Tuesday 27 October 2015
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the work of the UK in tackling malaria and neglected tropical diseases.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I refer Members to my declarations in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. One thing that is not there that I need to declare is that I have been invited to become a trustee of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. That has not yet been ratified, so will not be in the register.
I have secured this debate at a critical time in tackling malaria and neglected tropical diseases, which affect up to 1.4 billion people across the world. Just to explain, neglected tropical diseases include leprosy, lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis, soil-transmitted helminths—or worms—leishmaniasis, human African trypanosomiasis and Chagas disease. All those diseases are preventable and treatable using existing treatments, yet they continue to cause death and disability in a way that would simply not be acceptable were they endemic in the United Kingdom. This debate is particularly important as the 2015 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine was awarded this month for work on malaria and neglected tropical diseases. Professor Youyou Tu was awarded the prize for the discovery of artemisinin, which I will come on to later, and Doctor William C. Campbell of Ireland and the USA and Professor Satoshi Omura of Japan were awarded the prize for their discovery of avermectin, which is effective against river blindness, lymphatic filariasis and a growing number of other parasitic diseases.
Over the past decade and a half, the UK has taken a prominent role in the fight against malaria and neglected tropical diseases, and I will set out the great progress made and the challenges that face us if we are to see their elimination. I ask the Minister to consider the future of the UK’s programmes in both areas.
Twenty years ago, we were losing the fight against malaria—I declare an interest, having had it at least four times—and there was widespread resistance to the main drugs used to cure it: chloroquine and sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine. The international will to tackle malaria seemed absent. All of that changed with the adoption of the millennium development goals. MDG 6 targeted malaria, while MDG 4 focused on child mortality. We have to remember that children are the ones who suffer most from malaria, as more children die from malaria than adults. MDG 5 was on maternal health, and pregnant women are particularly at risk of catching and suffering from malaria. The fight against malaria has resulted in a 58% decline between 2000 and 2015 in deaths from malaria globally. The World Health Organisation estimates that that means that 6.2 million deaths from malaria have been averted, primarily among children under five in sub-Saharan Africa.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that while significant progress has been made, the fact that 200 million new cases of malaria have been reported this year alone calls into question our legitimate and worthwhile attempt to try to eliminate malaria in the next 15 years?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Between 450,000 and 500,000 people—they are mainly children—are dying unnecessarily every year from the disease. How did the tremendous progress—I stress that huge progress has indeed been made—happen? Principally, reliable long-term funding enabled the development and implementation of various interventions, including prevention through insecticide-treated bed nets and the development of vaccines, and diagnosis through the rapid diagnostic tests that enable people, particularly children, to be diagnosed with malaria in the village, rather than having to come to a laboratory in a town when the malaria may be severe.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the progress made and the different ways of making that progress. Does he agree that the earlier regression was partly to do with the mistaken banning of DDT in Africa and elsewhere?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. DDT was banned for clear, understandable reasons, but it had some severe consequences that resulted in malaria taking a grip in areas where it had almost been eliminated. Even today, when DDT is being used for indoor residual spraying, we are seeing its effectiveness when topically applied and carefully used.
There have been some tremendous advances in cures, notably in the artemisinin combination therapies, which I will come to and which are the subject, in part, of this year’s Nobel prize in physiology or medicine. There has also been the welcome development of new medicines. One of them is coming out of Dundee University, and I am sure other Members will wish to discuss that.
The UK has played a major role in providing the long-term funding. It was less than £100 million a year in 2000, but it now stands at £500 million. That is the direct result of the Chancellor’s pledge, while shadow Chancellor in 2007, to increase funding to tackle malaria to £500 million. It is not simply funding that is essential, however; we need the institutions through which the work can be done. It is pointless for several different nations to all work on their own programmes independently. Overseas development assistance is far too precious a commodity for that, so co-operation was essential from the beginning.
I remember how important the first artemisinin-based cures for malaria were when they came out in the mid- 1990s. At last, there was a cure that was very effective and had limited side effects, unlike chloroquine, which was increasingly ineffective, and Lariam, which was effective, but which, as I found out to my cost, had potentially severe side-effects. At between $10 and $15 a dose, the drug was unaffordable to almost all those who needed it. It needed to be more like $1 a dose at the most.
The Medicines for Malaria Venture was established in 1999 as a product development partnership, with considerable UK support from the Labour Government right from the beginning. Its aim was to take up promising new projects from pharmaceutical companies and help them to fruition, so that effective drugs would be available at a price affordable to the poorest and to developing countries’ health systems. The founders of MMV recognised that developing medicines for malaria was not commercially attractive to companies, as those who most needed the drugs were least able to pay prices that covered the costs of development. There is a big lesson there for our work on tackling antimicrobial resistance. Indeed, I believe that Professor Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, refers to the example of MMV when talking in her book, “The Drugs Don’t Work”, about what we need to do to tackle antimicrobial resistance.
By bringing together Governments including Switzerland, the UK and the US, private foundations such as the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, pharmaceutical companies, critically including small companies and not just the majors, and researchers, MMV was able to do in co-operation what had not been possible in isolation. Two drugs that have come from that work are: Coartem Dispersible, which is for children and has had more than 250 million doses produced and distributed; and the artesunate injection, which is very effective against severe malaria—possibly more effective than quinine—and has had 35 million doses produced.
A second, larger example of co-operation was the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which was also established in the time of the Labour Government in 2002 to concentrate efforts to fight those diseases. The UK, along with the US, France and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was a prominent supporter of the fund right from its creation. Indeed, the first executive director was a Briton, Dr—now Sir—Richard Feachem. The fund has been responsible for supporting programmes in malaria-endemic countries, including programmes on the mass distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets and the introduction of rapid diagnostic tests.
A third example is the Malaria Vaccine Initiative of PATH, which supports the development of promising malaria vaccines. The most advanced is GlaxoSmithKline’s vaccine, which was developed in Belgium and is called RTS,S. It recently received approval from the European Medicines Agency and will, I hope, become available in the not too distant future.
The progress made in the past 15 years has in large part been down to political will through the millennium development goals and the work of the United Nations and the Governments of the United Kingdom, the United States and other countries increasing long-term funding, with the UK taking a lead alongside the US and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that the tenacity of malaria means that much more money will have to be spent to beat it? The Gates Foundation estimated that it could cost between $90 billion and $120 billion up to 2020 to deal with it. Does he agree that we must not take our foot off the pedal?
My hon. Friend is exactly right, and we have seen the consequences of taking our foot off the pedal in the past. In Zanzibar, malaria was almost eliminated in the 1950s, but it came back with a vengeance. There was another programme in the 1980s, and the foot was taken off the pedal and it came back with a vengeance. The same has happened in Sudan and many other places, so we must deal with that. I think the figures she quoted are accurate, but if we manage to tackle malaria and get to virtual elimination, it will add more than $4 trillion dollars to world GDP, so it is a hugely important investment to make.
Improving health systems is another reason why we have seen progress in many developing countries, with increasing local funding, although some countries really need to step up to their pledges—for instance, the Abuja declaration of committing 15% of budgets to health, which only a few sub-Saharan countries do at the moment, along with unprecedented co-operation, which I have described. We will need all these and more as we face the challenge of the next 15 years, which is to meet the WHO’s global technical strategy for malaria 2016 to 2030.
On top of that, we face two forms of serious resistance: by the malaria parasite to artemisinin-based combination therapies in the Mekong region in south-east Asia, from where resistance to both chloroquine and sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine started and spread to sub-Saharan Africa, which is why it is vital to get on top of this; and by mosquitoes to the insecticides on bed nets, which are becoming resistant to pyrethroids. We also see serious outbreaks where bed net distribution has failed and health systems are weak. I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) is going to describe one such instance later in this debate.
The UK is heavily involved in work to counter both those threats, through the Department for International Development’s work and the global fund supported by DFID in Myanmar, working alongside the Government there, and through the work of the Innovative Vector Control Consortium, based in the Liverpool school, in searching for and testing new insecticides for bed nets. The UK has therefore been at the forefront in so many different ways, whether through funding or research—from the London school, the Liverpool school, Dundee, York, Imperial, Keele and other universities, or from business, NGOs, or, above all, people. There are so many I would like to mention, but I will not because of time constraints, but the UK has fantastic scientists in this field at all levels.
Given the effectiveness of UK support for tackling malaria over the last 15 years, will the Minister undertake to do his utmost to maintain that for the future? I am asking the UK not to increase the level of funding, but to maintain current levels. Reaching £500 million a year is a great achievement and others need to come forward to support the UK in this, not least the countries in which malaria is endemic.
The WHO’s roll back malaria framework states that malaria interventions are very good value for money:
“Immunisation is the only public health intervention that has been shown to be more effective than malaria interventions. Beyond the financial return, investments in fighting malaria will have enormous positive effects on agriculture, education and women’s empowerment. They will also contribute significantly to reductions in poverty and the alleviation of inequality.”
Almost exactly the same can be said about the work on neglected tropical diseases. They affect 1.4 billion people—possibly an underestimate—bringing disability and sometimes death. They have a devastating economic impact, yet treating them is cheap and entirely possible. Co-operation plays a vital role, and host Governments have a vital role to play. Many of these diseases can be treated in parallel through local health systems. It makes sense to work together rather than in silos. We saw that when we visited the NTD control programme in Mkuranga district in Tanzania—I went with two other hon. Members in the all-party group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases—where they were tackling lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis, soil-transmitted helminth and trachoma all together. Universities also have a vital role to play. In the case of Mkuranga, an important partner was the schistosomiasis control initiative, based in the UK’s Imperial College London. Other universities are very important partners.
In the private sector, we have seen extraordinarily generous donations of drugs. I will list them because it is important that hon. Members understand the scale. Merck and Co. will donate Mectizan—ivermectin—for onchocerciasis and lymphatic filariasis in Africa for as long as it is needed, with no limit. GSK has already donated nearly 2 billion tablets of albendazole for lymphatic filariasis and will continue until elimination, and has also donated 1 billion per annum to de-worm school-aged children. Johnson & Johnson has donated 200 million tablets of mebendazole a year. Pfizer donated 70 million doses of azithromycin for trachoma in 2012 alone. Novartis has donated drugs for leprosy. Eisai, the Japanese company, has donated 2 billion tablets of Diethylcarbamazine for lymphatic filariasis, and E. Merck has donated 20 million doses of praziquantel a year, going up to 250 million tablets a year from 2016 for schistosomiasis. These are huge figures that will substantially reduce the costs of treatment in countries where those diseases are endemic.
There are also product development partnerships. As well as the Medicines for Malaria Venture and the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, we have the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative, which focuses on developing new treatments for the most neglected patients suffering from diseases such as human Africa trypanosomiasis, Chagas disease and lymphatic filariasis, as well as paediatric HIV. Again, the UK has taken a leading role. On top of the £50 million committed by the previous Labour Government, a further £195 million was pledged by the coalition. The UK is also the second largest funder of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative, with £64 million donated, second to Gates, who has given $126 million. The one other donor with more than €20 million of donations is Médecins sans Frontières, which has donated €66 million.
The UK has also played a leading role by hosting the London conference—a big conference that set the path for the next few years; we need to find out where we have got to with that—and the declaration on neglected tropical diseases, an important declaration that I want to quote from:
“Inspired by the World Health Organization’s 2020 Roadmap on NTDs, we believe there is a tremendous opportunity to control or eliminate at least 10 of these devastating diseases by the end of the decade”—
that is just over four years away.
“But no one company, organization or government can do it alone. With the right commitment, coordination and collaboration, the public and private sectors will work together to enable the more than a billion people suffering from NTDs to lead healthier and more productive lives—helping the world's poorest build self-sufficiency.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me a chance to speak in this debate. Obviously the issue is very important. The number of Members present is an indication of that. I have not yet heard—although I am sure he is coming to it—about the vast contributions that faith groups, churches and missionaries make throughout the world to eliminate poverty and help people to work their farms and so on. Almost every church in my constituency of Strangford has a project to give help directly to an area in Africa, the middle east and the far east. Does he recognise the good work that those churches and faith groups do?
I do indeed. I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I recognise the huge amount of work done by faith groups and missions around the world. They often run remote hospitals, which even the state health system cannot afford to maintain. I have seen the work that they do. Indeed, my wife ran a public health education programme for 11 years in Tanzania and saw at first hand the work that was done when she worked for the Lutheran Church there.
I will not go through the London declaration in detail, because I want other hon. Members to speak, but I will quote the final words:
“We believe that, working together, we can meet our goals by 2020 and chart a new course toward health and sustainability among the world’s poorest communities to a stronger, healthier future.”
Real progress has been made in the past few years. To take one example of many highlighted by the Overseas Development Institute last year, Sierra Leone made great strides in preventing four of the five diseases that make up 90% of the world’s NTD burden: onchocerciasis, lymphatic filariasis, soil-transmitted helminth and schistosomiasis. In particular, on schistosomiasis, which can lead to death through liver disease and bladder cancer, 562,000 people in Sierra Leone received preventative treatment in 2009. By 2012, that figure had reached 1.4 million, which was 99% of those needing treatment. We have heard of the tragic trials of Sierra Leone in the past year and a half, but it is important that we also recognise the huge amount of work that Sierra Leoneans have done to treat many of these other diseases.
When my hon. Friend refers to elimination, does he mean the elimination of a disease in human beings or the elimination of the scourge of these diseases from the face of the earth? Have I got that wrong, or is it a combination of the two?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that distinction. The recent leader article on malaria in The Economist discussed eradication, which is what I believe we have to go for. There are slightly different meanings to elimination and eradication, but whatever it is, we have to aim for what we have seen with smallpox and are approaching with polio, with no one getting these diseases anymore.
I am sorry, but my question was really about the distinction between getting rid of a disease from the face of the earth, so that it is never there again and human beings cannot catch it, and dealing with a disease in a human being.
Ultimately it is about making sure that human beings cannot catch a disease. Whether we can get rid of a disease from the face of the earth is another matter, because they have a tendency to come back. We have to ensure that we have the tools in place so that if a disease does return when we think it is eliminated, we can deal with it.
I have three questions for the Minister. What progress has been made in investing the additional £195 million committed by the coalition Government to work on neglected tropical diseases? Given the tremendous cost-effectiveness of interventions—we are talking about tackling diseases that affect 1.4 billion people by committing over four years the cost of running an average district general hospital in the UK for just one year—will the Minister look carefully at increasing the UK’s support for NTD work, especially drug discovery and support for programmes that strengthen health systems as they deliver prevention, diagnosis and cure? Finally, will he update us on the progress made on implementing the London declaration? We hosted the conference, so it is important that we take the lead in ensuring that the declaration comes to fruition.
Over the past 15 years great progress has been made on malaria and NTDs. The UK has been a vital part of that work, not just via funding from DFID, but through our scientists, universities, NGOs and voluntary organisations such as the Rotary Foundation, which has done tremendous work on malaria on top of its work on polio, and most certainly through our private pharmaceutical sector, whether in its commitment to research and development in unfashionable areas or in its direct donations of billions of doses of essential drugs. Nevertheless, the job is only half done for malaria, and even less so for NTDs. If the UK remains committed over the coming 15 years, I remain hopeful that we can make substantial progress. I ask the Minister to make that commitment. It is not about specific sums of money, but about an overall approach that recognises how much difference this work makes to billions of people and what an effective use of UK taxpayers’ money it is.
Let me conclude by quoting the leader article in The Economist from 10 October:
“Throughout history, humans and disease have waged a deadly and never-ending war. Today the casualties are chiefly the world’s poorest people. But victory against some of the worst killers is at last within grasp. Seize it.”
Order. Before I call Kate Osamor, if Members restrict their speeches to five or six minutes, we should have time for everyone who wants to speak. There is no formal time limit at this point.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for securing this debate.
I am glad that we have the opportunity to draw attention to this important issue, about which, as a British-born Nigerian, I feel passionately. According to statistics published by the US Government to coincide with this year’s World Malaria Day, Nigeria has the highest number of malaria casualties worldwide, with an estimated 100 million cases and around 300,000 deaths each year.
The debate is particularly timely given the recent announcement that the roll-out of the world’s first malaria vaccine has been delayed as experts at the World Health Organisation have urged caution. The vaccine requires four doses, and without all four shots children had no overall reduction in severe malaria. That raises important questions about access to healthcare and how less developed countries will be able to administer the four vaccines. It also highlights the disparity in access to healthcare across the world and the more general need to address the issue in order to tackle infectious diseases most effectively. After all, access to healthcare is a human right.
I have been encouraged to see the progress that has been made in tackling malaria. Malaria No More UK states that malaria prevention returns £36 to society for every £1 invested. It is important to note that according to a recent WHO report, carried out jointly with UNICEF, malaria death rates have dropped by 60% since 2000, saving 6 million lives. The number of children under five sleeping under insecticide-treated nets has risen from 2% to 68%. Thirteen countries that had malaria in 2000 no longer have any cases of the disease. That shows that, with funding from the international community, there is hope that malaria, one of the biggest killers at the turn of the millennium, could be eradicated.
Progress must continue to be made. This year alone there have been an estimated 214 million new cases of malaria, with more than 400,000 deaths. Two forms of resistance are threatening to undo the progress that is being made: in south-east Asia, the malaria parasite is able to shrug off the effects of the drug artemisinin; and some mosquitos are becoming resistant to the drugs used to coat the nets. That must be looked into.
The hon. Lady is making a really good case. Does she believe that the lack of both adequately trained doctors and health networks is also worrying?
That is an important point. We need to invest in the healthcare profession so that this significant and costly disease can be eradicated.
I welcome the fact that the Department for International Development has pledged up to £500 million a year towards tackling malaria. Eliminating malaria is a global effort that involves work from the grass-roots and aid on international and governmental levels. There is still a lot of work to be done and I hope that the UK will continue to lead the way in the fight to end this disease.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for securing this debate on a topic that is very close to my heart. Although I am going to focus on malaria, we must not forget the many neglected tropical diseases that my hon. Friend outlined. He and I have worked closely on international development issues for a number of years, as well as in the all-party group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases. We expect to continue that work during this Parliament.
It is clear that the work the UK is doing to tackle malaria is having a huge effect. Through a mixture of UK aid, British business, British-led research and non-governmental organisations, the UK has contributed to reducing the global malaria death rate by 60% since 2000. In the previous Parliament, the UK acted in a number of ways to tackle malaria and other diseases, as my hon. Friend outlined. Our financial and political support for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, our support for the Gates Foundation’s efforts to eliminate malaria, our work mapping malaria to establish high-risk areas to focus on, and our bilateral work on helping in-country healthcare systems to respond effectively to malaria and other diseases have all had a real, positive effect.
Although we can be proud of our contribution to tackling malaria and other tropical diseases, we must not become complacent or slow down our efforts. If we do, we risk reversing our momentum. Despite all the progress that has been made, malaria remains a substantial global killer, and women and children still overwhelmingly feel its effects. I could say an awful lot about the fact that women and children are disproportionately affected because they cannot access medicines or get to the clinics easily. Children who do not go to school because they have got malaria have worse life chances than those who go to school all the time.
Given the limited time available, I will focus on the situation in Uganda, a country I have focused on for many years and have a real interest in. Access to medical care to treat malaria and other diseases is poor in areas such as rural northern Uganda. Women and girls are even poorer there. I recently had a meeting with Alison Hall, the founder of Seeds for Development, to discuss the urgent situation in northern Uganda, where there is a major malaria outbreak. Her charity has been on the ground in northern Uganda working with farming communities to help rebuild their lives after the 20-year war with the Lord’s Resistance Army. She has been there for about six years. Three of the districts the charity works in are among those affected by the malaria outbreak. The Department should look immediately at the situation she described to assess whether there is anything we can or should be doing to help.
In the middle of July, Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, the director general of health services in Uganda, admitted that tens of thousands in northern Uganda have recently contracted the disease. Many people cannot afford to travel the long distances required to get to the hospital, and those who do are overwhelming the services due to the outbreak. One hospital—Gulu general hospital in the Gulu district of northern Uganda, which Seeds for Development visited to assess how patients are being treated—padlocks shut its outpatients department at 4 pm, leaves patients outside the door and provides nowhere for them to be treated inside. The charity was also told that St Joseph’s hospital in Kitgum, which is supported by DFID, recorded 125 deaths from malaria between June and August, which is much higher than normal. That is just one hospital, not the true picture. Clinics had run out of drugs, and new supplies were taking a long time to arrive. In August, there had not been a delivery of drugs for a month.
We need to look urgently at the situation in northern Uganda to establish the facts and act on them. In particular, I am worried about the lack of access to treated mosquito nets in northern Uganda. We provide financial assistance to the Ugandan Government to provide nets, so why are families in the region not receiving them? I understand that the Ugandan Government stopped its indoor residual spraying of huts programme in 2014. That one act alone will increase the risk of malaria. If the local people get nets, do they know how to use them? Nets often go astray—they are used for fishing and all sorts of other activities—so there has to be an education programme to teach people how to use them. It is very important that women and children sleep under the nets to save their lives. That important issue has been highlighted as among the causes of the current outbreak in northern Uganda.
The UK has a huge amount to be proud of in the way we have taken a lead on combating malaria. We know that the return on investment in tackling malaria is well established and accepted by the Government. However, we alone cannot defeat malaria. It requires a global effort, financially and politically supported by Governments around the world, including those of the countries affected. A lot has been done, but the outbreak in northern Uganda, where hundreds if not thousands have died this year alone, shows that we must not become complacent. I hope the Minister will explain what DFID is doing to help those affected in that region. I understand that DFID acts responsibly in many areas of Uganda, but that area seems to have been neglected, and I would like to know what the Minister can tell us about what is happening.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing this important debate at the right time.
