Wednesday 18 November 2015
[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]
Women and Low Pay
A digital debate has taken place on Twitter ahead of today’s debate on women and low pay, and Mr Speaker has granted a derogation to allow the use of electronic devices in the Public Gallery for the duration of the debate. Devices should, however, be silent, and no photos can be taken.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered women and low pay.
The work that women do is crucial to the functioning of society, but their pay does not reflect that. Despite the fact that their qualifications are as good as, or better than, men’s, their skills are not rewarded to the same level as men’s, and their career progression is slower. We need to ensure equal pay for work of equal value.
This subject is vital for millions of women, and for their families and employers. Living on low pay means that women do not have enough money to give their children nutritious food, let them go on a school journey or take them on holiday. It means not being able to escape a violent relationship, losing much of their pay on the cost of fares to and from work, and not being able to save enough to cover even minor crises, such as the washing machine or car breaking down.
Forty-five years after Parliament passed the Equal Pay Act 1970, we are still to achieve equal pay. Forty-five years later, a 19% gender pay gap still exists. That is 3% higher than the EU average, despite the figure having reduced by a third under the last Labour Government.
When talking about women and pay, we often focus on high-paid jobs and the lack of women occupying positions in FTSE 100 company boardrooms. It is important to ensure that women have career progression, especially when the TUC has reported that the pay divide between men and women is nearly 55% among top earners.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate. She is right: equal pay issues have been around for about 50 years—it is 45 years since the Act was introduced—and that is far too long in my book. More importantly, when women on zero-hours contracts apply for tax credits, they cannot get them, because they are not in steady employment. What does my hon. Friend think about that? Equally, women are discriminated against when it comes to pensions, because a lot of them spend most of their lives being housewives.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct: this is about not just the low pay women receive, but the interconnection with zero-hours contracts, the benefits regime, tax credits and, of course, pensions, because a working life on low pay means a retirement on a low income.
Although the pay gap among top earners is nearly 55%, we also need to ensure, as my hon. Friend said, that we address women’s pay at the other end of the spectrum, among those who are stuck in low-paid minimum wage jobs, who are, too often, on a zero-hours contract. Indeed, the majority of low-paid workers are women, and three in five minimum wage jobs are held by women.
Every major piece of legislation that has improved the lives of women has been introduced by the Labour party. From the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 to the Equality Act 2010, Labour has always been at the forefront of the fight for equality. The Government certainly know how to talk the talk on equality, and the Prime Minister pledged to end the gender pay gap “within a generation”, but with 85% of Government tax and benefit cuts hitting women, Ministers are giving with one hand and taking from women with the other.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She alluded to the Prime Minister’s comments about dealing with the issue within a generation. Does she agree that although successive Governments, including the Labour Government, have made marginal progress—some have made more significant progress than others—our ambition should be about much more than dealing with this issue within a generation? It should be dealt with immediately—within the lifetime of this Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we need action, not words. One of those actions is the living wage—or should I call it the true living wage, so as not to confuse it with the rebranded minimum wage? The true living wage is an hourly rate set independently and accredited annually. It is calculated according to the basic cost of living, not median earnings, unlike the new national living wage. The current living wage is £8.25 an hour, with the London living wage at £9.40 an hour. Employers choose voluntarily to pay the living wage.
Labour local authorities are taking the lead in rolling out the living wage. I am proud of the role I played in Hounslow Council in implementing it for the staff of not only the council, but its contractors, many of whom are women. That is making a difference locally to many women’s lives and workplaces.
During the recent living wage week, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green)—the shadow Women and Equalities Minister—highlighted the importance of fair pay for women on a visit to a group of school meal staff in Camden who had recently been awarded the London living wage. That pay rise was due to a sustained campaign by the Camden New Journal and Unison, which put pressure on the company that employed the women so that it would give them the living wage they deserved. On receiving her pay increase, one of the women was delighted. She said the extra few pounds a week meant she would be able to save a bit of money each month and eventually have enough to go on a family holiday—her first. That made such a difference to her.
That is good for not just the employees, but their employer, which has seen increased staff satisfaction, leading to higher retention rates. Indeed, it previously had high staff turnover, with 40 vacancies to fill last summer; this year, it had only two. That is the point: having a large section of our workforce on a low wage is bad for business and bad for the economy. The Government consultation on the gender pay gap discovered that equalising women’s productivity and employment with men’s could add almost £600 billion to the economy.
The Government have taken some lessons from the last Labour Government. One is that, for most women, childcare is a barrier to labour market participation, and that is even truer of women on low pay. The Sure Start initiative was introduced because Labour recognised that women were more likely to be in low-paid jobs and, therefore, that childcare needed to be subsidised to help them back into work.
It frustrates me that, to help women back into the workforce, there has to be recognition that women’s employment is, on average, less well paid and of less value. Although it is good to see more women able to participate in the labour market, TUC research has shown that more than half the job growth for women since 2010 has been in low-paying sectors. Why is women’s work less well paid? The work that women do is crucial to the functioning of society, but their pay does not reflect that.
Despite the fact that women’s qualifications are as good as, or better than, men’s, they are not rewarded. Women occupy 78% of jobs in health and social care—a sector where the average salary is £40 per week less than the UK economy average. By comparison, men account for 88% of those working in more lucrative sectors, such as science, technology and engineering.
It is harder for women to find good-quality jobs. Evidence suggests that women become “discouraged workers”, resulting in fewer of them working or actively seeking work. They are discouraged workers because they face real challenges in finding decent-quality work, and the work they traditionally carry out, such as catering, cleaning and caring, is too often low paid and undervalued.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that, with 4.1 million children now living in poverty, tackling women’s low pay is a crucial part of improving the opportunities of those young people?
My hon. Friend is right. Children growing up in poverty do not have the same advantages and opportunities as many in their peer group. We cannot have a situation in which the adults of the future are not able to develop as they should in an equal, fair society.
Among examples discovered by the TUC of how brazen companies can be when they employ women was an advertisement in Wales for two seasonal roles—Santa Claus and Mrs Claus. Santa was to be paid a fair wage of £12 per hour, while Mrs Claus was paid the national minimum wage of £6.70 per hour. There was no difference in their job descriptions, and they both did the same amount of work, but the woman’s role was deemed to be of less value. That may seem like an interesting one-off, but it perfectly demonstrates how differently men’s and women’s work is valued 45 years after the implementation of the Equal Pay Act 1970.
Occupational segregation and the devaluing of work traditionally carried out by women, such as caring, directly contributes to the gender pay gap. That must be tackled and the Government must do more to diversify the labour market. As I have said, UK women earn on average 91% of what men earn. To put it another way, as of 9 November, just over a week ago, women are effectively working for free for the rest of the year. That is simply not acceptable in the 21st century. Progress has not been quick enough. Under Labour the gender pay gap reduced by a third—a trend that has, I admit, since continued; but while the gap has narrowed for full-time workers, it has widened for part-time workers and we must not be complacent.
The public sector is in particular difficulties, but the reason for that is the incredibly tight constraints on its budgets. Having been a local authority lead member, I know the pressure and how difficult it is to juggle overdue pay increases and the need to retain jobs wherever possible, particularly in such vital sectors as social care.
The gender pay gap affects women from the day when they start work, and for the rest of their lives. Forty-five years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970, we still have that gap. Earlier in the year Labour called for a new equal pay Act, acknowledging that the current one has simply not prevented inequality between genders. Indeed, the current Act puts responsibility for enforcing equal pay on women, by allowing a woman to take her employer to a tribunal, rather than making it a collective responsibility. Going to an employment tribunal is a difficult process, and it is now a costly one. First, the employee must be a member of a trade union if she cannot pay for a lawyer or represent herself, and many people are put off at that stage. However, if an employee is successful, the tribunal will instruct the company to do an equal pay audit; but how many women even get to that stage? Yesterday I participated in a Parliament outreach initiative on Twitter, and there was some debate. Women talked about their experiences, and many said they would not challenge an employer, even if they thought they were being paid less than their male counterparts. They feared being sacked. One woman said that equal pay audits might be useful, but that she feared many women would
“stay silent for fear of losing their jobs”.
The Government cannot simply point to the existing measures and say they are tackling the gender pay gap, when people do not have access to the tools that are provided. More needs to be done to make the tribunal process accessible, and to give women the confidence to challenge their employers about fair pay. There is also a need to move away from putting the responsibility on the employee to fight for equal pay, and towards collective responsibility. That is what Labour argued for at the beginning of the year. It is impossible for a woman to demand equal pay if she does not know what her male counterpart is earning. An equal pay audit should come at the beginning, not the end, of the process.
Where can we go next? In July, the Prime Minister proclaimed that he would end the gender pay gap in a generation. I welcome any efforts to address the hopeless situation we are in, but we need more attention paid to women on low pay, rather than simply focusing, as I fear the Prime Minister may have done, on women in highly paid jobs. I recognise recent efforts to address the pay gap between men and women, which are commendable. Legislating for companies that employ more than 250 people to publish the difference between men and women employees’ pay is a good way to push companies to pay men and women equally, to avoid embarrassment and public naming and shaming. However, traditional women’s employment in the five Cs—clerical, catering, caring, cashiering and cleaning—is often in smaller companies, which will not need to publish that information.
We must also acknowledge the need to address not simply the discrepancy between wages but the value of women’s work. The Government need a strategy to boost the esteem and pay of the jobs typically undertaken by women. Raising the minimum wage by the end of this Parliament and rebranding it does not fool me, or those women working for wages below the true living wage—the wage calculated as enough to live on. Cutting tax credits for millions of working families does not fool them either. The Government may talk the talk on equality but, while 85% of their tax and benefit changes fall on women, the cuts agenda compromises any chances of improvement for women on the lowest pay.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) for securing this important debate. It provides an opportunity to discuss how low pay affects women’s lives. As we have heard, there are many reasons why women are more likely to receive low pay. They are likely to be paid less than a male colleague for doing the same job, and many women work in low-paid sectors. Of course, more women work part-time.
It is interesting to think about the impact of age on women’s pay. Women in their 60s earn nearly 14% less than men, and women in their 50s earn 18% less than men, which is the highest difference for any working-age group. That has a significant impact on women’s income during their working lives, but also on their income in retirement. That is what I want to talk about. Low pay means that fewer women can save for retirement. If they take time out to have children or care for close relatives and friends, that affects the contributions that they can make to a pension, which means that women face additional disadvantages with retirement income.
I have recently been working with the campaigning group Women Against State Pension Inequality, which campaigns against the way state pension age equalisation has been imposed on women born in the 1950s. For many women reaching retirement age, the state pension will be the main or only source of income. Until 1995, women who worked part time could not join their company pension schemes, or they did not qualify because of time taken out of the workforce for ill health or to fulfil caring responsibilities. Even when a court judgment in 2000 apparently meant that access to employers’ pension schemes was possible, legal technicalities meant that it was too late for thousands of women to benefit. Women who worked part time between 1976 and 1995 should have been allowed access to company pension schemes, but they needed to claim within six months of leaving a job, and many women left jobs without knowing that they could claim. Also, women who worked for less than two years for the same employer did not qualify.
Despite such unfairness continuing to 1995 and beyond, state pension equalisation was started with the Pensions Act 1995 and accelerated with the Pensions Act 2011. Women born in the 1950s have been hit particularly hard, and changes have been enacted without appropriate notification. Many women received little or no personal notification of the changes to the state pension age, so they were left with inadequate time to plan for the change in their financial circumstances. As I have said, older women are more likely than men to be in lower-paid, insecure or part-time work. I have met women in their 60s who are now struggling on zero-hours contracts or jobseeker’s allowance, when they had expected to be able to retire at the age of 60. I met a group of women campaigning about this on Saturday, and one woman told me how, at the age of 62, she had been placed on the Work programme. Some women and their families are now experiencing real hardship because of the changes.
Members of Women Against State Pension Inequality shared with me their experiences, which include partners being unable to retire together due to the changes. Others discussed how they have struggled financially because they have given up work to care but have no income with which to support themselves. It is also a struggle for women in their 60s who have been self-employed, as that is often work that comes and goes. In one case, a woman caring for her husband, who has a terminal cancer diagnosis, will not be entitled to his pension after his death, and will not receive her state pension for a further four years. She said:
“It’s disgraceful to get to this time of life with loads of worries ahead.”
It is unjust that so many women have had their retirement income altered significantly with such little notice, meaning there is not enough time to plan for the changes.
The date at which the changes take effect is also unfair. Those born on or after 6 April 1951 will now have to wait until a later age to claim their pension, whereas friends born just before that date are not affected, which can mean that there will be a number of years’ difference between when women who are born a few months apart—probably people who were in the same class at school—begin to receive their state pension.
It is worth making it clear that the campaign group WASPI is against not the equalisation of the pension age but how the changes have been enacted. Many of those women have already spent their working lives being disadvantaged in pay compared with their male counterparts. The way the changes to the state pension have been enacted is a major injustice for these women, who have already lived with and overcome significant barriers in the workplace and now face even more barriers in their 60s.
It is time we looked again at low pay, but it is also time we looked at the other barriers faced by women of all age groups, particularly the additional hardship faced by women born in the 1950s. That is almost entirely due to the Government making changes to the state pension age without offering transitional protections, which were promised by the Work and Pensions Secretary in the debate on the Pensions Act 2011 but have not materialised.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing such an important debate.
Gender equality is not a dream, or at least it should not be. Often when we debate gender inequality in the workplace, we hear the usual apologist grumbles from Members. We are told that, in many ways, it is a fact of life; it is the way the world works and we cannot continue to complain because it will not change—“Life is unfair. Men are men and women are women. That’s it. Accept it and get on with it.” Well, I will not accept it. That response, which I have come to expect, is not only lazy but wrong, and it does not address the real issues women face. If we think along those lines, of course nothing will change. Inequality will continue. Women will continue to be discriminated against for having children. They will continue to be refused access to justice and will always be paid considerably less than men. We cannot, should not and must not allow that attitude to go unchallenged, because it is that attitude that put us in the position we are in today and it is that attitude that will keep us here.
On 9 November, we marked equal pay day, when women across the United Kingdom started working for free, while men continued earning—a day that we should be talking about in history lessons, not in the 21st century. Forty-five years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act, men still earn two months’ more wages than women every year. The gap between men and women stands at a staggering 19% in the UK, with women earning 81p for every £1 that a man earns. Even in professions dominated by women—hairdressing, catering and cleaning—the pay gap still exists, while women in skilled trades, including plumbing and mechanics, suffer the biggest pay gap, earning close to 30% less than their male counterparts. That is a damaging indictment of successive UK Governments, employers and industry, and it is something we should be collectively ashamed of.
In Scotland, the gender pay gap is substantially lower than across the UK, which is welcome, but it still exists and it should not. More work must be done across these islands. In my constituency, gender inequality has been at the heart of the political debate for years. In my own local authority, South Lanarkshire Council, hundreds of women have fought for equal pay for equal work, and many of them have now received a payout, totalling the massive amount of £70 million. However, just a few months ago, figures published for South Lanarkshire Council showed that the gender pay gap was a staggering 16%, and many more women continue to fight for equal pay, so we are not there yet. I say that not to play politics but to show that the gender pay gap still exists, particularly in the public sector.
Scotland is one of the leading countries in Europe for reducing female unemployment, and we have done it through practical policies such as expanding childcare for two, three and four-year-olds and paying all Government employees the real living wage. We continue to move closer to the goal of equality. Scotland’s First Minister has made the business of redressing inequality a priority for her Government. Labour market figures show that female employment in Scotland has reached a record high, while youth unemployment is at its lowest level in six years and the number of people in work continues to grow. That is a testament to the strong actions taken by the Scottish National party in government, with the economic powers it currently holds, but women should not have to wait another 45 years—or 70 years, as the UN has estimated—for equal pay in Britain.
We have heard from Members about the campaign group Women Against State Pension Inequality and the impact of this issue on the entire generation of women born in the 1950s. What do the Government intend to do to address the issue of those women’s pensions? How will they rectify that, to ensure that women do not continue to experience inequality?
I am glad to hear the hon. Lady raise the same point I did. Is she aware how much it rankles with and angers the women affected that they have not received the transitional protection the Government promised them? It is very harsh to impose the change on people without the protection the Secretary of State promised.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady and thank her for that point. I hope the Minister will address that in his remarks.
This fight is not reserved to half of the population. We do not fight against injustice for one sex; we fight for everyone. No man wants his wife, daughter, sister or mother to earn less simply because they are women. We need to send a strong message to employers, Governments, local authorities and industry that there is simply no excuse for discrimination. As things stand, we are damaging families, diluting gender equality and doing no favours to the economy that is so important to this Government. Now is not the time for excuses; we have heard them all before. Let us take strong, decisive action and put gender inequality where it belongs: in the history books.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing this important debate on a subject that affects women in every constituency the length and breadth of the country, my own included. I intend to keep my contribution brief, focusing on low pay in Coventry and the impact on women locally.
Nearly one fifth of all jobs in Coventry, equivalent to 26,000 roles across the city, paid less than the living wage last year. The majority of those low-paid jobs are concentrated in sectors and roles within the labour market that are overwhelmingly dominated by women, such as care assistants, cleaners, caterers and those working in the leisure and service industry. Although we know those types of job are crucial and help to hold the fabric of society together, they are all too often part time and low skilled, with few progression opportunities.
My hon. Friend will be as aware as I am that Coventry was one of the leading authorities in implementing the living wage. More importantly, she mentioned that carers are among the lowest paid. If a carer wants to go to a tribunal without trade union support—I have seen cases of this—on average it costs £1,200, and most carers cannot afford that. That is a direct result of this Government’s policies.
I agree with my hon. Friend on that point, which was also raised by our hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth.
As I was saying, although the types of job I describe are crucial and help to hold the fabric of society together, they are all too often part-time, low-skilled jobs with few progression opportunities, and are viewed and derogatively dismissed as “women’s work”. Consequently, they are undervalued and underpaid relative to comparable jobs in male-dominated sectors. As a result, low, unequal pay for work of equal value is the bleak reality for many of Coventry’s working women in this divided and divisive labour market.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that women in their 50s earn 18% less than men not only is an injustice for those women, but really reflects a failure of our society to harness all the expertise and knowledge of those women? That shortcoming as a society has an impact on our economy.
I absolutely agree with my hon Friend. I have had experience of that, and constituents have written to me about those very things.
One of the clearest examples of this inequity is the widening gender pay gap in the city, which last year increased to 16.2%, up from 15% the previous year. It reached an astonishing 20.6% in my constituency. That means that on average, women in my local area took home just 79p for every £1 earned by a man. That rising inequality and resultant deterioration in the financial position of women across Coventry is extremely worrying and wholly unacceptable in equal measure, but of course the most fundamental and obvious problem facing women in these less valued and less well paid jobs is their inability to earn enough to provide themselves and their family with a decent standard of living, and in some circumstances even to keep their heads above water.
We know that low income as a result of reliance on low-paid work and in-work benefits limits access to adequate housing, education and other services or facilities, as well as to essentials such as food, fuel and clothing. That socio-economic disadvantage is inextricably linked to the significant health and social inequalities seen in Coventry and in my constituency, which impact upon some of the poorest and most vulnerable of my constituents. That is why we simply cannot continue to allow less valued and less well paid work to be the fate of generation after generation of women. We need fundamentally to tackle the undervaluation of so-called “women’s work”, while simultaneously challenging gender stereotyping within the labour market, expanding opportunities for quality flexible and part-time working, increasing affordable childcare provision, and raising pay across the board, particularly within traditionally feminised work sectors.
Coventry City Council has taken a lead on the issue locally by becoming a living wage employer—like my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth, I was directly involved in that as a councillor some time ago. Such a move ensures improved income levels for a substantial number of low-paid individuals, the majority of whom are women. In addition, the council has also implemented a social value policy, which includes payment of a living wage as one of the criteria that the council will consider in its procurement process. That will benefit all workers on low pay, but particularly women, as they make up the majority of those on low pay in my city.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing this important Westminster Hall debate. I welcome her noteworthy and impressive contribution, as well as the contributions from other Members who have spoken.
The hon. Lady said that there has been a focus on high-paid jobs. It is important that women are given equal representation in high-paid jobs—and in boardrooms, political parties and Government Cabinets—so I can understand why she makes the point, but I think it is important that we focus on both high-paid and low-paid jobs. She highlighted the fact that three out of five jobs in minimum wage work are held by women. I have to admit that I was not aware of that startling figure, but I am glad that she raised it. That is why sorting equal pay claims from councils across the country is so important.
The hon. Lady highlighted the issue of the damaging branding of the Chancellor’s minimum wage premium as a national living wage. It is not national—it is only available to over-25s—and it is not a living wage; it falls way short of the Living Wage Foundation’s independently set living wage, which is calculated based on the cost of living. She mentioned that having a gender pay gap is bad for business. The statistic that she used to highlight that is absolutely correct and it is worth sharing it again: if we were to equalise the gender pay gap, we would boost productivity by an estimated £600 billion in this country. Frankly, that is astonishing. I thank her again for securing the debate.
The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) raised a number of very important points about problems with pensions, particularly for women born in the 1950s. Those issues were discussed just yesterday in a Westminster Hall debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) made very important points during that debate, as well as during this one. The hon. Lady, on behalf of the WASPI campaign group, made some very important points, which I welcome and which are supported by SNP Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) made a typically powerful speech. She made the point that gender equality is not a dream and should not be a dream. It needs to be a reality. She also said that women get paid two months short compared with their male counterparts.
