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Westminster Hall

Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2016

Westminster Hall

Wednesday 13 January 2016

[Mr David Nuttall in the Chair]

Universal Credit: North-West

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of the roll-out of universal credit in the North West.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. This is the first Westminster Hall debate that I have secured, and I will endeavour to observe the correct procedure. I am pleased to have secured this debate on such a critical subject for my constituents in St Helens South and Whiston and for people across north-west England.

I am sure that no hon. Member would disagree that the recent debate on changes to tax credits has been one of the most important in this Session. Following pressure from Members on both sides of the Commons, the Lords and the public at large asked the Government to think again. The Chancellor announced in the autumn statement that planned changes to tax credits had been scrapped, saying:

“I have listened to the concerns. I hear and understand them. Because I have been able to announce today an improvement in the public finances, the simplest thing to do is not to phase these changes in, but to avoid them altogether. Tax credits are being phased out anyway as we introduce universal credit.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1360.]

However, for many people in the north-west of England the change to universal credit is a reality. The huge changes to our social security system have been trialled with people in the north-west.

Simply because of where they happen to live, many people in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies face dramatic drops in income from April 2016. For 77,378 people in the north-west, or 53% of the 155,000 currently in receipt of universal credit, this is a deeply worrying time. Some 51,000 of those people are in employment, and any of them experiencing changes that warrant a fresh application are seriously concerned. That issue of reduced work allowance is at the forefront of the minds of my constituents and the constituents of many other Members. I urge the Minister to take that away and think again.

The Office for Budget Responsibility expects the universal credit case load to be 330,000 in 2016-17, and many of those claimants will be in the north-west as those who get into work go on to universal credit. If families move from tax credits as part of their managed migration, they will be eligible for transitional protection until such time as their universal credit award catches up or the family experiences significant change to their circumstances. Transitional protection will apply only to families moved over through managed migration. Details on transitional protection have not yet been announced, and I ask for transitional protection to be put on a legal footing.

We know from the House of Commons Library that there will be no transitional protection for lone parents aged 25 or over with two children and no housing costs who are working full time—35 hours a week—on the minimum wage in 2015-16 or on the Government’s national living wage in 2016-17. Such a family will lose £2,384 in 2016-17. The same family with the housing element of universal credit will lose £309, and a disabled family with no housing costs will lose £3,000. Many families will face drops in income of between £2,000 and £3,000. That is the effect of these cuts on those whose circumstances have changed and warrant a fresh application.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, with cuts to universal credit already being planned, there will be greater demand for transitional funding when current tax credit claimants are migrated on to universal credit?

Yes, there will. How can it be right that anyone should be subject to a great injustice based on a postcode lottery determined by arbitrary decisions and the serial failings of the Department for Work and Pensions in delivering the programmes thus far? We have all heard the arguments on tax credits, and Members on both sides of the House were in agreement. Surely the change of terminology to universal credit from tax credit does not justify or warrant these cuts. It is simply indefensible that some people should be cast aside in this incompetent administrative experiment.

We have experienced other issues during the roll-out of universal credit. It would be unreasonable to assume that such a large scheme could be implemented without hiccups and a certain level of teething problems. The Government were forced to slow down the roll-out of the programme dramatically compared with their original aim. The OBR forecast in March 2013 that there would be 6.1 million claimants, but it is now expected that 330,000 people will receive universal credit during 2016-17. However, the problems that we have experienced in the north-west go well beyond what could be put down to normal problems that can be ironed out as the system beds in.

A range of administrative issues have had a terrible impact on people in receipt of universal credit. Many of the issues were highlighted in a report by Citizens Advice published in the summer of 2015. That report, “Waiting for Credit,” was drawn from 16 citizens advice bureaux, the majority of them in the north-west, including St Helens CAB. It detailed a range of issues faced by people claiming universal credit and by those trying to access it. For instance, universal credit is paid monthly in arrears. Following a new claim, the aim is for the claimant to be paid within five weeks—that is a total of nine weeks. The time lag causes claimants huge short-term financial difficulties, even when that aim is adhered to. However, the report found that 30% of claimants had to wait even longer.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing this important debate. She mentioned that people are paid monthly in arrears. Does that not apply to everybody who works for a living and pays taxes, which is what ultimately pays for the welfare?