Since I first entered Parliament in 2007, I have been committed to development and healthcare issues. As a boy growing up in India, I saw the debilitating effects of malaria and parasites such as hookworm. Such conditions are not blind; they affect the very poorest in society. Developing nations face a competitive disadvantage. The west and the more developed nations have mostly eradicated such debilitating, but not necessarily life-threatening, diseases, but the countries with the greatest need often lack even the most basic tools for curing neglected tropical diseases.
I was proud to be in New York last month with four of my colleagues here in the Chamber for the global launch of the sustainable development goals. I pledge my support to two goals in particular: goal 3, on health and wellbeing for all people; and goal 5, on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.
The UK currently invests £536 million in eliminating malaria. The Department for International Development has much to be proud of, but neglected tropical disease funding is being reassessed at the end of this year. NTD funding has to be protected and, as the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) said, increased where possible. If there is not a predominantly decent level of health across the globe, how can the world face the challenges of the 21st century? Speaking selfishly, if we meet global malaria targets by 2030, we will not only have saved more than 10 million lives but increased global economic output by $4 trillion. That represents a huge new market for British goods, manufacturing and know-how.
Some 44 million households worldwide, representing more than 150 million people, face catastrophic healthcare costs that can cripple them financially. If we can prevent such cruel, horrible diseases from developing, we can free millions of women and girls from lives of servitude when they have to care for sick and ill family members. They will be able to go to school, receive an education and be fully equipped to participate as full members of our society. The life-changing effect of the drugs we support can be immense, and the cost can be just a few pence. The burden of NTDs and malaria traps so many in a spiral of debt, sickness and poverty. We have much to offer, having gained so much ourselves, but although we have done so much, there is much left to do. I hope that by 2050 people will no longer be trapped in poverty spirals driven by sickness. Hopefully, we will help them to become full members of society.
I support the questions put by the hon. Member for Stafford to the Minister. If the Minister can answer all those questions, it will not only satisfy people but give confidence to wider society that the Government are committed to what they have already paid for.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on an excellent speech, not least because of his impressive articulation of so many technical terms, which left many of us in awe. I also acknowledge his equally effective leadership of the all-party parliamentary group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, which over the previous Parliament and continuing into this one has gathered together many of those involved in research and its practical application, seeking to resolve the challenges that he spoke of and to find solutions to the still deeply concerning impact of malaria and other neglected tropical diseases across the world.
I acknowledge the Department for International Development’s considerable contribution over the past several years and the achievements secured thus far, not least because the constructive partnership working that my hon. Friend mentioned is being so effective in contributing to the improvements that have been made. There is still a long way to go, however. My hon. Friend spoke of the importance of increasing funding for drug discovery, and I want in particular to speak about early-stage drug development funding.
As I said, the all-party parliamentary group has gathered together a number of thinkers at the forefront of this issue, one of whom is Professor Alister Craig from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, who visited us last week. He is a lifelong researcher into the biology of diseases and has several suggestions that could make the funding that goes into this area even more effective. I hope the Minister will take those suggestions away. Professor Craig speaks of the weighting system of the research excellence framework, which is a method of addressing the research of British higher education institutions that can impact on the grant funding received. Professor Craig says that the current UK system is well suited to recognising the researching and developing of drugs that have an ultimate commercial home in western markets—that is to say that the cost of their development will be recouped by pharmaceutical companies. In practice, that can mean that the research excellence framework prioritises pure academic and perhaps more theoretical research over more iterative drug development processes. Drug development, particularly at an early stage, can be under-recognised as a result. Framework points can be accrued through the demonstration of excellence in academia more than through a demonstration of excellence in drug development. That is particularly concerning for the development of drugs for NTDs, because it can be seven to 10 years before apparent progress is made, but unless that work is done, no progress will ever be made.
While the system makes sense for the majority of the UK market, where a commercial operator will put in money to turn academic research into a product that ends up on the market, it can be difficult for grant money to get to development stage research into tropical diseases. Such research is often left under-resourced without a commercial developer to inject cash. In the next review of the research excellent framework, is the Minister prepared to consider measures that would allow drug developers to demonstrate the excellence of their research? We could perhaps consider the matter at a future meeting of the APPG, to which Ministers were generous in giving their time in the previous Parliament, so that the issue can be discussed with the experts in this field.
There is a clear disparity in the funding here. Successful research is rightly rewarded with drug development, but the drugs being developed only have a 0.3% chance of turning out to be an effective and available product. Much development work gets us closer to a final answer while not producing a solution or product. That valuable work—we could perhaps call them useful failures—could be better understood by review panels to give it more recognition.
For example, a number of malaria vaccines did not result in in a marketable vaccine, but each new research stage and trial contributed to the accumulation of knowledge and is valuable in the chain of research that will eventually lead to an effective malaria vaccine. If useful failures could be better understood and identified, that would be helpful. However, funding agencies and review panels are often heavily represented by individuals from the academic sphere of pharmaceuticals and less so by those from the development field. The Government have the power to set expectations about the mix of backgrounds on such panels, but will the Minister consider the balance between those from academia and those from product development?
DFID’s funding has been enormously effective over the past few years, but will DFID look particularly at targeting at early-stage NTD drug development? The purpose would be to support long-term development work from groups that have a deep understanding of NTD challenges. Money is put into development, but it is often directed, even by DFID, towards picking up drugs that are already at an advanced stage of development, leaving early-stage drugs desperately under-resourced. It is particularly important that Government consider that because private foundations and NGOs often want to invest where they can get the biggest bang for their buck and where they can see an early-course impact.
Research in the UK into tropical diseases has been effective, and research into river blindness, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, is a good example. For Members’ information, river blindness is a parasitic infection that is spread through the bites of black flies. It often leads to permanent blindness, and millions of people in central Africa and Latin America are at risk of infection. In some west African communities, 50% of the men over 40 had been blinded by the disease. UK research discovered that the parasitic worms could be stopped by attacking bacteria inside the worm as it was much easier to kill the bacteria than the worm. Millions of people are still benefiting from that discovery, which is a great example of UK research benefiting the lives of many. Such strides take time, however, which is why it is important for us to invest in early-stage drug development to make progress as quickly as possible.
I thank Professor Craig for his engagement with the APPG and for his particularly constructive comments. He says that it is not that the UK is not doing this work, but rather that more could be done. We could do more and could do it even more effectively.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Davies. Like others, I commend the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing this debate and on the helpful way in which he set out the terms of the debate, which was helpful not least because, as the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said, he covered all the technical terms and jargon, meaning that none of the rest of us has to go over those hurdles. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Stafford for his steadfast and sterling work as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases. I try to attend the group’s meetings as often as I can, and I appreciate not only the quality of his work, but the calibre of the evidence and engagement that is brought to the group, which powerfully demonstrates the range of commitment of a number of charities and campaign groups. We have also heard directly from companies, not only about the quality of the work and their research, but about the commitment that they have been prepared to make on things such as price sensitivity. We have also been able to see and hear how important the work of DFID is and about its various partners in the NGO sector, and internationally and multilaterally.
The rate of progress and advance highlighted by the hon. Member for Stafford in his introduction in many ways proves the power of marshalled will when we have multilateral actions and well defined global goals. For some it is fashionable to knock such initiatives, but seeing real success against declared goals should incentivise us to do more and to go further. As the hon. Gentleman said, when we might still be looking at 450,000 or more children dying from malaria and neglected tropical diseases, we clearly need to do more.
This is a time for renewed commitment, rather than complacency about the challenges. Tackling malaria and neglected tropical diseases will be key to achieving the sustainable development goals, especially the health goal, the realisation of universal health coverage and the reduction in maternal and child mortality. Achievement of the global malaria targets by 2030 will mean more than 10 million lives saved, giving all that added productivity, releasing all that quality of life and increasing economic activity.
The UK should be seen to be prioritising sustainable development goal 3. We should therefore sustain and, I hope, increase the annual investment—£536 million at present—to achieve malaria elimination. The UK’s malaria and reproductive health framework for results will run out this year, so we need a renewed vision and a new plan for the UK’s contribution to global efforts towards elimination.
DFID has the credibility, so it should be seen to ensure that SDG 3 is more articulate about neglected tropical diseases by using its own working indicator on the number of people requiring interventions against neglected tropical diseases by 2030. Furthermore, we should heed the caution of the hon. Gentleman about silo approaches, which are understandable in the face of so many difficult challenges and so many pressures, but it is vital that we do not miss the opportunity to use disease-specific vertical programmes for other diseases and other health challenges to contribute towards the defeat of other diseases. It is therefore important for the UK to continue to fund bilateral, disease-specific programmes if we are to sustain the gains that have been made.
There has already been some discussion of “elimination” or “eradication”. It is important whether we use and how we qualify such terms and the differences between them. The goal is, in essence, one of emancipation. When we achieve elimination or eradication, we will have conquered a disease, with all the ravages that it can bring, including death, disability or diverting the life opportunities of those who have to care for the sufferers—women and children in poor countries are affected in particular. At the same time we will need to remember that malaria and neglected tropical diseases are not only a face of poverty, but a force for poverty, not least in their impact on women and children.
We need to see the whole effort as one of emancipation, creating alternatives for people—not only lives no longer lost, but lives that can be better lived and more fulfillingly expressed through economic contribution and in public life. That is why it is so timely that the hon. Member for Stafford has secured the debate and that is why it is so important that we encourage the Minister and everyone he works with in DFID to do everything that they can.
I was hoping to get two speakers in before 10.30 am, but I know that will be rather difficult.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for arranging for the debate and I support his view that this is a critical time for tackling tropical diseases. I will talk specifically about leprosy, which, along with the other neglected tropical diseases that we have heard about, is preventable and treatable, although it needs to be caught early to avoid complications, side effects or disfigurement.
Last month I visited Bangladesh and met with workers from the Leprosy Mission and people suffering from the disease. We visited Vasantek, on the outskirts of Dhaka, where I met Soloma Akter, a 58-year-old widow who used to live in Boroalgapa village with her son Azizul Haque, who is a rickshaw puller, and his family. Soloma had dismissed the patch on her left arm as “nothing” when it first appeared. When she developed an ulcer on her right foot, her son took her to the hospital, but the doctors failed to diagnose leprosy. She subsequently lost three toes. A few months before my visit, staff from the Dhaka Leprosy Control Project saw her begging on the street. They recognised her symptoms and brought her to the Vasantek clinic, where she is now receiving treatment. Earlier diagnosis and medical treatment would have helped Soloma to keep her toes. There are many more stories like hers.
I also visited a self-help group in the nearby Bashantek slums, where most people who received early treatment and therefore escaped disability now look out for others with symptoms and bring them to the clinic for treatment. One man who had lost all his fingers and toes spoke passionately through the translator about how he now knew and recognised the signs and had spotted them in three other people, who had since been diagnosed and treated.
I have worked with leprosy in different countries and different continents. Does my hon. Friend agree that disability is 100% preventable and that the UK can lead by ensuring that Governments have proper data collection of every single disability case in leprosy?
I agree with my hon. Friend.
I have to confess that that was the first time that I had met people with leprosy, and I was not sure what to expect when I walked into the clinic. I saw people who had lost their toes, sitting with their feet in buckets to clean and hydrate their feet. I was nervous about how I would react, but I wanted to shake their hands to dispel the myth about catching leprosy by touch. But it was fine: my reaction was human, and we all saw how vulnerable these people were, but we also saw the best of humanity—the selflessness of the people caring for them, the local doctors and the people from the Leprosy Mission.
I am pleased that over the past 20 years more than 14 million leprosy patients have been cured throughout the world, and the prevalence rate of the disease has dropped by 90%. Almost all new leprosy cases are now reported from only 14 countries. In order to reach all patients, leprosy treatment, as with treatment of other neglected tropical diseases, needs to be fully integrated into general health services. Education and awareness must remain a priority. As I saw, when people know the signs and symptoms and see the effects, they become advocates for seeking help and themselves help to save many people from similar suffering.
We also need political commitment in countries with the problem, so that leprosy and other neglected tropical diseases remain a public health priority and so that we break down the age-old stigmas attached to these diseases.
Does my hon. Friend agree that although the global goals give us a greater focus—one of them concerns preventable NTDs and malaria—the focus must now be on all countries buying into the process and into the collection of robust data, which can be shared and used to further the agenda?
I agree with my hon. Friend.
The UK Government clearly recognise the importance of neglected tropical diseases. DFID hosted and was a signatory to the London declaration, and it has been championing the issue of neglected tropical diseases on the global stage. In June during the G7 meeting in Germany, the UK Government reiterated their commitment to tackling neglected tropical diseases. The UK needs to commit to continuing to lead on such an important issue and to ensure that at the UN stats meetings, when the indicators are discussed over the next few months, it continues to push for the inclusion of the proposed indicator on neglected tropical diseases, along with discussion of other statistics, as pointed out by hon. Members.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford for securing the debate and I am pleased to be able to speak and give my support.
Order. I need to call the Front-Bench Members now, as we have half an hour left and three 10-minute speeches to go, but I know that Dr Tania Mathias wanted to speak. Would you like to make a brief point?
Thank you, Mr Davies; I appreciate it. Contrary to some other people, I want to see 21st-century measures, with local medical teams and local Governments taking ownership.
The UK’s legacy is in data collection by the missionaries. In many of the countries in which I worked, that was not done adequately, and that is where the system will break down. Our greatest legacy is the rigour of data collection. I also commend the work of the late, great Colin McDougall, who was a titan in leprosy work. We owe him so much.
Mike Kane has indicated that he wants only five minutes, so if you want to speak for a couple of minutes, Dr Mathias, you may.
In that case, I call Stuart Blair Donaldson.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for securing the debate on this important issue.
It is important to start on the progress made in combating malaria and NTDs. On the basis of reported cases for 2013, 55 countries are on track to reduce their malaria case incidence rates by 75%, in line with World Health Assembly targets for 2015. It is great to see that, in recent years, four countries have been certified by the World Health Organisation director general as having eliminated malaria: the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Turkmenistan and Armenia. In 2014, 13 countries reported zero cases of malaria within their borders and another six reported fewer than 10 cases. Between 2000 and 2015, incidences of malaria fell by 37% globally and during the same period malaria mortality rates decreased by 60%. An estimated 6.2 million malaria-related deaths have been averted globally since 2000.
That is progress, but there is obviously progress still to be made. According to the latest World Health Organisation estimates released in September 2015, this year will see 214 million cases of malaria and 438,000 deaths. Sub-Saharan Africa continues to carry a disproportionately high share of the global malaria burden: the region is home to 89% of cases and 91% of deaths. Some 15 countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, account for 80% of cases and 78% of deaths. Since 2000, the decline in malaria incidence in those 15 countries has lagged behind that of other countries.
In areas with high malaria transmission, children under five are particularly susceptible to infection, illness and death, with more than two thirds of all malaria deaths occurring in that age group. However, between 2000 and 2015, the under-five malaria death rate fell by 65% globally, translating into an estimated 5.9 million children’s lives saved.
It is often the countries affected by neglected tropical diseases that are increasingly leading the fight to tackle them. In doing so, they are improving coverage rates and making strides towards elimination, with many already achieving elimination goals for individual diseases. In 2014, 126 cases of Guinea worm disease were reported, which is a staggering 99.99% drop since 1986. Only five cases have been reported so far in 2015. Of the 81 countries endemic for lymphatic filariasis, 25 no longer need mass drug administration, including 10 that have successfully eliminated transmission. Fewer than 4,000 new cases of human African trypanosomiasis—also known as sleeping sickness—were reported to the World Health Organisation last year, which is the lowest level in at least 75 years.
According to the UK coalition against neglected tropical diseases—and as the hon. Member for Stafford mentioned—NTDs affect 1.4 billion of the world’s poorest people through mortality, morbidity, disability and stigma. The 10 neglected tropical diseases mentioned in the London declaration of 2012 are reported on each year in the Uniting to Combat NTDs annual report. Its third report was published on 25 June 2015, with its key finding being that increased investment in combating NTDs is hugely economically beneficial for nations afflicted by such illnesses. It is also reassuring to note that more than 5.5 billion tablets have been donated, providing 3.5 billion treatments since the London declaration.
It was good to hear the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) raise leprosy. The report mentioned that leprosy is one of the diseases that is off track, which demonstrates that we need to do more to tackle NTDs and ensure that no NTD is neglected.
Taken together, the NTDs in the London declaration constitute a disability and mortality burden of the same order of magnitude as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis or malaria. However, the costs associated with reaching the WHO 2020 targets are relatively modest compared with those big three, and the benefits are enormous, providing a compelling case that the WHO road map is a highly cost-effective initiative, with far-reaching global health, societal and economic impacts.
Combating NTDs would unlock the productive and economic potential of hundreds of millions of people who would otherwise be kept out of work and school. As hon. Members have mentioned, sustainable development goal No. 3 is to ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages. One of that goal’s targets is, by 2030, to end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and to combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases.
The delivery of malaria and NTD interventions is essential to achieving universal health coverage, ensuring healthy lives and promoting wellbeing for those of all ages, particularly the vulnerable and marginalised. It also contributes strongly to reducing child mortality and improving maternal health, and provides the opportunity to treat childhood illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhoea and acute malnutrition.
It is clear that combating malaria and NDTs will significantly help to achieve the sustainable development goals; indeed, the goals will help to combat malaria and NTDs. With that in mind, it would be great if the Minister told us how the action that DFID is taking to combat malaria and NTDs fits into its wider strategy to achieve the sustainable development goals.
Let me finish by commending the work of the University of Dundee, which the hon. Member for Stafford touched on, in tackling malaria, with the discovery of a new anti-malarial compound in June 2015. The imaginatively named DDD107498 has the potential to treat malaria patients, including those with malaria parasites resistant to current medications, in a single dose and to help to reduce the transmission of the parasite. The compound was identified through a collaboration between the University of Dundee’s drug discovery unit and Medicines for Malaria Venture. The discovery of that new anti-malarial agent, which has shown remarkable potency in multiple stages of the malaria lifecycle, is an exciting prospect in the hunt for viable new treatments. Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Stafford for securing the debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to some of the points raised.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I, too, thank the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for securing the debate and for his personal leadership in this area. He gave great personal testimony about how the disease has affected him in the past. I, too, went to Tanzania in the early ’90s and was prescribed Lariam while I was helping a friend to set up the first public library in Pemba. I also felt the effects of that terrible drug at that time.
Labour welcomes the sustainable development goals. We are entering a new era in which we hope to eradicate poverty, foster human wellbeing and protect our planet. That universal agenda for people in all countries pledges to leave no one behind. We now need to realise its transformational potential. The UK has shown its strong commitment to international development through spending 0.7% of its gross national income on aid and enshrining that spending in law.
I want to talk about sustainable development goal 3, which, as we all know, is about eradicating disease. Although it is only one of 17, and the target only one among 169—I feel sorry for the civil servants who have to understand all those fully—our contribution must demonstrate an integrated approach, as has been said. We must consider the interplay of all dimensions—social, economic and environmental—of sustainable development. We need to expand innovation and research, empower communities, build a skilled workforce and set up strong regulatory frameworks to promote and improve world health systems.
DFID has a strong track record on combating diseases such as malaria and neglected tropical diseases. UK spending on malaria control and prevention was £536 million in 2013-14, and we contributed significantly to the recently announced 60% reduction in malaria mortality since 2000.
According to the World Health Organisation, more than 70 countries are ready to implement national NTD masterplans, which aim to stimulate an increased demand for donated medicines. Since 2006, more than 5 billion anti-parasitic treatments have been delivered. During 2012 and 2013, the pharmaceutical industry donated 2.5 billion treatments—the hon. Member for Stafford made the industry’s contribution clear. Over 800 million people were treated in 2012 alone. DFID has increased its expenditure on combating NTDs to over £250 million. As he said, it takes reliable long-term funding to tackle these diseases.
Global malaria control is one of the great public health success stories of the past 15 years, and our efforts to combat NTDs are on the right track, but we face substantial challenges, such as the spread of resistance to drugs. In addition, we face funding shortfalls for research and development targeted at new diagnostics for, and prevention and treatment of, NTDs. Yet the prevention of deadly diseases is one of the best uses of aid. If global malaria targets are achieved by 2030, it is estimated that more than 10 million lives will be saved and over $4 trillion of additional economic output will be generated.
DFID has great experience in fighting malaria and NTDs, but we can do even more. The UK has excellent resources in the NHS that could be brought to bear in the task of building strong health systems around the world. Following the idea of co-development, the NHS could engage in a mutually beneficial exchange of professionals. As a global employer, the NHS has obligations to support training and healthcare in the countries of origin of our health workers.
DFID should be a strong partner for malaria-affected countries, which will play the most important role in designing effective national strategies, using funds transparently and well, and providing financing from their own domestic resources. Civil society and the private sector also have crucial roles to play. We should encourage new partners to join the global effort, especially private contributors. We also need to support multilateral partners such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. It is essential that we continue to support the fund and build on what has been done, particularly the investment in new vaccines, medicines, insecticides and diagnostics.
Tackling NTDs and malaria promises a number of spillover effects, such as greater productivity and growth, reduced worker and child absenteeism, increased equity and women’s empowerment, and improved wellbeing, particularly for vulnerable and marginalised populations. Failure to act could see a resurgence in disease, with increased deaths and lost opportunities for progress and development. The Ebola crisis in west Africa has painfully illustrated the importance of strong public health systems for fighting disease. That lesson applies to our efforts to combat NTDs and malaria.