Some years ago, I was fortunate enough to have a job teaching on a “women back to work” programme. The vast majority of the women were divorced. It was a really fantastic experience for me to see how quickly they improved their skills and educational base in a very short space of time. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is very important to provide training and educational opportunities for women—not just women in employment, but those who are unemployed, so that they can get back to work and generate the kind of economic activity that will boost their life chances?
Absolutely. There is nothing that I can disagree with in that intervention, and I will come to some of those issues later in my speech.
Returning to the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East, the gender pay gap still exists even in what would be traditionally or stereotypically described as “female jobs”. That is still wrong and needs to be addressed. No man wants to see his daughter suffering a gender pay gap—that is absolutely right. I speak as a the father of a one-year-old daughter who I hope will go on to employment where she will earn the same as her male counterparts, so I stand here today on that basis.
The hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) effectively highlighted the issues of gender inequality in her city of Coventry. Again, I highlight the contribution made by the hon. Member for Coventry South, who, as I said, also made noteworthy contributions to the debate on pensions yesterday.
It is disappointing that in 2015 we are still discussing matters of gender equality. Nevertheless, it is important to take cognisance of the fact that a real pay gap between men and women remains. Low pay affects women disproportionately. In 1999, the gender pay gap for full-time employees in Scotland stood at 16.7%, but by 2014 it had been reduced to 9%, and it is 9.4% in the rest of the UK. This year, the Scottish Government launched the Partnership for Change programme, wherein public, private and third-sector organisations make a voluntary commitment to work toward a 50:50 gender balance on their boards by 2020. As of 9 November, 160 organisations and businesses have signed up, which I am delighted to see, although more work is clearly needed. On this year’s equal pay day, 9 November, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pledged to do everything she can to advance equal pay and gender equality in Scotland as part of the Fawcett Society’s pay gap pledge campaign. The First Minister has been leading the way on the issues, starting clearly and publicly with her 50:50 gender balanced Cabinet.
Many women shoulder a disproportionate amount of childcare or family responsibilities, and they are unable to take up promotion and other opportunities because they do not have alternative care arrangements. The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 provides further assistance to women and young families by providing that all three and four-year-olds and the most disadvantaged two year-olds are entitled to 600 hours of early learning and childcare. By the end of the next Parliament, the Scottish Government will have doubled the hours from 16 to 30 per week. Increasing childcare will not only improve outcomes for children, but support more women into work.
The Scottish Government have also provided Skills Development Scotland with additional funding as part of a wider £3 million allocation in 2014-15 to develop a range of equality activities, including tackling gender segregation. The Scottish Government are doing all they can with the tools on offer to provide tangible improvements.
Absolutely—I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend.
In Scotland, councils are now responsible for meeting legal obligations to their employees, including on equal pay, but clearly more work needs to be done. My hon. Friend highlighted the issues in South Lanarkshire. My constituency falls under North Lanarkshire Council’s jurisdiction. The council has been embroiled in a long-running and legally very costly equal pay dispute in which the council has dragged equal pay claims through the courts for several years. That is utterly shameful and needs to be addressed urgently. All equal pay cases need to be resolved with urgency and commitment, so that those affected receive their legal entitlement. Again, I am making the point not on a party political basis, but on the basis of doing what is right by our workers.
To conclude, despite the passage of the Equal Pay Act 45 years ago, more work needs to be done to address low pay. Although it is important to recognise that female employment in Scotland is at record levels, that the gap between male and female employment is at its smallest ever, and that the gender pay gap is smaller than in the rest of the UK, a great deal of work remains to be done to ensure women receive parity with their male colleagues. Low pay for women is both a symptom and a cause of gender inequality. We must do all we can to eradicate the gap between men and women to create a fairer and more prosperous society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing this important debate, and I pay tribute to the many people on Twitter who are tweeting this morning on #WomenandLowPay, and are contributing to this debate as part of the digital opening up of Parliament.
We have heard this morning that the gender pay gap in the UK remains, and that women earn 81p for every pound that men earn. Many reasons have been given for that, including a system of occupational segregation in the UK; all too often, women find themselves in low-paid sectors such as retail, hospitality and care, and work part time because they have caring responsibilities. Women face barriers in going to employment tribunals because of maternity discrimination. They face barriers to training and development, including apprenticeships. Sadly, this Government have failed to build on Labour’s achievements, and their cuts are hitting women hardest.
My hon. Friend gave a good example of women’s work being valued less than men’s. She referred to a Father Christmas earning £12 an hour and a Mrs Claus earning the national minimum wage—half the hourly wage of Father Christmas. That got me thinking about a few things, including the message that sends to the children who visit that Father Christmas—that we value his work more than Mrs Claus’s. Frankly, I doubt whether Father Christmas could get round the world in one night without the support of a wife like Mrs Claus.
The majority of low-paid workers in this country are women. Three in five national minimum wage jobs are held by women, and over a quarter earn less than the living wage; the figure for men is one in six. Women are pushed into clerical, caring, catering, cashiering and cleaning occupations, as we have heard, and I will add another “C” to the list: classroom assistant. That brings me to my mother, who was born in the 1950s and works as a classroom assistant. With her union, she challenged her employer on equal pay legislation and on why classroom assistants were earning far less than men who were working for the council in similar jobs of equal worth.
My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) referred to pensions discrimination. I call on the Minister to outline what transitional protection he will introduce for women who have been caught in that trap.
The Resolution Foundation estimates that care workers, 78% of whom are women, are collectively paid £130 million below the national minimum wage, because employers fail to pay for travel time between appointments, and make deductions for items necessary for their job, such as uniforms, mobile phones and petrol. Women are forced into work in which they are undervalued and low paid. For example, 63% of those in retail and customer service are women.
What are the Government doing to end gender segregation and undervaluation of women’s work? Will the Minister give a commitment to take action to encourage women to consider traditionally male-dominated jobs, especially in science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM careers—as well as encouraging men to consider, for example, the caring professions, to ensure that these careers are properly valued and paid at the rate they deserve? We should ask ourselves as a society why we do not value the work that women do to the same extent as that done by men. Some 42% of women are employed part time, but the average part-time hourly rate is less than a third of the full-time hourly wage.
Does the hon. Lady agree that zero-hours contracts only exacerbate inequality? Will she join me in calling on the Government to ban exploitative zero-hours contracts, particularly as we are coming up to Christmas, when the retail industry in particular exploits such contracts?
The hon. Lady predicts where I am going. I agree that zero-hours contracts make it very difficult—for women, predominantly—to plan, especially at this time of year. Reference has been made to Father Christmas; this is an important time of year for families to come together. It can be an expensive time of year. Budgeting when on low pay is essential, but if someone does not know what wage they will take home at the end of the month, it is very difficult to budget at all.
What are the Government doing to create more well-paid jobs with reduced hours or flexibility? The TUC has researched the issue of single-parent families, who are twice as likely as couple-parent families to live in poverty, and 90% of single parents are women. Women’s low pay arises hugely from the fact that they are often a single parent in a household. Single mothers are more likely than mothers in couples to be in low-skilled work, reflecting the difficulties in finding well-paid work that fits around caring responsibilities.
Research from 2005 showed that 30,000 women were forced out of work through pregnancy discrimination, but 10 years later, that figure has almost doubled to 54,000. What are the Government doing to tackle maternity discrimination, and to ensure that women who are victims of such discrimination have access to justice?
As part of my research for the debate, I contacted the National Union of Students and asked it for the information that it has about apprenticeships as part of the work that it is doing. I pay tribute to Shelly Asquith, its vice-president, welfare, who provided me with the information. On average, young men earn 21% more than young women while doing an apprenticeship. According to the poll, female apprentices earn just £4.82 an hour, compared with £5.85 an hour for male apprentices. What steps are the Government taking to improve training opportunities for women, and to ensure that apprenticeships do not discriminate by gender?
My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth set out Labour’s record on equality issues. The Equal Pay Act 1970, the minimum wage, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equality Act 2010 were all introduced by a Labour Government. In government, we have also strengthened maternity and paternity rights. What we have seen from the current Government is a lot of job losses in the public sector. Of the local government job losses since 2010, 96,000 have fallen on men, while 141,000 have fallen on women. With the pay for low-paid work being 8% higher in the public sector than in the private sector, how many of these women are being forced out of their public sector jobs into equivalent private sector jobs and in effect receiving a pay cut?
Will the Minister commit to developing all tax and spending in a way that takes on board the likely impact on women’s equality? I ask that because 85% of the tax credit and benefit changes have fallen on women, and 70% of the savings made by cuts to tax credits have fallen on women. Will the Minister include in the new gender pay gap reporting regulations a requirement for employers to publish information on the earnings distribution of men and women in their workforce? I ask that because unless women know that they are receiving less pay for an equal-value job, it is very difficult for them ever to take any action to challenge that.
The full-time gender pay gap is 9.4%, but that masks the adverse experience of those working part time, where pay is typically lower, resulting in an overall gender pay gap of 19.1%. Indeed, the UK’s gender pay gap is above the EU average, and at the current rate of progress, it will take 50 years to close it. Although I am a young MP, I plan to be retired in 50 years’ time. I am not prepared to wait that long, and I am sure that the Minister is not, either. I therefore hope that he will have positive answers to my questions. I leave him with this thought: why do we value women’s work so much less than we value the work that men do?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing this important debate on an issue that concerns us all. I come from a family where the only thing controversial about gender equality was the suggestion that us men were anything other than inferior, so it has always been a mystery to me why the prejudices and discrimination against women, and indeed any other groups in society, persist, but sadly persist they do.
I suspect that the hon. Lady was not in the hall, but I am sure that she was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in one of the most effective and powerful passages in his party conference speech in October, say:
“I’m a dad of two daughters—opportunity won’t mean anything to them if they grow up in a country where they get paid less because of their gender rather than how good they are at their work.
The point is this: you can’t have true opportunity without real equality.”
As well as paying tribute to the Prime Minister’s leadership on this issue, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who, throughout her career in Parliament, in government and on repeated occasions as acting leader of the Labour party, has led the way on equality, including on women’s pay. All of us should salute her persistence and leadership on this issue.
The fact is that the pay gap, although smaller than it was, is too big, is unacceptable and must not be allowed to survive into the next generation. We can acknowledge that some progress has been made without in any way undermining the assertion that the gap as it remains is unacceptable. There has been some progress. The pay gap has decreased for full-time earners, but it is still too high at, I think, 6 and a bit per cent for full-time earners, and much less progress is being made for part-time workers and those in low-paid jobs. We can all agree that that position is not one that we should tolerate, so the question is what we can do to ensure not only that progress continues to be made, but that it is made more rapidly and made across the board, for part-time as well as full-time work.
I shall explain what the Government have long believed to be one of the most powerful tools in this respect. The laws were passed, as many hon. Members pointed out, by previous Labour Governments a long time ago, but once the necessary laws are passed, progress is often most rapidly achieved as a result of transparency—as a result of making it absolutely clear to everyone, not just the people who work for an employer but customers, partners or neighbours of the employer, what their record is on paying people equally. That is why we have decided to require employers of more than 250 people to publish information about the pay of men and women in their employ, so that they can demonstrate whether they are properly paying people equally. Driving through that transparency and adding to it, as we do with the enforcement of the national minimum wage, and a certain element of naming and shaming, whether formal or informal, both as MPs in respect of employers in our constituencies and as a Government in respect of larger employers nationally, will have a powerful impact on progress.
The second most powerful way to achieve change is to ensure a change in leadership. The Government’s focus on the representation of women on boards is not so much a result or a reflection of our interest in equality being greater in relation to high earnings than low earnings, although equality should be in place across the spectrum. It is more the fact that we are convinced that the more women there are on boards, the more voices there will be insisting that equality be achieved and not putting up with any persistence of inequality, however well disguised.
That is why we are delighted that we have more than met the original target set by Lord Davies of Abersoch to achieve 25% female representation on the boards of FTSE 100 companies. The figure is now at 26%. We now have more women on FTSE boards than ever before. I believe that there is not a single FTSE 100 company left that has no women on its board, but again, although that is welcome progress, it is not nearly enough, because many of the women who have been brought on to FTSE 100 and 250 boards are in non-executive roles. Our next challenge is to ensure that there is an equal increase in the representation of women in senior executive positions, because it is through the leadership roles in every employer that we will drive the change in employment practices down through all the employers in the country.
After leadership, the third most important step is to make it easier for women to get work, to stay in work and to return to work as soon as they choose to do so—it should always be their choice—after having children. That is why, at a time of very difficult decisions on the public finances, we have nevertheless made it a priority to invest in the provision of 30 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds for all families who work, because only when there is that significant number of hours of free childcare will we make it possible for more mothers of young children to go to work as soon as it is right for them to do so.
The final and most important measure is more broadly to increase the rate of pay, particularly in low-paid jobs. We have heard from many hon. Members that women unfortunately occupy more low-paid positions than men do. If we can increase pay in low-paid jobs, we will disproportionately help women. I understand the unwillingness of Opposition Members to acknowledge the substantial and significant step that the Government have taken by introducing the national living wage for people over the age of 25, and I accept that the Opposition want to continue to preserve the concept of a living wage as something distinct from our new national living wage. Leaving aside the nomenclature for a moment, the minimum wage that will be paid to every 25-year-old in the country, including in the great kingdom of Scotland, will go up by an amount far greater than any Opposition party suggested in the general election campaign.
I will not give way right now, but I will do so in a second. We have plenty of time, so the hon. Lady need not worry. The minimum wage will go up by an amount far greater than was recommended by the Low Pay Commission. We have strong evidence not only from internal Government estimates but from the Resolution Foundation that women over the age of 25 will disproportionately benefit from the increase in the minimum wage. For all that Opposition Members want to retain some scepticism about the brand that we are putting on the new, higher minimum wage, I hope that they will welcome that significant step in improving the pay of many women in this country.
I do not think that the Minister needs to lecture the Opposition on the national minimum wage. Labour Members brought in the national minimum wage in the teeth of a fight from the Conservative party. I know that he was not in the House at the time, but he must know that. None of us needs to be lectured on that. Will he say whether he will address the issue that several Opposition Members have raised about transitional arrangements for the state pension age inequality for women born in the 1950s?
I say gently to the hon. Lady that I was not lecturing her at all. I was resisting the suggestion that the national living wage—I accept that Opposition Members do not like its brand—is anything other than a dramatically positive step for low-paid workers, especially women, in this country. I did not hear a single member of any Opposition party welcome the increase that will happen in April for every worker over the age of 25 who is in a national minimum wage job. If the Opposition want the Government—for better or for worse, we are likely to be in government for the next four and a half years—to take on board some of their excellent suggestions for further progress, they should give us a little acknowledgement for that real achievement. It absolutely builds on the national minimum wage, which the Labour party introduced, and I am always happy to acknowledge, as I did earlier, the Labour party’s role in the Equal Pay Act 1970, but acknowledgement of each other’s achievements is a two-way street. It would be good for Opposition Members to acknowledge our achievement.
I will answer the other point made by the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) before I give way again. She asked an important question on a subject that was also raised by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). As I have said, I come from a family that is entirely dominated by women, and two of my sisters are in the age bracket that the hon. Ladies referred to. I have also had some pretty difficult conversations in my constituency surgery with many women who are affected.
The equal pension age is being introduced at the same time as the new state pension, which, compared with the current two-tier state pension, improves the amount of state pension for many women whose national insurance records are incomplete as a result of career breaks or a great deal of part-time work. I am not implying that it makes up all the loss, but there is a countervailing improvement. I am advised by the Department for Work and Pensions that there will be a review of the state pension age. The Pensions Act 2014 provides for a six-yearly review to take into account up-to-date life expectancy data and the findings of an independently led review. The first review will conclude by May 2017 and will consider, among a number of other factors, the impact of the state pension age change on women. That will be an opportunity to consider the issues that the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South raises.
I would like to repeat what the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said in 2011 on Second Reading of the Pensions Bill:
“Let me simply repeat what I said earlier…we have no plans to change equalisation in 2018, or the age of 66 for both men and women in 2020, but we will consider transitional arrangements.”—[Official Report, 20 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 52.]
There were no transitional arrangements. Women who now do not get their pensions until 66 get nothing—no pensioner benefits or bus passes—and, as I have said, many of them are on jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance. Some are even being forced, at the age of 62, on to the Work programme. That injustice will keep coming back. The Secretary of State in that debate promised transitional arrangements.
I do not want to get into a discussion about what another Minister said in a debate that I was not part of, but the quote that the hon. Lady read out indicated that the Secretary of State would consider transitional arrangements. It did not sound to me like a clear pledge to bring in any particular transitional arrangement. I have described the position and the fact that there will be a further review in 2017, which will allow those issues to be revisited.
As the hon. Lady is aware, all decisions, legislation and regulations are subject to equality impact assessments, in which all those things are considered. Her intervention leads me neatly to my conclusion. For all that the steps that I described—transparency, leadership, childcare provision and increasing the national minimum wage through the introduction of the national living wage—are powerful, the most important source of opportunity to improve the pay of women and close the pay gap is a strong economy that creates lots of new jobs. Those new jobs and employment opportunities give women the opportunity to go out and command better wages.
Although I understand that the hon. Lady opposes public spending cuts, it is nevertheless the case that as a result of the consistent policy of slow but steady deficit reduction, this economy has created more jobs than any other country in Europe, and more women are in work than ever before. It might have been possible for Opposition Members, while properly opposing the Government on specifics, to give some acknowledgement of the fundamental achievement of creating jobs, which create opportunities, including the opportunity for women to improve the wages that they earn.
Thank you, Mr Howarth, for chairing the debate and for your understanding. This is the first Westminster Hall debate that I have secured, and my speech was the first I have made in which I have not been severely time-constrained. Like many new Members, I am still getting used to the procedures and practices in this place, so I thank you for your generosity and your support. I have been particularly pleased to serve under your chairmanship.
In concluding the debate, I thank those who helped me in the preparation of my speech, in particular the TUC, the staff of the Women and Equalities Committee, Oxfam and Age UK. They all provided useful, informative material. I thank fellow Members who have contributed to the debate. I notice that there has been only one contributor from the Conservative party—the Minister. I regret that there have not been more contributions from Members of the governing party, as I know that they all represent large numbers of women in their constituencies, many of whom will be affected by the issue of low pay.
My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) eloquently described the impact of a working life on low pay, and what that means for then being a pensioner on low pay. She specifically mentioned the women, born only a few years earlier than me, who had planned for retirement at a particular age but have now had their plans ruined and cannot properly budget for their retirement because of the change in their pension arrangements. Transitional protection is vital for them. Those women will have to work for low pay for longer, and they will be very vulnerable in the workplace over the next few years.
I thank the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), with whom I serve on the Women and Equalities Committee. She outlined the public sector challenges and some of the issues for women in Scotland, particularly in her constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) eloquently described what low pay means in the city of Coventry, particularly in her constituency, where the gap between men’s and women’s pay is even higher than the national average. That just shows how dependent the women of that city are on low-paid work. She and other Members also mentioned how zero-hours contracts affect low pay.
I do not have daughters. I have two sons. All the work that they have done to date has been on the minimum wage and on zero-hours contracts. It is all right for them, because they live with us. We always have food in the fridge and there is always a washing machine for them to use—occasionally, admittedly. They would like to earn more. However, the women they work with are trying to pay rent, feed children and run a family, and they cannot do so on the minimum wage, particularly where we live in outer west London.
The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) pointed out that the new national minimum wage applies only to people who are 25 and over. That might not affect as much young people who still live in the family home where a number of people are bringing in money, but many young people under 25 live on their own and have to pay rent and household bills. Why should they be left out of the new national minimum wage, which is effectively a rebadged minimum wage?
Is my hon. Friend aware of any shops that will sell a loaf of bread or a pint of milk for less money to someone under the age of 25 than to someone over the age of 25? Should not a living wage be enough to live off? When living costs are equal, we should have equality in the living wage as well.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why the Living Wage Foundation carefully researches what a living wage should be. A living wage should be enough to live on, which is why the living wage is fully researched and accredited, and why it is higher in London than in the rest of the country.
The Minister said that the Opposition have not welcomed the changes to the national minimum wage, so I would like to say something about it. Before the spending review next week, there is a real fear that the £1.7 billion cost could bring down the care sector. If the Minister still has a chance to lobby the Chancellor before next week, he might like to make that point to him. There are real fears about that. In fact, when I asked the Community and Social Care Minister about it yesterday in Health questions, he actually asked me where the funding was coming from. In response to the Minister, the reason people have concerns is because of things like that.
If that is your wish, Mr Howarth, I will not.
I return to the contribution of the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts, who spoke of his hopes for his baby daughter and her working future. Let us all hope that when she joins the workplace, she will be able to earn the same as the young men of her age, whatever sector she goes into and at whatever level. We all hope for that for our children and grandchildren, and those of our constituents.
