs are being met by reputable charitable organisations and groups in the UK. They are more than happy to provide any assurances that are needed that the visitor will be there for those purposes and will be able to return at the end of the visit.
I raised an example at a business statement in the House just two weeks ago. Christian Aid held an event in Parliament to highlight the impact of climate change on some of the poorest countries of the world. Representatives from organisations working with Christian Aid from the Philippines, Bolivia and Malawi were due to be at the event, but the Malawian representative was unable to attend due to problems securing a visa. Sadly, that is not unusual. I have heard examples—I know of some personally—of teachers, charity workers and people working with Churches being unable to fulfil long-standing partnership engagements in communities across the UK, including in Scotland, because of the changes to the application system for visas from Malawi.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I have come along to endorse what he is saying. I have constituents and organisations in my constituency that are involved in the Scotland Malawi Partnership and want their concerns raised in the House. I hope that the Minister can respond to them. As my hon. Friend has set out, it is not just about projects in Malawi and similar projects elsewhere; this issue is of great concern to those involved in that partnership. I hope we can get some results from the Minister this afternoon.
My hon. Friend makes a good point on the growing sense of frustration felt by many of those involved in Malawi on the difficulties people have had in securing visas to visit the UK. I am sure that the Minister will be able to respond to some of these more detailed points as we develop them this afternoon.
I assume that the hon. Gentleman is alluding to the ongoing investigation into the misappropriation of aid funds in Malawi and more widely. He makes an important point. The examples I am talking about are individuals involved in projects, partnership arrangements or exchange visits, often with schools or Churches and other organisations. They are not part of that wealthy elite. In many cases, they struggle to secure a visa when they have a legitimate reason to visit the UK and are support the underlying Government policy on aid and development in Malawi. He makes that point very well.
A recent example, provided to me by the Scotland Malawi Partnership, is the experience of Donald Osborne, who has worked with Malawi for a number of years. He was organising a visa for a Malawian teacher to visit Scotland, and the application was rejected not once but twice, and without any notification. That speaks to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
Malawi is 170th out of 187 in the human development index. In Malawi, around 60% of the population live on £1 or less a day. For every 1,000 children born, 68 will die before the age of five. Only 16% of children will have the opportunity to attend secondary school. The partnerships that Malawi has with the UK, in my constituency, in Edinburgh and elsewhere across the UK, promote development to address those issues through a person-to-person model. The relationships between individuals, communities and families enhance the effectiveness of Government-to-Government relationships to tackle poverty. Some of those relationships have been under strain as a result of the events to which the hon. Gentleman alluded.
Many aspects of the visa process make it extremely difficult for Malawians to visit the UK. Lord McConnell highlighted in the other place last week how damaging the application process can be. He asked the Government whether steps could be taken to improve the system. The revised system provides a remarkably long, complex and often confusing process. The online process requires details from the applicant and the sponsor and has a detailed application form that requires an extraordinary level of supporting evidence and runs to 15 pages. That it is online is a clear difficulty for many people living in Malawi, as access to the internet is often difficult, time consuming and expensive. Power supplies and connections are unreliable and unpredictable.
I completely understand the need to be thorough—the process should be thorough—but the Government need to be aware that an online system, which seems straightforward from our perspective in the UK and in Europe, is very much more difficult for those applying from Malawi, particularly those doing so through the third-party contractor that has been running the system. I know that the operator of that system changed relatively recently. How many complaints have been made about the online system? Are the Government aware of the proportion of Malawians who have regular access to the internet? Was that taken into account prior to the changes to the system being introduced through Pretoria? Do the Minister and the Home Office have data available on the number of online applications that are started but never completed?
There is also a lengthy series of offline processes, which include posting passports to another country for assessment. At every stage, the process seems to confuse and frustrate many prospective applicants. The minimum cost for applications is £144, including the basic visa charge. It costs £59 just for an appointment. That translates to some 2,500 South African rand or some 107,000 Malawian kwacha, which is more than 30 times the weekly wage for the average Malawian and for which there is no refund if the application is unsuccessful. Indeed, I have heard of many cases in which repeat applications have been made, so how much money has been taken through unsuccessful visa applications, in particular from people from Malawi?
Furthermore, the move to a cashless system has made applying for UK visas in Malawi difficult for many people. In debates in the other place, Lord Steel explained the issues with a cashless system. International credit cards do not exist in the same way in Malawi, and it is illegal to pay in rand without the specific permission and authorisation of the national bank. The Government are therefore asking people to pay in a currency to which they have limited access. That has become a barrier to visa applications and has also worryingly led to an increasing number of industry intermediaries, who make onward electronic transfers on behalf of applicants, often involving high fees and cursory regard to the system’s robustness and whether applications are ever formally concluded. That is but one aspect of the system that causes discrimination based on wealth.