I thank the hon. Member for Stafford for leading this debate. I also thank hon. Members for their testimony about their time in Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, India and Bangladesh, and for the great expertise they have brought to the debate. We need to scale up our efforts to combat malaria and NTDs by investing in research and development, tackling resistance to life-saving medicines and insecticides, and boosting health systems across the world to help to bring an end to these terrible diseases.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) on securing this debate; I do so out of more than just the usual courtesy, as I also wish to commend him for his tremendous work on the Select Committee on International Development and for his chairmanship of the all-party group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, which is one of the most effective APPGs in this House. It is well respected, frequently convenes high-quality debates and produces extremely influential reports. His knowledge and expertise have been acknowledged by hon. Members from across the House this morning.
The opening words of the “leave no one behind” pledge—many of us were at the United Nations General Assembly last month where that global promise was signed—are:
“We commit to putting the last first.”
Today’s debate is therefore welcome and timely. Malaria and NTDs affect the poorest of the poor. Every year, neglected tropical diseases affect the lives of over 1 billion people, causing disability, disfigurement, stigma and an estimated half a million deaths, as we have heard. Malaria still kills more than 400,000 people a year, mostly children in Africa.
Since the start of this Parliament I have visited seven different African countries; the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) will be pleased to hear that I have been taking not Lariam but Malarone. My most recent visit was the week before last, to Nigeria—the hon. Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) will be interested to hear that—where I discussed these very issues. This morning, I returned from the United Arab Emirates; as the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Stuart Blair Donaldson) mentioned, the UAE is one of the latest countries to be declared malaria free, so I had interesting discussions there as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) asked what the UK is doing to tackle the resurgence in malaria—in Uganda in particular, although we must be watchful everywhere. As she will know, DFID has provided a significant amount of support to Uganda to try to reduce malaria. The recent outbreaks are of significant concern, and she is absolutely right to raise them. We are responding.
DFID is supporting the distribution of long-lasting insecticide-treated nets, along with capacity building for healthcare workers for the management of fever, specifically in the 10 most affected districts. We are working in partnership with the World Health Organisation to improve the availability and use of high-quality data for decision making—my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) rightly raised the subject of data—and, through the UK’s significant contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, life-saving anti-malarials are being made available to health facilities across the outbreak areas, as a key strategy for reducing transmission.
We are going further, by building on recent analysis by the WHO. DFID has agreed to fund a study—my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear this, as will the whole House—that will provide robust data on the possible causes of the outbreak, to inform the response and, most importantly, learn valuable lessons that we can then use in future programming as we take further decisions on the issue. I will meet the global fund leaders on 9 November, when I will raise that important issue. Through the strong monitoring mechanisms that we always have in place for our programmes, we will also take a close look at the issue of bed nets. I assure hon. Members that that will be a top priority.
The UK has been at the forefront of delivering progress against malaria and NTDs. By tackling them, we prevent pain, suffering and death, and we help to reduce poverty.
I am sorry to go back to the issue of northern Uganda, but will the Minister please tell me what is going to happen about the stock-outs of drugs? Are we going to flood the area with drugs to make sure that the people who need them actually get them? They are not getting them at the moment.
As my hon. Friend is aware, we are contributing up to £1 billion over three years—2014 to 2016—to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. She has my undertaking that I will raise that specific point when I take part in the meeting on 9 November. In addition, my officials are listening to the debate, and we will endeavour to take the issue forward as speedily as possible. We do not want any delay, and she has my absolute commitment that we will process this as fast as possible.
I would like to make three important points—about resources, results and partnerships. On resources, as hon. Members have discussed, the UK committed an additional £195 million in December 2012 at the London declaration on NTDs. I want to update Members, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, about the declaration. It brought together key leaders from health and development organisations, along with industry partners, and they pledged to tackle the 10 NTDs. Its third progress report was launched in London in June, and the DFID Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), spoke at the launch. The report indicated the growing number of countries that are meeting their targets.
None the less, there are challenges that threaten our ability to meet WHO road map 2020 targets, and we will all need to step up our efforts to do more. The road map and the London declaration have been game-changing events for NTDs, but the short answer to the questions my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford posed is that, although good progress has been made, there is much more to do. DFID and the British Government will take a lead in making sure that that happens.
At this point, I pay tribute to Members on both sides of the House. In the debate, there has been—almost uniquely, compared with many of our debates—a noticeable degree of cross-Chamber support for the action being taken. That assists the UK in making a full contribution.
We are fulfilling our commitment, and we have expanded our existing NTD programme. As my hon. Friend will be aware, five years ago the UK spent less than £200 million annually on tackling malaria; as has been recognised in the debate, the figure is now well over £500 million. As has been said, tackling such diseases is among the best buys in global health—I had not heard the statistic that £1 brings back £36. Each year, malaria costs the African continent at least $12 billion in lost productivity.
That is why national Government leadership in the endemic countries is critical. The domestic focus in those countries must be on increasing measures to tackle malaria, and Governments must ensure that they put in resources themselves. Ensuring that that happens is a constant battle—a battle I frequently go out and fight to make sure we are all truly sharing the burden. National legislators have an important role to play in making the case for increased health budgets, including for NTDs and malaria. I call on those partners to step up their actions. It is in their countries’ interests to do so, because—quite apart from the very sensible humanitarian reasons—enormous savings can be made.
Let me move on to my second point: results. Just last month, the Secretary of State spoke in the House at the global launch of the report on the malaria millennium development goal target. The report indicated the tremendous progress that has been made, which many Members have mentioned. Since 2000, an estimated 1 billion insecticide-treated bed nets have been distributed in Africa, and malaria mortality has almost halved in just over a decade. That is a huge achievement, and the UK can be proud of her contribution, but there is clearly a lot more to do. One in four children in sub-Saharan Africa still lives in a household without at least one insecticide-treated bed net or other effective protection against mosquitoes, but such things should be the bare minimum.
The Minister mentioned the millennium development goals. Is he absolutely confident that the new global goals will be sufficient to continue the progress made under the MDGs, which have obviously done good? Will he and DFID also do everything they can to assist data collection—a subject ably and powerfully raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias)? Without data collection, we will have no measures and we will not be able to make people accountable.
On the latter point, about data collection, I had hoped that I had made myself clear: we absolutely support data collection programmes, and I outlined one specific programme. I will come to my hon. Friend’s point about the new global goals in just a second, because the UK remains committed to bringing down the numbers even further.
Hon. Members will be delighted to learn that, just last week, I approved the purchase of a further 2 million insecticide-protected bed nets for Tanzania, which I visited recently. In addition, there are other programmes that will assist in the battle against these diseases. Energy Africa, a programme I launched in London last Thursday with Kofi Annan—Bob Geldof and others are supporting it—will enable energy to be brought to Africa. That means that it will be possible to provide better medical care, using means such as better refrigeration, for example. That is all an important part of achieving global goal 7.
On global goal 3, yes, everything is there. The UK has been at the forefront of supporting this global goal, with all its sub-targets, including preventing preventable deaths among children and ending epidemics of malaria and NTDs. I am therefore absolutely confident that the UK is right behind the push on that.
To really see an impact, we will need to make Herculean efforts. We need think only of river blindness, which once affected vast swathes of Africa, but which is now almost non-existent, to see what can be achieved.
Earlier this year, former US President Jimmy Carter was at DFID to discuss the guinea worm eradication programme. In 1986, guinea worm disease affected 3.5 million people; last year, there were 126 cases. So far this year, there have been just 15. The reduction is a simply amazing achievement, and we look forward to seeing other NTDs quickly follow the same course.
The Government have a strong track record on supporting successful product development and research, particularly through public-private product development partnerships, and some of the innovations have been discussed this morning.
There is, however, great concern about the 2020 vision, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford mentioned. Earlier this year, the WHO launched its third report on NTDs in London. Former DFID Minister Baroness Northover spoke at the launch. The report set out the financing and targets involved in meeting the WHO road map goals for 2020. It also discussed the progress that has been made. We need to do a lot more if we are to continue to meet those goals, but the Department and the Government are standing very much foursquare behind that.
My third point is about partnerships and collaborating with others to achieve a greater impact. We must, of course, recognise the substantial contribution the pharmaceutical companies have made. Pharmaceuticals have pledged drugs valued at $17.8 billion from 2014 to 2020 to tackle NTDs—a very substantial amount. There is also lots of capacity among health workers, and the NHS was mentioned. Volunteers and others are also supporting the implementation of these programmes. The UK will stay at the forefront of those many developments.
Lastly, we will strive to ensure that the post-2015 agenda has a transformational impact on the lives of the most vulnerable and, in particular, on tackling NTDs and malaria. It is worth noting that the Conservative manifesto—the manifestos of other parties covered similar issues—included a commitment to lead a major new global programme to accelerate the development and deployment of new vaccines, drugs and diagnostics for the world’s deadliest infectious diseases. I can report that that work is ongoing in DFID and throughout the Government so that we can meet that commitment, which I think the whole House will approve of.
Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford on securing the debate. I am aware that there is one question I need to answer in a little more detail, and I will do so in writing.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government support for Pakistan.
As chairman of the all-party group on Pakistan, I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss Government support for that country, which has long and deep historic ties with the United Kingdom. Our thoughts are with the people in Pakistan, Afghanistan and parts of India affected by yesterday’s earthquake. I lost 25 relatives, including my grandfather, in the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. I know what amazing support the UK provided then, and I ask the UK to do all that it can to help Pakistan at this difficult time.
There are more than 1 million people of Pakistani background in the United Kingdom. They are the second largest ethnic minority group, and many continue to contribute much to our country, as well as retaining links with family and friends in Pakistan. Pakistan has come a long way in its relatively brief 68-year history, passing an important milestone in 2013 with the first peaceful democratic transition from one Government to another. There is a conviction that a resilient UK-Pakistan relationship is vital to regional and global peace and security. Working together and with key international partners helps to address evolving threats in south Asia. Pakistan has the will, determination and commitment at every level to be a progressive, strong and democratic country at the heart of the international community.
As a country on the front line of the war on terror, Pakistan has faced major challenges and brutal attacks, such as the horrific massacre at the army public school in Peshawar.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene so early in the debate. I congratulate him on securing it; it is important, given the historical and cultural relationship of Britain and Pakistan. Pakistan has existed for only 68 years, but things have developed. Given what is happening now because of earthquakes and other things, the area needs peace and increased prosperity. The British Government have a responsibility to look into the issues and work with the diaspora here and with the Government of Pakistan.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He has always been a strong friend of Pakistan, wanting to build on the excellent relationship between our two countries. He often highlights the important role of the diaspora. Of course that is right. The United Kingdom has a huge role to play in ensuring that there is prosperity, stability and security throughout the region in south Asia, by working with all countries—India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and China. It has a significant role to play in that respect.
I was touching on the horrific attack in Peshawar, in which, sadly, 134 children lost their lives. After many years of attacks that have resulted in the deaths of more than 47,000 civilians and 5,000 armed forces personnel in terrorist-related violence in the past decade, reports show that in the past nine months major terrorist attacks have declined by 70%. The UK has always stood shoulder to shoulder with those tackling terrorism and has always been a strong ally of Pakistan. As the Prime Minister said,
“in this battle the friends of Pakistan are friends of Britain; the enemies of Pakistan are enemies of Britain”.
Domestically, Pakistan’s main threat emanates from terrorism and extremism, and there is a direct link between those things and external factors such as conflict in Afghanistan, the unresolved Kashmir dispute and increasing chaos in the middle east.
This is an important debate and the hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there are more than 1 million people of Pakistani origin in this country. The debate will be important for them. My thoughts and prayers are with those who tragically lost their lives in the earthquake in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one issue that remains outstanding in the region, which is in some ways a barrier to peace and prosperity, is the region of Kashmir? Does he agree that there is a need for a peaceful solution to allow the sons and daughters of Kashmir the right to self-determination, and will he call on the Government to encourage both Pakistan and India to have peaceful round-table discussions to promote that?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the brilliant work that he does in building the relationship between our two great countries, and for all that he does in his constituency with its large Pakistani diaspora. He touched on an important point about Kashmir; no doubt the Minister and all concerned are aware of United Nations resolution 47 of April 1948, which says that the people of Kashmir should be given a right to self-determination, to determine their own destiny. The resolution includes the words:
“Considering that the continuation of the dispute is likely to endanger international peace and security”.
My response to the hon. Gentleman is that yes, of course, people will say there is a need for bilateral talks between India and Pakistan. However, as we saw in the past year the talks between Foreign Secretaries collapsed, with the Indian authorities withdrawing from them. For talks to continue, two willing parties are needed. At the moment there is no constructive bilateral way forward. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the international community, including both the United States and the United Kingdom, has a moral obligation with respect to peace and stability in the region to do all that it can to assist in that long, drawn-out issue. I would mention, by way of a declaration, that I was born in Kashmir, so I await a plebiscite for my say, whenever that may come. I think that the international community has a moral obligation with respect to the matter.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his thoughtful response. Will he also comment on the continued breaches and human rights violations in the region, as reported by many international human rights organisations? Will he join me in asking the Government to note that that is perhaps an even more pressing issue at present? Human rights violations in the region must end and the international community must do more to assist with that.
The hon. Gentleman is right about respect for the rule of law and human rights. Both the countries in question are signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, so on that basis everything needs to be done to ensure that people’s basic human rights are respected, wherever they are.
It is said that the UK’s supply of advanced conventional armaments to India has the potential to aggravate the growing asymmetry between India and Pakistan, which will lead to a lowering of nuclear thresholds. Some in Pakistan consider the UK’s nuclear stance on Pakistan to be unfair and that the UK’s support for India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and perceived pro-India stance on the Missile Technology Control Regime not only undermines Pakistan-UK bilateral relations but also forces Pakistan to adopt measures in the nuclear domain that it considers to be in its national interest but which may be contrary to the UK’s aspiration within the international nuclear paradigm. The UK-Pakistan defence relationship is strong but not regarded as strategic. A move in that direction could develop even stronger relationships.
One of Pakistan’s biggest challenges and largest opportunities is its growing and young population, which is projected by the UN to increase to more than 300 million by 2050. There is an opportunity to reap that demographic dividend, and Pakistan could be the next South Korea by 2050. According to economist Jim O’Neill, Pakistan has the potential to become the world’s 18th largest economy by 2050—almost the same size of the current German economy.
Lord Maude, UK Minister for Trade and Investment, said in the House of Lords in June 2015 that Pakistan presents “too big an opportunity” to miss. Pakistan has one of the world’s fastest growing middle classes, representing 55% of the total population. In the past three years, consumer spending in Pakistan has increased at an average of 26% compared with 7.7% in Asia as a whole. That increase in consumption-driven demand presents an opportunity for British brands to introduce their products and services to the market, as demonstrated by the success of Debenhams.
Pakistan’s strong relationship with the European Union and the US through the GSP plus programme, which the UK strongly supports, is a significant boost to the country’s exports. Since Pakistan was awarded that status by the EU, exports have increased by 21%, and total UK-Pakistan trade increased by 15% in 2013-2014. The China-Pakistan economic corridor in particular has seen 51 agreements signed, totalling $45.6 billion in 2014, in one of China’s largest overseas investments. The mega-projects that will follow can be given vital assistance by British companies through providing services and expertise to maximise the benefits. Encouraged by that, and in recognition of its being one of the best performing frontier capital markets, Pakistan’s credit rating was upgraded this year by Moody’s for the first time since 2008. The UK Export Finance fund has been revised in order to support the work of publicly managed projects, while the overall size of the fund has increased from £200 to £300 million.
While there is an appetite in the UK to do more business, there are mutual obligations and a moral imperative for Pakistan to reform, including improving the legal process, privatisation, taxation reform and dealing with corruption. Pakistan is rated 127th out of 177 countries on the corruption index. Its controversial and often abused blasphemy laws hinder the country’s international standing, as countries are expected to respect citizens’ human rights and religion freedoms.
The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about human rights issues and blasphemy laws. Does he agree that our Government should also look at human rights issues in the rest of south Asia? For example, in India there has been a surge of sectarian violence in the past year or two, which has often been linked with the rise of Hindu nationalism or fascism—whatever we want to call it. In Burma, there have been killings of Rohingya Muslims. Does he think it appropriate for our Government to look at those countries and their human rights records as well?
I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks and pay tribute to her for the brilliant work she does to promote the relationship between Pakistan and the United Kingdom. It was a real pleasure to be on a British Council delegation to Pakistan with her. She probably read the article I read—I urge the Minister to read it too—in the Times of India on 1 May 2015, entitled “US panel: Minorities under attack in India”. The independent panel that reports on religious freedom to the President of the United States, Barack Obama, highlighted human rights issues concerning minorities in India.
Whether the issue is China or the Rohingya community in Burma, human rights should be a key part of our foreign policy wherever abuses occur, as I made clear to the shadow Foreign Secretary in a Queen’s Speech debate on foreign policy. As I said to the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), everyone’s human rights, wherever they are, should be respected by all, and we should do everything we can to ensure that countries respect basic human rights and religious freedoms.
I have often spoken about the need to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Last year, I wrote a letter, signed by 54 Members of Parliament, to Prime Minister Sharif and the Chief Justice raising concerns about Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who was sentenced to death. I am pleased to see that in July, Pakistan’s Supreme Court announced a stay of execution, but there is still much to do to secure her release. Over the summer, the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and I visited Pakistan as part of a cross-party delegation. We met senior Government officials and discussed the need to reform blasphemy laws and minority rights. It is fair to say that we sensed a real desire by those senior officials to look at reforming those laws, which are often abused and target Muslims as well as minorities.
I concur with the hon. Gentleman. I remember meeting with a Chief Minister in Pakistan and raising the matter of blasphemy laws, as well as the Asia Bibi case.
The hon. Lady not only raised the issue, but used that meeting to provide alternatives of how abuse could be curtailed. I fully support what she said about reform, whether it is a question of these cases being dealt with at high courts rather than lower courts or having special prosecutors and special judges. Those discussions took place at every level, and I thank her for her expertise and contributions.
The delegation to Pakistan had the opportunity to learn more about the British Council’s excellent work. Members on the trip visited Islamabad and Lahore to see some of the British Council’s projects in action, including Take a Child to School and the Punjab Education and English Language Initiative, which aims to train 300,000 teachers. The British Council in Pakistan works in all four provinces and has built a network with the scale, skills and influence to deliver transformational change. The council aims to expand its presence and reach tens of millions of people across the entire country by reopening libraries, improving life chances and community engagement through citizenship and sport, empowering women and girls, strengthening skills and expertise in English and UK-Pakistan partnerships in higher education, science and the creative industries.
The Department for International Development is investing some £320 million this year in Pakistan in one of its largest programmes. Pakistan was DFID’s third largest bilateral programme in 2014-15, and if progress continues, it could become DFID’s largest such programme in 2015-16. The greatest priorities for the UK as an international development donor to Pakistan are education, women and children, creating jobs and supporting economic growth, strengthening democracy and governance, building peace and stability in conflict-affected areas, and providing humanitarian assistance through life-saving support to people affected by conflict and natural disasters.
There are ways we can further our relations with Pakistan. In particular, I would like the Minister to consider the following issues. Will he ensure that every possible assistance is offered to Pakistan in the light of the earthquake, to assist the country at this difficult hour? There is a clear relationship between the number of direct flights to a country and an increase in trade. However, since 2008, British Airways has suspended its six weekly Heathrow flights. Will the Minister look at that? The Government’s travel advice has been raised as an issue. Will the Minister look at that and the process for reviewing it, in line with the improving security situation in Pakistan?
The Government have a target of increasing bilateral trade to £3 billion by 2015. Will the Minister present an update on plans to increase trade relations, including plans for trade delegations to Pakistan? With the bulk of trade focused on the goods sector, what can he say about the scope to develop trading links across the service sector? Around 10,000 Pakistani students are studying in the UK. However, changes to student visas were raised when we visited Pakistan as a delegation. Will the Minister provide an update on the situation?
On security, Pakistan is on the front line of the battle with terrorism and would appreciate assistance through GSM—global system for mobile communications—intelligence gathering and technology, such as biometric scanners and night goggles, to monitor the Afghan border more effectively.
I come to my last specific point for the Minister. In a recent joint statement with Prime Minister Sharif, President Obama said that US engagement with Pakistan, one of the largest Muslim democracies in the world, should be comprehensive and multi-dimensional to reflect the global challenges of the 21st century. Is that what the United Kingdom is trying to achieve with Pakistan in its long, strategic relationship with the country?
In conclusion, Pakistan still has many challenges, but it is determined to become a safe and prosperous nation at the heart of the international community. With our mutual shared history, our very large Pakistani-origin diaspora and our deep, strong, multi-dimensional relationship based on mutual trust, respect and understanding, our relationship can go from strength to strength by working together to tackle the global challenges facing the international community. I know that the Minister has recently visited Karachi and seen the many opportunities that the country offers. I thank him for the brilliant work that he does in building our two countries’ excellent relationship, and I look forward to hearing from him on this matter.
I call the Minister, who will have to speak quickly.
Thank you, Mr Davies; it is a real pleasure to respond to this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) on securing it. He spoke with such passion, flair, understanding and expertise on this matter, and in such detail, that he has managed to give me limited time in which to respond. However, such is his enthusiasm for making sure that these matters are discussed in the House that it is fully understandable that he has eaten a little into my time to reply. I will do my best to respond to some of the matters that he has raised, and as usual, I will write to him in the normal manner if there are points that I cannot reply to now. I commend him and other hon. Members for the work they have done in the House.
My hon. Friend began, as I should as well, by offering our condolences, understanding and sympathies to all those affected by the horrific earthquake that has taken place in Afghanistan, but which has rippled right across the region. He asked what Britain is doing. Naturally, we stand ready to give support—we have had no formal request yet, but we stand by, ready to help our friend and ally.