The hon. Gentleman outlined the work done in Scotland by the Scottish Parliament and by local authorities. That is to be commended. As he said, low pay is a symptom and a cause of inequality, and Labour Members all have sympathy with that point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) said much that was absolutely appropriate and added much to the debate. She particularly captured the issue of discrimination by picking up on my true anecdote about the recruitment for the position of Santa Claus at a Christmas grotto in a local store in Wales, where Mrs Claus was to be paid half the amount that Santa Claus would receive. She pointed out that Santa would not be Santa without Mrs Claus supporting him and working with him. She is absolutely right. That might be a funny story but it happens day in, day out in workplaces across the country.
I do apologise, Mr Howarth.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood also pointed out that we should be talking not about five C’s, but about six. Her mother’s experience as a classroom assistant is absolutely true, and I would say that well over 90% of classroom assistants are women and are on low pay. It is right that they are paid adequately and are recognised for the valuable work that they do supporting our children.
The Minister comes from a women-dominated family, as many people would say I do, but we are not here to speak for ourselves and our immediate families. We are speaking for the women we represent, which is why we are in this place and why we believe that this debate is vital. As I said, I am sorry that there are not more Members from the Minister’s party here. He was right to pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for the contribution that she has made in this place over many years.
I commend the Government for the efforts that they have made so far in recognising that there is a wage gap and an issue of low pay, and that childcare is a major issue, particularly for women.
Although the Minister initially concentrated on board pay and high-level executive pay, he finally got on to the issue of low pay. As many colleagues have said, there is an awful lot more that the Government could and should be doing. As I said in my opening speech, and as others also said, it will take time to implement the new national minimum wage. We will not even have a review for two years, and it will not be fully implemented until the end of this Parliament, which is too long for women in this country to wait. It is worth repeating that 85% of the Government’s benefit and tax credit cuts will hit women. The Government are giving with one hand and taking with the other.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered women and low pay.
Road Infrastructure (Shropshire)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered road infrastructure in Shropshire.
It is a great pleasure to have this debate about road investment in Shropshire under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth.
Shrewsbury is growing rapidly and we are earmarked for a very large number of new homes. I see congestion in the town as the single biggest threat to its future prosperity. In the past 10 years, while I have been an MP, I have seen the levels of traffic in Shrewsbury increase significantly. A relatively small town, we have got to the stage where there is considerable congestion, which is starting to affect the ability of commuters not only to get around the town but to get across Shropshire by traversing the Shrewsbury area.
We have a ring road around Shrewsbury, but it is only three-quarters complete; the last quarter has never been finished. This morning, I spoke to one of my councillors, Councillor Peter Adams, and he told me that the idea of a north-west relief road was first mooted in 1948, and we have been going round and round the Wrekin, as we say in Shropshire, on this particular issue and putting forward proposals for the completion of the north-west relief road ever since. We were almost there and the council had the project “oven-ready”—ready for Government investment—but the financial crisis led to the reduction of investment in such projects and the work never went ahead. Now that the economy is picking up, I very much hope that the Government will take a real interest in the project.
In all my communications with the Secretary of State for Transport, he has led me to believe that a road of this kind would be the responsibility of the local enterprise partnership. It is for the LEP to prioritise as the body that has been tasked with negotiating with the Government on major infrastructure projects that will affect prosperity and employment in Shropshire. I understand this new relationship that the Government have devised, whereby funding and setting priorities will be, to some degree, under the jurisdiction of the LEP, and that is why I have engaged significantly with the LEP in my area during the last few years to highlight to it the priority that I attach to this project. However, I am very pleased that I have the opportunity today to flag it up with the Minister and I look forward to hearing from him about his understanding of where this project is and what additional support the Government can give to the LEP.
Interestingly the benefit-cost ratio, which is a Government statistical tool, of the proposed route is 5:4. A BCR of more than four is classified as very high, making the proposal very good value for money according to the Government’s own criteria. Indeed, the project matches the Government criteria perfectly; it meets the test for value for money that the Government themselves have set.
The proposed road would provide the missing river crossing between the western and northern parts of Shrewsbury, significantly reducing the traffic that at the moment crosses through the town centre unnecessarily, and reducing congestion on the town’s western and northern approaches. It would also slash journey times between the west and north of Shrewsbury by two thirds, from 19.1 minutes to just 6.6 minutes. I am sure the Minister can appreciate just how important the project is for me and Shrewsbury residents.
We have huge support from Shrewsbury Business Chamber, the local chamber of commerce, our local council, which is a unitary authority, and many residents associations. At a public meeting, I asked members of the Shrewsbury Town Centre Residents Association who was in favour of this road project and the people there overwhelmingly—about 95% of them—were very supportive. That is simply because they can see the congestion affecting people’s ability to get into Shrewsbury.
We really depend on visitors. Shrewsbury has more listed buildings than any other town in England. We trade on the fact that we are a very historic town and tourism is our No. 1 income generator. If people are struggling to get into Shrewsbury to appreciate its beauty and all it offers, including the unique shopping experience, they will bypass our town and go to other parts of Shropshire, or to Chester and beyond. That is why this issue is so critical to the prosperity of Shrewsbury, and indeed to the prosperity of Shropshire and mid-Wales.
As the Minister knows, the Oxon link road is the embryo of the north-west relief road. I have already discussed this road project with him and I look forward to hearing from him that the Oxon link road is live, and that the planning and finance for it are coming forward for this first chink, or first part, of the north-west relief road. I am very pleased about that, but I look forward to hearing from him today about his understanding of how that first part will lead to the completion of the whole road.
Of course, I also invite the Minister to come to Shrewsbury. If he can come on a Friday afternoon, that would be best, because everyone will be collecting their children and he can see the type of traffic mayhem that takes place in Shrewsbury. He can come and speak to us in my constituency, but he can also see that traffic mayhem. If he can do that, it would be wonderful.
The A5 is another very important road in my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson). The A5 is part of a trans-European network that runs from Holyhead all the way to Felixstowe. It is a major trans-European network, and the part of it that runs through Shropshire is the only part that does not have dualling. My right hon. Friend and I went to see the Secretary of State recently, to highlight our concerns about the number of accidents and deaths on this road. We had a very productive meeting and we specifically asked him to initiate work that will give us an understanding of the costings involved in dualling this stretch of the A5. We very much look forward to seeing the result of that work.
I will give way shortly.
The stretch of the A5 that runs north from Shrewsbury through north Shropshire links up with the A483, which goes into north Wales. As I have said, it is the last stretch of the trans-European transport network from Felixstowe to Holyhead to be dualled. It is inadequate for the volume of traffic coming from Ireland and the industrial areas of north-east Wales, and it is frequently the cause of congestion, disruption and danger. That is why I wanted to raise this issue with the Minister.
I give way to my right hon. Friend, who has been campaigning assiduously on this issue since he became an MP in 1997.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for raising this very important issue, and for giving way to me. He is quite right to cite the terrible damage that the lack of a dual carriageway on this stretch of road has caused. Between 1991 and 2015, this single-track road between Shrewsbury and Chirk has killed 48 people. There have been 48 fatal casualties, as well as 308 serious casualties and 1,081 slight casualties.
My hon. Friend is quite right to cite the pressure of traffic. Traffic has increased by 33% since 1993, from 36,807 vehicles in a 24-hour period to 49,045 vehicles. The only solution to the problem is to dual the road. We had a most satisfactory and constructive meeting with the Secretary of State, who promised to come to Shrewsbury, and I endorse the invitation that my hon. Friend has made to the Minister today. I also ask the Minister to come and see how we can co-operate in the closest possible way with the road investment strategy 2.
Another neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), is in Westminster Hall today. We also raised the issue of the A483 Pant to Llanymynech bypass, which is the subject of the UK’s longest-running bypass campaign, because 90% of the damage resulting from the lack of a bypass falls in my constituency whereas 90% of the benefits of the A483 go to Wales.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising those points. I would like the Minister to know that my constituents and I have followed just how doggedly and passionately my right hon. Friend has lobbied on the issue. Someone going from Shrewsbury to Oswestry, particularly during the summer months when many tourists are using the A5, would be shocked that this trans-European network route is so congested and is not dualled. Interestingly, someone trying to get on to the A5 from some Shropshire villages—I must get this point across—has to wait for a gap in the traffic. That is to get on to a trans-European highway, and that is causing some problems.
The A49 runs from Ludlow to Shrewsbury. In anticipation of this debate, I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) whether he wanted to contribute. He is not able to be here, but he stated that his constituency is the sixth largest in the country and does not have a single metre of dualling anywhere. That lack of dualling is prevalent throughout Shropshire. The A49 has a huge amount of freight traffic coming from Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and parts of Wales and going all the way past Shrewsbury. That traffic winds through a lot of small Salopian villages, and its speed on narrow roads is a significant cause of concern for many local residents. I have spent many years campaigning on pedestrian crossings in some of the small rural villages that the A49 runs through. We have had some wonderful successes, particularly in the village of Dorrington, where we have secured an important pedestrian crossing, but nevertheless more needs to be done on that road.
I have mentioned the north-west relief road, the A5 and the A49, and those are the roads I would like the Minister to focus on.
I simply want to raise some issues with Shropshire roads that my hon. Friend has probably only mentioned in passing. Shropshire is the gateway to mid-Wales, particularly in terms of transport, because alternative transport routes are absent. The cross-border scheme between Pant and Llanymynech on the A483 and the Middletown scheme on the A458 are crucial to the economy of Wales. I hope the Minister will allow me to join him when he comes for tea in Shrewsbury, so that I can explain how crucial those two developments are. The devolution complexities have made them far less likely to go ahead, and we need to liaise to ensure that they happen.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He will of course receive an invite to join us in Shrewsbury and put his case when the Minister visits our town.
I would like to say something positive to the Minister. The M54, which comes into Shropshire, has been incredibly well resurfaced. Highways Agency staff get a lot of flak when road building improvements take a long time, but they have worked tirelessly night and day on the M54, and the surface and the standard of the M54 are probably the best that I have known over the past 15 years. I pay tribute and extend my thanks to them. I would, however, like to see a reclassification of the road, because the M54 stops at the Wellington junction and continues as the A52 to Shrewsbury. Those last few miles represent a very short distance, and we would like them to be reclassified because that would put Shrewsbury on the motorway network. There are some differences, but the A52 looks almost identical to the motorway. The business community is passionate about that reclassification and wants to convey that to the Minister. When a company, particularly a foreign investor, is looking to invest in a factory or a new plant, they will always look at a map of the motorway network in the United Kingdom. For us not to be on that network puts us at a disadvantage, so I would like the Minister to look at that matter.
We have received pinch point funding of nearly £4 million to improve the Emstrey island and the Preston Boats island. Those are two massive roundabouts where the A5 comes into Shrewsbury, and the work carried out has been superb. I thank the Government for the investment.
Tourism, as I have already indicated, is the No. 1 income generator for Shrewsbury and Shropshire. We need to ensure that people find it as easy as possible to come to our beautiful county on holiday and to see Shrewsbury and other places of interest throughout the county. Working together as Salopian MPs, we have secured a direct train service from London to Shrewsbury, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire is trying to get an extension to north Shropshire. That link to London has been critical. The volume of traffic coming on Virgin Trains to Shrewsbury as a result of our campaign is superb, and Virgin is pleased with the initial results. We want to replicate what we have done on rail connectivity and investment for Shropshire with our roads system, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing the debate. I am aware that he is a long-standing campaigner on transport issues in his county and constituency. I thank him for his invitation, which I would be delighted to take up. It sounds like it will be a jolly tea party. Shropshire is one of my favourite parts of our country, and I like the idea very much.
I hope to address some of the points that have been raised, but I start by setting out what we are already doing in the area. Shropshire has a resident population of more than 300,000 people. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) made a point about it being a gateway into mid-Wales, but it is also at the heart of the UK. The nationally important M54, A5, A49 and A458 run through the county, and the transport network provides vital access and connectivity for local people and businesses.
I am sure everyone is aware of this, but the Government are committed to a long-term economic plan and to delivering infrastructure investment, because, as has been made so compellingly clear in this debate, transport investment is key in driving economic growth. We are committed to delivering a step change in investment in transport infrastructure. That was made clear in the road investment strategy, which was announced last December. It is the biggest road investment programme since the 1970s, with £15 billion of investment across the motorway and A-road network by 2021, and it includes 127 major enhancements. As part of the strategy, we created five ring-fenced funds totalling £900 million to enable actions beyond Highways England’s business as usual. Some of the outcomes we expect Highways England to secure through the funds may be relevant for roads in and around Shropshire, including a safer, integrated and more accessible strategic road network for cyclists and vulnerable users.
Although no major Highways England schemes in the county are listed in the RIS, Shropshire may benefit from one scheme, which is the M54 to M6/M6 toll link road scheme. There have been other areas of investment in recent years, including smaller schemes. The Highways Agency’s national pinch point programme offered the benefits of improved safety, reduced congestion and the tackling of delays. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham mentioned some of the schemes, but there have been five works along the A5, at Preston Boats, Edgebold, Emstrey, Mile End and Churncote. He was generous in his comments on the quality of the work by Highways England, and I will pass those kind comments back.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham have been long-term campaigners for investment in the A5 and A483. I know they met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport last month. The A5 provides an important strategic route that has implications not only for the local economy but on a broader, national basis. The points that have been made about its role in the tourism sector are beyond question. Safety issues on the road have been made clear, and safety is a key pillar of our road investment strategy.
We are developing a second road investment strategy to run directly after the current strategy finishes. Highways England is due to start the next round of route strategies, revisiting the entire English strategic road network to help inform the preparation of RIS2. Highways England will use the route strategies to identify current and future constraints on economic growth that the performance of the strategic road network potentially causes, and will identify how future delivery and investment plans can address them and unlock the opportunity for growth.
Where there are specific investment proposals, there will of course need to be a strong and clear business case to support them. As we develop RIS2, I want to see greater input from local economic bodies such as LEPs, councils or combined authorities. I also want to see nominations from colleagues here. I want the process to be wide. As we narrow down the filter, we will look at all the requests we have for capital and then come up with a clear plan to run smoothly from this road investment strategy into the next. The aim is to have continuity of delivery and to break out of the stop-start approach to investment in transport, especially roads, which has held our country back for a long time. I will be happy to work alongside colleagues from all over the country to help develop schemes for consideration in the second road investment strategy. The points that have been made about how we can unlock economic development and improve safety are key criteria that will be used in our assessment for the second road investment strategy.
Highways England plans to publish route strategies by the end of 2016-17. I am keen that we use the data so that colleagues, LEPs, combined authorities or whoever it might be can contribute. I will certainly ensure that the reclassification that has been requested will be considered as part of that process as well.
I am acutely aware of the importance of local roads, infrastructure and transport to local communities. They are of course the responsibility of the local highways authority, Shropshire Council. 1 know that the condition of local roads is of concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, but the Government are taking action and providing the tools and funding to help local highways authorities, including Shropshire, maintain the roads for which they are responsible.
Shropshire is receiving more than £86 million to help fix and maintain the local highway assets that it is responsible for between now and 2021. It can also receive up to a further £10.5 million, depending on where it is within the highways maintenance incentive element that is being introduced next year. That funding is intended to incentivise authorities to take proactive management of their assets, understand their assets and encourage collaboration, and to ensure that they are spending taxpayers’ money in the most efficient manner possible.
I have already mentioned some of the ways in which the Government are investing in Shropshire, but there are others. At a local level, The Marches local enterprise partnership was awarded £75.3 million in the growth deal in July last year and a further £7.7 million in January this year. That funding will support important transport schemes such as the Shrewsbury integrated transport package.
My hon. Friend explained his support for a new relief road in Shrewsbury. The Oxon link road is in its first phase. That £12 million scheme is under way, with a £4 million contribution from the Department for Transport. The local growth fund is the primary funding route for Government funding of local transport infrastructure schemes. Following the spending review next week, we will know a little more about that, but he was absolutely right to raise the issue with the local enterprise partnership, which will be the vehicle for the decision making. We will provide support, but it will be a local decision. Having looked at the proposals on a map—I will see them at first hand when I come to visit—I can see much merit in them. It is quite a difficult scheme, with river crossings and railways, so it is not straightforward to deliver the scheme. However, the significant local support is positive.
It might be worth contacting Midlands Connect, the potential sub-national transport body. That is not a particularly catchy phrase—but such bodies are effectively combined new bodies that will decide local transport strategies and develop transport plans for their areas. A new clause has been added to the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, which is progressing through the House at the moment, to put the sub-national transport bodies on a statutory basis. They will set priorities for transport investment and will be big bodies. This is not about taking powers away from highways authorities—they will be left intact—but about decision-making stuff that is currently handled in Whitehall being handled locally. Contact with Midlands Connect will be very important in assessing transport priorities.
Midlands Connect has a £5 million Government grant to help it develop a midlands-wide transport strategy. The opportunity for the midlands to speak to Government with one voice and to make transport planning on a local basis is a huge opportunity. I expect transport bodies to develop across the country. Transport for the North will be the first, but it is already acting in a voluntary capacity. Putting such bodies on a statutory basis will increase their powers and give everybody the chance to plan on a much longer-term basis. Working with the LEP and with Midlands Connect is the way forward in establishing transport need in the area. I will make sure that Highways England is aware of the work that Midlands Connect is doing.
The debate has been helpful and constructive. I hope I have made it clear that the Government are committed to modernising and investing in transport infrastructure across the country, most certainly within Shropshire, as a key part of our long-term economic plan. My right hon. and hon. Friends have made compelling cases for investment in their area, and the fact that we have significant local support and that progress has been made in developing plans is an encouraging basis from which to build. I look forward to working with colleagues and helping to develop business cases.
It is in the second road investment strategy that the opportunity to make a big step change on key strategic roads will lie. That is where the opportunity and the budget will lie. We will launch the process for the second road investment strategy within weeks, and I very much look forward to working with colleagues on that.
Question put and agreed to.
Personal Injury Fraud
[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered personal injury fraud.
Mr Wilson, thank you for presiding over this debate, which I feel fortunate to have secured. It is and will always be a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I declare an interest as both a justice of the peace and one of the 30 million-plus drivers in our country. I am also a freeman of the City of London, and since securing this debate I have been contacted by various claims management companies, solicitors and insurers, big and small, who have offered information and briefings to assist my contribution. I explicitly thank the Industry and Parliament Trust and Liverpool Victoria, or LV=; I spent Monday with various of their personnel who deal daily with fraudulent personal injury claims, claimants and the companies that are farming information—or vishing, as I learned—to generate moneys for themselves. Ultimately, anyone with an insurance policy is paying for this immoral action through rising insurance premium costs.
I entirely concur with my hon. Friend. Indeed, I will cover that issue later in my speech.
Before I had the luck, honour and privilege to become a Member of Parliament in 2010, I was the victim of a car insurance scam, having previously suffered twice after uninsured drivers caused accidents involving my family’s vehicles. In 2009, at a roundabout near Cheshire Oaks, a car purposely stopped in front of me for no reason. The ensuing collision slightly damaged my bumper—well, in fact it was the front bumper of my father’s three-week-old 700 series BMW. Despite the low speed and very minimal damage to just his bumper, a claim was made with my insurers for some £16,500.
The court threw out the claim—after a protracted, three-year-long case—as, among other things, the car owner claimed £1,000 for a vehicle recovery charge from a company owned by his cousin in St Albans, when actually he drove the vehicle away. The two circa 21-year-olds in the vehicle were, he claimed, actually his father, who used the vehicle in his work as a driving instructor. As the case progressed, it turned out that the driver of the vehicle with which I collided was not the driver who attended court.
After the hearing, it was revealed that the same scammers had attempted, with success, similar claims on six previous occasions in just a few years, with the vehicle registered at the same address. My experience was a classic example of an induced motor accident—a “crash for cash” scam—but what happened to the fraudsters? The judge was very good in his summing up, but admitted that even though he wanted the police to investigate the perpetrators, there was little likelihood that that would occur. Taxpayers, who fund the court system, find that they pay not only higher insurance premiums, but in a secondary way, through the valuable court time taken up with disputing and proving that fraudulent claims are being made.
During my time with Liverpool Victoria on Monday I was shown various examples of fraudulent personal injury claims in which judges really did not get it. Refreshingly, though, there is some evidence that rare individual judges are taking positive steps to halt the onward and upward march of fraudulent claims, which cost the Government and the population of our country considerable sum each year—and all power to them. I trust that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), and my right hon. Friends the Members for Derbyshire Dales (Mr McLoughlin), for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and for Tatton (Mr Osborne), along with their ministerial colleagues, will take note if passed details of this debate.
The list of most eminent places and their elected representatives that I have just elucidated helps to crystallise part of the problem we have in dealing with this issue: it cuts across a number of Government Departments. But that should not be a problem, now that it has been clearly identified; we just need someone, and their civil servants, to want to proactively take control and deal with it. I am sure that the good Minister, who represents Gosport, will have noted my plea, along with our other colleagues, and will pass it on to open ears in the corridors of power.
According to the insurance company Aviva, as well as Enterprise Rent-A-Car, City of London Police, Keoghs, Liverpool Victoria and many others who have contacted me and operate in the transport, insurance and judiciary sectors, a minor personal injury—mainly whiplash—claim adds at least £93 to the average annual motor premium. It is a £2.5 billion per annum problem, and around half of the costs relate to very minor injuries which require little or no proof of injury.