The Minister will be aware that many Malawians do not have an internationally recognised credit or bank card, but I wonder whether the Home Office took that into account when deciding how the system would work. Has any consideration been made of how much industry intermediaries make each year through charging to make electronic transfers? Are there any concerns about the quality of those transactions and the potential for fraud in the visa application process? We are told that the solution is for the UK sponsor to pay the fees, but that rarely works. The IT system regularly crashes and is unclear, making it hard for the sponsor to be able to get to the appropriate place in the application and make the payment. How many UK sponsors have been unable to pay fees for applications? What is the figure as a percentage of all applications?
The system also means that all UK visa applications from Africa are now handled in regional hubs, which causes delays as passports, birth certificates, bank details and other essential documents are sent back and forth across the continent, not always reliably. Decisions are then made by those who have almost no knowledge of the country concerned. Applicants have even had to fly across the continent to collect their passports in urgent situations. I understand that the move to regional hubs was partly about efficiency, but the Government should be concerned about reliability. How has the move to regional hubs affected the time scale involved in securing visas? What is the current backlog of the hub in Pretoria?
In last week’s debate in the other place, Baroness Northover stated:
“Poorly paid people from Malawi are not discriminated against in applying for visas. There is no income threshold.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 October 2014; Vol. 756, c. 858.]
While it may be correct that there is no income threshold, that is not the same as there being no disincentive based on income. For example, applicants must demonstrate that they have sufficient funds to cover the costs of their visit and to return to Malawi, meaning that more than 90% are simply not rich enough to be allowed to accept an invitation to the UK. They must also prove that there is a strong reason for them to return to Malawi, through either employment or family ties, but Malawi has a great deal of poverty and a lack of formal employment—85% of Malawians are subsistence farmers. Often, the events that people want to come over and take part in are run by organisations that are willing and able to provide any necessary assurances that the event is the reason why the applicant wants to come over and that the person will return, but that is almost impossible to prove in the application process. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that.
Before I conclude, I will outline one recent example. Members will be aware of the work of Mary’s Meals, which feeds many people in Malawi and across poorer parts of Africa. The head of programmes for Mary’s Meals in Malawi, which currently feeds 690,000 children, was refused a visa on the grounds that he was likely to abscond, despite letters from the charity’s UK chief operating officer, as well as the country director, providing reassurances about the work that the individual was undertaking.
In conclusion, I return to my central point about the frustration caused by the visa system, how it operates, its cashless nature, which is inadequate for many Malawians, and the implications and consequences. Thousands of people in the UK are involved in projects and community initiatives to support Malawi, often on a local, project-by-project basis involving schools, Churches and community organisations. They want to help, support and underpin the work that the UK Government’s aid programme is engaged in delivering to one of the poorest countries in the world. The Scotland Malawi Partnership is a phenomenal organisation that is helping to facilitate that. It is not an unreasonable group of people, but it has repeatedly highlighted the concerns and the scale of the problem.
We have heard the line-to-take response from Ministers in other Departments, but I hope that the Minister can commit today not only to answering my questions but to re-examining the effectiveness of the system and its processes. This is not about immigration policy so much as the way the system is applied and how it affects people in Malawi. In the short term, will the Minister consider giving the high commission in Lilongwe a front-facing officer to provide face-to-face support to those applying for a visa to visit the UK and guide them through a process that can be confusing, frustrating and incoherent in equal measure? We all understand the importance of ensuring that immigration policy is well designed and robust, but there are real concerns that it is not as effective as it could or should be and that important charitable and support work for one of the poorest countries in the world is being undermined by the system. I implore the Minister to reconsider the matter and to provide a better system in the interests of the people of Malawi and of the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing the debate, and on how he advanced his points about the visa arrangements for Malawi and underlined the connections between Malawi and the United Kingdom, and Scotland in particular. I also recognise his direct constituency interest, it being the birthplace of Dr David Livingstone, whose connection with Malawi started in the 1850s, and I recognise the history involved. It is important to underline the connections between the UK and Malawi, and the movement of people ensures closer engagement between both countries. The visa service has an important part to play in facilitating that movement, while, as the hon. Gentleman understands, protecting our borders and preventing illegal immigration.
In addressing the hon. Gentleman’s questions and points, it is important to give the broader context of our performance and the number of visa applications received from Malawi. I believe that we provide a good service to customers from Malawi. Of the 2,160 visa applications received from Malawian nationals in 2013, 86% were successful. That is an important figure to highlight, given his question about the number of refused applications.