My hon. Friend mentioned the important role of the enormous diaspora that we have in this country, which strengthens our cultural relationships and the understanding of our country, which is very important indeed. I am pleased that he also paid tribute to the British Council, not least the delegation that I had the opportunity to meet recently on a visit to the country. I was very proud to meet those British Council representatives and to hear about the work they are doing to strengthen this important bilateral relationship. I had the opportunity to visit not only Karachi, but Islamabad last month. I saw at first hand how Britain is working very closely with Pakistan on three key areas: security, which my hon. Friend raised, the economy and governance. Before trying to answer his questions, I will cover—in the time available—some thoughts on those three key areas.
First, as my hon. Friend implied, security across Pakistan has improved dramatically. There really was an understanding—almost a wake-up call—following the disastrous attack that killed so many children in the Peshawar public school. The British Government are very much playing our part. We are training Pakistani police and promoting work with prosecutors and the judiciary to investigate, prosecute and sentence terrorist suspects in line with international human rights standards. We have made an awful lot of progress, and I hope that continues.
Secondly, on the economy, the improved security is helping to drive economic growth. It is making the country more attractive. An International Monetary Fund programme has helped to stabilise the economy since the fiscal and balance of payments crisis two years ago. However, more work is needed if we are to increase the country’s growth to the 7% to 8% needed to reduce poverty. We continue to encourage Pakistan to address the energy crisis, tackle corruption and undertake further privatisations, which are needed to boost the economy. We are supporting businesses that want to trade more with Pakistan, where the opportunities, from energy to infrastructure, are clear, as I discovered on my visit. I hope to return to Pakistan, not least to Karachi, in the near future with my own trade delegation. Indeed, I have invited and encouraged the Mayor of London, who is familiar with working with megacities, to provide assistance in making sure that Karachi works towards being a gateway to the region.
Thirdly, on governance, the advances made in security and prosperity cannot be sustained without good governance, and democracy in Pakistan has shallow roots, as we have heard. We are helping to build on that and sharing our experience to cement accountable governance, credible elections and civilian transitions. The Department for International Development, which my hon. Friend mentioned a number of times, has one of the largest bilateral aid programmes and is helping Pakistan to improve healthcare, education and the provision of humanitarian assistance. UK aid has benefited over 6 million primary school children, ensured that over 1 million more births involved medical professionals and helped over 4 million flood victims.
My hon. Friend mentioned Kashmir, which is obviously a very sensitive subject. He is familiar with our long-standing position in the UK—that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting solution to the situation in Kashmir which takes into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for the UK to prescribe a solution or indeed, to mediate, but we very much encourage both sides to maintain their positive dialogue and to work towards a solution.
In the limited time remaining, I will try as best as I can to answer the series of questions that my hon. Friend asked. As I mentioned, on the earthquake, we stand ready to give support. We will continue to have discussions with British Airways. The time is now ripe for those flights to be reviewed and reinstalled. I hope that will be the case, pending the security requirements that we and the airline need. On travel advice, we want to make things as trouble-free as possible. There are over 1 million visits and movements every year. There is a requirement, occasionally, for us to review travel advice to specific areas. We are quite careful to make sure that we articulate that travel advice on our website.
On bilateral trade, we have the target of £3 billion. I hope we can persevere towards that. My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the fact that the British Government now underwrites and guarantees business opportunities. The money has increased from £200 million to £300 million, which I think is excellent news. That is an indication of how we want to meet the target and to encourage not only businesses that are already there to grow, but new businesses to consider Pakistan as a place to open up and do business.
My hon. Friend mentioned the 70th anniversary in 2017. I very much hope that that is something we can work towards, and it is wise to flag that up now, to ensure that we can mark that important landmark in Pakistan’s history.
On visas, my hon. Friend will be aware of the robust requirement for us to have a thorough visa system in place. However, we want to make sure that we can attract the brightest and best students from around the world and that they are able to come here on legitimate courses, so we very much want to work with Pakistan on that front. On terrorism, I hear what he said about the requests. We will certainly look at that. We have a very strong relationship that is growing ever stronger with regard to helping Pakistan on counter-terrorism.
My hon. Friend spoke of the opportunities for the country to grow and to become the South Korea of the future.
Will the Minister give way?
I have 30 seconds left, so I hope it is a short intervention.
Will the Minister join me in welcoming the high commissioner of Pakistan to our debate and in commending him for the brilliant work he does to build the relationship between our two countries?
That intervention was absolutely deserved. I look forward to meeting the high commissioner in the very near future—I think we have a meeting planned either today or tomorrow—and we are always happy to have the opportunity to meet.
This has been a short debate, but it has articulated the importance of this bilateral relationship and the opportunities for us to work together on security, the economy and governance.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the BBC’s relationship with the Met Office.
The Met Office and the BBC are two of the United Kingdom’s most respected and successful public institutions. The first is our national weather forecaster, owned by the public, and the second is our national broadcaster, also owned by the public; they both have a reach and reputation that go far beyond these shores.
The BBC is a global broadcaster, with a justified reputation for quality, accuracy and impartiality. Our Met Office is independently assessed and widely recognised as the best in the world. Both the BBC and the Met Office earn millions of pounds for UK plc; for example, our Met Office provides weather forecasts for most of the world’s civilian airlines, keeping our flights safe and helping them to plan the most efficient routes. The Met Office does more than just forecast weather. It provides expert advice on a host of hazards, including flooding, air quality, space weather and volcanic ash, and is the world’s leading repository of expertise on climate change.
The BBC and the Met Office are also two of the world’s oldest organisations of their kind. The Met Office was set up by the Government in 1854 to establish meteorology as a science and, initially, to provide weather forecasts to protect the safety of ships and their crews at sea. The BBC first broadcast a radio weather bulletin in 1922 using data from the Met Office, a relationship that has prospered to the present day. The weather men and women we see regularly on our TV screens are fully qualified meteorological scientists, often employed not by the BBC, but by the Met Office. They work round the clock using their scientific expertise and broadcasting skills to communicate vital information to the public. Many of them, across the generations, have become household names. Radio 4’s shipping forecast, again provided by the Met Office, is an iconic part of our national life.
It was with some consternation that I heard back in August that the BBC was planning to end its 90-year-plus relationship with the Met Office. I should say at this stage that the Met Office is in my constituency. Indeed, I helped to secure its transfer to Exeter from Bracknell in the early noughties, and we in Exeter are immensely proud to host it. However, my main motivation for seeking this debate is not the potential impact on my constituency. The current contract with the BBC earns the Met Office about £3 million out of a turnover of £220 million a year. The Met Office has said that any impact on income or jobs from the BBC terminating the contract would be minimal. No, my main reason for raising my concerns and seeking this debate is primarily the wider national interest.
The historic relationship between the Met Office and the BBC and of each organisation with the Government has been and, in my view, remains integral to national resilience and emergency planning and even, in times or arenas of conflict, to national security. The Met Office provides information to a whole host of customers and organisations, including commercial businesses, transport bodies, farmers, seafarers, sports organisations, local government, the NHS and the general public. If we think about it, there is almost no aspect of our lives that is not somehow impacted by the weather. Timely, accurate weather information and forecasting is vital in normal times, but during extreme weather events or at times of national emergency it can be a matter of life and death.
That is why the Met Office is embedded in our civil contingency systems. I remember, as a Minister, attending emergency meetings of the civil contingencies secretariat, COBRA, during severe flooding and the foot-and-mouth and bird flu crises, when the in-time input from Met Office staff was absolutely critical in informing the Government’s response. Communicating severe warnings quickly and accurately through our main broadcaster is vital to enable businesses, public bodies and the wider public to plan and respond.
The BBC has said in response to questions from me that it intends to continue to use the Met Office’s severe weather warnings in its broadcasts, and that is extremely welcome. But what the BBC has not done is explain how it will ensure that those warnings are consistent with its general weather forecasting if they are sourced from a different provider.
Britain’s geographical position on the edge of the European continent and facing the Atlantic makes our weather very difficult to predict. Accurately forecasting the exact route of the deep depressions or storms that are responsible for most of the gales and flooding we experience is particularly tricky. The Met Office has an unparalleled reputation in getting these forecasts right. In fact, the World Meteorological Organisation says the Met Office’s forecasts are consistently the most accurate in the world. But if the BBC goes ahead with its plans, the severe weather warnings from the Met Office could still be broadcast by the BBC but might be inconsistent with or even contradict the BBC’s general weather forecasts.
Accurate and consistent messaging is absolutely essential in weather-related emergencies. Ten years ago, America suffered its worst ever death toll in a natural disaster when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Much of the subsequent blame for the high death toll centred on the inconsistent and contradictory weather warnings, which sowed uncertainty and confusion in the area about the need to evacuate. I know our civil contingencies secretariat is extremely concerned about the BBC’s proposals and the potential for mixed messages.
In response to parliamentary questions I have been assured by Ministers that arrangements will be put in place to address those concerns. The BBC has issued similar assurances to the Met Office, but we have not been provided with an explanation as to how that can be done so I would be grateful if the Minister would do so in his response. I wonder whether the Minister shares my concern that we could be facing a situation in which the public will receive and act on information provided through the BBC that is different from that provided to the Government itself and the emergency services by the Met Office. The long-standing and respected environment editor of The Independent, Mike McCarthy, said of the BBC’s proposal to drop the Met Office:
“It may suit the Corporation’s bottom line, or its image of itself as a trendy broadcaster: but the commercial interests of the BBC are not the same as the interests of the nation, and this decision is a nonsense which needs to be reversed.”
I have a parallel concern about the effectiveness of our armed services. The Met Office, which until recently came under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defence, provides regular weather information to our military at home and abroad. Met Office staff in military uniform are currently embedded within our armed services in Afghanistan and Oman. Those armed services will also have access to the BBC’s global weather forecasting, so there is a danger that the information they receive officially from the Met Office could be inconsistent with that provided by the BBC over the normal media, hampering operational safety and effectiveness.
Then there is the further potential vulnerability, in the event of a more serious conflict, war or massive cyber-attack, of our national broadcaster being dependent on a private or foreign weather forecaster. I should be grateful if the Minister would say whether the Government have made any assessment of the impact of the BBC’s proposal on national resilience and security.
I would also like the Minister to tell us whether there have been any discussions across the Government about value for money if the BBC contracts weather services from abroad or from a private company. At the moment, the public pay through the licence fee for the BBC’s weather services, but the public, or the Government, also receive the income as the Met Office is publicly owned. If the BBC goes down its proposed route, the public will in effect be paying twice: first to the Met Office for its work and again to a foreign-owned or private weather provider via the BBC licence fee.
As the Minister well knows, the BBC is about to embark on its 10-year charter renegotiation and renewal. This is the chance for the BBC to agree its size, its scope and its strategy within the financial envelope provided by the licence fee. Given the financial constraints on the corporation because of the funding levels already announced by the Government, there is widespread consensus that the BBC will have to do less if it is to protect quality. However, in a briefing provided to me in response to my concerns about the BBC decision, the BBC says that it wants
“to enhance our position as the leading destination for weather information with ambitions to be the best provider of weather information in the UK and the world.”
We already have the world’s best provider of weather information. It is called the Met Office. This feels like another example of the BBC trying to do everything and grow its empire, rather than doing what its director-general, Tony Hall, says it should be doing, which is “partnering with others”. On the eve of charter review, the BBC is planning to sign a new 10-year contract with a foreign or private weather provider, pre-empting charter review and shutting the public completely out of the process. Does the Minister not agree that it would be far better for the BBC to consider and decide this as part of charter renewal? That would also give it and the relevant Departments the chance to review and address the concerns that I and the Met Office have been raising.
That leads me, finally, to the process. The decision by the BBC was not consulted on and was announced not in any formal way, but in the form of a leak to The Sunday Times. That is unsatisfactory in itself, but it is completely clear from the correspondence that I have received from Ministers and from the answers to my parliamentary questions that Ministers and Departments were kept in the dark over this. The BBC treated it as a narrow commercial decision, with no regard whatever to the wider national and governmental interests. Could the Minister please confirm that he and other Ministers were not consulted on the announcement before the BBC made it? Could he also tell me what subsequent conversations he has had with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the MOD, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the civil contingencies office and the other interested Departments and agencies about the potential impact of the BBC’s plans on national resilience and security?
The Met Office website offers a public weather media service that will be made available free at the point of use to all public service broadcasters. That package of information includes weather forecasts, warnings, observations, guidance, scripts and services provided under licence and tailored for the broadcast media, so I am also concerned that the BBC has in effect tendered for services that, at least in part, are available to it free of charge through that service. I recognise that the actual content of any tender is commercially confidential, but I none the less request the Minister to reassure himself that the option to satisfy the BBC requirement through the public weather media service was fully explored before the decision to tender was taken. If it was not, there are serious questions about the process and its ability to deliver value for money. My concern is that the BBC has pursued a narrow commercial tender without fully considering its responsibilities to UK resilience and public safety and value for money. That might explain why it is having such trouble explaining how it is going to address the concerns that it now recognises are real, but if the BBC cannot explain that, it is very important that the Government do.
This episode seems to me to be a classic example of a large organisation—in this case, the BBC—taking a decision without thinking through the wider implications. If it had bothered to consult or even seek others’ views, it might have come to a different conclusion. Now that the wider implications and problems have been pointed out to it, it is frantically trying to reassure us that the potential problems can be resolved, but without explaining how. I hope very much that, in the light of this debate, the BBC will pause this process and see the merit of rolling it forward into charter renewal, so that it can fully explore the potential problems with this plan and consider its weather forecasting contract as part of its overall strategy and reach.
However, the responsibility of Government goes much wider than this. The Government have overall responsibility for national security, emergency planning and managing crises and contingencies. So far, I have not been reassured by what Ministers and their Departments have said on this. I therefore hope that, in his response, the Minister can address those concerns or, failing that, go away and consult his colleagues in BIS, the MOD, the civil contingencies office and elsewhere and provide the detailed reassurances and explanations that I am seeking.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in Westminster Hall, Mr Streeter. I thank the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) for securing the debate. It is directly relevant to my constituency, which is not a million miles away, and to your constituency of South West Devon. We will almost certainly have constituents directly affected by this decision. However, although there is a link between Torbay and south Devon’s economy and the location of the Met Office, my focus, like that of the preceding speech, will be on the overall impact of the decision and what it could mean for our country.
It is safe to say that anyone who represents a coastal community knows the absolute importance of an accurate weather forecast and of that being disseminated to the public more widely. It is not the person who has a large shipping operation who relies on the BBC shipping forecast. It is the person deciding whether to go out in their own small boat the next morning. It is the person going to the beach. It is the person who might take their family to the coast. For each of them, it is critical that they can easily get hold of an accurate weather forecast. I see here my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), whose area has a large fishing industry. I have the bay, but I do not have Brixham. That is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), but there is certainly a fishing community in Torquay that goes through Torbay, and all rely on being able to have accurate forecasts, with many using the BBC to supply them.
What speaks to me about the importance of the weather is this. We all remember the iconic hanging tracks at Dawlish. Had those winds been true east rather than slightly to the south-east, that storm would have hit Paignton directly, causing a very severe impact. That is why, for me, the relationship between the Met Office and the BBC is crucial.
The BBC has a reputation for gold-standard accuracy in its weather forecasts—perhaps with the exception of Michael Fish not quite seeing the hurricane that was on its way. Therefore, it is vital that it also has the accuracy of the Met Office’s gold standard of weather information and forecasting. The right hon. Member for Exeter was right to talk about potential conflicts between Met Office severe weather warnings, which again are the gold standard for keeping people away from harm, and another provider advising of a slightly different outcome in the weather. It is hard to see how an organisation that has been accurately forecasting Britain’s weather for nearly 170 years will be bested by any other organisation suddenly picking up this contract for the BBC.
It is vital that we look at the need for a resilient source of weather information, as the right hon. Gentleman said, for the military, for our civil authorities and for Government itself. We need to look at everything from energy security to potential issues with our agricultural sector. Many things will depend on knowing the weather and being able to provide what support we can by having had notice well in advance of what the weather conditions are likely to be.
For me, what shows the importance of the weather to Government decisions and planning is that we banned weather forecasts during world war two, because that was seen as such useful information to the enemy that we did not want them to have it. Seventy years later, it is still a vital part of Government planning. It is not just about whether we will get wet when going out for a walk, but about planning services—planning when power stations will need to be brought on to supply, and planning when staff may need to be on standby for everything from snow and ice to flood and wind. Ensuring that we can maintain a resilient and durable Met Office is crucial to the way we run our country.
I accept that the Government do not direct the BBC in its contracting. It is right that the corporation has a level of independence. It would be strange for us to stand in this House one day demanding that it is completely independent of Government and then the next day demand that the Government take various decisions for it. That said, it is concerning that this decision was taken purely on a fairly narrow set of criteria. I, too, would be interested to hear the Minister’s remarks on what consultation was done, given that ultimately the BBC is not a service that anyone can choose to receive. If someone has a television, they have to pay for it under the law, and in fact they are still branded a criminal if they do not pay the licence fee that goes towards it, so I would certainly be interested to hear what consultations were done.
I hope that the BBC will take a close look at the impact of the decision. My concern, as a constituency Member, is for my constituents who will be affected, particularly as such an iconic employer brings quality jobs into Devon that will benefit the community in the long term. I agree with the suggestion from the right hon. Member for Exeter that the BBC should pause this issue during the charter review, in which we debate the whole relationship between the Government and the BBC—between the state and the public broadcaster. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts and comments. As I said, we cannot say one day that the BBC should be independent and the next that it should do whatever we direct it to do.
We need to know that the gold standard of weather forecasting is available; we do not want a standard that blows with the wind. I hope that the BBC will look again at this opportunity to keep its historic link with the Met Office.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. The Scottish National party Government Minister Humza Yousaf once observed that there are two seasons in Glasgow: taps oan and taps aff. To translate for those who are hard of Scots, that means removing one’s upper garments, or keeping one’s upper garments on. Of course, as everybody knows, the colder and wetter it gets in Glasgow, the more clothing people remove. My constituency is the second-wettest in the United Kingdom, just missing out on the top spot to Cardiff.
Although people from Scotland joke and vent their frustrations about the unpredictable weather that we experience throughout the day, accurate weather forecasting is essential to the country. The landscape and natural environment of Scotland are one reason why detailed weather forecasting is so important. Tourists from all over the world come to marvel at Scotland’s natural beauty, climb our mountains, trek in our glens or explore our cities. They need to know the weather in advance to ensure that they dress appropriately and are adequately prepared. Our country’s winter sport industry is worth nearly £30 million to the economy each year, so hotels and ski resorts also need to have detailed weather forecasts so that they can plan accurately.
In addition, Scotland is home to large shipping, fishing and seafaring communities, who need to be fully briefed on what lies out in the seas to ensure their safety. Those are three of many obvious examples of why weather forecasting makes a huge impact on life in Scotland. It is intrinsically linked to the safety of our people and the prosperity of our economy. People rely on the Met Office.
There are, surely, two key questions that need to be addressed when debating the relationship between the Met Office and the BBC, and the divorce that is taking place. What were the reasons for ending the contract with the Met Office? Will the ending of the contract improve the weather forecasting service for the people of these countries? A BBC spokesperson has stated that during the bid process for the weather forecasting contract, the BBC sought to
“make sure we secure both the best possible service and value for money for the licence fee payer.”
That, of course, is always foremost in any BBC manager’s thought process. Although that is to be expected, can both be prioritised simultaneously or has value for money taken precedence?
There has been some misinformation about the cost of the Met Office to the BBC; reports in the press have stated that the Met Office charges the BBC £30 million a year. In fact, that is the total commercial revenue of the Met Office from a wide range of customers for the whole year. Only a small percentage of that comes from services to the BBC, with presenters being paid at market rate. The Met Office is seen as providing the most accurate predictions for UK weather underpinned by significant research capability and strong infrastructure. It is regarded as a world leader in the field, and provides services in the United Kingdom and around the world.
Many have argued that the BBC’s decision to end its contract with the Met Office has been taken purely for commercial reasons. Dr Grant Allen, an atmospheric physicist at the University of Manchester and a leading expert in the field, has said:
“In my opinion, the BBC’s decision was taken on cost and not on predictive skill. We could get less accurate weather forecasts than before through the BBC, and that is sad news.”
Moreover, the timing of the divorce could not be worse. The Met Office has recently invested £97 million in a supercomputer 13 times more powerful than its previous system, which will increase the accuracy of its forecasting. As part of the new forecasting abilities, the Met Office says that it wants to include the probability of certain weather types. A forecast would give the temperature and a 20% chance of rain, for example—again, vital to my constituents, although our assumption is that there is 100% chance of rain every day for the next year. Such probabilities are available on the Met Office website, and many people are used to using them on smartphone apps. We understand, although this has not been confirmed by the BBC, that the BBC does not want that new service, regardless of how useful it would be to licence fee payers.
If the BBC has opted to end its contract with the Met Office simply to reduce costs and replace it with a service that is not as detailed or accurate, that is worrying and clearly goes against the BBC’s public service broadcasting remit. The BBC is responsible for providing services to inform its audience—services that would not always otherwise be provided where commercial interests are at the fore. Detailed, accurate weather forecasts fall into that category, and attempts to dumb down in order to reduce costs would do a disservice to audiences across the United Kingdom.
On a broader level, the UK has a leading position in the world for atmospheric science, which is the result of sustained institutional support for the science. Questions must be asked about how the end of the BBC contract will affect the Met Office and its ability to deliver. Will investment in the Met Office suffer as a result? Will the change have knock-on effects on the Met Office’s numerous roles outwith the BBC? Will it ultimately affect the future of domestic weather forecasting throughout the country?