It would seem that we in this country have the weakest necks in the world—certainly in the parts of the country that are hotspots for such claims. Funnily enough, as a geographer, the correlation seems to be phonetic: most of the places begin with B—but I digress. It is such a serious issue that Volvo engineers from Sweden are most interested in our seeming propensity for whiplash injuries, especially as for some years their cars have been designed and engineered to minimise such neck complaints in minor and low-speed bumps and scrapes. Later in my speech I will return to how we compare to other nations in our likelihood to suffer from so-called whiplash injuries.
The culture of personal injury fraud is often fuelled and overseen by organised crime, and there are many examples of opportunistic claims that put innocent motorists’ safety at risk and inflate their premiums. Many fraudulent claims stem from nuisance calls made by some, but definitely not all, claims management companies, and—perhaps more worrying—by so-called marketing companies acting directly at the behest of some infamous and certainly not morally superior solicitors and law firms.
The so-called marketing companies are directly providing leads to claimant solicitors, underlining the fact that there is still too much cash in the system, despite the changes made in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, known colloquially as LASPO. How are these solicitors and law firms and their partners in crime, the marketing companies, securing the supposedly outlawed trade in personal data—our email addresses, home and mobile phone numbers through which we receive unwarranted and unwanted emails, calls and texts exhorting us to make claims, as there is “£3,000 to £4,000” just waiting for each person who makes a personal injury claim? That is the nub of the problem.
We need to stamp out the cold calling, and quickly. I have suffered, as have many of my constituents and those of other colleagues present, and, indeed, those of colleagues who could not attend, such as the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who offered his support but is engaged elsewhere in the House. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) will speak about cold calling and its relationship to the myriad fraudulent claims in the country as a whole later in the debate.
Personal injury insurance fraud can be summed up as manifesting itself in a number of ways, and some aspects are easier to detect than others.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that one way forward might be for the insurance companies to provide a detailed dossier of information to the Solicitors Regulation Authority? It is clear from what he is saying that there is a systemic problem of which that authority should be fully aware of and perhaps look into.
I agree entirely with my hon. and learned Friend. In fact, some insurance companies are now acting more coherently, shall we say, and working with each other rather than always acting in competition. They have realised that the problem is not going to go away and has in fact got a lot worse.
The three most common strands of third-party fraud are: accidents fabricated or deliberately staged purely with a view to submitting false claims for compensation; fabricated personal injury claims where a genuine accident has occurred; and genuine accidents and injuries, but with aspects of the claim being fabricated or exaggerated.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Does he agree that not only are the fraudulent claims he describes made at the cost of law-abiding motorists, but they cause a great deal of distress to the innocent victims, who see escalating charges and escalating amounts being claimed against them?
Indeed. I concur with my hon. Friend; she is entirely correct. Later in my speech I will describe the various other aspects that cost the nation, the taxpayer, the Government and organisations involved in this sector.
Fraudulent injury claims cause increasing costs in car insurance for consumers and businesses. The UK now sees more compensation claims for whiplash per car accident than any other western European country. As I have already said, we are known as having weakest necks in Europe. Efforts by the Government have had limited effect, and personal injury claims are now at a record high. In the first quarter of 2015, the number of personal injury claims made through the Ministry of Justice claims portal was the highest on record, with 13% more than in the same period for 2011-12, before LASPO was introduced. Claims data for 2015 so far show that, for some companies, 80% of all personal injury claims received were related to whiplash.
Liverpool Victoria estimates that, in 2015, at least 11% of the average car insurance premiums it provides can be attributed to paying for whiplash claims. That is a significant and unnecessary cost for consumers—our constituents. At Liverpool Victoria, 10% of claims handlers are employed purely to tackle fraudulent claims, at an annual cost to the business of £4.5 million to run the team. Those costs are ultimately paid for by customers, further increasing the cost of car insurance for individuals. Businesses are also affected by rising commercial insurance premiums for company vehicles. For small businesses in particular it is an unwelcome and unnecessary cost.
The Information Commissioner’s Office received 180,000 complaints about nuisance calls or texts in 2014-15—a 12% increase on the previous year. According to research that Liverpool Victoria commissioned in July 2015, each British person—importantly and unfortunately, this includes children—receives an average of 468 nuisance calls and text messages every year. We waste six and a half hours a year dodging calls, deleting texts and listening to phone messages that none of us wanted to receive. One in three reported receiving more nuisance calls and texts than calls from friends and family, and more than 80% of those who receive personal injury calls have never even been involved in an accident for which they could, if they wanted, have made a claim.
Fraudulent claims also have a cost for our GPs and the NHS as a whole. This is an area of great concern, as fraudulent claims are putting additional pressure on an already-strained NHS. Liverpool Victoria research carried out with GPs shows that GPs now see 116,000 people every month that they suspect are inventing or exaggerating an injury to claim compensation, which equates to nearly 1 million wasted GP hours every year. At this point, I will depart from my written speech and say that I may include the Secretary of State for Health in the list of eminent persons I read out earlier, because this is a serious issue for the NHS.
Claims farming generated by rogue solicitor firms and claims management companies is creating high volumes of fraudulent and exaggerated personal injury claims. Aged claims farming is the new norm, and it has increased since LASPO was introduced. Insurance firms have seen a significant increase in claims farming—the practice by which a claimant solicitor or a claims management company targets individuals with nuisance calls and texts to encourage them to make a personal injury claim. It now represents between 20% and 28% of all claims received by some companies each month. In January 2013, before the introduction of LASPO, the figure was 13% or below.
A high volume of farmed personal injury claims are being generated by just a few rogue solicitor firms. Despite evidence being passed to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, this behaviour has not been challenged, but it should be. Although the practice of claims farming is widespread, a minority of law firms are driving the problem: Liverpool Victoria’s analysis shows that more than 41% of suspected farmed claims that it received in 2015 were submitted by just 10 law firms.
Let me turn to the issue of cold calling and vishing. There is clear evidence, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) said, that claims management companies and solicitor firms that cold call and text people are targeting vulnerable individuals. Claims management companies target individuals by calling directly from purchased marketing lists. The practice is widespread. Research conducted by Liverpool Victoria in June 2015 shows that the UK public collectively receive more than 60 million nuisance calls and texts every day—equivalent to 43,000 a minute. A significant proportion of the approaches are from lawyers or claims management companies trying to encourage individuals to make a personal injury claim.
Worryingly, the number of claims being made without the knowledge or consent of the claimant is increasing. A range of unlawful tactics are used to obtain and verify the data. In such cases, claims management companies act without formal instruction and the claimant does not sign any documents. Some claims management firms have even forged claimants’ signatures. The practice of vishing insurance companies is rife. As I heard on Monday, the number of vishing calls that London Victoria’s staff receive is rising: in just this year to October, it received more than 3,000 vishing calls.
I believe that the Government need to address the root cause of motor insurance fraud and customer harassment: the excessive cash in the system that creates unwarranted incentives. To deal with the problem, the Government should, first, introduce a minimum threshold for simple whiplash claims and replace cash compensation with rehabilitation, which would deal a fatal blow to those making nuisance calls and the “cash for crash” industry.
Secondly, the Government should ensure that magistrates, district judges and Crown court judges are aware of the cost of fraudulent claims to the nation and the need to take affirmative action, including dealing with uninsured drivers with parity. Why would somebody get insurance if they need to be caught and fined four times in a year to equal the cost of insuring their vehicle?
Thirdly, the Government should remove the civil court aspect of chasing a fraudulent claimant. We need to stamp out this pernicious crime. Only by instructing the Crown Prosecution Service to go after fraudulent claimants actively, backed up by the police, will we do so.
The real kicker of those three simple undertakings is that the vast majority of the voting public—certainly, 100% of law-abiding, insurance premium-paying drivers—would be utterly joyous and would commend us for doing some good in this place and making their lives easier and, ultimately, cheaper.
The challenge is that, as the Association of British Insurers’ premium tracker shows, the average motor premium for the second quarter of 2015 is £367, and it is increasing. Similarly, the number of whiplash claims is showing worrying signs of rising again. The Ministry of Justice’s claims portal shows that it has increased by 6% in the past nine months. There remains excessive cash in the system, which continues to fuel exaggerated and fraudulent personal injury claims, putting upward pressure on motor premiums. Organised and opportunistic crimes such as “cash for crash” continue to put motorists’ personal safety at risk while inflating all of our insurance premiums. Nuisance calls encourage fraudulent behaviour, leave law-abiding drivers vulnerable and mean that the staff of our insurance companies are encouraged—hounded, even—to breach data rules. Bogus data management companies and similar organisations, such as some data marketing companies and claimant solicitors, continue to plague motorists with texts and calls. They need to be regulated as a whole while the compensation culture and the opportunities remain.
According to the ABI, almost 130,000 cases of claims fraud were detected in 2014, totalling more than £1.3 billion—a 4% increase in value compared with 2013. In addition, there were 212,000 cases of application fraud. Between 2009 and 2014, the overall value of fraud detected rose by 57%. The insurance industry detects fraud in less than 2% of claims, but one in nine whiplash claims are fraudulent. The average cost of a bodily injury claim is £10,680, and the overall average for all claims is £2,649. Bodily injury claims make up 9% of the total number of claims, yet represent 51% of the total value of claims.
Many insurers have made it clear to me that they are taking action. Between 2005 and 2013, the number of UK motor accidents fell by 30%, but the number of whiplash claims increased by 62%, a large number of which are believed by the insurance industry to be fraudulent or grossly exaggerated. During that time, the average cost of a bodily injury claim increased by 73%. Indeed, one of Enterprise Rent-A-Car’s largest ongoing costs is the impact of personal injury claims as a result of accidents involving its vehicles. It is its third highest expense after fleet acquisition and personnel costs. Its fleet liability costs have been significantly impacted in recent years by the huge increase in personal injury claims. The growth is driven by low-value claims for soft tissue injuries.
We have a compensation culture problem that has not been dealt with and is not shared by many other European countries. According to Frontier Economics’ whiplash report, whiplash claims in France comprise only 3% of personal injury claims, in comparison with 94% in the UK. In Germany, the number of bodily injury claims has dropped in line with the fall in road traffic accidents. In Norway, most minor injury claims are handled without the involvement of a solicitor. In Sweden, a de minimis threshold means that symptoms must appear and be assessed within three to four days of the accident.
What can we learn from those examples? Whiplash claims are not as significant in other European countries, due to the much more stringent conditions that must be met before a victim can successfully claim compensation for a whiplash injury. In April 2013, 70% of personal injury claims following road accidents in the UK were for whiplash, compared with 30% in France and Denmark, 31% in Spain, 35% in the Netherlands and 68% in Italy.
Certain European countries have implemented a variety of measures to reduce the frequency of claims. In France, the diagnosis of a whiplash claim requires objective proof, based on more rigorous medical testing. Claimants are made to pay for an initial report on the injury. France also requires medical practitioners diagnosing whiplash to be specially trained in bodily injury diagnosis. Its small claims limit, which is greater than the UK’s, allows more claims to be settled without solicitors. I am also sure that it would not allow medical examinations to take place in Pakistan via Skype.
In Germany, a severity scale is used to assess the extent of the disability caused to a claimant by their injury, and compensation is awarded accordingly. Emphasis is placed on having a high level of proof of the injury when a claim is made following a low-speed collision, and injuries are diagnosed using clear objective criteria. Finally, contingency fees are permitted only in cases where the claimant cannot afford to hire a lawyer, meaning that lawyers are less incentivised to pursue cases.
In Sweden, claims for whiplash injuries can be made only if symptoms appear and are assessed within three to four days of the road traffic accident. There is a table of predictable damages, as used in the UK for workplace personal injuries and in Norway, meaning that claims are limited to the type of injury caused, increasing the efficiency and transparency of the handling of claims. Spain also uses a table of predictable damages, and it requires medical practitioners diagnosing whiplash claims to have specific qualifications, like in France.
Some companies and organisations believe that establishing an objective test for whiplash is imperative in reaching the core of the current problems surrounding insurance fraud. That would filter exaggerated and fraudulent claims out of the claims process, ensuring a reduction in the number of whiplash claims. At the same time, it would ensure that those who have genuine claims were not prevented from making them.
I want to go a bit further than Europe and refer to a taskforce report from Quebec, which is in Canada, for those whose geography might be a bit rusty. It was produced in 2001 and provided an objective basis for diagnosing whiplash. It is a little bit old, but it has since been endorsed by several other Canadian provinces. The task force divided whiplash-associated disorders into five grades. At grade 0, no neck pain, stiffness or any physical signs are noticed. Grade 1 involves complaints of neck pain, stiffness or tenderness only, but no physical signs are noted by the examining physician. Grade 2 disorders indicate neck complaints, and the examining physician will find a decreased range of motion and point tenderness in the neck. Grade 3 encompasses neck complaints, plus neurological signs such as decreased deep tendon reflexes, weakness and sensory deficits. At grade 4, people may suffer neck complaints and fracture or dislocation, or injury to the spinal cord. As I said, severity scales are also used in Germany, where the number of bodily injury claims has dropped in line with the fall in road accidents.
I recognise that the Government of which I am a part have taken and are taking steps to address such matters. I welcome, for example, their insurance fraud taskforce, set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) in his former role, and I look forward to it reporting next month. I also welcome the fact that Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Ministry of Justice have commissioned a fundamental review of the regulation of claims management companies following concerns that CMCs fuel speculative unmeritorious claims for compensation and create a significant social nuisance through unsolicited calls and texts, misleading marketing and high charges.
However—I will state this clearly for the record—CMCs are only the tip of this fraudulent iceberg. The dodgy solicitors and law firms, some from the other side of the world, need to be investigated and shamed too. The consultation on the taskforce’s review closed last Friday, and I hope that its report will focus on customer outcomes, with fewer nuisance calls, and on having a new, more stringent and encompassing regulator, like the Financial Conduct Authority, to ensure consistency across the entire financial world and its markets.
I commend the City of London police’s model. The insurance fraud enforcement department was established in January 2012, when insurance fraud was reported to be costing £2 billion and the coalition Government were reducing police force budgets. It is a specialist police unit operated by City of London police and funded by the Association of British Insurers. Since its establishment, IFED has been responsible for more than 1,300 arrests and interviews under police caution, 172 convictions, 256 police cautions and 150 people being on bail to court or police, and 325 investigations are in progress, with new cases coming in every week. An example of IFED’s work was the bringing to justice of a Keighley pair, who were jailed for creating an insurance web of deception worth thousands of pounds. I will briefly summarise their deception. Those two fraudsters created insurance policies for people who did not exist and then submitted 300 false personal injury referrals worth £167,000 for made-up road accidents. Both have been jailed for four and half years
However, loopholes remain in the current personal injury referral fee ban and inducement laws. The regulation should include the data marketing companies, claimant solicitors and law firms, which are well known and easily identifiable, that are under the radar of the current regulator. We should outlaw insurance payments for whiplash injuries before proper medical examinations have taken place and concrete proof is provided. The key issue in the personal injury market is the level of financial incentives that still exist, despite the referral fee ban and the reduction in legal costs. It is still far too easy to make a claim for whiplash, and the rewards for doing so in terms of damages and legal costs have created and maintained the adverse behaviours that have prevailed since 1999 when no win, no fee was introduced in the UK. The small claims track for personal injury claims has been left unchanged for 16 years despite all other track limits increasing.
There is simply too much cash in the personal injury system, which is borne out by the continuing menace of the nuisance calls that we and our constituents receive and the fraudulent activity of some CMCs, so-called data marketing companies and some solicitor and law firms. Recent increases, which are way above current inflation rates, in the Judicial College’s suggested awards for minor injuries will just make matters worse. We need a more stringent and proportionate legal and regulatory regime that addresses the financial incentives in personal injury, cuts out the nuisance calls and ensures that all benefiting parties are regulated.
Although I am grateful to the Government for the steps they have taken to date, and to the Minister for taking the time to be here today to respond to this important debate, further reform is needed to keep insurance premiums for law-abiding motorists down. In addition to introducing a minimum threshold for simple whiplash claims and replacing cash compensation with rehabilitation, I would like to see, as a minimum, a ban on nuisance calls and better regulation of those who farm data, such as some solicitors, law firms, CMCs and marketing companies; the removal of all referral fees from the claims process; a limit of £5,000 on personal injury claims; a reduction in the limitation period for bringing minor whiplash claims from three years to 12 months after the accident; and the introduction of a table of predictive damages linked to a percentage of severity or disability to cut down unnecessary legal arguments. I note that France, Spain and Norway have fixed damages tariffs for whiplash-type injuries.
Once again, I thank the Minister and other colleagues for attending the debate, and I urge her to do everything that she can to deal with and limit fraudulent personal injury claims and to support the law-abiding motorists of Lincoln and the 30 million-plus drivers across the country. I believe that I have managed to outline a fair few potential processes that could be undertaken to reduce this blot on our road transport landscape. I hope the Minister and our friends in Government and the good offices of Whitehall will feel the same to a great degree.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) on securing today’s debate. I was keen to speak today because of a personal experience. A year or two ago, my wife and I were involved in a relatively minor road traffic accident on the M5. The car had some damage, but there was certainly no question of any personal injury. Despite that, my wife and I were bombarded on a more-than-weekly basis with phone calls and text messages that continue to this day.
I was annoyed and upset, not by the pestering, but by the person on the other end of the phone trying to coerce me into pretending that I, my wife or my children, who were also in the car, had suffered some form of personal injury when we had not. No matter how often I said, “We’re all absolutely fine. None of us has suffered any injury,” they would say things like, “I’m sure that you must have suffered some slight injury,” or, “You must feel a bit unwell,” or, “All you have to do is say you have a slight neck pain and I can get you £3,000.” I was being incited to commit blatant fraud. I am not alone in that experience. In fact, several other Members of Parliament have had similar experiences, as have friends and family outside the House.
I am appalled and outraged that in this country in 2015, companies encourage our citizens to commit fraud, and that so many of our citizens are going along with it because the system makes it easy, and pays them £3,000, £4,000 or £5,000. The first reason why I find the practice so objectionable is that it is morally corrosive. It encourages law-abiding citizens to commit a criminal offence. My hon. Friend touched on many of the other reasons why it is a terrible practice, and I want to reinforce one or two of them.
Most importantly, each and every one of our constituents, many of whom are hard-pressed financially, are paying almost £100 a year in extra insurance premiums because of this fraudulent activity. Families can ill afford that sort of money, in particular people on lower incomes. It is striking that despite the number of road traffic accidents having gone down by 30% in the past 10 years, injury claims have gone up by a staggering 62%—an extraordinary explosion. The total cost is £2.5 billion a year, which is a significant sum. Many honest businesses, such as Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which my hon. Friend mentioned, are struggling; its business model is under genuine threat, because car rental businesses have such a big cost imposed on them as a result of fraudulent claims that are damaging honest, law-abiding businesses.
The case for urgent reform is clear. I have six specific proposals for the Minister and will be grateful for her response. I am delighted to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Justice, is present. I hope that he will pass some of our comments on to the Secretary of State.
My first recommendation or request echoes something my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln said; it is for a complete ban on outbound calling to solicit personal injury claims, and on the use of information obtained from such calls. Work has been done to regulate that more carefully over the past five or 10 years, but I respectfully suggest that it has not so far had the desired effect. The only way to fix the problem is to have an outright ban on outbound calls, and on solicitors’ firms using the output from the calls; conceivably, someone could make a call from Bermuda, but sell the information to a law firm in Manchester.
I also echo my hon. Friend with my second request, which is that we pursue with criminal charges any claims management firm, solicitor or member of the public found to be making a fraudulent claim. In the hierarchy of criminal activity there are more important things for the CPS and the police to focus on, but the abuse is so widespread and £2.5 billion a year is such a large sum that we should actively pursue people through the criminal justice system. Until criminal sanctions are applied to the activity, there is no disincentive, and people will keep on trying to do this.
My third recommendation or request is that, for injuries to be compensated, there should be evidence that the alleged victim went to a doctor or sought medical advice within, say, a week of the injury being sustained. People turning up a year later and saying that their neck hurts is ludicrous if, when the accident happened, they did not seek medical assistance immediately. That would be a good way to cut out almost all such claims. If the claimant did not see a doctor within a week of the accident, I suggest that the claim simply be disregarded.
My fourth suggestion is that we use the system adopted in Germany and Canada, which have firm and objective sets of criteria. At the moment claims are being satisfied without someone having to produce any evidence except to say, “My neck hurts a bit.” Without further evidence, no cash compensation should be paid—no evidence, no compensation.
My fifth suggestion again echoes something my hon. Friend said—we seem to think alike on the topic—and that is that the claim limit be 12 months, rather than the current three years. My sixth and, as I am sure the Minister will be pleased to hear, final suggestion is that the limit for lawyers getting involved on a no win, no fee basis be increased from £1,000 per claim to £5,000. It has been at the £1,000 level for 16 years, and an increase is long overdue.
I am grateful for having had the opportunity to speak. I again thank my hon. Friend for the debate. I thank the Minister for listening attentively, and I will be grateful to hear her response to my six points.
I apologise, Mr Wilson, for being a wee bit late; I had a Committee to attend, but I rushed down straight away. I hope to return to it later, so I also apologise in advance if I have to leave before the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), and the Minister speak.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) on securing the debate. It is good for subjects that concern us all throughout the United Kingdom to be brought before the House. Every time there is a fraudulent insurance claim, we—those who do not do such things—pay for it. We have to highlight the issue. It is good to see the shadow Minister and the Minister in their places; I always look forward to the response, and I do so today.