Looking back at the figures for 2010, I note that the grant rate then was 74%. The hon. Gentleman suggests a worsening picture, but it would seem that the grant rate is higher than it was four years ago. The number of applications that we receive from Malawi is comparatively small—I will come on to talk about some of the challenges that that creates—but it is important to see the context of the overall grant rate.
We do process applications within our published customer service standards, and often much faster than that. The global published service standards are to process non-settlement applications within 15 working days and settlement applications within 60 working days. On the gov.uk website, we have published the August figures for the processing time for applications submitted in Malawi for business visit visas; 69% were processed in five days, 90% in 10 days and 100% in 15 days. With regard to settlement, 100% of applications were processed in 60 days. I point the hon. Gentleman to the current performance figures on the website. I take the performance in individual countries seriously, so that we can ensure that we are delivering a quality, timely visa service for the citizens of those countries who want to visit the UK.
In the current economic climate, it is not possible to offer a free, five-day-a-week visa application network in all countries of the world. However, where possible, we do not want to require someone who wishes to travel to the UK to travel to a different country first in order to apply for a visa. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that point.
In order to offer the option of submitting an application for a UK visa in Malawi as well as in other locations, UK Visas and Immigration had to make changes to our visa application footprint. Those are in line with a global model that includes requiring customers at lower-volume visa application centres to provide a contribution to the running costs, and reducing the opening frequencies of some visa application points. The alternative was to withdraw our visa application network from Malawi entirely, which we did not want to do.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the additional £59 charge. That was determined solely to recover the costs of operating the visa application points in this location. Malawi is one of a number of countries in which such arrangements have been put in place. I reassure him that the charge is in no way a means of trying to make money. The UK does not make any money from such charges, which support the visa application service in-country.
The arrangement to clear visas in Pretoria was put in place in about 2008-09. The concept of having a smaller number of hubs to ensure an efficient and effective service has been adopted by us around the globe. We have not seen inefficiencies in it, and it has led to—I hope—better decision making on the applications received. I will come on to that point.
I have four minutes left, and as this debate was secured by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, I need to give credit to him in the time available.
There is a close tie between Scotland and Malawi, which dates back to the 1850s, and the Scotland-Malawi Partnership plays a key role in supporting links between our countries. My officials in Pretoria, where Malawian applications are considered, have established a good relationship with Mr David Hope-Jones, the principal officer of the partnership, to ensure that citizens from Malawi can apply for visas.
One particular problem raised has been the difficulty in accessing the internet in Malawi and, therefore, in submitting a visa application. UKVI has moved to an application and payment process in which almost all customers apply and pay for their visas online. We have introduced that arrangement around the globe; it is part of the Government’s “digital by default” strategy.
The Visa4UK application portal has been upgraded to provide an improved customer interface, as well as to introduce a number of new features designed to make applications clearer and easier to complete. The move to online applications and payments has delivered a streamlined process that is consistent with a wider global trend for online transactions and payments. It will also be a safer system for both customers and staff, as it reduces the risk associated with handling large amounts of cash.
Customers who do not have a credit or debit card can seek a sponsor to pay online, as the hon. Gentleman said. I made further inquiries and discovered that prepaid credit or debit cards from the major suppliers can be provided by Malawian banks and used for our gateway. There is, therefore, the ability to go to a mainstream Malawian bank to secure that. We have received no official communication from the Malawian Government saying that the permission of the Reserve Bank of Malawi is required for visa payments. The situation in Malawi for applications has improved, and my officials continue to work with sponsors to ensure access to the visa service.
The hon. Gentleman and others have raised concerns about it being difficult for a Malawian to be issued a visa, owing to their modest economic circumstances, even if a genuine sponsor in the UK is meeting the cost of the visit. All visa applications from anywhere in the world are considered on their individual merits against the immigration rules. Applicants should provide evidence to show that they meet the rules and that their circumstances are as they outline. Those intending to visit the UK should provide evidence to show that they can be adequately accommodated and supported during their stay, and that they can meet the cost of their onward journey. That is important to ensure that only genuine visitors come to the UK, and to protect our system.
There is flexibility within the rules for visitors to be maintained and accommodated by friends or relatives. Entry clearance officers will take into account all information provided by applicants and their sponsors when making decisions on visa applications. They will make inquiries directly with sponsors where necessary, but the onus is on the applicant to provide all relevant information in support of their application, including full details of their sponsor’s ability to maintain and accommodate them. However, it is important to note that visitors must meet all the other requirements of the immigration rules. I recognise the point about return.
I have had limited time in which to respond, but I will reflect carefully on what the hon. Gentleman has said. Perhaps I could write to him with further details following the debate.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).