The two companies widely reported to be in the final bidding for the contract are a Dutch firm called MeteoGroup and the commercial branch of New Zealand’s meteorological service, MetraWeather. Both must now come under scrutiny. Whichever is selected, we must be assured that it will deliver the high-quality, detailed and accurate weather forecasting required for the BBC and audiences. MeteoGroup is already used by the London Evening Standard and provides services at the Sheringham Shoal offshore wind farm. MetraWeather has attempted to make weather forecasting more interactive during TV bulletins in the Netherlands. Those are, however, small-scale endeavours compared with the scope of the task ahead of them if they are to replace the Met Office working for the BBC.
As Professor Ellie Highwood, joint head of the University of Reading department of meteorology, has said:
“Without any details about the BBC’s new arrangements, it is too early to say how this decision will impact the quality of weather forecasts to the general public”.
She does not welcome the developments. It is now the BBC’s responsibility to award the contract to whichever provider will offer the best weather forecasting service to the public. I strongly hope that it is awarded on the basis of quality of service, rather than as a cost-cutting procedure. At the end of this process, I expect the BBC to show full transparency and detail why the contract with the Met Office was ended and why a new contract was awarded to a different supplier.
In conclusion, I find myself agreeing with the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) that the Met Office is part of the family silver. Expelling it from our TV screens seems an unnecessary, destructive step, which has been inadequately explained and unwelcome.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. This is the third time in less than 24 hours that the Minister and I have been opposite one another. Yesterday evening he tried to incite me to intervene, although, as the Speaker rightly pointed out, it was against parliamentary procedure—not exactly fair play.
No, it was not cricket. I was obliged to remain silent, but I intend to make up for that today. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) on securing this important debate and on his impressive opening speech. He speaks with experience and authority, as a local MP and a previous Minister.
He was a Secretary of State.
And as a previous Secretary of State. He knows his subject comprehensively. I am sure that the Minister will extend my right hon. Friend the courtesy of answering all his questions as fully as possible.
As my right hon. Friend said in his introduction, the Met Office is a respected and successful institution. He touched briefly on the origins of what is now known as the Met Office. Those origins reflect many supremely British characteristics: naval power, trade, exploration, science and eccentricity. The Met Office was first founded as the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade by Robert FitzRoy, who is most famous for being the captain of HMS Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin on his famous voyage. More than 160 years ago, this House roared with laughter when a Member suggested that we might, one day, predict the weather in advance. FitzRoy led an interesting and troubled life, but pressed on in the face of scepticism about weather reporting. Today, his vision of a public forecasting service, funded by the Government for the benefit of all, has endured.
The modern Met Office is respected the world over and has an important place at the heart of the nation’s contingency planning and our culture. Indeed, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) emphasised its role in the heart of Scotland’s culture. We all like to poke fun at weather forecasters for getting it wrong, but the fact is that the Met Office is critical to our military security and civil planning. Its shipping forecasts make the jobs of those at sea a little safer, as the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) rightly emphasised. Its global research links enhance our understanding of how the weather and climate affect our economy and way of life, and its parliamentary advice makes us all—at least, those of us who make use of it—a little wiser.
I hope the Minister will assure us that the Met Office is not on the Government’s list of public sector targets. In fact, I hope that he and his colleagues will go further and champion its work and the unique role it plays. Perhaps, they might even recognise the value that such public sector institutions play in our society and economy. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter said, this decision is not the end of the Met Office—far from it. It does so much more than providing the BBC with weather forecasts. In fact, its data will still drive those forecasts. The decision raises questions about the strategic relationship between the BBC and the weather provider. The police and the military will continue to rely on the Met Office for advice, while the public may receive different information. My right hon. Friend cited international examples that raise serious questions about this approach. Is the Minister concerned about that and has he discussed it with the BBC?
Many in the Conservative party believe that the BBC needs to be clipped, either because of misplaced ideas that it crowds out competitors or because of perceived bias. I find it difficult to divorce this decision and this debate from the wider context of the charter renewal process and the sustained attack that the BBC is coming under from the Government and their friends. The BBC is under immense pressure at the moment to prove to the Government and the wider public that it is efficient and good value for money. Obviously we are all in favour of value for money, but what matters is how we define value and over what period of time. Even if we accept that there is no risk to the national interest—which I have yet to be convinced of, although I will listen closely to the Minister—I am not persuaded that the cheapest option is always the best.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
As I think I was saying before democracy interrupted me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter explained that the BBC’s decision is not the end for the Met Office—far from it: it does much more than weather forecasts. However, the decision raises questions about the strategic relationship of the BBC and the weather forecaster. Has the Minister discussed that with the BBC, and does he have concerns about it?
I am intrigued by the timing of the decision. Is it right to award a 10-year contract when the charter renewal process is about to decide on the entire future of the BBC and its purpose? Should not such important decisions be made after we know the outcome of the process? I understand that the contract does not expire until next year. Is it too late to review the decision and the process? Will there be increased transparency about the criteria for the decision that has been made?
What if, as part of the open consultation the Minister is running with the British public, we decide that the purpose of the BBC is indeed to provide integrated weather warnings at critical times? In its briefings to Members, the BBC has said that the decision to go to open tender was a legal one—something that it had to do. I support open tendering, of course. We need competitive procurement to prevent contracts from being handed out to the same old cronies and to enable new and innovative companies to have access to the £242 billion of public procurement cash available from the public sector, but what discussions have the Government had with the BBC regarding other aspects of the contract, such as social value?
I am sure the Minister is aware that recent European Union law exempts some services from procurement laws, and other laws allow organisations to make allowances in certain circumstances—for instance, where there is a question of social value. The Public Contracts Regulations 2015 came into force in February and expand on exemptions for co-operation between entities in the public sector, which I would have thought was exactly the case here. What is the Minister’s interpretation of that exemption? Has he taken any advice on the rules in this case? If so, can he share it with the House today or deposit it in the Library, or ideally both?
One charge often levelled by Members of this House and others is that we are too strict on ourselves in this country when interpreting and obeying EU laws and can err on the side of extreme caution, so will the Minister bring his considerable resources to bear and see whether this 93-year-old relationship does not have to be sacrificed? We have yet to decide what the BBC is for or what outcomes we want. The BBC is a great British institution. It is public sector, it is successful and it is loved. Of course it needs to evolve with the times and with technology, but it also needs the support and championing of this Government.
I could say exactly the same about the Met Office. My right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter and the hon. Member for Torbay described in detail how successful and appreciated the Met Office is, and it, too, needs to evolve with the times and with technology. The Met Office also deserves the support and championing of this Government. I will listen with interest to the Minister, as always, but it seems strange that these two great British institutions should not be natural allies and partners.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Streeter. I thank the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) for securing this important debate. He and I have a close mutual interest in the weather on the weekend of 7 and 8 November. As he may be aware, I am lucky enough to be president of Didcot Town football club, who for the first time in their history have reached round 1 of the FA cup. I am delighted that their first opponents, because they are bound to win, will be Exeter City on that weekend. I hope he will join me in the lavish corporate box at Didcot Town, having cycled from his Exeter constituency on what I hope will be a fine and sunny day, but who can tell? Maybe the Met Office can.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) spoke about her and me appearing together for the third time, but she left out the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson), who is also part of the group. Looking at the three of us, I call to mind the great words of the bard:
“When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
I cannot answer the first part of that question, but when I do know I will ask the Met Office to answer the second part.
We are lucky to have the Met Office, but it does not provide the weather for every television channel. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, MeteoServices provides the weather for Channel 4, and it has a distinctive approach. The weatherman for Channel 4, Mr Liam Dutton, achieved notoriety for faultlessly pronouncing the longest place name in Wales, which, as I do not need to remind hon. Members, is Llanfairpwllgwyngyll- gogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch—I have almost certainly mispronounced it, but I may be the first hon. Member to read it into Hansard.
The right hon. Member for Exeter made it clear that he is proud of the Met Office, as we all are of the UK’s national meteorological service. The Met Office is an internationally renowned organisation based in his constituency, and it provides highly skilled jobs and international connections. It is a massive asset for the south-west, which is why I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) here. No doubt you have your own interest as a south-west Member of Parliament, Mr Streeter. Everyone in this House knows how committed the Chancellor is to science and a knowledge-driven economy. The Met Office is a fantastic example of that, which is why we have invested a significant sum in its new supercomputer; I will return to that towards the end of my remarks.
The right hon. Member for Exeter has corresponded with me, tabled parliamentary questions and secured this debate because he is interested in the BBC’s decision not to shortlist the Met Office in its procurement process for weather forecasting services. That procurement process is still under way, but it has come to light that the Met Office is not on the shortlist. The current contract with the Met Office is therefore due to end in autumn 2016. That is a commercial decision for the BBC to take, and it is interesting that when we disagree with decisions made by the BBC—not me personally or as a Minister—we feel free to comment. I live in a world in which people are constantly telling me to keep my hands off the BBC, but I have no intention of interfering with its commercial decisions. It is true, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central mentioned, that the BBC is undergoing a charter review, and we are obviously considering a range of options for its future, but it is important that we keep in mind its editorial independence and its freedom to make sensible commercial decisions. The BBC has a duty, and has always had a duty, to conduct its business in a way that delivers value for money for licence fee payers.
On the wider question of what kind of weather service the BBC will provide in the future, it is of course crucial that consistent information is available, particularly on severe weather, and that those warnings reach the people most likely to be affected. I reassure the right hon. Member for Exeter that in the next few months all parties concerned will continue to work with the BBC to ensure that Met Office severe weather warnings are clearly and consistently communicated to the public, because the Met Office will continue to provide the official UK forecast, official guidance and warnings as the single authoritative voice during high-impact weather events, such as storms, gales and flooding. We expect the BBC to continue carrying the Met Office’s national severe weather warnings—that applies to all broadcasters, regardless of who provides their day-to-day weather forecasting—and to ensure that those severe weather warnings are consistent with any wider forecast issued at the same time. Indeed, the BBC has made it clear that it will continue to use the Met Office severe weather warnings.
As part of that new approach, the Met Office is developing a new public weather media service, which will be made freely available to all broadcasters and will ensure that Met Office severe weather warnings reach the maximum audience effectively and efficiently. The public weather media service is due to be ready by July 2016, before the current contract expires, so that it can be incorporated into whatever new service the BBC chooses to contract.
The Met Office public weather service is a critical component of the UK’s resilience infrastructure. It provides the public with the information that they need to make decisions and protect themselves and their property from high-impact weather. An important part of the service is public weather advisers—Met Office experts who provide advice and guidance to local emergency planners and responders and who are greatly valued by all who work in that area.
The public will continue to benefit from Met Office expertise through a wide range of other channels, including other national and regional TV, radio and print media outlets and the Met Office’s website, mobile app and social media channels. It is important to clarify that the civil contingencies secretariat, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Met Office are working together on the public weather media service.
I am pleased to hear that the civil contingencies secretariat, BIS and others are working with the Met Office on that. I do not know whether the Minister slightly misunderstood my point about consistency. It is not about the consistency of severe weather warnings, which the BBC has agreed to continue broadcasting from the Met Office; it is about consistency between those and the general weather forecasting that the BBC might purchase from a different provider.
TV viewers and radio listeners could receive different information in general weather forecasts from the information issued by the Met Office, or the information provided by the Met Office to Government. The Minister says that such inconsistency will be addressed. We have heard the BBC give that assurance before, but it has not explained how it will resolve that potential inconsistency.
As I thought I was explaining but will try to make clearer, my understanding was that the public weather service will be freely available to all media outlets. The work that the civil contingencies secretariat, BIS and the Met Office are undertaking now will ensure that when that service goes live in the summer of next year, it will be able to be incorporated into the BBC’s more general weather. In effect, the public weather service is about severe weather warnings—gales, storms and flooding, as I said earlier—and it must be incorporated within the routine weather forecast: for example, whether it will rain tomorrow in East Dunbartonshire, or be cloudy or sunny. I am confident that that work will ensure that those two effectively separate parts of weather forecasting will be consistent and incorporated, not only by the BBC but by other broadcasters.
I will take this opportunity to address some of the other points raised by the right hon. Gentleman. It is not the case that Ministers were informed by the BBC of its decision. The Met Office informed the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills after learning that it was not on the shortlist for procurement, but I do not take any umbrage at the BBC’s not having informed us. As I said, it is a commercial decision for the BBC.
Are we getting value for money? Are we effectively paying twice for the service? It is important to understand that the Met Office was not giving general weather service free of charge to the BBC; the BBC was paying for it. Procurement is under way for the weather service that the BBC will use in future. That is commercially confidential, but I do not see how it can be argued that we are paying twice, given that the BBC is currently paying for a weather service from the Met Office and will pay for a weather service from another provider next year.
I know that there will be concerns, particularly from a constituency perspective, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned. As far as I understand it, the Met Office contract with the BBC is a small fraction of its total turnover, and I am not aware of any knock-on effect in terms of redundancies or job losses.
To clarify, the point about not paying twice is that the British public pay the Met Office to produce a weather service, and now it will pay the BBC to pay somebody else to produce a weather service. The British public might be paying for two different weather forecasts, for the same weather.
Clarity is clearly not my strong point this afternoon. As I said earlier, the BBC’s contract with the Met Office is a commercial contract, paid for out of the licence fee. The BBC will continue to pay for a commercial contract, whether or not we agree with whoever eventually wins that procurement—whether or not we morally agree, as it were, that it is the right company. It may well be a foreign company, although it could well be a British company. That is one thing, but the fact is that we are not paying twice for the service. The licence fee pays for a weather service provided by the BBC that happens to be provided by the Met Office. It is not provided for free. As far as I am aware—again, it is a commercial procurement process—at no point did the Met Office offer to provide that service free to the BBC.
I thank the Minister for the response that he has given so far. On the comment that he just made about the BBC being a small percentage of the overall Met Office contract, will he confirm, to help deal with perceptions in south Devon, that he is satisfied that the Met Office will still be a viable and effective organisation going forward?
My hon. Friend’s question is helpful, because it allows me to segue into the wider part of my speech. I want to talk about the wider work of the Met Office, because it is a more than viable organisation. As I said in my opening remarks, it is a widely respected international organisation with a turnover of around £200 million, and it is highly successful. For example, regardless of whether the BBC continues to use the Met Office, its website is one of the most used websites in the UK Government family. It delivers weather information and critical weather warnings via a huge range of digital channels. The mobile app has been downloaded more than 12 million times, and there are 430 million user sessions every year. Some 900,000 people follow Met Office social media accounts.
The Met Office provides a huge range of services, not just to Government but to business. Its day-to-day forecasts and weather warnings are the most high-profile, but it also works with, for example, the Environment Agency on flood forecasting. It will continue to provide shipping forecasts, mountain weather forecasts and services to the aviation industry. It provides air quality and volcanic ash monitoring, which is not such an esoteric service when we remember what happened with the ash cloud a few years ago. The Met Office’s work touches almost every aspect of our lives, in many ways of which we are unaware. It may interest hon. Members to know that just last week, the Met Office won the most prestigious award at the “top 50 companies for customer services” awards.
The Met Office is not only known for weather forecasting; it is home to the Hadley centre for climate science and services, one of the most famous research institutes in the world. It remains an important part of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy; she was the Prime Minister who opened the centre in 1990, and this year it celebrates its 25th anniversary. As we head towards the crucial negotiations at the United Nations conference on climate change in Paris in November, the UK, thanks to the Met Office’s brilliant work, is in a much stronger position to influence and secure the outcome we need as a result of that expertise and world-leading knowledge.
While I am discussing the international climate change conference in Paris, I should say that it is important to stress the global role played by the Met Office. It is one of only two world area forecast centres delivering forecasts globally, and it is recognised by the World Meteorological Organisation as the national meteorological service with the most accurate prediction model in the world. It is internationally respected for its unified weather and climate model, the accuracy of its weather prediction, its research, and its support for developing countries. It helps to save lives and it delivers improvements, such as helping to establish local meteorological services.
I will give just one example of the Met Office’s work. During Hurricane Patricia, which has recently battered Mexico, the Met Office has been, and it will continue to be, the source that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office uses to provide weather advice to citizens in the affected area. So we as a Government are immensely proud of the Met Office, its international standing and the international recognition it brings, but most importantly we are proud of the difference that it makes to people’s lives every day.
That is why, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, the Chancellor is backing the Met Office through investment in a new high-performance computing facility. Last year, he announced plans to invest £97 million in a new supercomputer, which will cement the UK’s position as a world leader in weather and climate prediction. The supercomputer’s sophisticated forecasts are anticipated to deliver £2 billion worth of socioeconomic benefits to the UK by enabling better advance preparation and contingency plans to protect people’s homes and businesses. I am told that the installation programme is progressing very well; indeed, it is five weeks ahead of schedule. Also, the Met Office recently released its new five-year science strategy, which aims to deliver science with impact, maximising the benefit to society of its weather and climate expertise, and making the most of the UK Government’s investment in its high-performance computing.
It is a credit to the Met Office and to all the highly skilled staff who work there, obviously including those who work in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Exeter, that it is recognised as a world-class institution that all of us are rightly proud of. Having protected the country for more than 150 years, the Met Office is a trusted voice for the British public, businesses and emergency responders when it is needed most.
I am very gratified that the Minister is extolling the virtues of the Met Office; indeed, he almost seems to be making a better case than I did for the BBC continuing its relationship with the Met Office. Before he closes, may I invite him at least to assure hon. Members and I that he will go away from this debate and just talk to his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, the Cabinet Office group responsible for civil contingencies, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, to ensure that they are aware—if they are not already aware—of some of their officials’ concerns, so that Ministers can help to encourage the process that he referred to earlier, of addressing and resolving some of these genuine concerns about resilience and national security?
I absolutely give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance; I will ensure that the points he has made in this debate are taken seriously and that we absolutely clarify for him exactly what the public weather media service will provide, although the answer may not completely satisfy him. I will also seek assurances from the civil contingencies secretariat and BIS officials that they are content with the arrangements, as it were, whereby the BBC is in effect contracting with another provider for what I would call its commercial weather service, which provides the day-to-day weather service that we all watch at the end of a news bulletin, whether that is a national or local news bulletin, as opposed to the more important severe weather warning work that the Met Office does.
As the Minister is so successfully clarifying points, may I point out that my question to him was about the legal basis that is necessary for there to be an open tender, given that EU procurement regulations now exempt collaborations between two public sector entities?
I will certainly consider the point that the hon. Lady makes. It may well be that the contract was de minimis anyway in terms of those procurement rules, and it may well be that the savings the BBC thinks it can make by procuring weather services from another supplier mean that even the social aspects were not of the utmost concern to them. Nevertheless, I, or perhaps even the BBC itself, will write to the hon. Lady to address her point.
This has been a very useful debate. Although it has been disappointing in some respects, in that I was unable to pull a rabbit out of the hat and put the Met Office back in play with the BBC, it is right that we respect the BBC’s independence in this area. We cannot always say whether the BBC’s decisions are right or wrong, and it must be a particular frustration for someone working at the BBC or even leading it to be constantly second-guessed. I second-guessed the BBC on the closure of 6 Music and with hindsight I think I have been proved right; that was a service to save. Many people are now second-guessing the BBC on its moving BBC3 from terrestrial television to the internet. Equally, it is perhaps a testament to the standing of both the Met Office and the BBC that a parliamentary debate should be called to consider the BBC’s decision not to procure its weather services from the Met Office.
In a sense, I will conclude in the way that I started, by saying that my final congratulations must go to the Met Office on accurately predicting the weather for all the Rugby World cup matches. Unfortunately, that did not help the northern hemisphere teams, but I look forward to an accurate prediction of the weather for Didcot Town versus Exeter, and I put on the record now my own prediction that Didcot will win 2-0.
Would the right hon. Member for Exeter like to say a few words by way of winding up?
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the BBC’s relationship with the Met Office.
British Property Owners (Cyprus)
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of British property owners in Cyprus.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray.
I am grateful for the chance to raise this issue in Westminster Hall. I am not the first Member to take it up on behalf of their constituents and I begin by praising the work of the all-party group on the defence of the interests of British property owners in Cyprus. Under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), the group has done great work in raising the concerns of people caught up in property and banking problems in Cyprus. It has also provided a framework through which they can pursue justice and fairness in relation to their properties.
I have been contacted by a number of people in my constituency about the mis-selling of Swiss franc mortgages by Alpha Bank in Cyprus, and about the poor advice they had received from solicitors purporting to act on their behalf. Briefly, the background to this issue is that between 2003 and 2010 Cypriot banks advised buyers to take out a mortgage in Swiss francs, because the interest rates were lower and the currency was considered stable. However, when the value of the Swiss franc soared against the euro in the aftermath of the financial crisis, buyers found that their mortgage repayments had doubled.
Buyers have complained that banks often failed to explain the potential risks or that currency fluctuations could cause repayments to rise, which has resulted in property owners being left with unfinished and unsaleable apartments, huge loan obligations and negative equity following the collapse of the Cypriot property market, which saw property values in some areas plummet by as much as 70%.
In one case brought to me by a constituent, the developer went into liquidation before the property being built for my constituent and his wife had been completed, taking 85% of their mortgage fund and leaving them insufficient money to finish the remaining work. My constituent says that his solicitor and Alpha Bank allowed that to happen by permitting the developer himself to sign written confirmation that the various stages of work had been completed.
My constituent and his wife had to begin making mortgage repayments at a time when they did not have the land in their name and the property was not finished. Effectively, therefore, they were paying a mortgage on a property and land that was not legally theirs. When they explained to Alpha Bank that they were in a desperate situation, they were simply told that if they did not make their mortgage payments the bank would seek possession of their home here in the United Kingdom. Similarly, another constituent with the same Swiss franc mortgage with Alpha Bank spoke of what he believed to be collusion between the bank, the solicitor and the developer, leaving him threatened with bankruptcy.
I am sure that those examples will be depressingly familiar to anyone who has had dealings with people caught up in the fiasco.