Precise levels of fraud are unknown, but the Association of British Insurers recently published figures showing that 59,900 dishonest motor insurance claims were uncovered in 2013. I am sorry if that statistic has been reported already, but if not, I hope that it adds to the debate. That figure for claims was an increase of 34% on 2012 and represented a value of £811 million, itself up 32% on 2012. Those are staggering figures, given their effect on insurance. Dishonest claims comprise about 8% of all motor claims registered with the compensation recovery unit in 2013.
The real victims of insurance fraud are the hard-working, everyday people who have to pay inflated premiums because of the selfish actions of selfish individuals, who far too often get away with their criminal actions. Of all motor claims registered, 8% or nearly one in 10 is fraudulent. That is staggering—and that is only those claims that have been discovered to be dishonest. I am not saying that every claim is dishonest—I cannot say that, because I have no evidence for it—but that figure might be only the tip of the iceberg.
Around 775,000 motor personal injury claims were registered with the Department for Work and Pensions compensation recovery unit in 2013-14, compared with about 520,000 claims in 2006-07, only seven years earlier. That is an increase of almost 30%. My figures are different from those of others, who say there has been an increase of about 50% in claims. The increase has coincided with a 23% decrease in the number of road traffic accidents reported to the police. The stats prove the need for this debate.
We do not need to be rocket scientists to work out that something about the scale of that increase is suspicious, especially given the trend in road traffic accidents. That all adds to the evidence for my suggestion that the 8% of claims that have been found to be dishonest are, with respect, only the tip of the iceberg. If the trends continue, even higher premiums will result for law-abiding, hard-working people. Our role as parliamentarians is to ensure that we protect innocent people from the selfish criminals who make fraudulent claims for their own gain.
On 27 May I asked a question of the Secretary of State about personal injury compensation and what steps had been taken. To be fair to the Government—let us give credit where credit is due—they have responded and taken a number of steps. They have fixed the cost of medical reports and ensured that the provider of a report should have no direct link to the claimant. That might seem to be a small matter, but it is an emphatic and strong step to take. Also, since 1 June, solicitors have been carrying out a previous claims check on claimants before pursuing a personal injury claim. I am often reminded of “Only Fools and Horses” on television, when Uncle Albert falls down the hole where the beer kegs go in—but he has made a similar claim six or seven times before. The check will stop people making claims six or seven times, because the records will be consulted to ensure that it does not happen.
Another step taken is that, since 6 April, medical reports for claims have to be submitted through the new MedCo portal. Again, a process has been tightened up; it is another step in the right direction. Also, referral fees paid between lawyers, insurance companies and claims management firms are now banned—a clear step in the right direction, to ensure that things go the right way. Furthermore, from January 2016 there will be a new accreditation scheme for the medical experts who provide the medical reports. All those Government actions before and since my parliamentary question are excellent steps in the right direction.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss what is truly an epidemic, with an impact on each and every one of our constituents. I hope that it is something we can work together on, and that we can come up with a more robust and bipartisan solution that will see those selfish criminals dealt with appropriately. Regulations already exist, and the hon. Members for Lincoln and for Croydon South (Chris Philp) have indicated other steps they wish to be taken, which would help the Minister to tighten the screws a wee bit more. We need to do something about the massive increases in claims, but the regulations in place may not be as robust as we would like. The question is whether we need to create additional legislation or should simply push for more rigorous enforcement of current legislation. I do not know the answer, but I am sure the Minister can tell us.
I hope my contribution has been helpful, but I do know one thing: my constituents pay the highest insurance premiums in the whole United Kingdom. We do not have the special offers that appear on TV—on the bottom of the screen, it always says, “Northern Ireland not part of the deal”—and we get a wee bit narked about insurance premiums. We therefore need to step down hard on those who make fraudulent claims. If we can stop them, the premiums for everyone else will be lower.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) not only on securing this important debate but on his continued pursuit of the issue of insurance fraud during his time in the House. That included a parliamentary question in April last year to the Secretary of State for Justice regarding a judgment in the Supreme Court in a work-related injury case.
I recognise that, as hon. Gentleman said, the UK has the highest rate of fraudulent claims in Europe, which means that 11% of car insurance premiums are attributed to whiplash. I also recognise the role that nuisance calls play in inciting and inviting fraudulent claims. That is not to mention the cost to the NHS, which we across these islands want to protect and maintain.
I welcome the remarks by the hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), with whom I have not had the pleasure of debating before. He spoke of his harrowing experience and of being invited to claim, which was probably not at the forefront of his mind at the time. I also welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who recognised that hard-working people pay the most as a result of the effect on premiums.
The Summers v. Fairclough Homes case in 2012 created the precedent that exaggerated or fabricated personal injury claims might be struck out in exceptional cases. The Government then proposed measures in 2014, which they said would mean that people would no longer be able to profit from exaggerated or fraudulent compensation claims, while victims with genuine cases could still get the help they deserved. However, as we have heard today, those measures have not gone far enough. Personal injury fraud remains an issue for our constituents.
We can define personal injury fraud broadly as any act intended to cause an insurance company to compensate for an injury that is non-existent, exaggerated or unrelated to an accident claimed for under a policy. More than 3 million people are injured in accidents each year—that experience is harrowing enough—be it in their home, in their car, at work or outdoors. In many cases, someone else is at fault, and the victims have the right to claim compensation.
As has been highlighted in the debate, however, there are many examples of injuries being overstated so that people can make a more lucrative claim, and we must clamp down on such actions. Statistics from the Association of British Insurers estimate that 59,900 out of 775,000 personal injury insurance claims related to road traffic accidents in 2013 were dishonest. If those figures are correct, it means that about 8% of claims were fraudulent.
Filing a fraudulent personal injury claim can have serious repercussions. Insurance companies can deny claims or drop coverage. Claimants can be liable to insurance companies for any money paid and for the costs involved in investigating the fraud. Criminal charges can, of course, also be brought against fraudulent claimants. Perhaps, however, that is not really tackling all the problems.
The effects of fraud are felt not just by those committing it on the off-chance they are caught out. The Association of Chief Police Officers estimates that fraud represents a £20 billion annual loss to the UK—the equivalent of £330 for every person in the country.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She is making a sound case and an interesting argument. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) on securing the debate.
Perhaps the hon. Lady would be interested in the example of Sweden, which has found that the cost of whiplash injuries to insurers, and therefore the public, can be limited by restricting—time-barring, effectively—the time within which a claim can be put in to three to four days after the accident. Perhaps a week or two weeks would be a better proposal for time-barring people in the UK.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I recognise what he says about a limit on the length of time for making claims, but not every person might be able to claim within two weeks of experiencing an accident. We must consider such issues, but I do welcome the point that other European countries have imposed all manner of limits, sanctions and bans that have resulted in fewer claims.
As I was saying, the cost of fraud is equivalent to £330 for every person in the country, which is an astronomical figure that we should not impose on our constituents. However, in taking action against fraudulent claims, we must make sure we tread carefully.
Between 2008 and 2011, 1.9 million motor injury claims were made in England. In the same period, 75,000 claims were made in Scotland. That amounts to 25 times more claims being made in England than in Scotland. Given my legal experience, I acknowledge that protections must exist for individuals who have experienced accidents, and they should have the right to seek damages.
The current law does allow for some effective sanctions. Harsh judgments against those found to have claimed fraudulently act as a deterrent to others. Lower damages can be awarded for the non-fraudulent part of the claim, an action routinely imposed for punitive and deterrent reasons. Adverse costs orders can be applied in most cases, wiping out or even exceeding the value of any award. Contempt of court applications can be brought, leading to imprisonment. Criminal proceedings can be brought against those who bring fraudulent cases, leading to heavy fines or imprisonment. Those deterrents against personal injury fraud mean that our court systems already have the power to punish and deter fraudulent claims. We must make sure that any change to legislation does not impede fair settlements, access to justice or the efficient functioning of our courts.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) on securing the debate. The subject is not totally unfamiliar; indeed, it was debated quite a lot in the last Parliament. I refreshed my memory earlier about a debate we had almost exactly two years ago—on 7 November 2013—entitled “Motor Insurance (Whiplash)”. I spoke for 30 minutes in that debate, and I refer hon. Members to that speech to spare them from having me repeat the whole of it now. Much of it is still relevant, which is sad in a way, and that might be an indictment of the Government for not having done more. Perhaps we can blame that on the coalition, which was a completely different organisation—there are no Liberal Democrats around to protest any more, so we can always blame them.
I dealt with this issue for five years, and I thought I had finally got rid of it, but my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), who is responsible for dealing with it, is away somewhere, so I am reprising the subject. The last time we debated it, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), had just taken over the brief, and now the current Minister is acquainting herself with it. It is an interesting subject, and perhaps I may say without any disrespect to the hon. Member for Lincoln that there was good and bad in what he said. I was with him for much of his speech, until at the end he drew conclusions that did not all perfectly derive from the facts at his disposal. One of the problems is that we do not always have the facts that we need on this issue.
I think we all detest cold calls, because we believe they are parasitical, and they are severely irritating. As far as I am aware, cold calls from law firms are already banned. Many of the cold calls that we receive come from call centres run outside the UK, which have become an industry in themselves. I do not think a single Member of the House, or indeed member of the public, would not want a crackdown on them, and want them to be banned and excluded. The problem is that it is difficult to do that, but I hope that the Minister will be able to say what the Government intend to do along those lines.
Even if one cannot ban calls emanating from outside the UK, there could certainly be a ban on any UK organisation, including law firms, using information derived from such extraterritorial calls. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in calling on the Government to institute such a ban?
As I have said, I believe that calls made in that way are banned. I will come on to say a bit more about law firms in a moment, but I think that would be the case for any such form of abuse.
The other area where I am entirely at one with the hon. Member for Lincoln is on referral fees. Again, the previous Government came to the issue late in the day. There were late amendments—on Report, I think—to the Bill that became the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, banning referral fees. We thought that that did not go far enough and would have liked them to be criminalised. I am afraid that the implementation by the Ministry of Justice was rather cack-handed and amateur for a while. That is getting better, and there has been a crackdown on claims management companies, which I welcome, as well as an extension of the ban on referral fees. Referral fees do not have any place in the British legal system. Those are the key ways of stopping such abuse.
The percentage of personal injury claims being made for whiplash has fallen, but Members are right to ask why the number of personal injury claims is increasing while the number of motor accidents is falling. One reason, undoubtedly, is greater use of advertisement, which encourages more people to claim. That does not necessarily mean that the claims are fraudulent, but it does mean that there is an industry encouraging the making of claims.
Thus far, so good, but the hon. Gentleman suddenly shoehorned into the end of his speech the conclusion that the small claims limit for personal injury should be extended to £5,000, the limitation period should be 12 months, and the quantum in such cases should be rigidly enforceable. I am afraid I cannot agree with him on that. It would be to attack a basic principle of English law—the principle of the courts’ discretion.
We already have clear Judicial Studies Board guidelines on quantum. There are reasons for the relatively short limitation period of three years. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) mentioned that injuries are not always immediately evident. As for the old chestnut about raising the small claims limit to £5,000, I am entirely in agreement that after 16 years, if that is how long it has been, it is right to raise the limit proportionally by whatever the inflation rate has been during that time. It might mean taking the limit up to £2,000 or something of that order. Raising it to £5,000, however, would exclude 90% of all personal injury claims. For someone on a low income in particular, £5,000 is a substantial amount of money, and it is wrong for people in that situation not to have the benefit of legal advice. I see an ABI agenda there—that is what it always wants. Insurance companies are particularly keen on effectively taking lawyers out of the personal injury process, so that the relationship is between the victim and the insurer.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to that next point, may I stay with the previous point and say that I am no apologist for lawyers and solicitors or their firms, or for the ABI or any insurance company? In fact, I am no friend of any insurance company. I am here, as are many other hon. Members, because our constituents’ premiums rise every year. Unfortunately, no harm comes to insurance companies when premiums go up to pay for fraudulent claims, because they just pass on the costs in their turnover figures to the little people at the bottom of the scale. I see where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but I was trying to say that we need to root out the lawyers, solicitors and claims management firms that use the moneys available in the system to feather their nest.
I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but I am perhaps slightly more sceptical about insurance companies’ use of data. There is an idea that whenever premiums fall, as they have recently, that is because firms are cracking down on fraud, and when they rise it is because of an increase in fraud. The reality of finances, insurance companies’ activities and fraud is far more complicated. For many years, the figure for fraud that was often given was 7%. I do not know whether it has changed—I think the figure of 11% was quoted in the debate in relation to one insurer—but 7% is a high figure for fraud. Of course, that still means that insurance companies estimate that 93% of claims are non-fraudulent and come from genuine victims. However, I have heard the figure for the percentage of claims that are partly or wholly fraudulent put as low as 1%; I have also heard it put much higher than 7%.
I need to clarify those statistics, because the percentages relate to identifiable fraud. That is not to say that all claims are fraudulent—far from it. None of us minds people who have really been injured receiving their just compensation. Fraud that is easily identifiable, which the insurance companies chase down, is at the level the hon. Gentleman is talking about, but that is not to say that the 93%, or any other residual percentage, represents bona fide claims. There might well be other fraudulent claims within those percentages.
I do not want to argue about statistics endlessly, given that part of my argument is that the statistics are not robust. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman looked at the briefing for the debate by the Law Society, which is of course the professional body for solicitors. There are concerns that insurers use figures about levels of fraud as it suits them.
The point that concerns me is that the remedies that insurers resort to are, in some cases, more likely to encourage fraud. The principal one is third-party capture. There is an increasing trend for insurers to contact victims directly, offer a settlement and discourage them from contacting solicitors—and, if they have contacted them, to ask for information about that. They are not entitled to that information, but rather in the manner of claims managers who, as we have heard, use bullying behaviour to try to substantiate fraudulent claims or exaggerate claims, I am afraid insurance companies increasingly approach people in the same way, to try to get a quick, early settlement without medical reporting or professional advice. That may well minimise the value of the claim—I have no doubt that that is the intention—so someone who has a genuine and possibly quite serious injury may settle for a relatively trivial sum of money. However, it may also encourage fraud, because if there is no medical report or lawyer to act as an arbiter of whether a claim is genuine, the insurer, for commercial reasons, might settle a claim that could well be fraudulent. We should be worried about the growth of third-party capture, which would undoubtedly be massively encouraged if small claims were lifted disproportionately.
I am not saying that there is not bad practice by law firms, because there certainly is. I am talking not even about dubious practice, but about sharp practice in marketing skills. However, as one would expect, the overwhelming majority of solicitors act in a proper and professional manner. They have the ability, through the askCUE system, to determine whether someone who comes to them with a claim has claimed previously, and they are encouraged to make such checks to see if that is happening.
I sound a note of caution not because I think that anything raised by the hon. Member for Lincoln is inappropriate. It is just that, as in many things, there is a balance to strike. I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East speak about victims. Let us not forget them in this case. Political parties often speak up for victims of crime, but victims of accidents are also victims. I would not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and say that genuine victims of accidents should not get access to justice or be properly remunerated.
I baulk at the constant refrain about a compensation culture. Time and time again it has been shown, including by the Government’s own experts, that no such culture exists in this country. On the contrary, recent consumer surveys have shown that only 17% of people say that their default position would be to seek compensation after receiving poor treatment. I do not think it is naturally British to think that, as a consequence of poor treatment or customer service or even an injury, the first thing one would do is immediately go to claim compensation.
The hon. Gentleman may well be correct, but the problem is that ordinary, law-abiding citizens are being harassed and incited by claims management companies to invent claims—I stand here today because I am one such person. That is why the Government need to go beyond the action they have taken already. I hope that he agrees, given that he used to practise personal injury law.
I did indeed practise personal injury law, but, for the avoidance of doubt, I should say that 90% of my practice was for insurers, so I do not think I can be accused of parti pris. I can see it from both sides of the fence, and if I am talking about claimants and victims, that is just to give a bit of balance to the debate.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that, when we hear from the Minister, we will hear what is being done specifically to crack down on those calls. I do not want to put the hon. Gentleman on the spot about whether, in his case, he was able to report to either the MOJ or the police that he was being suborned in such a way, but I hope that people do that. If there were a couple of high-profile cases, perhaps instigated by Members of Parliament, in which pestilential claims management companies and cold callers were held to account, that would be a tonic for reducing the practice substantially. If the Minister can shed any light on what the Government can do on enforcement, I will be pleased to hear that.
We must look at both sides of the argument. We have to take action based on evidence, and we have to realise that there are many vested interests. Yes, the claims management companies have interests and we must be on guard against fraud, but we must also be aware of the interests of the insurance industry, which are not always at one with those of the motorist or consumer. It does not always follow that what the industry asks for is beneficial not just to victims or potential victims, but to motorists as a whole. I hope that we can crack down on fraud and relieve the consumer of the burden of calls—I get them myself on many issues—but I also hope that, on this as on other matters, we will bear in mind that the interests of victims and those with meritorious claims for personal injury should be respected.
May I say what a delight it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson? I add my praise to that already heaped on my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) for securing this important debate on personal injury fraud and its impact on individuals and motor insurance premiums. He has been a dedicated and tenacious campaigner on this important issue.
I will state at the beginning that I am not the Minister with responsibility for this matter in the Ministry of Justice. That honour falls to my colleague, Lord Faulks. I will of course make sure that all the points made today that I am unable to cover are responded to by my noble and learned Friend, and that he is well aware of all the suggestions made by hon. Members from across the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln has a number of concerns about personal injury fraud and nuisance calls in particular, which both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) mentioned. Those pernicious calls cause annoyance and distress to many people, particularly the elderly and vulnerable. I will address that in due course. First, I would like to say a few words about some of the measures and initiatives introduced by this and the previous coalition Government.
We have been, and continue to be, committed to tackling the problems in this market. There have been some real challenges for the Government in trying to put right the imbalances that have led to the disproportionate growth in personal injury claims. We know, as many Members have articulated, that reported road traffic accidents fell from approximately 190,000 in 2006 to about 140,000 in 2013, when the previous Government began to introduce their reforms. That is a reduction of more than 20%, yet at the same time the number of road traffic personal injury claims rose from about 520,000 in 2006 to 760,000 last year—an increase of about 50%. That is a clear indication, if one was needed, that there is a problem and that the Government should consider further reforms to combat this distasteful culture, which we believe is in part being driven by the constant barrage of phone calls and texts messages that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South so powerfully described.
The Government accept that many personal injury claims are genuine, but it is also clear that many speculative, exaggerated and fraudulent claims are being made. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between the two, but it is not right that people who try to cheat the system should be allowed to get away with it and, as so many Members have said, thereby force up the price of motor insurance for honest, law-abiding motorists. There are considerable costs in dealing with such claims, which have a significant impact on the cost of premiums. According to the ABI, the annual cost to the industry from whiplash claims is £2 billion, which, as has been said, adds some £90 to the average motor insurance premium.
I will pause there and go back in time to set the scene. My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln is a long-standing member of the Select Committee on Transport and he will be aware that just over five years have passed since Lord Justice Jackson published his review of the cost of civil litigation. That may seem quite a long time ago now, but the previous Government and this one have been busy ever since with a substantial programme of reform.
The Jackson reforms, introduced through the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, were a key achievement in addressing bad behaviours in the personal injury sector. The reforms introduced a ban on the referral fees that many lawyers, solicitors and claims management companies used to buy and sell claims. We agreed that the system of no win, no fee arrangements was not fit for purpose—that, in fact, it had the perverse effect of encouraging litigation—and so reformed the system to return balance to it, making sure that costs were no longer all heaped on defendants and that claimants had a financial stake in their claim. Our reforms were explicitly aimed at controlling costs and discouraging unmeritorious claims, while enabling genuine cases to be pursued, although of course at lower cost than before, which is why we also put in place measures to encourage earlier settlement.
Speculative and unnecessary whiplash claims are some of the most unmeritorious of all claims, as many Members mentioned. Following a Downing Street summit in February 2012, the Government committed to introducing reforms to tackle the number and cost of whiplash claims. In response to that commitment, the Ministry of Justice has worked with stakeholders to produce a wide-ranging set of reforms to introduce much-needed independence to, and improve the quality of, the medical evidence used in such cases.
The Minister has mentioned the notorious insurers’ summit, when the Prime Minister invited the major insurance companies to 10 Downing Street, but no one representing the claimants’ side. Does she think that that might have been a mistake? Does she agree that the Government should listen to both claimants and defendants?
We can dwell on the past, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to listen to all sides in the argument. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, important steps have since been taken on medical reports. The first phase of the reforms included measures to reduce and fix the cost of initial whiplash medical reports at £180, to allow defendants to give their account to the expert for the first time, to discourage insurers from making pre-medical offers to settle, and to ban experts who write the medical reports from also treating the claimant.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but she is tempting me. She just mentioned third-party capture, but if the Government really want to stop it, why should it not be banned? I think she is about to mention MedCo. That has been a disaster, which is why we are having a full review only a few months after its introduction.
If the hon. Gentleman will hold his horses for just a moment, I will move on to some of those issues. MedCo has introduced a robust new accreditation scheme for medical experts, who need to attain accreditation by 2016 or they will be removed from the system. We hope that that will begin to take effect, but a further reform to control fraudulent claims at source was implemented on 1 June 2015, as he will know. Claimant lawyers were given access to insurance industry data and must now check the number of claims their potential client has made before accepting the claim.
The Government are particularly pleased that stakeholders put aside their differences to develop a consensus on sharing data and improving medical evidence. Such a consensus can only be positive for all involved and we look forward to continuing to work closely with stakeholders. The Government have also taken firm action to ban both lawyers and claims management companies from offering claimants inducements to bring frivolous claims. Although it is still early days in terms of monitoring the impact of the reforms, Government figures show that the number of whiplash claims has gone down by around 70,000 since 2011-12. That is a good start, but we remain concerned about the number of claims made and their impact on the cost of motor insurance premiums. Too many claims are still being brought inappropriately, often because people are encouraged and pressured to do so by unscrupulous lawyers or CMCs.
On 2 December 2014, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the then Justice Secretary jointly announced a new insurance fraud taskforce. The taskforce will make recommendations to reduce all types of insurance fraud, to lower costs and to protect the interests of consumers. The Government are committed to tackling the perception that insurance fraud is a victimless crime. It is vital that people understand that making a fraudulent claim is not a legitimate way to make money. The taskforce is currently considering its recommendations, which the Government will consider carefully with a view to taking firm action.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln mentioned the practice of “cash for crash”. The insurance fraud enforcement department is a City of London Police unit set up to tackle insurance fraud nationally. The £3 million annual cost of the unit is funded by ABI members through an industry-led compulsory levy. The unit is leading the fight against “cash for crash” gangs, and has caught and prosecuted many perpetrators of that distasteful scam over the past three years. It will continue in that work.
The Government have also been serious in our commitment to driving out bad practices by claims management companies, as is clearly demonstrated by the recent package of reforms to protect consumers who use the services of a CMC or who are subjected to its marketing practices. The reforms will also help organisations that are on the receiving end of high volumes of calls or fraudulent or unsubstantiated claims. The measures are transforming how the MOJ’s claims management regulation unit does its job. Members will be interested to hear that in the last year, 93 CMCs were investigated, 105 CMCs had their licences removed, 296 were issued warnings and 454 audits were conducted. Tackling fraud and unauthorised activity in the claims management industry has been, and will remain, a key priority for this Government.
The CMR unit works closely in partnership with both industry fraud bodies and the police to identify and deal with CMCs engaged in insurance fraud. That work has been instrumental in the successful prosecution of criminal organisations. My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln rightly identified nuisance calls as a well known route for spurious claims farming. The CMR unit makes sure that CMCs offering claims services do so legally. That is why we introduced tough new rules in October last year to put in place a stronger requirement to make sure claims are properly substantiated before being pursued.
We also strengthened the CMR unit’s enforcement tools in December last year with a new power to impose fines on CMCs. So far, three companies have been fined more than £800,000 for unlawful unsolicited marketing and coercing clients into signing contracts before taking unauthorised payments. That sends the powerful message to unscrupulous fraudsters that the Government take this issue seriously and will take firm action against them.
The claims industry is a fast-moving market. Practices continue to evolve, and the Government will monitor the market and respond with further reforms, as necessary, to provide better protection for consumers and the public. The Government are also looking to build on the work of the CMR unit by undertaking a fundamental review to consider what powers and resources are required for a tougher CMC regulatory regime. The review is due to be completed in early 2016.
I will now answer the very useful six points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, as some of them will be included in that review. He talked about banning of outbound calling and the use of personal injury claims data gathered from those calls. We need to strike a balance between ensuring that consumers are adequately protected and ensuring that a direct marketing industry can continue, as—although this was not necessarily the case in his experience—it is a legitimate activity when done properly. We need to focus on the companies that are breaking the rules rather than penalise legitimate businesses, and to make sure that companies comply with the regulations. We have made it easier for the Financial Conduct Authority to take action against some of those companies, but we will continue to look at that, particularly in the light of what he has outlined today.
I understand that the Government have taken action to regulate outbound calls more carefully. My fear is that that regulation unfortunately has not had the intended effect and that cases like mine are continuing to occur. I suggested an outright ban because I feel it is the only way that we will be able to stamp out a terrible practice that I myself directly experienced.
My hon. Friend is very persuasive, and I will definitely ensure his thoughts are passed on when the review is conducted.
My hon. Friend talked about criminal pursuit of anyone making fraudulent claims. That measure was introduced earlier this year in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, which requires the court to dismiss in its entirety any claim where the claimant has been fundamentally dishonest. That means dishonest claimants can now no longer receive a payout if they have been fundamentally dishonest, even if a small part of their claim is in fact genuine. Insurers then have the option of pursuing a criminal prosecution for fraud.
My hon. Friend said medical advice should be taken within a week of an accident. In 2004, the Government considered including such changes to the civil procedure rules to ensure that medical examinations and reports were completed before a claim was produced. We have introduced the rules I have spoken about to discourage such behaviour, but we will keep the matter under review and continue to work with key stakeholders. We need to look at how we can tackle the issue effectively.
My hon. Friend asked whether there should be an objective evidence base. The Government remain concerned about the number of claims made and have done much in that area, but we accept that more can be done. We are open to any suggestions put forward by interested stakeholders and will consider all the points he has raised.
Finally, my hon. Friend talked about the 12-month claim limit and the no win, no fee limit of £6,000. We understand that both those issues will be considered by the insurance fraud taskforce, which will be reporting shortly. We look forward to seeing its recommendations and will respond accordingly.
The Minister talked about a £6,000 limit. If she is talking about the possible £5,000 limit for small claims in PI cases, the Government have already looked at that two or three times. They have had very strong advice, including from the Transport Committee, that that is not the way to go. Is she saying that that matter is going to be revived?
As I say, the taskforce has been set up to look at all the issues, and I believe it may be considering that limit, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman with clarification if that is not correct.
The Chancellor announced proposals in the July Budget to introduce a cap on the charges that CMCs can apply to consumers. We are looking in particular at restricting bulk PPI claims to more proportionate levels and will consult on how that will work in practice later this year. A cap on charges will, we believe, help to reduce incentives for CMCs to collect marketing leads, resulting in a reduction in the number of speculative calls made.
I would like to draw Members’ attention briefly to other measures taken by the Government to tackle the issue of nuisance calls. In March 2014, the Government launched an action plan to tackle the problem, asking the consumer organisation Which? to lead a taskforce on consent and lead generation in the direct marketing industry. The taskforce made a number of recommendations, including giving the Information Commissioner’s Office powers to hold to account senior executives who fail to comply with the rules on marketing. The Government are currently considering those recommendations.
The Government have made it clear that it must be easier for the ICO to take action. The ICO no longer has to prove substantial damage or substantial distress caused by a company before action can be taken. Since 2011, it has had the power to issue penalty notices of up to £500,000, and in September 2015 it issued a penalty of £200,000 against a company that made more than 6 million automated calls to consumers—the highest penalty ever issued for nuisance calls. The ICO has also issued a penalty of £75,000 against an organisation that claimed to offer a nuisance call blocking service but was instead making unsolicited live marketing calls to members of the public—the mind boggles. The ICO continues to take its enforcement responsibilities seriously and has 66 cases currently under investigation.
The Government are also exploring options to provide call-blocking devices to vulnerable customers, and we will consult shortly on legislation to require all direct marketing callers to identify themselves. That will enable consumers to determine who is calling and to report unwanted calls to the regulator. I ought to make it clear that the Government have not ruled out further reform to this market.
Before my hon. Friend the Minister finishes her remarks, may I say that I welcome the courteous and informative comments she and everyone else who has taken part in the debate have made, including even my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick)? He does not to get to say anything in his role as Parliamentary Private Secretary, but it was good to see him here, providing very useful information.
The Minister mentioned that some of these companies are fined. Unfortunately, the directors behind the companies often have what are known as “phoenix companies” waiting in the wings. The Government need to take direct action on the individuals who are at fault for carrying out these pernicious acts with regard to cold calling. I make that plea as a final comment in this debate.
That is a valid point. These individuals need to be named and shamed for what they are and, indeed, what they are doing; my hon. Friend is absolutely right.
We have not ruled out further reforms to this market. I hope I have reassured hon. Members today that the Government take this subject very seriously. We remain committed to continuing the reform process to the benefit of all and we want to work with all stakeholders to achieve that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered personal injury fraud.
Electrical Shore Supplies (Nuclear-powered Submarines)
[Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered restoration of electrical shore supplies to nuclear-powered submarines.
It is a pleasure to have this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Buck—and to have secured it, but I say that rather guardedly, because it was never my intention to bring this issue forward for debate in this place. My intention from the outset was simply to ask a series of questions of the Ministry of Defence on behalf of my constituents, who approached me with serious concerns about the changes to nuclear safety procedures at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde at Faslane. It was not until the MOD replied, or perhaps I should say did not reply, to my questions that I felt the need to bring the matter to this Chamber.
Last month, as the constituency Member of Parliament for Argyll and Bute, which takes in Faslane and Coulport, I was approached by workers at Faslane who had learned of proposed changes to the long-standing work practices relating to the restoration of shore power to nuclear-powered submarines. They had already raised their concerns with their employer, Babcock, but with no success, and unable to glean what they considered to be an adequate response, they turned to me as their local MP, in the hope that I would be able to secure answers from the Ministry of Defence on their behalf.
I then tabled a series of very specific questions relating to the extension of the limit of restoration of electrical shore supplies to nuclear submarines at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde from the existing 20 minutes up to a maximum of three hours. Rather than answering my questions, the Ministry simply grouped all my detailed and specific questions together and responded to them using a single standard response—a response that I believe hid behind national security, although my questions were specifically about health and safety. I believe that the Ministry of Defence, by dismissing those questions in that manner, has shown me and my constituents a great discourtesy. I am firmly of the opinion that safety at nuclear establishments, and the safety of nuclear materials, is not just a matter for the MOD or Babcock; it is of the most serious concern to my constituents who live beside Faslane, whose concerns cannot be dismissed in such a high-handed fashion.
For far too long, the Ministry of Defence has relied on the stock answer of “Move along; there is nothing to see here,” in the hope of avoiding scrutiny, accountability and transparency—and in many ways it has got away with it. That is unacceptable, and frankly it will not wash any more with me or my constituents, who refuse to be fobbed off with such an answer.
I will give a little background on what has been happening at Faslane, and on the situation that led my constituents to approach me with their concerns. As I understand it, in October 2014 Babcock entered into a contractual agreement with the Ministry of Defence to provide a range of support services at Faslane and Coulport for a period of five years. Part of that arrangement called for a reduction in costs totalling £77.5 million over the lifetime of that contract. No department, including the nuclear operations department, was to be exempt from the cuts.
Prior to that agreement and the swingeing cuts of £77.5 million being announced, a working group comprising management and the trade unions was established to study shift patterns in the nuclear operations department. That working group, I am led to believe, identified a number of different shift options that were to be taken to Babcock management, and then presented to the workforce affected by the proposed changes for their consideration. It appears that the plans to negotiate shift patterns have been shelved, and that Babcock is instead pressing ahead with a radical and unilateral plan of changes to the working patterns in the nuclear operations department. The trade unions understand that the proposed changes will allow Babcock to reduce shift patterns by more than two thirds—a measure that will save around £4.5 million in staff wages, thereby contributing significantly to the £77.5 million of savings demanded in the new contract.
However, the new changes to shift patterns are not, in and of themselves, the problem. The major concern is that in order to facilitate the new shift patterns, Babcock will need to relax the long-standing safety principle of 20-minute restoration of electrical supplies to nuclear vessels alongside the jetties, extending that 20-minute period to a maximum of three hours. I should point out that the 20-minute restoration limit and the current manning levels for out-of-hours cover have been in place for decades; minimal changes have taken place in that time. Every time the 20-minute restoration period has been challenged in the past, it has been vigorously defended and change has been rejected. As I understand it, regular 20-minute training sessions and programmes are still carried out to prove that the 20-minute restoration can be accomplished by the nuclear operations department with existing staff levels.
There can be no doubt that the workers at Faslane are loyal and hard-working. They do a vital job and are not prone to alarmist talk, or flagging up problems when there are not genuine concerns. Their paramount concern and the overriding priority for them is safety: safety of the vessels, the base and, by extension, the entire community in the Helensburgh and Lomond area. When they, with their decades of experience in these matters, feel so marginalised that they are forced to approach their MP for help, we know that they have genuine concerns and serious worries. That is why, when they approached me a few weeks ago, I was only too happy to listen to their concerns and to seek answers from the Ministry of Defence.
I tabled a series of detailed questions that I believe focused on health and safety and on how the decision to extend the 20-minute limit to a maximum of three hours was reached. Unfortunately, my questions were grouped and summarily dismissed by the Ministry of Defence in a single, stock, off-the-shelf answer, which basically said, “We look after security and safety. There is nothing else you need to know; telling you anything further would prejudice the capability, effectiveness and security of our armed forces.” Does the Minister really think that that is an acceptable answer to hard-working, loyal employees, who have sought an answer from their employers to serious questions?
Questions were asked about: health and safety; why important changes to long-established safety routines are being proposed; who is driving the changes; the money that will be saved by implementing the changes; what studies have been made of the safety implications of the changes; and whether an independent nuclear safety assessment has been carried out. Can they really be dismissed with a reference to national security and the fear of undermining our armed forces? If that is the case, the Ministry of Defence is saying that absolutely nothing that goes on behind the gates of Faslane is open to scrutiny, or is in any way transparent—that it is, in fact, accountable to no one.
I remind the Minister that the MOD and Health and Safety Executive agreement states, on page 2, that the Ministry of Defence is
“a Crown body accountable to Parliament for Defence, including the activities of the Armed Forces.”
There has to be accountability and transparency. We recognise the importance of national security, but I believe that this issue has gone far beyond that. Had I been daft enough to ask for the position of the nuclear submarine fleet when it was out on patrol or for details of military training exercises, I could and should have been told by the Ministry of Defence that it would not answer such a question on the grounds that the information was likely to prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the armed forces. However, the questions I asked were about health and safety, not national security. For the Ministry to hide behind national security, and to claim that responding to my questions and the concerns of employees at Faslane would undermine the armed forces, is absurd and a public relations blunder of epic proportions.
The prevalent attitude that we have seen so often is, “There is nothing to see, so move on.” That cannot continue, because it simply breeds mistrust and suspicion. If nothing that goes on at Faslane is open to scrutiny, and if nothing is transparent, every denial from the Ministry of Defence will be accepted less and less by those on the civilian side of the fence.
On day one of my parliamentary career a few months ago, I raised the case of Able Seaman William McNeilly and his catalogue of alleged safety breaches aboard nuclear submarines and at Faslane. Within 48 hours, every one of those allegations had been dismissed as having absolutely no substance, and again we were advised, “There is nothing to see here, so move on.” This is history repeating itself.
There are plenty of other examples; a quick trawl through the parliamentary records reveals that on 28 October, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) asked
“what arrangements are in place to monitor Babcock’s performance and safety record”.
The response referred to “appropriate measures”. On 8 September, my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) asked
“what notice is given to emergency services in advance of visits by nuclear convoys”.
The response was:
“Police forces may advise fire and rescue services…I am withholding specific information on the period of notice given to the emergency services as its disclosure would”—
this is classic—
“prejudice the capability, effectiveness and security of the Armed Forces.”
A question was asked in the House of Lords in June about what assessment the Ministry of Defence had made of the UK’s nuclear deterrent and its vulnerability to espionage, as we have no maritime patrol aircraft. The reply was that the Government continually conduct assessments but are not prepared to comment further.
The Ministry of Defence is acting like the boy who cried wolf in reverse. The situation is ridiculous, so I hope that the Minister will today end the policy of saying nothing, and recognise that the workforce at Faslane have genuine concerns. They are concerned about their future jobs, and about the safety of the vessels they are charged to look after. Will he reply, either today or in a full written answer, to the questions I submitted two weeks ago asking what discussions his Department has had with Babcock on the proposal to extend the limit of electrical shore supplies to nuclear submarines at Faslane? Will he also tell me whether his Department instructed Babcock to extend that time, or was that a customer-driven request—that is, did the Ministry of Defence ask for that, or did the idea emanate from Babcock?
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Will the Minister tell me why, after decades of military, industrial and political consensus on the 20-minute limit, it is now felt necessary to make this change? Has his Department made an assessment of the financial saving accruing to Babcock? What analysis has he undertaken to ensure that the change is science-driven, not cost-driven? Can he enlighten me on what the Astute-class vessels’ procedures are, in terms of the 20-minute shutdown? Finally, will he tell me whether an independent nuclear safety assessment has been carried out? If so, what did the report say?
Let me be clear that this is not an old courtroom trick of asking questions to which one already knows the answers. These are genuine questions, and I am seeking helpful answers. As I said, I believe that nothing that I have said or asked is a threat to national security or could undermine our armed forces.
If the people of Helensburgh and Lomond and the workers at the base are to have faith in this facility, we have to be able to believe that those in charge will always make safety and security their top priority, and any suspicion that corners are being cut to save money has to be thoroughly investigated, but how can we have confidence when every single concern raised and brought to the attention of the authorities is met with the same standard response of “Move along; there is nothing to see here”? Confidence is further undermined when the concerns of a loyal and dedicated workforce are similarly dismissed.
I ask the Minister to seize this opportunity to show that transparency, accountability and appropriate public scrutiny are not alien concepts, and to restore the confidence of both employees at the base and my constituents that decisions are being taken in the correct manner and for the right reasons.
Thank you for chairing these proceedings, Ms Buck. I congratulate the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) on securing the debate, and I thank him for giving me an opportunity to address this issue, which I agree is important. It is appropriate that we have an opportunity to discuss it in the House.
I appreciate that the safety of nuclear-powered submarines has been and continues to be a subject of interest not just in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency in the immediate proximity of our submarine base, but to everyone in the United Kingdom. The Vanguard-class strategic ballistic missile submarines, along with the majority of the Royal Navy’s attack submarines, are based at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and the whole operating Royal Navy submarine fleet will be based there by 2020. Clyde is one of the largest employment sites in Scotland, with about 6,800 military and civilian jobs, which will increase to about 8,200 by 2022. I pay tribute to the hard-working people who man and maintain Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde to support the Royal Navy submarine fleet based there.
The hon. Gentleman expressed the concern that the workforce have about their jobs at the site. What I have just said reinforces the decisions taken under the previous Government. The primary threat to the jobs of those working at HMNB Clyde is from the proposals of the hon. Gentleman’s party and the Scottish Government, rather than from this Government and the work that we intend to place there. However, I listened carefully to his speech and will endeavour to address the points that he raised.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, despite his suspicions to the contrary—I know he knows this privately—there are certain aspects of the operation of submarine nuclear reactors that I cannot discuss owing to security considerations. That is not a fig leaf; it is real. I am sure that no hon. Members would wish the security of the fleet to be compromised. Having said that, I will provide as full a response as I am able to on the issues that he raised. Before I do so, I would like briefly to set in context the Government’s policy for the safe and secure operation of nuclear-powered submarines.
The protection and defence of the whole of the United Kingdom and our dependent territories and citizens is the primary responsibility of Government. In a world that is becoming more uncertain, as we have seen in the actions of a resurgent Russia, the Government are committed to maintaining a strong and capable fleet of attack and strategic ballistic missile submarines and the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence that provides the ultimate guarantee of our national security. In speaking today of our submarine fleet, I would like to take the opportunity—I am sure that all hon. Members would echo this, whatever their personal views on the merits of the nuclear deterrent—to thank the crews of all our submarines, their families and the wider community for their continued dedication and commitment to delivering the mission.
I turn to the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. I want to make it absolutely clear that safety is our priority. Although operating a nuclear reactor in the submarine environment provides unique challenges compared with doing so in the civil sector, the rigorous safety measures that we adopt ensure that submarine reactors remain safe at all times. The safety of reactors is rigorously assessed at every stage of their life, from design and build to operation and disposal. Safety is independently regulated in accordance with the law and by our own Ministry of Defence independent nuclear regulator. Together, those regulators impose robust controls that are at least as stringent as those in the civil sector. We are also held to account by external regulators and, ultimately, here in Parliament.
In Scotland, radioactive substances are regulated by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. A memorandum of understanding between the Ministry of Defence and the SEPA includes provisions that enable the agency to carry out its regulatory role effectively while ensuring that sensitive information is properly protected. Similar arrangements are in place with the Office for Nuclear Regulation.
I trust that what I have said will reassure hon. Members that our submarine nuclear reactor operations are subject to independent, impartial and robust regulation. Any suggestion to the contrary is, quite frankly, wrong. As I have said, I am constrained by security considerations in the details that I can discuss, but I can say that the Ministry of Defence regularly and routinely reviews the procedures regulating the operation and maintenance of submarine nuclear reactors. That process naturally includes consultation with industry partners and regulators, but no change can be implemented until it is proved to be safe and, where applicable, has been approved by the relevant regulatory authorities.
Regarding the hon. Gentleman’s specific concern, it may be helpful if I explain that submarine reactors have a diverse range of cooling systems, including a dedicated system that is not dependent on electrical supplies. As I have previously informed the House in answer to a question from the right hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), there have been only four events in the past 20 years involving the loss of electrical power to a submarine reactor cooling system when in port. In all four events, there was no disruption to reactor cooling as a result of the loss of electrical supplies.