I am chairman of the all-party group on the defence of the interests of British property owners in Cyprus. The hon. Gentleman is a member of the group. Is he aware that we will have a meeting of those affected at 11 am on 12 November, at which the high commissioner for Cyprus, Mr Euripides Evriviades, will be present? There is also a Bill before the Cyprus Parliament, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will deal with that shortly, so I will not go into any more detail.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He is absolutely right, and I commend him for his work in leading the all-party group. It is my intention to be at that meeting but, if parliamentary duties do not permit me, a representative from my office will attend. I am aware of the situation in Cyprus to which the hon. Gentleman refers.
There have also been allegations of Cypriot solicitors using invalid powers of attorney. The case I want to focus on, on behalf of one of my constituents, is an example of that, and it also highlights that constituent’s concern about his legal representation while seeking to obtain redress.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Before he moves on to that specific case, I want to say that I have had conversations with a number of leading politicians in Cyprus and have found them to be sympathetic, and understanding of some of the problems he refers to. When the Minister responds, will he let us know whether he has had conversations on the matter with members of the Parliament in Cyprus?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask that question, and I expect and hope that the Minister in his concluding remarks will be able to answer it. It is important that whatever pressure can be brought on the Cypriot authorities by Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom, is brought, and that Ministers do all they can to raise the issue with their Cypriot counterparts.
May I quickly add that the Minister for Europe has been immensely helpful? He has been to two, or perhaps even three, of the meetings I have convened for the purpose. I pay tribute to him for his active interest in the matter.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the work that the Minister has done, and will continue to do, in respect of the injustices that many of our constituents face. I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
My constituent does not want to be publicly named, so I will refer to him as Mr T. C. In 2007, Mr T. C. and his brother-in-law wanted to purchase a retirement property in Cyprus through a UK company called ROPUK. They met with the company’s representatives, who showed them impressive brochures and projections, and they decided to go ahead with the purchase. They paid a £25,000 deposit and understood that when the property was built they would go to Cyprus to have an inspection and then sign a mortgage agreement. They were advised by ROPUK’s representative that a Swiss franc mortgage would be best, but they did not sign up to any agreement except to give a Cypriot solicitor power of attorney in any transactions to which they agreed.
In 2010, when the property was due for completion, Mr T. C. visited Cyprus to monitor the progress of the build. He found that it was not even half finished; it is still in the same state today. He believes that the power of attorney was not executed in accordance with common or Cypriot law, rendering it illegal and anything signed using the power of attorney invalid.
My constituent and his brother-in-law first heard of Alpha Bank when it started to pursue them for payments. They had not signed a mortgage agreement themselves, but one was signed by a third party without their knowledge or consent, and they have never even seen the agreement with the bank, despite repeated requests. They believe that the bank released all the money from their fraudulently obtained mortgage to fund something that is simply not there.
The payments from the mythical mortgage should have been gradually disbursed as the build progressed, according to the progress certificates issued by the project’s architect. The bank’s surveyor should have been inspecting the development and issuing a report back to the bank, a copy of which should have been passed to the Cypriot solicitor, who was supposed to be acting in my constituent’s best interests, to verify build stage against the drawdown of moneys.
If the Bill to which I referred becomes law, it will give the Republic of Cyprus land registry the authority to exempt, eliminate, transfer and cancel mortgages and encumbrances depending on the case and under certain conditions. I do not have time to go into all the details, but I want to get that into Hansard.
I am grateful for that intervention. It is important that that is placed on the record.
I return to the case. None of what I just mentioned was ever done, which is why, years after the supposed completion, Mr T. C. and his brother-in-law still have absolutely nothing. They now owe the bank in the region of £257,000 plus interest—the original price they were quoted was about £140,000 minus their deposit—and they were issued a writ informing them that their case would be heard in the courts of justice in London in June 2014. They received the writ less than a week before the case was due to be heard and had no time to appoint a solicitor.
The case was heard at the courts of justice in front of Master Easton. He asked Alpha Bank’s solicitors, Stephenson Harwood, to shelve the European enforcement order pending ongoing legal discussions in Cyprus, but they refused. A European enforcement order was rubber-stamped subject to a second hearing in September. By that time, Mr T. C. and his brother-in-law had appointed Cubism Law to represent them and their case was led by Duncan McNair, who they understood to be an expert in the field.
His representation in the UK forms the second part of the concerns that Mr T. C. raised with me. He and his brother-in-law paid Cubism Law £2,000 up front to represent them. A barrister attended court, but they say that they were simply told that the European enforcement order had been ratified and that a charge had been placed on their UK properties. They then had to defend the European enforcement order in Cyprus, where they believed they would get less justice than they would here.
Prior to the first hearing and before becoming subject to the European enforcement order, Mr T. C. transferred the house he and his wife owned into her name, to protect her share of their UK property, which was their only substantial asset. His wife was not party to the property purchase in Cyprus. Following the second hearing, Mr McNair commented that the judge had not been impressed by the action Mr T. C. had taken. My constituent says that he asked for advice on whether he should change the title deeds back into his name and that all he was told by his solicitor was that he should let them work for their money, by which he understood him to mean Alpha Bank’s British solicitors, Stephenson Harwood. Mr T. C. says that they always made it clear to their solicitor that their priority was to get the European enforcement order overturned and for no further action to be taken until that was achieved.
Mr T. C. says that over the next few weeks much correspondence was exchanged between the two firms, but that that did not prevent Stephenson Harwood from continuing to threaten seizure of the properties. However, it did result in Cubism Law making regular demands for funds, which my constituents deemed unnecessary. At that stage, they became concerned about the costs that were racking up, and the date for the Cyprus hearing was still weeks away. Through Cubism Law, they had paid for solicitors in Cyprus to represent them at the hearing, which was subsequently postponed three times.
Mr T.C. asked his solicitor what the strategy was for their situation, as the costs were spiralling and all they had asked at that stage was for him to defend the European enforcement order in Cyprus. Mr T.C. says that they also informed Cubism Law on 28 October 2014 that they did not wish to incur any further costs, but that specific request was ignored and the costs continued to mount. Most of the costs related to correspondence between Stephenson Harwood and Cubism Law over the transfer of the title deeds. Mr T.C. states that if his solicitor had advised him immediately to transfer the title deeds back to his name, he would have done so. He was eventually advised to do that and for him the question remains as to why he was not asked to do that earlier.
During the time leading up to the hearing dates, Mr T.C. says that he and his brother-in-law were constantly subjected to requests from their solicitor—usually late at night by email—giving them deadlines for payments with what they perceived to be veiled threats of them “prejudicing their case”, or inferring that they would not be represented in this country or in Cyprus in the future. By that stage, their costs had increased to more than £12,000, which was approaching the 5% settlement offer Alpha Bank had alluded to for incomplete properties such as theirs. On 10 November 2014 they sent an email to their solicitor again instructing him not to incur any further costs and mentioning the 5% settlement offer. That request was again ignored and their solicitor entered into discussions with a barrister, for which they were charged.
Mr T.C. says that they have yet to be informed what the basis of those costs were and what the discussions were trying to achieve. He adds that at no point had they indicated that they wished to start proceedings against the bank, as Mr McNair had advised that they could not sue the bank if the European enforcement order was not overturned.
Listening to the hon. Gentleman, I wonder whether his constituents have taken the matter up with the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
Not only have my constituents done that, but I have done so as their MP. The response we got back was less than satisfactory. I am still taking that up with the various authorities, but my constituents feel that one form of redress is to place on public record the real injustice that they feel they have endured over the past few years.
Mr T.C. said that when he pointed out that the solicitor had stated it was not possible to sue the bank without the European enforcement order having been overturned, the solicitor changed his statement and said it would be possible, but with difficulty. The new date for the hearing in Cyprus was set for early January 2015, but that was postponed until late January, and the case was finally heard in February 2015.
People from my constituency have had problems similar to those of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents; the problems do not relate just to Cyprus, but to Turkey, too. The majority of them are law-abiding citizens who want to get some property to use, in most cases as a holiday home, but they find the legal system difficult. The hon. Gentleman is outlining the problems of his constituents. Does he feel, as I do, that the British consulate could have given better or more advice on what was best to do in a foreign country where they do not speak the language and are unaware of the legalities?
There is a lot that could have been done differently, and I have some sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. That is based on my experience not only with this case, but with several cases that my constituency office has been dealing with. No doubt other Members’ offices are dealing with similar cases, too. I again commend the work of the all-party group and the Minister in trying to bring some kind of resolution to these matters. We are where we are, and it is a far from ideal situation for many of our constituents.
As I said, the case was finally heard in February 2015. In January, Mr T.C.’s brother-in-law was out of the country dealing with a family matter and he told Cubism Law that he had insufficient funds at that time to settle up his latest bill, but would settle at the end of January or early February when Mr T.C. returned to the UK and after the European enforcement order court case in Cyprus was settled. Mr T.C. says Mr McNair replied saying he no longer represented them and again implied that they may not be represented in Cyprus. However, the Cypriot solicitors later assured them that they would be represented.
The European enforcement order was overturned with reservation at the hearing. Mr T.C. feels incredibly let down by the representation he received and believes a lot of the costs were avoidable and totally unnecessary. He has complained through the firm’s complaints procedures and received what he and his brother-in-law considered to be a derisory offer of redress, which they refused, as they did a subsequent offer.
As I said in response to the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), the matter has been referred to the authorities, including the Law Society and the ombudsman. Mr T.C. feels that he has suffered real injustice in respect of both the property purchase and how his case has subsequently been handled. I appreciate that the Minister can do little to answer my constituent’s specific concerns, but I would be grateful if he could update Members on the progress being made in general on the matter and on what the Government are doing to support Mr T.C. and all constituents caught up in this sorry situation.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Let me start by congratulating the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing this debate and paying tribute to the work of the all-party group under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash).
From the large number of items of correspondence that I get from Members from all parts of the House on property disputes, I am certainly aware of the kind of problems that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish described and of the traumatic impact that property disputes often have not only on the finances, but on the mental wellbeing of the people we represent. Officials in our consular directorate in London are in regular contact with our high commission in Nicosia. Together they brief me and the Foreign Secretary on the scale of the property problems in Cyprus and the impact they are having on individuals.
While today’s debate has focused on the difficulties in Cyprus and the case of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent in particular, it is a sad reality that property disputes are common in other parts of the world. I have to be frank with the House: the ability of our consular staff overseas to help in individual cases is very limited. That is partly because millions of British citizens live overseas and many thousands of others visit foreign countries every year. It is simply not possible for the Foreign Office to become involved in private legal disputes to which British citizens overseas are party, whether they are related to property, commercial interests or family disputes.
Another issue is that property laws are the competence of individual sovereign states. We have no more authority to intervene in matters concerning Cypriot domestic legislation than the Governments of Cyprus, Spain, Greece, Turkey or Bulgaria—or any other nation where there are numerous property disputes—do to intervene in United Kingdom domestic legislation. Our position on property disputes is consistent with the approach taken by the US, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand diplomatic services. We will, however, do two things. We will continue to try to provide as accurate and up-to-date information as we can to our citizens about the risks involved in buying property overseas and about what they might do to manage those risks, and we will continue to lobby hard the Cypriot and other Governments to try to persuade them to address some of the generic problems that these distressing individual cases highlight.
Again, I just want to put something on the record. The Bill to which I referred, which was passed on 3 September in the Parliament of the Republic of Cyprus, is not yet available in English. I know the high commissioner has requested it, but it is taking some time. We are now almost in November. I am told that until it is provided, the general information—for the sake of those who read transcripts—can be found on the website of Nigel Howarth of Cyprus Property News. However, the Bill does not apply to mortgages that were dealt with in Swiss francs.
What my hon. Friend says is right. I want to refer to that Bill later, but we continue to urge the Cypriot authorities to publish an English-language version of the new law as soon as possible and to make available any guidance that might need to be issued in association with the statute itself. I am sure that the forthcoming meeting of the all-party group with the high commissioner for Cyprus to the United Kingdom will provide a further opportunity for such persuasion to be offered.
We publish information on the high commission’s gov.uk website and, more generally, the FCO publishes a guide entitled “Support for British Nationals Abroad”, which also provides general advice for British citizens who are thinking about buying a property in another country. Last month our consular officials attended “A Place in the Sun”, an exhibition in Birmingham, to talk directly to people considering going to live abroad. The purpose of these initiatives is to help to ensure that our citizens are better informed of the risks and challenges before they take the plunge. For example, we always urge people to take proper professional advice, including legal advice, before buying property.
In some cases, such as the one that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish has described, part of the problem seems to derive from an alleged failure of the legal adviser to provide advice of a sufficiently high standard. In other cases, sadly, we have come across British citizens who have simply not taken adequate legal advice in the first place. Of course, there are others who, on the face of things, would seem to have been the victims of deliberate misrepresentation. Every case is different, which is why it is difficult to provide a template that will apply equally to every individual case.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing this debate. Those who take legal advice perhaps anticipate that it will be correct, but sometimes it turns out not to be. Is it possible for the British consulate, in whatever country they are in, to have a list of legal minds—solicitors and barristers—who would have enough knowledge to be able to give advice to people?
We do keep and make available lists of solicitors and other legal advisers in all the countries where we have posts, and we usually know whether the practices have people who speak English. What we cannot do is give an assurance about the quality of the legal advice. We can say that somebody has been duly qualified to practise law in a particular jurisdiction, but it would simply not be possible for our consular staff to grade the relative performance of solicitors in a foreign country.
There are cases—if I may address one of the points raised by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish—where the British courts have declined to enforce a European enforcement order because they have found, after scrutiny, that the documents had not been satisfactorily completed. Again, looking at the detail of a particular case is of key importance. Other options—this is all on the website—include contacting the various property action groups to share experience, contacting the Competition and Consumer Protection Service, the CCPS, in Cyprus, or considering financial arbitration, which has worked in some cases, although it is not suitable for all.
Although we have not been able to intervene in individual disputes, our high commission continues to be active. In March 2014, we organised a familiarisation visit to London for members of the Cypriot land registry to share our experience in e-applications, insolvency, alternative dispute resolution and complaint handling. The purpose of that is to try to make it possible for the Cypriot land registry to modernise and speed up its procedures, because one of the chief complaints is that it takes people a very long time to obtain the relevant deeds and documents.
The Cypriot land registry has now computerised its land information system in relation to the existence of encumbrances, and the Foreign Ministry in Nicosia has confirmed that land officers must now inform buyers in writing of any outstanding encumbrances on the property. Our high commission part-sponsored an alternative dispute resolution forum conference in October last year, and it organised two visits for the Cypriot financial ombudsman to this country to learn best practice from his UK counterpart. We continue to be active in helping with public sector reform, particularly with the Ministry of Justice and local government, which we believe will ultimately have a beneficial impact on the way in which property issues are dealt with.
We also lobby the politicians. During the past year—in 2014 and 2015—our high commissioner, Ric Todd, has raised the issue of non-performing loans with the Cypriot Finance Minister and property-related issues with the Attorney General. Both my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have raised property issues experienced by British nationals with the Cypriot Government. I did so with Foreign Minister Kasoulides on 12 March this year, and the Foreign Secretary raised property issues again with him when he visited Cyprus on 17 July.
We have seen an effect. There is now a definite will on the part of the Cypriot Government to try to find ways to tackle property issues. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone said, on 3 September this year the Cypriot Parliament passed a Bill that will help many British nationals and others affected by these issues. The impact of the Bill will be that purchasers who have met their contractual obligations should now be able to obtain their title deeds, although purchasers who have failed to comply with their contractual obligations will not be able to make use of the new law. Our high commission will of course continue to work with the authorities, and they and Ministers will continue to raise property issues whenever the opportunity arises.
The new legislation does not cover the issue of Swiss franc mortgages, which is an entirely separate issue and one that we advise is a private legal matter. We know that some purchasers have managed to renegotiate their mortgage terms. Some have taken legal action in the UK and other claims have been made to the Central Bank of Cyprus and to the Competition and Consumer Protection Service in Cyprus. Last month, Cypriot MPs asked their central bank to review how Swiss franc mortgages were sold, but it is not yet clear how the central bank proposes to take this forward. Our high commission will monitor developments.
Although there has been progress, we recognise the impact that property disputes have had on many families in Cyprus and the United Kingdom, and that many of the families risk losing their life savings. Those affected should continue to pursue their cases through the Cypriot and, if appropriate, UK courts, although we accept that this can be challenging and that good legal advice does not come cheap. In parallel, we remain committed to lobbying at high level to encourage the Cypriot Government to take effective action to resolve existing problems and to reform the property sector to prevent such problems from occurring in future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of British property owners in Cyprus.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered young jobseekers and the Department for Work and Pensions.
I want to lead a positive and constructive debate using recent research into the role of the Department for Work and Pensions, specifically jobcentres, in supporting young people to find long-term employment. I will draw on my own experience of working closely with the Norwich jobcentre in a regional project and also direct Members’ attention to the work of the all-party group on youth employment, which I chair. I will welcome interventions and, as we have plenty of time, speeches from other Members; I ask only that others join me in focusing constructively on young people’s employment and looking in a positive way at how the hard-working officials in the jobcentre can best support those who need help.
You will be pleased to learn, Mr Gray, that this debate has allowed for the trial of a digital debate. The idea for digital debates linked to debates in Westminster Hall came from the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, which argued:
“We believe the public want the opportunity to have their say in House of Commons debates; we also believe that this will provide a useful resource for MPs and help to enhance those debates. We therefore recommend a unique experiment: the use of regular digital public discussion forums to inform debates held in Westminster Hall.”
It gave me great pleasure last night to take 97 questions and comments from the public over Twitter to inform this debate and raise its profile. I place on record my thanks to everyone who got involved. Between us, we reached nearly a million Twitter accounts, which is an achievement in itself.
I note a few comments made in that debate. A theme that ran through many of the points made was that everyone should not be treated the same: there should be personalised treatment for young jobseekers at the jobcentre. A second theme was that if we expect commitment from jobseekers, we should also demand it from staff, who should be punctual and treat jobseekers with respect. Someone asked whether the Government have plans for jobcentre resources specifically for young people. I have mentioned that early in the debate so that the Minister can prepare his answer. The theme of mentoring also came up. I took the opportunity in last night’s debate to place on record the resources available through the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s Steps Ahead programme, which in East Anglia alone has more than 90 mentors ready to help young people at no cost to them.
Having given a flavour of the digital debate, I will lay out the problem: more young people are in need of work than older people, as shown clearly by the official employment rates. The Office for National Statistics concludes:
“The unemployment rate for those aged from 16 to 24 has been consistently higher than that for older age groups.”
For the past three months on record—covering this summer, June to August—the unemployment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds was 14.8%. That is lower than it was in spring and lower than at the same time last year, which is to be welcomed, but it is far higher than the rate among over-25s, which is 3.9%. To be clear, that is the ONS rate, which is different from the claimant count.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She is giving some very interesting figures. Perhaps South Derbyshire is bucking the trend, because in May 2010 our youth unemployment figure was 565, and in September it was 100, which is less than 1% of the national total. Perhaps people might like to come to South Derbyshire and see what we do to get young people employed.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s positive example. South Derbyshire certainly has a very assiduous MP to go with those figures. It is indeed the case that youth unemployment is coming down. We should celebrate and look at the examples of what has worked locally. That is one of the themes I want to establish in this debate.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Will she comment on the quality of jobs young people get, and their training and salary levels?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will hold me too far to account if I leave it to the Minister to cover some of those points that are, after all, national. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is arguing that they ought to be a matter for Government. The great majority of the private sector jobs created over the past few years have been full-time. Myths abound as to the extent of zero-hours contracts. We gave that argument a good going-over in the general election campaign—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did as much as I did. There are myths around about the quality of jobs that young people can look forward to as they leave education and look for opportunities. It is deeply disrespectful to young people to set up a negative argument that they can look forward only to a zero- hours contract. It is deeply negative and we ought to avoid it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and on chairing the all-party group, of which I have the pleasure of being a member. A key complaint from employers is about the work-readiness of young people. Does my hon. Friend concur that the National Citizen Service is one of the best initiatives we have, particularly in the east of England, in helping young people to grow in confidence and work-readiness?
Yes, I do. Indeed, I note that the NCS is holding an event in Parliament today at which its leaders are on hand to explain an important point that we ought to celebrate in this debate: young people can lead young people to face these challenges. We should look for examples of that and give praise where it has worked, and we should seek more ways for young people to be in a position to lead their peers. I want to put that proposition forward, because it came over strongly in last night’s digital debate. It is another way of looking constructively at what has worked up and down the country.
I join others in congratulating the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree that the quality of information and advice available to young people still leaves a great deal to be desired? Indeed, schools having the prime responsibility to provide careers advice has not been an unqualified success. The statutory guidance to schools says that they should work with Jobcentre Plus to provide a smooth pathway from school into employment. In the hon. Lady’s experience of working with Jobcentre Plus, is that happening?
It is happening in parts of the country. One of the points I want to make today is that we see good practice in some parts of the country. I hold up the jobcentre with which I work in Norwich as an example of that. I also note forthcoming initiatives, which I am sure the Minister will cover in his response, whereby jobcentres will be asked to work more closely with young people in schools. That is to be welcomed.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
One moment. First, I refer the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) to the work of the all-party group, because at our next meeting, on 18 November, we will be looking at careers education. I now give way to one of the officers of said group.
I join colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In Mid Dorset and North Poole, the figures are still too high. Of the claimant count of 314, 67 are aged 18 to 24. That is better than it has been, but it is still too high. On the point made by the right hon. Member for Oxford East, does my hon. Friend agree that we can start careers advice from an earlier age—even as young as primary school—as we heard in the all-party group’s evidence session?