That is the measure of the safety of our submarine nuclear reactors. It is simply not the case that a disruption of the electrical shore supply to a submarine will inevitably and rapidly lead to the submarine’s reactor becoming unsafe. It is quite wrong, and indeed alarmist, to suggest otherwise. Any proposals to change reactor operating procedures must be seen in that context. The Ministry of Defence would never propose a change that could lead to a reduction in reactor safety. Were we to do so, any such change would simply not pass regulatory scrutiny.
What I have said may raise in the minds of some hon. Members the question of why submarines require a shore electrical supply and why, if the loss of that supply poses no immediate threat to reactor safety, its restoration is subject to strict regulatory control. That question is simply answered. Once the reactor has shut down, the submarine continues to require a supply of electricity to operate its internal systems, such as lighting to allow sailors to get around the submarine. Although those requirements can be met from other sources, in the longer term a shore supply is required. As I have said, however, reactor cooling can rely on a diverse range of systems, not all of which depend on electrical supplies.
I fully understand that nuclear-powered submarines are a contentious issue for some hon. Members, and that they are likely to remain so. I want to address the question asked by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute about whether the proposed changes have been inspired by Babcock, and in particular by the savings required in the company. My answer to that is we have made no assessment, in the review of procedures, of the impact on Babcock. This is a Royal Navy-initiated activity with the MOD’s support. Proposed changes to shift patterns have nothing to do with why we are undertaking this exercise. That was one of his concerns, and I hope that I have set it to rest.
I genuinely thank the Minister for his answers, but can he understand my frustration that all my previous questions were grouped together and given one stock answer? Does he agree with me that the Ministry does itself no favours by doing that, because it leads to suspicion and conjecture? Would it not have been an awful lot better if the MOD had answered each of my questions on merit, in which case we would not have needed this debate?
I can understand why the hon. Gentleman might have been somewhat frustrated by the reply that he got. I have to say that it is not unusual for Departments—across a range of activities, not purely the MOD—to find themselves not always capable of delivering the kinds of answers that the Members who pose them might like to receive. Many of the questions that the hon. Gentleman asked got into topics that were covered by security concerns, which was why he received the answers that he did. I hope that during this debate, I have managed to allay some of his concerns.
In closing, I can only reiterate that the Ministry of Defence operates its submarine nuclear reactors with the highest regard for safety. As in the civil sector, appropriate and targeted assessments of operating processes and procedures are undertaken to ensure that our robust arrangements remain valid. The process involves not only the independent regulator but our industry partners and independent nuclear safety advisers, who play a significant role in ensuring that those processes and procedures are as robust as they need to be to ensure the safe operation of our submarine nuclear reactors. Only when a positive consensus of advice has been reached to the effect that reactor safety will not be compromised, and that there is a clear benefit, are changes to operating processes and procedures undertaken. As I have said, the process includes our independent regulator and, where necessary, external regulators.
The Royal Navy’s attack and strategic ballistic missile submarines are an essential capability for the defence of the whole United Kingdom, and I hope that what I have said goes some way towards reassuring hon. Members that our submarines are operated with the highest regard for the safety of their crews and the public. Through our nuclear-powered submarine programme and the independent nuclear deterrent that it supports, we ultimately guarantee our national security and the freedoms that we continue to enjoy in a democratic society.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered restoration of electrical shore supplies to nuclear-powered submarines.
Deaths Abroad (Consular Assistance)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered consular assistance for families of people who die abroad.
As the Minister is aware, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs carried out an inquiry in 2013-14 into this very matter, and many of the people I will reference today contributed to that inquiry. The reason why I secured the debate is threefold. First, I want to look at what changes have been made and what assessment has been made of those changes. Secondly, I want to feed back the thoughts of those who called for the inquiry, some positive, some critical, but all, I suggest, constructive. Thirdly, I want to pay tribute to some brave and fearsome campaigners who have selflessly committed to fighting for better support, not for themselves but for people who find themselves in the dreadful position that I will describe.
I start by acknowledging that there are some people in this country who have had very recent experience of this: I refer to those caught up in the atrocities in Paris last Friday. The impact will have been felt not just by the victims and their families, but by the consular support staff at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I do not envy them their task at a time when they may themselves be traumatised by events in the city in which they live and work.
I will set out why there was a call for the Foreign Affairs Committee to have this inquiry last year. What were the experiences of families whose loved ones died abroad that led to them putting their lives on hold and mounting campaigns to change the experience for others? Let us remember that it is hard enough when someone close to us dies in this country. For someone who is struggling to cope with their shock and grief, to have to find a way through the minefield of a country with which they are unfamiliar—perhaps they do not speak the language and the customs and laws are different to theirs—is an experience that I would not wish on anybody. Naturally, people in those circumstances will turn to their own country’s consular support services, but many have not found the support that they expected.
Support After Murder and Manslaughter Abroad is a charity that campaigns for improvements in Government policy, and provides telephone advice and peer support to people bereaved by homicide overseas. Eve Henderson is someone I do not know, but she represents SAMM Abroad and I believe she is here today. Other campaigners have urged me to pay tribute to her for her tireless campaigning since her husband was murdered overseas 17 years ago. I pay tribute to her strength and determination. I hope that, in some small way, people like me can take some of the burden from her shoulders.
In 2011, SAMM Abroad sent 150 families a questionnaire asking them to document their experience of dealing with the FCO, the police and coroners. Fifty families responded, and the vast majority of respondents were negative about the service provided by the FCO. When asked whether the FCO was helpful 56% said, “not at all”, 38% said, “not very”, and the remaining 6% said, “quite helpful”. No one said that the FCO was “very helpful” and, as Members can see, 94% felt that they had not got the help that they wanted.
The evidence in the Foreign Affairs Committee report reflected similar findings. I recognise and applaud that Committee in the previous Parliament for doing much of the work required to ensure that the families of those who die abroad are treated justly and with dignity by officials. The inquiry spoke to one mother who found that most of the advice she was offered was of less use than the advice available on websites. Others spoke of calls going unreturned, wrong advice being given and, most disturbingly, being encouraged to have their loved one cremated abroad without being advised that that could mean that there would be no coroner’s report back in the UK.
I should say at this juncture that, until recently, Scots or those who lived in Scotland who died abroad were not afforded an inquiry. Thanks to the work of Death Abroad—You’re Not Alone, otherwise known as DAYNA, and Julie Love, who spearheads its campaigns and who I will say more of later, the Scottish Government have now made steady progress in improving the treatment of such families. The Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc. (Scotland) Bill proposes to bring in discretionary fatal accident inquiries for those who have died overseas and have been repatriated to Scotland. That is a welcome step forward and builds upon Lord Cullen’s review which reported in 2009.
Another welcome measure is the increased accountability for families. Where the Lord Advocate decides not to hold a fatal accident inquiry he or she—it may be a she in the future—will have to justify the reason for that in writing to the family on request. I say all this primarily to pay tribute to DAYNA, but also to highlight the fact that there are distinctive elements of the Scottish legal system that directly affect the families of those who have died overseas. That must be borne in mind by the FCO and in the new training it offers consular staff.
The most disturbing and compelling evidence was from people who, like the bereaved mother highlighted in the report, found that consular support staff showed callous disregard for what they were going through. In her words,
“I found them completely without empathy at a time in my life when I really needed them.”
Although the report found that there was sometimes an unreasonably high expectation of the support that the FCO could provide, nobody would argue that people could not expect some common decency—a human response to a human tragedy—and yet they were not getting it. That was not an isolated case, and I will give more examples later. Nobody expects consular staff to offer counselling services—they are not the Samaritans—but the dismissive attitude and cold responses many have experienced are just unacceptable. If any of my caseworkers were to treat constituents in the same way, they would not last very long in my employ. I notice that they are sitting here today, so I will quickly add that I have absolute confidence in every one of them before they stage a walkout.
That is a basic summary of why groups such as SAMM Abroad and DAYNA urged that this inquiry be conducted. I will return to some of this in more detail by examining the three reasons I have called for the debate, but first let me share the story of Julie Love, mother of Colin Love and founder of DAYNA. Julie lives in Glasgow. She is an ordinary woman who has been through an extraordinarily traumatic time and has done something extraordinary as a result. Let me read out some of her words:
“My son Colin Love drowned in the sea close to Margarita Island, Venezuela, whilst on a Caribbean cruise in January 2009. He was 23 years old. He was an excellent swimmer. The beach was recommended to him by the cruise company despite the water being notorious for riptides and undertow. There were no warning signs and no lifeguards…it was easy to make contact with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in the UK. My first contact…was at approximately 2am on 30th January 2009, several hours after receiving news of Colin’s death from his friend. I spoke to a member of the Global Response Team who was very empathetic but unable to assist as the FCO had not yet received notification of the death. He told me he would leave a message with the South American desk to ensure I would be contacted as soon as the information was received the following morning. I never received that call. I contacted them at approx. 12 noon the following day. I had not slept. I’d just found out my son had died on the other side of the world and I was frantic. I spoke to a female at the desk who curtly responded, ‘We deal with thousands of Brits dying abroad every year. I don’t have a message to call you back’. I was appalled.”
I am certain that there is nobody here who would not be appalled by that. Julie continued:
“She reluctantly took my details and said she’d call back. I am still waiting on that call. After contacting the HQ of the cruise company in Miami I was able to ascertain the telephone number of the British Honorary Consul on Margarita Island and made direct contact by telephone. His spoken English was very poor but we were eventually able to communicate by email.”
Should it really be that hard? Should she really have had to go to all that trouble?
Julie Love says:
“As I have since discovered has been the experience of many families I was advised to have my son cremated, not to travel to Margarita Island, that the cremation could be arranged on the island and they’d return my son’s ashes. How appalling! What mother wants to be told that she cannot hold her child ever again, especially when it’s possible that she can? I was adamant my son was going to be repatriated to Scotland and that I would go to the island to bring him home. I was advised not to as it would delay his repatriation. Reluctantly I did not travel…and it still took 4 weeks for my son’s body to be repatriated. I was advised four different dates and had church services…booked only to have to re-arrange. I had family and friends travelling to Scotland from all over the world and some of them had to return home...and were unable to pay respects at my son’s funeral because of the date changes.”
Julie mentions other problems, a number of which she, I and all campaigners accept are not down to the FCO; they are down to other people. For example, Colin Love’s friend was told that he had to return to the liner because he was not a relative. The liner docked in Aruba the following day, and the friend travelled from Aruba to Miami, Miami to London, and London to Glasgow. He had very thoughtfully brought back Colin’s luggage. He was charged for excess baggage every step of the way. Julie said in her submission to the inquiry:
“So in answer to the questions—No, I was not offered accurate advice and certainly given no guidance. I feel that the FCO handled my case abhorrently and without sensitivity to my feelings or to my son’s dignity. I was later to find out that my son’s body remained on the beach (uncovered) for approx. 12 hours.”
She discovered that because a British newspaper printed a picture of it—again, something that none of us would ever want to associate ourselves with. I happen to know that Julie Love ran up a phone bill of more than £1,000 trying to resolve the issue—money that she just does not have—but there was no help available.
I have three reasons for securing this debate. The first, of course, is to ask what changes have been made and what assessment has been made of those changes. I welcome the progress the FCO has made and the undertakings it gave in response to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, which include a recognition that the manner in which families were dealt with did, in some cases, fall far below the level of service that British citizens should have been able to expect. One response from the Government was to provide training for consular support staff in dealing with non-suspicious deaths. After the murders on the Tunisian beach in July this year, the Foreign Secretary said that training would be given to all consular advice staff to improve sensitivity and effectiveness in casework. I am keen to hear an update on that training and a timetable for ensuring that everyone has received it—I assume that not everyone has yet received the training. When can we expect the training’s effectiveness to be reviewed?
I am reluctant to intervene on the hon. Lady, but I am deeply touched by what she has put on record today. As the Member representing a young honeymooning couple who died in a terrible drowning accident six days after their marriage—they died on 23 October—my experience of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been brilliant. The global response team acted during the night, and the sensitivity that it showed to both families was enormously courteous and helpful in tragic circumstances.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I was coming on to this, but I will say it now. There may be consular support staff listening to this debate who feel quite hurt by what I am saying, but obviously I am not referring to those who deal with such situations properly. I will give more evidence for why I know that Julie Love’s experience is not a one-off and why it is so important that we follow this up, but the hon. Lady is right: we hear about the terrible experiences. We have to accept that the majority of experiences may well be good, but I have not heard much about them.
Following the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the FCO’s response, one area that is still of concern to families is deaths that are not identified as murder or manslaughter but are classed as suspicious. In some cases, the coroners have returned the equivalent of open verdicts; in others, the family suspect foul play. Will the Minister comment on the FCO’s role in supporting family campaigns for justice, especially where the local inquiry is ineffective or where there are problems with the coroner’s report? I appreciate that the FCO handles all cases individually, but there will inevitably be cases where there has been malpractice in the local investigations. When do the British Government step in to support British families in such cases? When the access to justice unit was set up, it was going to review the policy on suspicious deaths and consider whether it could offer similar levels of support in some instances where there has been a suspicious death. I hope the Minister can update us on that. Has the review taken place? If so, when will we get the details? If not, what is the timetable? What support is being offered to those families?
We can agree that all cases will be different, but it would be beneficial if the system was structured so that all families know what support they can expect as a minimum. Paragraph 15 of the Government’s response to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report stated that they would begin gathering evidence on the handling of deaths on an ongoing basis from May 2015; the evidence would be collected by independent research partners from a representative selection of all FCO customers and published in the annual report. It would be useful to know whether anything has been gleaned from that research so far.
The second reason for securing this debate is to feed back the thoughts of some of those who called for the inquiry. As I said, some are positive and some not so positive, but all seek to be constructive. SAMM Abroad says that, over the past three years, the FCO has improved the support it provides to bereaved families—all of us here will welcome that—but although the initiatives are welcome, families are still reporting significant issues with the consistency of the service provided. SAMM Abroad contends that the current practice of putting families in contact with desk officers is failing. Although there are notable exceptions, as we have heard, they are, in SAMM Abroad’s view, precisely that: exceptions. Desk officers lack proper training in dealing with traumatised families, which can lead to families feeling greater trauma after their contact with the FCO. I know that training has been suggested and agreed to, but we have yet to hear what stage it is at. There are frequent complaints that desk officers fail to keep families informed of developments or mishandle important information.
SAMM Abroad says that another significant shortcoming of using desk officers is that they move frequently and rarely stay the duration of an investigation. Most cases will not come to trial within two years, and many take longer, which means that families continually have to retell their story to new colleagues, which causes frustration and distress and can lead to poor case management. Although SAMM Abroad accepts that it is unrealistic to expect desk officers to remain in post for extended periods, their continual movement has another significant impact: a loss of institutional expertise. Frequent movement not only disrupts contact with families but disrupts relationships with local organisations and services that could provide support to families.
SAMM Abroad has come up with an excellent suggestion that I would apply across the board for the families of anyone who dies abroad, not just for the families of those who are murdered, although obviously such families face additional difficulties. SAMM Abroad suggests a small, centralised unit within the FCO with specially trained staff to act as the principal point of contact for families. The unit would be responsible for dealing with the desk officers and extracting information for the families. That would have a number of advantages: families would not be not upset or traumatised by having to retell their story after desk officers move; it would allow liaison with other agencies to be more effective, because staff would have immediate access to case files and other information; and the development of FCO policy could become more effective, as the unit would be able to observe recurrent issues and spot failings more immediately. If the Minister cannot commit to the establishment of such a unit today, and I suspect that he cannot, will he commit to considering it in more detail and perhaps meeting me and other campaigners, or at the very least accepting information from us on this suggestion? I think the creation of such a unit is an excellent suggestion that could resolve a lot of problems.
Suspicious deaths are the second issue that campaigners feel still has not been fully addressed. The report talks of families whose loved ones were murdered, but for those whose loved ones suffered a suspicious death, the agony seems to be never-ending. Take the case of the man who was murdered almost seven years ago: the trial of those who murdered him ended 18 months ago, and still the family is unable to have a funeral for him. I recently met someone—I am not naming anyone because I have not asked if I can do so—whose mother died in France more than two years ago, and she is still waiting to bury her. Any right-thinking person will agree that those situations are horrific. There are various stages of grief, but these families are stuck at the start of that process because they cannot lay their loved ones to rest. How can they be expected to grieve, or to continue any semblance of a normal life?
I am sure the Minister is aware of and is as horrified as I am by the cases where bodies have been returned minus internal organs. It is like something out of a horror film, and the families must play out that horror film in their head day in, day out, night after night. We must surely be able to intervene to put a stop to all that and to find a way to let those families move on. There are also questions about the appeal processes after a conviction and the way in which families are advised when the perpetrator of a crime committed against their loved one is due to be, or is, released from prison.
As the Minister will know, one of the big overarching criticisms in the report was the lack of consistency. Julie Love has asked me to raise something that exemplifies what was meant by that finding, and it relates to the constituents of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) who died so tragically in October.
As I have said, Julie’s son, Colin, died while swimming. The beach he was on is noted for its dangerous riptides, but nobody—neither the travel company nor the FCO advice—told him about those riptides. He had thoroughly researched where he was going. Julie Love suggested to the inquiry—it was documented in the report and she understood that this suggestion was being taken up—that the FCO website’s travel advice should include information about anywhere with particularly unpredictable or potentially dangerous waters. I appreciate that the FCO is working with travel companies to improve the information provided—that is good; that is progress—but Julie’s clear understanding was that the FCO would also provide this information. People are more likely to take seriously what their Government tell them than what a travel company tells them, so this is important.
The advice now appears on the information about Venezuela, where Colin died. It also appears on the Dubai page, but apparently it only appeared there after a British citizen died in a swimming accident similar to the one that killed Colin. Moreover, when the young honeymooning couple from Northern Ireland died so tragically earlier this year while swimming in South Africa, Julie was told that it was not the FCO’s practice to give that kind of advice. Well, either the FCO gives that advice or it does not give it, but it must be consistent. People will understand that Julie was particularly disturbed by this incident, and of course anyone’s heart will go out to the honeymooning couple and their families, but in her communications with the FCO Julie had specifically noted the beaches of South Africa as danger spots. Who knows if the couple would have read such advice if it had been provided, and who knows if they would have taken note of it? However, surely the point is that it is our duty to do all we can to alert people and then allow them to make their own decisions, and that cannot be done only after an event. Provision must be consistent. I would be really grateful to the Minister if he could commit to ensuring that that happens. It is quite important that it does happen and, as I said, I think it has already been agreed that it would happen.
Regarding the overarching problem of how consular staff deal with grieving families, people listening to this debate may believe that because the families are grieving everything becomes magnified and perhaps things are not quite as bad as they say, but I can tell the Minister that I know what these families say is correct. Of course, as I have already said, there will be great advisers out there, who put their heart and soul into supporting people, and I want them to know that I am not talking to them. However, I know that the things that I am talking about do happen, and that when they happen it is crushing. I know, because a few years ago my brother Stephen died very suddenly in a foreign country. I will not go into detail, because I am certain beyond doubt that my family do not want to read about it in the newspapers again; it is too raw and it is too personal. Nevertheless, I feel that I have to tell the Minister that I was one of those family members and I experienced exactly what all of those other families describe. I have heard them describe the experience of dealing with the FCO as being like suffering a bereavement all over again, and it is true. It is hard to hear, it is hard to say, but it is true.
I was stunned to have an adviser from the consular support team shout down the phone at me. There was no reason for it; I was too weak and too confused to have given him any reason to shout at me. He was clearly just having a bad day, but the lack of compassion astounded me. In addition, I was given advice that I later regretted taking: “Have him cremated.” I did. The “support” that I got was a list of preferred cremation providers, all of whom wanted four times as much money as I ended up paying. The FCO staff did not care that we could not afford their expensive recommendations; it was of no consequence to them that we did not speak the language and they did. Worst of all, they did not do anything to help us to get the answers that we were so desperately seeking. Had it not been for a friend of mine who happened to live in that city, I do not know how we would have got through the experience. If it happened now, we would have the comfort of a fatal accident inquiry, but then we were more or less dismissed as if we did not matter—as if he did not matter.
When I speak of the distress that these families feel, my family have felt it too. When I speak of the coldness with which they are treated, I was cold-shouldered too. As others have said, when I really needed someone to have a bit of compassion, there was not an ounce of it. That is why I know what strength it must take for someone to put aside their grief and to get out there and fight for others. I really pay tribute to those who have done that—Eve Henderson and many more people who I do not have permission to name, but they know who they are. Julie Love has been a tireless advocate for the families.
It is very kind of the hon. Lady to allow me to intervene and I am very grateful to her for very kindly drawing the House’s attention, and the Minister’s attention, to the dreadful experience of the young honeymooning couple. They were in their mid-20s; they were inseparable in life; and tragically they ended up being inseparable in death as well. However, I repeat that the FCO and the consular staff were extraordinarily kind and compassionate to their families.
I do not want to delay the hon. Lady from concluding her contribution, which is deeply moving.
I very much thank the hon. Lady. I will try to continue.
I will end by saying that Julie Love has been a tireless advocate for the families of British citizens who have died abroad. People such as Julie and Eve do this work not for themselves—it is too late for them—but for others so that their grief is not compounded. Julie and Eve’s organisations support individuals and while there is always a role for the third sector to provide additional, supplementary or specialist support, it is clear that sometimes such organisations have to step into a gap left by the varying level of support offered by consular services.