Indeed, I do agree with that—my hon. Friend is absolutely right—and it need not be onerous. It can be as simple as asking role models to explain to young people what they do and why a young person might want to aspire to do the same. I am sure Members will now allow me to make a little more progress in setting out my argument.
It is worth putting the national figures into context and looking at our European neighbours. It is a matter for celebration that Britain has more young people in work than the nations around us in Europe. Across Europe, one in five young people are out of work. In Spain and Greece, one in two young people are lacking work. We also see the countries leading the field, Germany and Austria, with rates of 7% and 10% respectively.
One young jobseeker in last night’s digital debate made the point that young jobseekers are people, not statistics, so, in Britain, what do all the large numbers mean in terms of real people? They mean that 3.92 million 16 to 24-year-old people are in work, including some 900,000 full-time students with part-time jobs. There are, in contrast, 683,000 unemployed young people, including about 200,000 full-time students looking for part-time work. I am including the student figures not to begin a debate about the classification of the figures— I suspect that would take more than an hour—but because I want to draw out the key figure of 683,000: between 600,000 and 700,000 young people are looking for a chance in Britain today. If that is the problem, the question is, how best can we help them find that opportunity?
I absolutely concur with my hon. Friend. On that point, do you believe that jobcentres, which do good work in my constituency and others, should be encouraged to promote apprenticeships as a way of tackling the issues and figures that you have raised?
The hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) has raised them; I have not.
You are quite right, Mr Gray. I am sorry.
In London, we have created 220,000 apprenticeships since 2010, which have introduced people into a world of work. Perhaps in due course the Minister will comment on apprenticeships.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving that example. Apprenticeships provide many opportunities for young people.
This was the subject of the debate last night. One young person, whom I will faithfully report, said the rate paid is too low. Perhaps that is a topic for a long debate another day. None the less, there are many opportunities out there for earning while learning, and that package can be very attractive to young people who are looking to take their first steps and find their first opportunities.
Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend on being a leading light in helping young people to find worthwhile employment. She is right to focus on apprenticeships. The increase in the level of apprenticeships in Gloucester almost directly mirrors the drop in youth unemployment from 1,000 to 250 over the past five years. I suspect—my hon. Friend might want to comment on this—that the employment figures for Europe will show a similar correlation in the countries that encourage apprenticeships, such as Germany and us, and those that do not. Will my hon. Friend say something about the fact that, although there are minimum rates for employing apprentices, there is no maximum rate? Many of us who have our own apprentices pay significantly over the minimum rate.
I am grateful for that point, which stands by itself so I shall welcome it and move on to the need for a strong economy.
The single best way to get young people into opportunities is for there to be lots of opportunities to start with. The Government have overseen significant private sector job growth, and the economy continues to grow. More jobs have been created in Britain recently than in the rest of Europe put together, and that is undeniably good news for a generation of young jobseekers who can look to a brighter future.
We need to connect young people to those opportunities—here comes the meat of the debate. A local example illustrates my point. I founded and run a project called Norwich for Jobs. In 2013, I looked at our local unemployment figures for those aged 18 to 24, and I knew that 2,000 unemployed young people was too many. Drawing together a team that could do something about it, we set about halving that number. In fact, we smashed the target we set ourselves in less than two years. So far, we have helped nearly 2,000 young people into work. About 600 still claim jobseeker’s allowance, and we want to encourage employers to give them opportunities now.
We did that by encouraging local employers to create opportunities; connecting young people with those jobs, with the jobcentre at the heart of the process; and focusing the community on a common goal. We are taking on a new challenge after having met our first target, and we are now using the power of that local network to help those claiming employment and support allowance—in other words, young people who want work but have a health condition or a disability. I strongly support the Government’s clarion call to be disability confident, and I call today on Norwich employers to consider what more they can do.
We are turning that one city project into a regional movement. The Norfolk and Suffolk youth pledge, led by the New Anglia local enterprise partnership, is a further strong example of the kind of collaboration that stands the best chance of helping young jobseekers. The pledge is that every young person in Norfolk and Suffolk will get the personal support they need to get an apprenticeship, training, work experience or a job within three months of leaving education or employment. The New Anglia skills board and Jobcentre Plus have been working closely with the two county councils, and indeed with me and others—I am on the board of the project—to develop the project. We are building on the successful roll-out of the MyGo service—the first of its kind in the UK—which was launched in Ipswich in 2014 and the project I outlined in Norwich. I am proud of that project, and hope it stands as an example to other hon. Members of what they can convene in their areas. Research by the Found Generation holds up MyGo, a youth employment centre that was the starting point of the Ipswich project, as a very powerful project.
How best can we help young people? I said that we should grow the economy and make connections. We should also share good ideas, which is why I have talked about those examples. I mentioned the all-party group on youth employment, and I welcome the members who are here today, including my hon. Friends the Members for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) and for Bolton West (Chris Green). I welcome their presence, because we aim to share good practice. Our primary objectives are to promote youth employment in all its forms and the role of young people in the economy, to ensure that young people’s voices are heard, to highlight the need for good-quality opportunities and to share best practice.
We should value good-quality research and learn from it what we can do better. I will draw on two reports. YMCA England, of which I am a parliamentary patron—I am also patron of the Norfolk organisation—produced a constructive and practical research report, which I have in front of me, entitled “Safety Net or Springboard?” Its purpose
“was to examine how the social security systems could be transformed to better enable young people to find employment and fulfil their potential.
High levels of youth unemployment are not a new problem in the UK. While the global recession saw a significant jump in the number of young people facing unemployment, in reality, the upward trend started long before the financial crisis, as far back as 2004.
Given that numerous governments have tried a range of schemes to battle this problem with only mixed success, this research sought to give young people a voice in shaping any new approach offered, including the introduction of a Youth Obligation, a back-to-work scheme announced by the Government as part of the Summer Budget 2015.
Through a series of focus groups, young people from YMCA identified six areas they believed job centres could improve to increase their prospects of finding employment:…Understanding young people’s circumstances…Listening to young people’s aspirations…Supporting young people to look for work…Getting young people the right skills and qualifications…Securing young people with meaningful work experience”
“Retaining support for young people transitioning into employment.”
The evidence in the report is based on a series of focus groups that took place this summer across England in areas that many hon. Members here come from: north Tyneside, Birkenhead, Grimsby, Derby, Birmingham, Bedford, Dartford, Westminster, Horsham, Exeter and my own constituency of Norwich. The YMCA found that:
“The overwhelming feelings expressed by the young people participating in the research were ones of frustration and dismay towards job centres and the support they currently provide in helping to find employment. More than nine in 10 of individuals taking part in the focus groups believed the support they were currently or previously receiving from their job centre was not helping them find employment. Through the research, YMCA sought to understand why this alienation exists between young people and job centres and to identify what measures they felt were necessary to transform the job centre and the wider social security system from a safety net to a springboard into employment.”
I want to be absolutely clear that I have the highest respect for Jobcentre Plus staff. As my local examples demonstrate, I work closely with the team in Norwich and East Anglia, which is led by the excellent district manager Julia Nix. I see their dedication, innovation and hard work day in and day out.
I have read the report that my hon. Friend is talking about. She rightly said that it referred to some work in Dartford, but there were a number of things that surprised me about it. First, it said that Dartford is in London; it is not. It was also somewhat critical of some of its experiences there. That has never been my experience of the jobcentre in Dartford; I have always found the staff to be incredibly professional. I would argue in their defence that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and that since 2010 youth unemployment in Dartford has fallen by some 71%.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s contribution. He makes the same point as I do. The best officials in the jobcentre are highly respected and are known for their work in the community. Their passion shines out and they embody the values of public service at every opportunity. They also take a hands-on approach, which is perhaps over and above the duties of a civil servant. They could well be expected to do their work from behind a desk, but the best officials do not do that. They go out and work hard in the community to get results. I welcome hearing my hon. Friend’s local example.
It is in that spirit that I mention the YMCA research today, because civil servants of the calibre of which we speak will want to do even better. The report states that
“many young people are continuing to be prescribed the same generic support, regardless of their circumstances and aspirations. This is creating a significant discordance between how young people view the service being provided and what governments believe they offer. While examples of good practice do exist, the research illustrates that these are few and far between”.
Let’s share the good ideas and let’s do better. The YMCA research proposes that the new youth obligation be matched with an obligation on jobcentres. It argues that the obligation should commit jobcentres to providing each young person accessing its services with a more detailed initial assessment with a closer focus on their personal circumstances and aspirations, a specialist youth work coach, more comprehensive sign-on sessions, more regular opportunities, better training and work experience, and options to discuss how available funding may be used to let them participate in training. The report also suggests that people should be able to participate in training for more than 16 hours a week without their benefit claims being affected.
I want to quote some of the young people in the research. Charlotte of Norwich says:
“I want the job centre to be a bit more understanding.”
Jordan of north Tyneside says:
“The job centre needs to stop treating everyone the same.”
Marcio of Bedford says:
“The job centre needs to really listen to young people to see what we want.”
Other voices in the report tell us why we must collaborate locally to bring about the chances that young people need. Another young person from Norwich says:
“Everyone is looking for experienced workers, but how are we going to be experienced workers when no one is giving out experience?”
Another from Norwich seeks more “volunteering placements”. I suspect that organisations listening to today’s debate may want to continue the digital debate and explain exactly what they can offer in terms of volunteering opportunities for young people up and down the country.
I would also recommend that Members take a look at the work of the Found Generation, as mentioned earlier. It is another extremely practical group that asks young people for their own solutions to the problem of young unemployment. In July 2014, it published “Practical Solutions to UK Youth Unemployment”, a report asking for four things. First, it asks that we expand
“the use of public sector procurement to create jobs for young people”,
which I note that the Minister for the Cabinet Office is now doing. Secondly, we are asked to back
“a national ‘kitemark’ to recognise ‘youth friendly’ employers”
and I note that at least one organisation, Youth Employment UK—the secretariat of the all-party parliamentary group that I chair—is already doing so. Indeed, hon. Members can qualify for the award, as I have. I am a recognised youth-friendly MP.
Thank you. Thirdly, the report argues for
“the creation of more local partnerships—including representation for young people—to co-ordinate”
the work that needs to be done. I hope that my examples make that clear. Finally, the report argues for the creation of
“a cross-government youth employment unit or agency in the UK Government, headed by a Minister for Youth Employment”.
I am aware that such a scheme exists in the Scottish Government, so perhaps Scottish Members can outline a few points around that. Will the Minister give an update on what the Government’s earn-or-learn taskforce is doing? The Found Generation’s manifesto for youth employment at the 2015 general election echoed many of the themes that I drew out from the earlier research. We are looking for a more specialist, personalised, sustainable and empowered approach that puts young people at its heart.
In conclusion, I hope that I have highlighted some valuable research and that I have taken the opportunity to put young people’s experiences at the heart of the debate. It gives them a chance to be heard in Parliament. I have argued at every step of my parliamentary career that more young people should be able to take their rightful place in this House. I ask the Minister to respond by giving us an update on the Government’s taskforce, explaining his intentions for the youth obligation, and outlining what he will do to help hard-working jobcentre staff do their best to help young people into work.
Order. I intend to call the first of the three wind-ups at 5.25 pm. I have about six people trying to catch my eye, so, while there is no official time limit, it would be helpful if Members could keep their speeches to five minutes or less.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing such an important debate.
For any young person who is able to work to be out of a job is tragic. It is tragic for the individual who finds themselves unable to get on in life. It is tragic for their family who have to support and motivate them. It is tragic for the country, which misses out on young people’s huge talent and potential. Young people across this country are incredibly talented, hard-working and ambitious. Above all, as I said, they have great potential. They are our future. Youth unemployment is not a new problem. The economic crisis has certainly made life harder for young people starting out, but we parliamentarians must not make excuses. It is our duty to tackle unemployment across these islands. Our constituents would expect no less.
I want to be clear that we will not reduce youth unemployment by sending jobseekers to boot camp, by sanctioning young jobseekers’ benefits and certainly not by forcing young people to knock on the doors of food banks. Imagine a young person under 25 who is unable to remain in their family home or to access housing benefit and has few opportunities. What is to become of them? Who will give that young person a chance? I would love to believe that every young person who walks into a jobcentre has the best experience, is listened to and appreciated, but they are not. That is a fact. I urge the Minister to consider the other options. A different approach is available. We must believe in our young people and their ability to learn and support them through their studies to provide them with real opportunities and real life chances. We must not burden them with huge debts.
Picture a young person in Scotland who is considering college or university. The cost of her education is not a barrier. The fact that she will be entitled to a bursary enables her to access her studies, and her parents can worry less about the debt. Her prospects are better. Her horizons are broadened. Her employment chances are increased. That is how we should approach the higher education system. It should be based on a person’s ability to learn, not their ability to pay, opening the door for young people to create real chances and real opportunities for themselves. Educational aspirations should be determined not by wealth, but by ability to learn and to achieve real and meaningful employment. That is why I am delighted to be part of the Scottish National party and a Scottish Government that put education at the centre of young people’s learning and life chances, something which I hope all parties across these islands would consider more seriously.
Contrast that with a young person in England who will be faced with £9,000 of debt each year to achieve their potential, to achieve their education and to achieve a chance to move on in life. Their prospects will be decreased, their access to education limited and their ability to learn essentially removed.
Do the figures not show that more people from poorer backgrounds have gone to university and further education despite what the hon. Lady has been saying about the increase in fees? Our measures have increased opportunities, not decreased them. What does she say about that?
I agree, but when considering whether economic development throughout Scotland is crippling the life chances of young people, we should contrast some of the constituencies represented in this Chamber with some of the constituencies in Scotland, where young people’s life chances are far more limited. I invite the hon. Gentleman to my constituency to see for himself that many young people do not achieve the same potential as some of their counterparts in his constituency. That is a simple fact.
Higher education, however, is not for everyone, and education is not the only answer—I accept that—but the minimum wage for an apprentice is now £2.73 per hour. How can we seriously expect a young person to take on an apprenticeship when that is a pitiful amount to pay any intern or apprentice? Giving young people the opportunity to achieve their potential requires serious amounts of money and serious amounts of potential investment in their futures, so that amount is paltry; it does not give young people a chance to move on in their lives.
Inequality in apprenticeships is present throughout the UK, in particular when it comes to gender. The Scottish Government are therefore taking gender seriously and ensuring that more young women enter modern apprenticeships. Young people must see the full range of options available to them, not only in traditional jobs, which have been seen as jobs for men, but in other jobs available to women. We must broaden the horizons of our young people and ensure that all young people can achieve their full potential. I ask the Minister to consider all the options available. Let us create real opportunities for young people to learn, to grow, to flourish and to achieve their full potential. That is the best way to ensure that they get off jobseeker’s allowance and achieve employment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Gray. I recognise that time is short, so I will confine my remarks to one or two things about my constituency.
In 2010 in my constituency youth unemployment stood at 6.1%; the total number of young people unemployed was 350. According to the most recent figures, released in September, that number is down to 70, which is just 1% of 18 to 24-year-olds in my constituency—so 280 young people have found work and are enjoying the benefits that come with it.
Good though the jobcentres are, other people are helping the effort in Mid Derbyshire and, in constituencies such as mine, the big society is working. I will highlight the work of one organisation in particular, the Drop Inn, which does a lot of work with young people. It offers accredited training, skills workshops, and support and mentoring for the many hurdles that young people are faced with as they grow up. It was set up by a woman who realised many years ago that many young people have nothing to do in the area, or they feel that, and she wanted to get them off the streets and to give them some sort of training.
The Drop Inn helps young people feel part of the community through volunteer schemes and outreach programmes, linking young people with others in the area and keeping them creative through music and multi-media sessions. It does all that for free, relying on volunteers and trainers to put on the sessions. A testament to the organisation is that many volunteers have been through the Drop Inn programmes themselves. Only last week I heard about two young people who had put on a successful music night, raising awareness and funds for the Drop Inn.
Organisations such as the Drop Inn directly tackle youth unemployment. They give young people the confidence needed to pursue the interests and skills that make them attractive to employers. I am lucky to have such a good organisation in my constituency. I hope that the Minister will join me in recognising the work of such community initiatives in tackling unemployment among young people. Without them, the success in Mid Derbyshire would not be as good as it is.
I echo the congratulations to the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing the debate.
Youth, the state of being young that is between childhood and adulthood, used to be relatively carefree. In some senses it is now extending—something I say as a mum, as well as an MP—with more and more pressures on us, and people of middle age such as me seem to be on an eternal quest for youth.
In my constituency the good news is that 226 young people are now claiming JSA, which is 49 fewer than last year. The figure seems to be going down—that is a reduction of 18%—although, as we have been cautioned, we do not know how many of the jobs are zero hours or casual and the like. Those “young people” are 18 to 24-year-olds, but there are often different measures of what we mean by young.
We have two Jobcentre Pluses, one in Acton and one in Ealing Broadway, but what I wanted to flag up is the fact of conditional welfare arrangements, or ones that require people to behave in a certain way and involve the application of sanctions or penalties if they cannot. From the figures that I have seen, such benefit sanctions are disproportionately affecting young people under 25—another different measure of youth—although that might include the homeless and the vulnerable. In the past year two reports have come out, one from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and one from Crisis, with everything pointing in the same direction.
Young people account for the largest proportion of JSA claimants who are sanctioned, with two thirds of all sanctions applied to claimants under the age of 35—another different measure. We do not know the precise reasons—perhaps young people have more erratic lifestyles—but they need to be looked into and I will be interested in the Minister’s comments, because such a situation might lead to a vicious cycle. Those sanctioned might stop seeking support, hardship might result, people might fall out of the system altogether and, if they have dependent children, the sanctions might affect those third parties as well. It may be a case of unintended consequences, who knows, but it needs looking at, in case that group is suffering some kind of direct or indirect discrimination in the benefit system, leaving them more vulnerable to sanctioning, even if they are equally as compliant as others. That work needs to be done, because there is a concern, especially when the group faces challenges such as high rents and so on in a constituency such as mine.
According to the same YMCA report that the hon. Member for Norwich North cited, “Safety Net or Springboard?”, more and more conditions and expectations are being placed on young people applying for benefits. She also mentioned that young people want more personalised and meaningful support; they do not want to be simply a number. There seems to be a disconnect between people’s daily lives and the way in which jobcentres operate.
In my constituency we have an organisation called MyBigCareer, run by the energetic Deborah Streatfield. She is also campaigning for more mandatory careers advice at school, which I know exists, but it is sometimes only a link to a website, whereas her campaign is specifically for more one-to-one, personalised, sit-down advice. Will the Minister comment on that? My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) raised similar issues.
Everything needs to be put into a context. Since the previous Administration, employment and support allowance has gone, student grants have been abolished and housing benefit is no longer available to 18 to 21-year-olds. We have also heard that the so-called national living wage will not apply to the youngest workers. We do not want some sort of inter-generational conflict as a result. I found a blog that stated:
“UK Boomers slash benefits to young & force them to load up on debt while guaranteeing pensioners ever rising incomes.”
We do not want mistrust between generations, because young people are our future. I worry that some of the logical consequences of Government policy might lead there.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am about to finish, so I would rather not, if that is okay.
The Prince’s Trust—we are talking about Prince Charles, the heir to the throne—youth index uses a measure of 16 to 25, another different definition of what counts as young. One fifth of the respondents for the index said that they regularly fall apart emotionally and that they suffer from anxiety. It found all those mental health issues, so we do not want to be stoking things up.
There is much to agree with in the YMCA report. If we pick up any modern humorous dictionary of quotations, we will find many phrases about young people and youthful folly, such as, “You are only young once.” One such quote is from Oscar Wilde, who said:
“Youth is wasted on the young.”
We do not want to be in a situation where youth is wasted.
Order. Can I say that if hon. Members want to be called to speak, it is quite helpful if they stand up?
Victoria Borwick, I was planning to call you because you wrote to the Speaker to indicate that you wished to speak.
No, I made my point in an intervention. Thank you, Mr Gray.
I see. You need to let me know that.
I am sorry.
Mr Green and Ms Solloway, neither of you wrote to the Speaker; nor, indeed, had you been standing up. However, in a spirit of openness and cheerfulness, I call Chris Green.
Thank you, Mr Gray. It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon. I offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing the debate on this important issue and on her work as chair of the all-party group on youth employment.
As the House will be aware, between June and August the employment rate was 73.6%, which is the highest since records began in 1971. In that same period, 3.92 million 16 to 24-year-olds were in work. That figure is up 66,000 in the past year.
There are many ways to get that all-important first job and gain the vital experience that can lead on to an exciting and rewarding career. While many young people find work through word of mouth, online adverts or speculative applications, we must recognise the important role of the local jobcentre, which is often the vital link between someone seeking their first job and potential employers.
The jobcentre’s role is especially important for those who do not have the necessary support from family or friends that so many of us rely on. However, we do have to acknowledge that, in some cases, jobcentres are not sufficiently flexible to meet the needs of people who rely on their services. We must recognise that the support some people need extends beyond the point of getting and starting a job. Those initial few days and weeks in that first job can be incredibly daunting and that is when support from the jobcentre can be needed most. We need to ensure that the support jobcentres offer is more flexible to enable ongoing support from a work coach outside of normal working hours to reflect the needs of new employees.
I am pleased with the Government’s youth obligation plans to require unemployed 18 to 21-year-olds to take an apprenticeship or do daily community work if they have not been in employment, education or training for six months. The proposals place emphasis on work and other experience, encouraging young people to develop in the discipline and routine of work and to add as many activities as possible to their CVs to improve their future prospects.