The families and campaign groups have many more questions that they would like me to ask, but I think I should stop now and allow others to speak. I simply ask, finally, that the Minister agrees to receive information from us, and perhaps at a later stage to meet with us to discuss how we can ensure that we meet people’s needs and—where the FCO cannot do that—how we ensure that there is support for the organisations that can. After all, Minister, there is nobody better placed to tell you what was missing, what is still missing and what is really needed when someone you love dies overseas than my family, and people such as Eve Henderson and Julie Love, the mother of Colin Love.
For the guidance of Members who wish to speak, I will point out that this debate has to finish at 5.40 pm and I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespersons at 5.20 pm, so we have 15 minutes. I hope that can be a guide for people wishing to make a contribution to the debate.
I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin). It is very rare in this House that we hear speeches that come from the heart and that can move people to tears, but listening to her speak about her experiences is one of those occasions. I thank her for sharing her experiences, and those of all the families who have sadly lost someone while they were abroad. The passion that she has brought to this debate underlines how important this issue is, which is why we are discussing it today.
Six months ago, this issue was brought home to me and to the close-knit community of Blackwood. An evil attack on innocent holidaymakers in Tunisia rocked the world and our country. One of our own was ripped away from her friends and family. I remember hearing the news and thinking, “This is the type of thing that happens to other people, and not to somebody from a close-knit south Wales valleys community.”
Trudy Jones devoted her life to looking after other people. Those who knew her described her as an angel, and she always put others before herself. She worked tirelessly for her family, friends and community. In the face of this act of evil, which has been brought back to the world’s focus by the events of the last few days in France, I am proud to say that our community—my community—in Blackwood came together in support and to offer condolences.
Nothing can ever bring back a lost loved one, but it is the duty of Government to provide any and all support when someone is lost, especially when their life is taken away in a brutal attack in another country. Families of victims rightly expect consular services to be there for them, and to act in a timely, understanding and competent manner. I will not speak about particular cases, as that would be unfair to the families involved. However, it is of great concern to me that, following the horrific attack in Tunisia, both those who survived and the families of those who did not survive reported significant failings in the initial Foreign Office response. One person even described Foreign Office staff as being both “rude and ignorant”.
Sadly, we saw consular staff in Tunisia react dismissively to worried family members who were attempting to find out information. I make it clear to the Minister that this evidence is anecdotal, but it is from families who have suffered a tragic loss. It appeared to those families that, far from helping them in any way possible, all too often FCO staff acted as though they did not want to talk to them when they were going through the most horrific of times.
I can only compare that response to the response from the Belgian embassy. The Belgian embassy staff arrived promptly after the attack; they wore jackets bearing the national flag; and they checked on the welfare of their nationals, briefed them on evacuation plans, and acted quickly to establish the identities of those who had lost their life. It took me a couple of hours to confirm through the FCO—by ringing it—that I had lost a constituent. In the end, it was a news organisation that confirmed the news to me as Trudy’s Member of Parliament. I am sure that UK consular staff often perform their duties well and effectively, but on this occasion they were found wanting.
I urge the Minister to instigate a review of what happened on that terrible day. Beyond the failings regarding the attack, many people were left in limbo, not knowing whether their loved ones were safe and fearing the worst. Questions must be asked about the travel advice. Why was it not changed following the suicide bombing in Sousse, which took place months before the horrific attack earlier this year? Tour operators continued to sell and publicise tickets to Sousse, despite a demonstrable increase in the threat of terrorism. Tour operators have a duty to make travellers aware of potential problems if they are selling tickets to such destinations. Most people rightly assume that places are safe if tour operators are promoting them.
However, it is not only tour operators that have a duty to ensure that people are informed. Decisions by private companies are naturally based on Government advice. Indeed, after the murder of innocent holidaymakers in Tunisia, the tour operator Thomson said that at all times it followed Foreign Office travel advice, which did not prohibit travel to Tunisia. I urge the Minister again to look at why advice was not changed, and to ensure that when there is a threat to the lives of British citizens, that is reflected in the activities of tour operators.
I began my speech by mentioning the evil murder of my constituent Trudy Jones. I end by once again stating that the entire community of Blackwood is still here for her family. I am here for her family. I watched with sadness the video her family produced in memory of her amazing life. Trudy truly was an inspiring individual. Nothing can ever bring her back, but we can ensure that if another of our citizens is ever taken away, the FCO and consular services provide the right support, with competency, efficiency and, most of all, compassion. Like the hon. Member for Glasgow North East, I pay tribute to all those who have campaigned to ensure that those who have lost loved ones abroad are treated with respect and, above all, dignity. I associate myself with her remarks about Julie Love.
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) will know, my experience of Foreign Office staff, particularly its consular staff, has been very positive, and I wanted to put that on the record. I am grateful to her for securing the debate and giving us all an opportunity to speak of our experiences.
On 23 October this year, two young constituents, John and Lynette Rodgers of Holywood in County Down, were on their honeymoon in South Africa. They had got married at First Holywood Presbyterian church just six days earlier. They were happy and they were in love. As I said in my intervention, they were inseparable in life. They were much loved by their families. Lynette’s mother, Eva Reilly, had been widowed some years ago. She has one son, Graham, but Lynette was her only daughter. Likewise, John Rodgers was the only son of his family, who come from Ballygowan. His mother and father, Billy and Johann, were deeply distressed by his tragic, untimely death in South Africa, as were John’s sisters, Gwen and Kathryn.
When the news came through late on the Friday evening, I went straight to the home of Eva Reilly. The Police Service of Northern Ireland had already visited to break the terrible, tragic news of the death of this young couple on honeymoon in South Africa. The global response team kept in touch with both families during that night, and the young lady on duty did not leave her desk at 9 o’clock, Saturday morning, before phoning both families to update them with the latest information about their loved ones.
The consular staff were absolutely outstanding, both in South Africa and here in London in the Foreign Office. I have nothing but the greatest admiration for the sensitivity with which they handled a tragedy for both families, the whole community of Holywood and the town of Ballygowan. The families were enormously dignified and courageous in the face of terrible tragedy, but their sorrow and grief was lessened by the updating by, and the sensitivity and intervention of, Foreign Office staff. The PSNI also appointed a single liaison officer for both families, which was an exceedingly good decision. The bodies of John and Lynette were brought home on the Friday following the accident. That was absolutely remarkable. I say again that that is full credit to the Foreign Office staff, who made the travel arrangements, liaised closely with the PSNI and with the families at all times, and kept the local MP informed.
At the joint funeral of those two young people, which took place in the church in which they were married, hymns were played that they had sung just a fortnight before at their wedding. I have attended far too many funerals in Northern Ireland, but I do not think I have ever seen printed on the back of an order of service a tribute of thanks to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the PSNI family liaison officer, mentioned by name. I thought that was a wonderful tribute. I have subsequently written to the Foreign Secretary and to consular staff to thank them personally for what they did to support and give great comfort to two families and a community at a time of real need, and I am full of admiration for that.
It is a pleasure to speak on this poignant issue. I commend all three speakers on their personal contributions. They told compassionate, heartrending stories, and every one of them resonated—one in particular: that of my colleague and hon. Friend, the Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). Lynette was one of her constituents for most of, if not all, her life. John Rodgers was one of my constituents. He married Lynette and moved to my hon. Friend’s constituency, so these issues resonate with us. Unfortunately, similar incidents have occurred with my constituents. On two different occasions, single ladies died while on holiday. I honestly have to say that the response from consular staff has always been good. I could not say otherwise, because that would be unfair and untrue. I am, however, mindful of the debate so far, which has outlined where improvements can be made, and I know the Minister will respond to those points.
Like my hon. Friend, I visited the home of the Rodgers family. John Rodgers’ mum, dad and sisters asked me to convey their thanks to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the consular staff for all that they did. I did that in writing and I do that publicly today, so that it is recorded in Hansard, which is important.
I am conscious that you have indicated the timings we need to work to, Ms Buck; I will keep to them. I want to raise with the Minister the point that it is not possible to register a death with the British authorities in a number of states, including Ascension Island, Australia, Bermuda, Canada, the Cayman Islands, Christmas Island, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, the Irish Republic, which is next to us, Nevis, New Zealand, St Helena, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the British Virgin Islands, and South Africa. While it may not have been possible to register the deaths with the British authorities, the consular staff came forward and worked compassionately and directly to ensure that it happened. The Minister’s staff are probably checking to make sure that list is correct. The way in which consular staff have kept in touch with families, particularly in the case of the death of John and Lynette, indicates that there is compassion and understanding. They went out of their way to ensure that things went in the right way.
My final point is on the two ladies who passed away on holiday. Consular staff did their bit, but the tour operators did not always respond in the proper way to the tragic deaths. Will the Minister indicate how consular staff work with the tour operators who book people into hotels, because, in my experience, they sometimes fail?
Thank you, Ms Buck, for the chance to speak. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North East for showing us all what needs to be done. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), who is my own MP, on securing the debate. She has clearly taken an interest in the issue for many years, including when she was in the Scottish Parliament. She has a strong personal interest, and I echo the comments that have been made about her moving testimony. I extend my sympathies and those of the Scottish National party to the families of all the individuals we have heard about this afternoon. The debate is particularly timely given the shocking events in Paris last week. I want to put on record my own shock and sadness at those atrocities. My thoughts and prayers are with all those affected.
My hon. Friend helpfully laid out the background to the debate in considerable detail. Figures from the Scottish Government released in answer to our parliamentary question a few years ago suggest that the number of deaths of people from Scotland occurring overseas and registered with the relevant local consulate is relatively small—between 40 and 60 a year. I imagine the UK-wide figures are a similar proportion of the overall population. Nevertheless, each of those cases represents unique circumstances and undoubted sorrow and difficulty for those left behind. Providing comfort and support for the bereaved is surely one of the most basic of human instincts. Indeed, at Prayers in the Chamber on Monday, we heard the Beatitudes, which include the message:
“Blessed are those who mourn; for they shall be comforted.”
I have personal experience of the need for consular assistance. About 18 months ago a good friend of mine was very seriously—thankfully, not fatally—injured in an accident on holiday. I know how traumatic the family found that situation and how important consular assistance can be, especially when there are language issues or considerable and costly distances involved. I do not doubt the sincerity and human sympathy with which most consular staff will react when responding to inquiries and requests for support from bereaved family and friends. However, as we have heard, sadly there are cases in which the support does not live up to expectations, or somehow falls short of the duties and responsibilities of consulates.
Perhaps there is a question around the management of expectations. I have read the guidance from the FCO on support for British nationals abroad. It is a thorough document that makes it clear what consulates can and cannot—or perhaps will and will not— do to support UK citizens overseas in different circumstances. But perhaps there is still a job of work to be done in making that information more widely available and more widely known. It is available online; perhaps it is available in consulates. Can the Minister tell us whether it is available in airports, from travel agents or on holiday booking websites? Is it available as an app or an e-book? There are different ways of making such information available nowadays.
Perhaps there is an opportunity for the Government to keep under review the services they can offer in these situations. Again, I accept that to a certain extent the role of consulates is defined by international conventions, and that the UK Government must accept the rule of law and relevant customs in particular countries; and it is also true that the services provided are funded not directly by the taxpayer but through a levy on the cost of passports. Nevertheless, if there is a demand for or expectation of different kinds of support, some of which we have heard about—perhaps more assistance with repatriation, easier access to funds and so on—perhaps the Government should consider that. Perhaps the Minister will tell us, in the light of this debate, what consideration they will give to that.
We also accept that there is no substitute for travel insurance, but again, perhaps there is a case for better public communication and awareness of what travel insurance can and cannot provide. That is equally true of the European health insurance card. In particular, it does not provide for repatriation of either injured or deceased persons.
There are particular issues to consider when a death overseas is not the result of natural causes. I welcome the recent review that was referred to and the consideration the Government have given to the role of consular assistance in cases of murder or manslaughter. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East said, it will be interesting to hear what progress is being made in taking that review and the recommendations forward.
In the case of a fatal accident, I welcome, as my hon. Friend did, the moves that the Scottish Government are taking on the Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc. (Scotland) Bill, which will allow for discretionary fatal accident inquiries into the deaths of Scots abroad where the body has been repatriated to Scotland. I pay tribute to the campaigners, especially Julie Love, who is a constituent of mine and has worked very hard on this alongside my colleague and constituent Bob Doris, who is a Member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow.
As we know from recent experiences, there are other circumstances to consider. Terrorism, pandemics and natural disasters can also lead to the deaths of citizens overseas, and it is right that those are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. I hope the Minister will assure us that the Scottish Government will be involved in such situations, particularly when Scottish residents are affected.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East once again on securing the debate, and I echo the questions that she has asked. The issues involved are sensitive and require a considered and humane response. I hope the Government will continue to engage constructively when particular situations arise or suggestions are made.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Buck. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) on securing the debate and highlighting this important issue. She spoke so powerfully and so sadly from personal experience, and she highlighted the many families who have campaigned for some years. She made an excellent speech and made specific points with which I agree, including asking the Minister to consider in detail whether a central unit to assist families might be the best way forward.
Sadly, many Members will have had constituents who died abroad. We know it is an awful experience for all those affected. The heartbreak of losing a friend or relative is often compounded by the stress of repatriating a body and navigating a foreign legal system. As we know, and as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East and the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) mentioned, consular assistance was required this weekend after the atrocities in Paris. I know all our sympathies are with everyone affected, including our consular and locally employed staff who are having to deal with the aftermath of that awful terrorist attack.
Sadly, there is a growing trend of British citizens being caught up in terrorist attacks abroad, including, as has already been mentioned, the attacks in Sousse in Tunisia in June, where more than 30 British citizens were killed, including my own constituent, Claire Windass, who was murdered while on holiday with her husband. In that case, the family told me that the consular assistance they were given was of a very high standard.
I note what the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) said about the very sad case of John and Lynette and how the consular assistance and support that was given to the families in very distressing circumstances was outstanding. I also note what the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said about the positive experiences that he had had over the years. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) talked about the way in which families had been treated in the case of the Tunisian atrocity, so there is obviously a very mixed picture.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady and to everyone who has made a contribution. I am profoundly embarrassed by having to say that I have a commitment that means I have to leave the debate, but I did not want the hon. Lady to feel offended. I apologise to you, Ms Buck, and to the Minister and all colleagues for my leaving due to the pressure of a particular commitment that I simply cannot avoid attending. I apologise to the hon. Lady and thank her for offering sympathy to the families of the young honeymoon couple from my constituency who died. It is kind of her to do so.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and for her apologies for leaving.
I hope the Minister will be able to update the House on the work that the FCO is undertaking to ensure that embassies are prepared to deal with major incidents and terror attacks, because unfortunately we see more of them happening. As the number of staff employed at consulates is reduced, what is being done to be able to quickly increase capacity at times of acute need?
I want to raise a few issues arising from the Foreign Affairs Committee report. Like the hon. Member for Glasgow North East, I want to refer to recommendations that came out of that excellent report. I pay tribute to the members of the Committee and to everyone who was willing to give evidence. I read the very distressing accounts of what had happened to their loved ones and the difficulties that they experienced in accessing support from consular services.
The first issue raised by the Select Committee report that I want to emphasise is the need to ensure that the support offered to families is consistent. It is clear that although in a number of cases families and loved ones have received excellent support, many individuals have been let down. That appears to be partly because of the low minimum standards and inconsistent procedures for dealing with deaths abroad. I am glad that the Foreign Office has recognised that problem, and I welcome its commitment to increase the monitoring of feedback and use that to improve training. Will the Minister say a little more about what that actually means in practice?
The Select Committee raised particular concerns about the support offered to families who have suffered a bereavement due to murder or manslaughter. I agree with the Committee that the current minimum offer to such families is far short of what British citizens should expect to receive. I am glad that the FCO accepted that finding and I welcome the fact that the Government have conducted a review, but it sounds like that review is a work in progress. Numerous conclusions identify further work to be undertaken. For example, the review concludes:
“We are already reviewing training and development opportunities for staff”,
and goes on to say:
“We will ask the AJU to consider data protection rules and whether there may be ways of working more smartly within these”.
It also says:
“The AJU will consider how best to support relatives and friends beyond the immediate family”,
“The AJU will explore what further measures can be taken at UK and foreign airports to reduce distress for families who are travelling.”
All those commitments and opportunities for review are welcome, but it would be good if the Minister could give us a final update on exactly what the outcomes are.
Finally, next week is the comprehensive spending review, in which there are likely to be further cuts to the FCO budget. Will the Minister say what plans are in place to deal with a reduction in the number of consular staff? How will that play out in the light of the problems I identified earlier in my speech relating to terrorist attacks and the number of British citizens who, unfortunately, are at risk when they travel?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) on securing this debate. She gave a heartfelt and very brave speech. Had I suffered the same personal circumstance, I am not sure that I would have been able to be quite so eloquent in the delivery of a large number of points. I have only seven or eight minutes to respond, so I want to say at the outset that I would like to meet the hon. Lady outside this debate—not literally outside, but perhaps at the Foreign Office—to discuss some of the points she raised in much more detail. We could either include outside organisations from the start, or discuss how we can liaise even more effectively with those organisations.
The hon. Lady mentioned three themes, which I would like to touch on. She asked what has changed since the Foreign Affairs Committee report. I will give my thoughts on some of the individual cases, because it is important that we learn from examples of where things have gone wrong. It is equally important that we learn from examples of where things have gone right. The debate has been very balanced, although it is easier in all walks of life to hear more about what goes wrong than what goes right. I suspect that the general view among the public, from reading national papers and so on, is slightly skewed. The front page of the Daily Mail has never been “Fabulous consular support offered in”—insert name of country. If only it was thus.
I pay tribute to a number of organisations. I am sure I would leave some out, so I will not attempt a list, but I pay particular tribute to the work of Julie Love, who lost her son in 2009. She has done a remarkable job setting up Death Abroad—You’re Not Alone, which seeks to support families. I also pay tribute to SAMM Abroad, another organisation to which the hon. Lady referred. The death of a loved one is always distressing, but a family’s grief can be compounded by not only the circumstance of that death but what happens afterwards. The British Government want to be part of ameliorating a bad process, rather than being part of any problem.
The hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and, particularly, for North Down (Lady Hermon) outlined some really moving examples of where consular staff have got it right. Although there are sadly a large number of deaths, quite often, by the nature of there being only one or two people in post, it might be the first time that an individual staff member involved has dealt with a death. Everyone has their own experiences and concerns, and it is an emotional event for them. To put into context the work that is done, to date this year consular staff have been involved in 3,039 cases around the world. There have been 83 new murder cases so far this year, and 238 murder cases are ongoing and active.
I would like to draw colleagues’ attention to a document called “Guide for bereaved families”. Normally when there is a bereavement overseas, the initial point of contact is with a member of the police force who is in attendance, although in very rare cases a phone call is made. The other possibility is that an individual is contacted by the media. Notwithstanding that, a guide is given that goes into a lot of detail. Perhaps I will take the liberty of circulating it to the Members who are present and asking for feedback. It might also be worth circulating it more widely—the hon. Member for Glasgow North East mentioned case workers in particular.
In the two or three minutes I have remaining, I will try to canter through as many of the issues that have been raised as I can as a precursor to meeting the hon. Lady. On new training, we have changed things already, but the totality of new training has not yet been rolled out. That is ongoing.
The hon. Lady referred to a number of statistics from reports. The Foreign Office runs a survey, and from January to September 85% of people were satisfied with the level of service that they received. Nevertheless, I recognise that the data are likely to be skewed, in that those who report back to the Foreign Office are probably more likely to be happy, whereas I can imagine that those who report to support groups having looked first to the Foreign Office would be less likely to be satisfied. But to be frank, it is not acceptable for anyone to be unsatisfied, within reason.
Some really interesting ideas were mentioned relating to the use of desk officers. A specialist unit has been set up for cases of murder and manslaughter, so there will be the continuity that the hon. Lady sought. However, I gently suggest that there are advantages in using desk officers. They know the contacts in country, the language and the culture, which might not be the case with a centralised unit. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss and better understand the detail to see how that could be improved.
I do not have time to go into a lot of detail on travel advice, but I will review the disparities in the advice for South Africa. I am happy to discuss swimming conditions with the hon. Lady. The Foreign Office website discusses them in detail, but it is not always country-specific. In my experience of travel advice, more and more information can be added, but the risk is that people miss the bigger picture, such as in the case of advising, “Don’t travel to an entire area of the country because it is subject to terrorism.” So there is a case for not adding too much complexity, while also working more closely on travel advice.
The hon. Lady has indicated that I can take all the time available so that I can cover as many issues as possible.
A lot has been done in relation to Tunisia. The Prime Minister appointed the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who suffered a loss when his brother was killed in the Bali bombings. He brought a lot of experience not only to how we assisted people in Tunisia but to how we followed up on that. We deployed experts and changed the travel advice as quickly as a possible, although there is a duty to be accurate as well as fast. We are looking at options for additional family support, and we still need to consider in detail a number of points in the Foreign Affairs Committee report.
Alas, there is not enough time for me to answer all the questions that have been asked, but I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North East, who made a very brave and thoughtful speech. Good will come of her raising this matter in the House, and I look forward to working with her in more detail.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).