Looking back at my work history—I have not had the typical route into politics—I remember an early piece of advice that certainly served me well, though I am sure others here may not quite agree with it. It was, “Just get a job—any job. It doesn’t matter what, because you just need the experience.” I followed that advice and took a variety of low-paid temporary jobs that led to me working as a vehicle mechanic, in a picture frame factory and a bookies, then doing bar work and on to a career as an engineer in the mass spectrometry industry for nearly 20 years.
Each job I had provided a stepping stone and that much needed employer reference for the next job. Without that early experience, I would never have had an enjoyable career in industry and I would not be where I am now. It is vital that, regardless of circumstances and aspiration, young jobseekers receive good guidance from careers advisors in schools and jobcentres so that they are not excluded from today’s competitive labour market.
Has the hon. Gentleman considered the importance of support and guidance at school and mentoring afterwards not just for young people looking for jobs, but for those who want to start small businesses but may not have had that encouragement in the past?
I agree. I think most people in the Chamber would agree that further development is required in schools and in other ways to get young people that first experience so that they can develop the business that they have always dreamt about starting.
My hon. Friend has given a striking example of a can-do spirit and attitude. In a sense, I think that divides the House between those on the Government side who want to see employers providing those opportunities for young people to show that they can succeed as he has and those on the Opposition side who often lean towards giving the young more benefits, because they are not capable of working or whatever. Does he agree that the key to getting more young people into work is seeing opportunities provided in precisely the way the Government have done with apprenticeships?
Apprenticeships are a key way to get experience and it is really important that there is a whole range of ways to get into apprenticeships and guidance for that.
I am delighted that the Government are continuing to support young people moving into work, allocating £1 billion to the youth contract and ensuring that apprenticeships for under-25s incur no national insurance costs for employers. In my constituency, youth unemployment was at 8% in May 2010. Fast-forward five years and it was at 3.9%. Further, since 2010, Bolton West has had an increase of more than 4,000 apprenticeships.
This week, I am interviewing for an apprentice for my own constituency office. Apprenticeships are a vital way to give young people a chance to earn a salary while getting real work experience. A great deal has been done, but there is still much more to do in the future.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on presenting her case in such a full and confident way. For the record, those of us on the Opposition side of the House are equally confident in our young people and we want to see them do well. That is a fact: the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) should be careful with his comments, because many of us feel quite aggrieved by them.
Many of the innocent victims of unemployment are young people, who are feeling the pinch just as much as anyone else. These austere times are difficult for our young people, so we have to help them. That is what we are about. We are all committed to that—on the Opposition side as well as on the Government side of the House. Young people need sustained help.
While the economy continues to recover, some of our young people are not yet feeling the benefits. The debate is about young jobseekers and the Department for Work and Pensions, so we are highlighting the issues of those not currently getting the help that they need.
I am conscious that the Minister has responsibility for England and Wales—not for Northern Ireland, because this is a devolved matter—but I want to make a few comments. In Northern Ireland, the unemployment rate for April to June was estimated at 6.5%, yet 20% of young people were unemployed. Those are the facts for us in many parts of Northern Ireland. We have seen a decrease in the number of unemployed young people, but a large proportion of them are long-term unemployed, if I can say that about young people—if that is not an Irishism—and need an extra bit of help and assistance. I think the hon. Member for Norwich North made that point as well.
I am concerned about young people growing up in a nation where a fifth of them are out of work. We are trying to address that through further education courses that will prepare them for work. Of course, we can blame the economic conditions and say that the economy is rebalancing, but a fifth of young people are unemployed compared with just over 6% of people nationally. In Strangford, I have seen a decrease in unemployment, with the figure at about 4% now. The economy and other things are changing, so let us help those who need it.
We can point to examples in Europe and beyond of similar statistics. We can and do struggle with the global economy; there are some things that even the Minister cannot do, no matter how talented he may be, because of things that happen outside Great Britain that affect us at home. In my constituency, some of the growth industries include agrifood, construction, which is starting to turn again with houses being built, pharmaceuticals, insurance and light engineering. We have to address the issues affecting young people, however. Just the other day, I was given figures showing that a large number of young people are looking to leave Northern Ireland because the jobs there do not have the wage structure and prospects they would wish for. Opportunities further away are more attractive.
I am also concerned about young Protestant males—this was mentioned in a debate in another forum that I was at today—and those who do not achieve the educational standards they need; we must help them to get jobs. I suspect that that is a problem not just in Northern Ireland but in other parts of the United Kingdom—other Members will speak to that when appropriate. However, 20 years on from the first ceasefires we are still behind.
Today’s news about the deceleration of the British economy, led by a downturn in the manufacturing sector, is causing concern. We seem to be losing our manufacturing sector across the whole United Kingdom. That concerns both those of us on the Opposition Benches and Government Members, as it should. Output in the manufacturing sector has fallen by some 0.9%, meaning fewer quality careers in that sector and consequently diminishing opportunities for our young jobseekers. I am not sure how the Minister can address that issue, but I would like to hear some ideas. The Government are going to roll out their new earn or learn scheme. Will he comment on that new initiative?
The Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland has announced some 300 new places in education to prepare for jobs in engineering. We need good partnership between business, manufacturing and so on; those partnerships can lead to a strong economy—that is the change we are seeing. We need new apprenticeships as well, and we need those jobs for young men and young girls on an equal basis. Things are changing, but there is still much to be done. Let us continue to encourage our young people—that is what this debate has done—to strive for better. In turn, they will be able to have confidence in a safe future.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing this important debate. I also thank the YMCA for putting together this interesting and informative report. For many years, I have had close ties with the YMCA in my home city of Derby, and acted as a mentor in its initial pilot scheme. I know the value that that has added. I know from first-hand experience what fantastic work the YMCA does, as well as the challenges it faces when helping young people—not just in Derby, but across the country.
The YMCA report has highlighted concerns about levels of youth unemployment when compared to unemployment in other age groups, as well as issues young people face in finding work. Some of the cases in the report show that people have experienced disappointment and frustration. That is concerning, and we need to make sure that all young individuals are aware of the various ways in which they can be helped in finding work. I was particularly touched when reading about Beth in Derby, who said:
“Job centres look down on you and belittle you”.
That should not be the case. I am sure it is not always so, but her comment is worth mentioning.
I am, however, encouraged that the Government have introduced several new schemes aimed at improving job opportunities for young people. It is vital to give young people the skills and experience they require to meet the demands of a particular position, and those schemes provide them with the support they need to achieve their goals, often before they even get to the jobcentre.
In Derby, a scheme introduced by Enterprise for Education, or E4E, links local employers to local schools and helps young people to find careers that are suitable for them, through providing mock interviews and help with CV writing. The scheme ensures that there are work-ready young people entering the job market. Apprenticeships have also proven successful in Derby, with partnerships between local colleges and schools. Companies such as Rolls-Royce and Bombardier are leading the way locally. I am happy to report that the number of young people taking up apprenticeships continues to rise.
The recent announcement of the creation of 40 new apprenticeship places at a construction training academy in Derby is a perfect example, and is testimony to the Government’s commitment to helping young people and addressing long-term youth unemployment. Through such schemes we are providing help and support to ensure that jobcentres are not the only option available.
Education and experience are two key considerations if we are going to improve job opportunities for our younger generation. People gain confidence from knowing that they have the required skills and qualifications and from having a clear picture of the work they want to find, meaning that young people entering their local jobcentre or applying online know that they are ready to work. However, we must take into account the recommendations from the YMCA to ensure that solutions are realistic, applicable and achievable, and that jobcentres focus on the needs and aspirations of those young people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to have the opportunity to sum up on behalf of my party. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing this debate and on what I thought was a fair and balanced speech. I admire her positivity, although her experiences and those of her constituents are not necessarily shared elsewhere.
I share the hon. Lady’s respect for jobcentre staff. I will quote some of the findings of the YMCA that perhaps point to the idea that some of the issues being experienced arise from policy rather than staffing. The YMCA report points out that although hardship payments are available to sanctioned claimants, in practice
“YMCA know that in many cases claimants are not being made aware of the availability of such schemes”.
The YMCA found that young people were not being given adequate information about sanctions, including support on how to avoid being sanctioned, explanations of why they have been sanctioned and practical advice on what to do once they have been. YMCA research on the effects of sanctions on vulnerable young people found that 84% had cut back on food as a result of being sanctioned. That is a troubling statistic.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) made an excellent contribution. Youth unemployment is indeed a tragedy, and we must recognise young people’s potential to contribute to our society and economy. She pointed out the narrow-mindedness of pushing young people towards work through sanctions. We should believe in our young people. She drew on the example of free higher education in Scotland, which provides real opportunities for young people, and made it clear that higher education should be about ability to learn, not ability to pay. I completely agree with that sentiment.
As for the remarks of the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham), I laud the fact that youth unemployment is dropping in some areas, but I am not sure that all those jobs will be in full-time, secure and well-paid work. So many new jobs in recent years have been insecure, low-paid zero-hours contracts. The Government must report on the quality of new jobs. I agree completely with the remarks of the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) on sanctions; I will say more on that shortly.
The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) pointed out that jobcentres are not sufficiently flexible to meet the needs of those relying on them for support, which I agree with absolutely. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made, as ever, a thoughtful contribution. I agree that young people are not feeling the benefit of economic recovery as yet and are not feeling supported. Perhaps that is being worsened by the Welfare Reform and Work Bill being debated on the Floor of the House at the moment. The hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway) said that jobcentres are not the only route to work, pointing to education and apprenticeships. On that point I again echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East.
The debate has been useful and worth while, and in general very positive, but we must point to the facts as they are. The DWP is failing workers and jobseekers with its dangerous welfare reforms and sanctions regimes. The reforms are already going to have a devastating effect on young people in general and will have the combined effect of hitting young jobseekers very hard. An increasing number of young homeless people are being sanctioned. Those who are vulnerable are being asked to comply with unrealistic conditions, resulting in sanctions that only deepen their disadvantage. I draw on the evidence already presented by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, on the Trussell Trust report on food poverty from June 2014 and on the March 2015 Crisis report on homelessness, which says that the number of JSA sanctions has almost tripled from 2.5 sanctions per hundred claimants per month in the year ending 2001 to seven per hundred per month in the year ending 2014.
In conclusion, it is clear that something is going fundamentally wrong with how the DWP deals with young people seeking work. In my view and in the view of my colleagues, it is time to devolve to Scotland all social security functions and the resources to support that, so that we can plot a different path from the punitive and marginalising approach currently deployed by this Government.
It may be helpful for colleagues to know that the official time for the end of the debate, owing to injury time in a previous debate, is 5.53 pm, although I am told there will probably be a Division in the main Chamber at 5.45 pm.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing the debate and on her work as chair of the all-party group on youth employment. I particularly congratulate her on the digitally inclusive way in which she has approached the debate, which is to be welcomed. I agree with her comments about the personalisation of services needed at jobcentres and join her in commending Jobcentre Plus staff.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), who spoke powerfully about the potential of our young people. The hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) spoke very well about the benefits that come from having work. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) spoke extremely well about the problems of zero-hours contracts and, indeed, of benefit sanctions. I suppose we must all hope that Oscar Wilde is wrong and that youth is not wasted on the young. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), who spoke very well about the need for flexible support, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who made a thoughtful contribution on the position of the long-term unemployed, and the hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), who drew well on her local knowledge.
I make one comment about the final intervention from the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). I reassure him that I stand here as the son of a steelworker, and I totally understand what the can-do spirit is. The former mining community in my constituency, which I grew up in, also totally understands the can-do spirit. I know he is usually constructive, but that last contribution was slightly out of kilter with the usual quality of his contributions.
I am absolutely delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman is so committed to a can-do spirit that is focused more on providing opportunities than on regretting reductions in benefits to young people. I hope he will join me in recognising the extraordinary achievements across constituencies in most of the country in reducing youth unemployment. In my constituency, it has gone from 1,000 people, when the Labour party left power, to 250 today. I hope he will recognise that that is the result of a can-do spirit by Government, constituents, businesses and others working together.
We will always welcome reductions in unemployment. This week, we are talking about the changes to tax credits that are affecting 3.3 million working families and taking away £1,300 a year from them on average. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that that is certainly not a can-do spirit—that is clobbering people who are in work. I certainly do not commend that, and I hope he will join me in condemning it.
The hon. Gentleman should listen—
The hon. Gentleman should perhaps listen to his own constituents and the families who are losing out.
The statistics make for sobering reading: 683,000 people between the age of 16 and 24 are still unemployed, and 138,000 of those have been unemployed for more than 12 months. As a percentage, it does not get any better: 14.8% of the economically active population is unemployed. Even if we take into account those in full-time education, the figure is still 13.2%.
Nobody should underestimate the potential problems of youth unemployment for a person’s employability throughout their life. One of the contributors to the speech by the hon. Member for Norwich North made the point that young people want to get experience in order to get a job, but they cannot get a job and so cannot actually get the experience. If someone cannot get a job, there are also issues of not getting into the habit of working, not being able to develop skills and of feeling socially excluded from mainstream society. We have to tackle these issues. To do that, we need quality apprenticeships and quality work placements; in that sense, I commend to the Minister the approach taken by the Government in Wales.
Over the next three years, the Jobs Growth Wales programme will produce nearly 9,000 placements, each of which will be an initial six-month placement paid at or above the national minimum wage. I commend that strong, activist approach to the UK Government, because we really must not fail our generation of young people. If we do, it will be an intergenerational injustice.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of my near neighbour. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing the debate. I pay tribute to the fantastic work she has done through her Norwich for Jobs project and as chair of the APPG on youth employment. In fact, it would be an undersell to say she is a real champion of young people on a whole range of issues. The number of Members from both sides of the House who have come to support this constructive and proactive debate is a good recognition of that. I am sure her APPG will be packed on 18 November with a whole host of new, eager Members of Parliament wishing to support her. I also congratulate her on the digital debate last night, which I cast my eye over during the multiple votes. Ninety seven engagements and more than 1 million people reached is fantastic. The core messages about a personalised approach, commitment both ways, resources and mentoring are important points that I will pick up on. It is a credit to her that those people chose to engage.
I want to put on record my thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), and the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), for taking the time to pay credit to the hard work in their respective jobcentre networks. Jobcentre Plus staff right across the country do a huge amount of good work and are often not recognised for it. I was impressed by what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) said about the Drop Inn centre. I want to put on record the appreciation of all Members here for the fantastic work that volunteers at that centre are doing. I am sure many of us have similar organisations in our constituencies, and they all make a big difference to people.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), particularly for his point about careers advice, which I recognised. I remember saying at school that I fancied being a Member of Parliament in the future. They laughed and said, “You have no chance.” He also mentioned speculative applications. When I ran my own business for 10 years, the majority of the jobs I offered—predominantly to young people—were on the back of speculative applications, because I was impressed that people had taken the time to do that. The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) made an important point about Young Enterprise, which I have been a huge supporter of. I was proud to lead the campaign to get financial education into the national curriculum in the previous Parliament. It is one of the key building blocks for young people who want to start up a business and is something I certainly support.
We have made big progress on youth employment. We know that youth unemployment can have significant and long-lasting negative impacts on young people’s life chances. The Government are committed to tackling youth unemployment, and we have a strong record so far. Over the past year, of all the EU countries, only the Netherlands has seen a larger rise than the UK in the number of young people in work. That is something we should celebrate. OECD figures show that 71% of non-students aged 20 to 24 in the UK are in work—the second highest number of the big EU economies, just behind Germany, and above the US and the EU average. Excluding those in full-time education, youth unemployment has fallen by over 200,000 since 2010 and is lower than before the recession, and 85% of all 16 to 24-year-olds are in work or full-time education. The employment rate of young people who have left full-time education has risen to its highest in over 10 years at 73.9%—hon. Members will be pleased to know that that is it for the stats for the remainder of the speech.
We want to go further—we can celebrate where we have got to, but all the speeches have highlighted the need to go further—and I am delighted with the announcement of the youth obligation, which is a positive step that builds on what we have done. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North has said, we have made positive steps but we should go further. From April 2017, we are introducing the new youth obligation to support young people aged 18 to 21 on universal credit who find themselves out of work. Those young people will be given the support, skills and experience to motivate them into work, fulfil their potential and make a contribution to their community by getting on in work without slipping into a life on benefits. I think everybody across the House would support that.
Crucially, that will be from day one. Young people will participate in an intensive period of support, learning job search and interview techniques and doing structured work preparation. It is important for them to have that support from day one, while they still have that enthusiasm —it is about not allowing them to slip further away from securing meaningful work. After six months, they will be expected to apply for an apprenticeship or a traineeship, to gain work-based skills that employers value, or to go on a work placement to give them the skills they need to get on in work. Once fully implemented, we expect 400,000 young people a year to participate in the youth obligation, which will make a considerable difference to increasing youth employment further.
Many Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Kensington (Victoria Borwick) and for Gloucester (Richard Graham) in particular, have highlighted the importance of apprenticeships. Again, we would all echo that: they are a valuable route into the world of work, providing experience and vital skills, and are an important part of our approach to youth employment. We have pledged to create a further 3 million new apprenticeships in England in this new Parliament. The jobcentres network will be an important part of helping to signpost, promote and encourage young people to take advantage of that, building on the 2.3 million starts in the last Parliament.
In addition to apprenticeships, we provide a range of employment programmes for young people to support them into work, including traineeships for young people who have not achieved a GCSE grade C or equivalent—so, a pre-apprenticeship—work experience for eligible unemployed young people or sector-based work academies, so each local community, as part of our devolution, can identify opportunities and look to match those as they come forward. On average, around 2,000 young benefit claimants are starting government work experience or the training element of a sector-based work academy every week. The evidence shows that that is making a difference.
The right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) spoke about careers advice, which is an important point. We know that key to tackling youth unemployment is early intervention to ensure that young people get the help they need before they leave school, so that they can make a good transition between school and further learning or employment. That is why we are introducing Jobcentre Plus employment adviser support for schools and colleges. Working in partnership with the new Careers & Enterprise Company to build on the support that is already available, Jobcentre Plus employment advisers will provide 12 to 17-year-olds at risk of not being in education, employment or training with the advice they need on the local labour market, employment opportunities and routes into work experience, traineeships and apprenticeships. It is about providing that career path. Those who are heading off to higher education have the UCAS process—they choose their course and there is a clear path. This change is about stepping in for those who will not go down that route. It provides a real focus, and I am delighted to see it being brought forward.
Last month, the Careers & Enterprise Company launched its enterprise adviser network programme to connect employees from firms of all sizes to schools, through a network of enterprise advisers drawn from business volunteers. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) specifically mentioned a point about inspiring women into different roles. I went to see an organisation called Lady Geek in a school in London. It was looking to incentivise girls in particular to take up courses in information and communications technology, where women have only about 11% of the roles. Unsurprisingly, after a really interactive, fantastic demonstration, about 30 signed up do the GCSE straight away, so they will then go off to have brilliant careers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) talked about the need to target primary schools. That is the whole point of mentors. Most young people will be inspired at some point, and getting those mentors into all schools across the country to provide that inspiration is vital.
I also echo the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) made in praise the National Citizen Service. Of the things that the last Government introduced, I am probably proudest of that. It was introduced personally by the Prime Minister. Every summer, I spend many happy visits joining in and seeing children’s complete transformation into young adults, in terms of their confidence, team skills and public speaking. They are eminently employable at the end of that process, and I am delighted that we have extended its reach further.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North rightly highlighted the work of the YMCA report, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway) for her long-standing work with the YMCA. The YMCA has made some important recommendations, including, first, that each young person should be provided with a specialist youth work coach that remains consistent throughout the length of their claim. We have made changes so that they will have one work coach. That is incredibly important and it will make a difference.
Secondly, the YMCA recommended that each young person should be provided with the ability to participate in education or training lasting for more than 16 hours a week without their claim being affected. In certain circumstances, jobseeker’s allowance or universal credit claimants can participate in training and still keep their benefit—for example, when they are on a sector-based work academy or traineeship. For those on JSA for six months, when their jobcentre adviser or work coach identifies a skills gap that is a barrier to their moving into work, they can attend full-time training for up to eight more weeks. A claimant can also be in training for up to 30 hours a week on universal credit. Again, that will make a huge difference.
Finally, the YMCA recommended that each young person should be provided with the opportunity to receive in-work support from their work coach or a designated mentor when they transition into employment. That is key. As a lot of Members have highlighted, these are often entry-level jobs that do not have the highest pay in some cases. I remember when I was young, my parents would push me—many of us would have been pushed when we were younger—but not everybody has that, so providing support once young people enter work is incredibly important. It is about identifying how they are doing and the challenges they may need to address, or reminding them just how well they are doing and talking to their supervisors and employers and saying, “Look, are there further opportunities to progress?” I think that is really key. We are testing how this will work, but I take a particular interest in it because—as I know from my background, the school I went to and things like that—this is probably the single thing that will make a big difference.
I also pay tribute to the Norwich for Jobs project, which my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North talked about. It is an exemplary way of building partnerships. I had a Disability Confident event in my constituency last Friday, with hundreds of businesses coming along. Those do not have to be done by an MP; it can be local authorities, local enterprise partnerships or community groups. Businesses are willing to engage; we just need to make sure they know there are opportunities to do so.
In conclusion, this debate has been constructive and positive on all sides. There is a clear commitment to tackling youth unemployment, not only in our Department but across all Departments. To ensure that support for young people is joined-up, the cross-Government Earn or Learn taskforce has been set up, involving seven Departments and chaired by the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General. The taskforce is determined to provide a coherent and joined-up landscape of intensive support from all Departments to tackle youth unemployment effectively and ensure that everyone can achieve their potential. I pay tribute again to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North for her ongoing work, and I very much hope she will engage in that taskforce. We can learn a huge amount not only from her personal work, but through that direct democracy—the ideas that have been fed in—and together we can make a real difference to young people, which we would all support.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered young jobseekers and the Department for Work and Pensions.