It can take five weeks for people on universal credit to be paid—that is the Government’s aim. If the hon. Gentleman listened to my point, he would know that the report found that 30% of claimants had to wait even longer than the nine-week total. Those people suffer from income deprivation, which is why they are eligible for universal credit and why they are different from those in normal, well-paid work.

The report found that many claimants faced continuing difficulties in getting the right amount, even when their claim had been processed. Basic administrative problems, such as being asked repeatedly for the same documentary evidence, were cited.

The hon. Lady talks about administrative problems, but was not the key problem when we had a Labour Government that many people were left languishing on welfare and given no help at all to find work, some for as long as 10 years? Is that not the key difference from what we now have under this Government? Hundreds of thousands of people are now being supported into work. Is that not better for them, their families and their communities, and for the income that their households earn?

No, I do not agree. People knew what was coming and knew that the funds were available. There are 155,000 people on universal credit now, and I am talking about the problems that they are experiencing now. For most people, not getting paid on time will cause at least some level of difficulty. For people on universal credit, not getting paid can be a catastrophe that makes it impossible to manage everyday living and responsibilities such as heating their home, eating, or clothing their children. Increased numbers of people are in rent arrears.

In my experience, there have been other cases of people facing great hardship through the incompetence of the programme so far. Basic work with different agencies has not taken place. For example, one of my constituents was previously in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance and was subsequently moved on to universal credit. Upon going to the dentist he required treatment, which was free under the NHS. When he was filling in the usual form, he was advised to tick the box marked “income-based jobseeker’s allowance”, as there was no box for universal credit. Subsequently, he was billed and pursued by the NHS Business Services Authority and threatened with county court action for a false declaration. If that is the level of co-operation between different agencies at this stage, what hope is there for the future?

I must highlight the DWP’s use of sanctions in the case of universal credit. It has thus far been largely concentrated on those who are on jobseeker’s allowance or employment and support allowance. We have all heard of the cases of people who have had their benefits stopped, often for absurdly spurious reasons such as selling poppies or not searching hard enough for jobs on Christmas day—that is true. We have come across many tragic cases of constituents who are literally starving and unable to turn on their heating because they have no money. Sanctions are sometimes imposed for the crime of arriving only a few minutes late for a jobcentre appointment following a hospital appointment.

There is no confidence in the current sanctions regime. It is both incompetent and brutal. There needs to be a full and independent review to restore some kind of confidence in the whole system. It is therefore completely irresponsible to expand the use of sanctions under universal credit to claimants in work.

Conditionality of benefits is being trialled for some of the in-work elements of universal credit. The New Policy Institute published a report into sanctions last year, which said:

“The expansion of conditionality under Universal Credit could see a substantial increase in sanctions: if sanctioning occurred at the same rate as for JSA claimants, then the number could almost double, with an additional 600,000 sanctions.”

It is surely inconceivable that people in work could be left in such a situation because of a Government policy that is supposed to support them for doing the right thing, but that is what will happen unless the Government think again.

To say the least, there has not been a smooth transition to universal credit for people in the north-west region. I do not have enough time to outline the range of problems that we have faced as a result of being the guinea-pig region for the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Does the hon. Lady not agree that behind the roll-out of universal credit is the desire to help working families, to get people back into work and to fulfil the aspirations that people have for their lives and their families, and that it would be much better for us to support that aspiration, support universal credit and iron out all the operational difficulties that she has highlighted?

Universal credit was supposed to simplify the benefits system and increase incentives to work. It has not simplified the benefits system. People have to wait longer, and very often the assessments that they receive are wrong. How does it incentivise people to work if they are subjected to cuts that they would not have been subjected to previously? We have experienced neither benefits being simplified nor incentives to work being increased.

The cuts to the work allowance will destroy the basis of the new system and any incentive or encouragement to work. The Minister said that no one would lose a penny, but now the Government are saying that people should work for three to four hours more a week—200 hours more a year—to be no better off. How does anyone find three to four hours more a week for an adviser to help them when they are in full-time employment anyway?

This change will hit the people who most need help. I urge the Government to stop, think and implement something that will work. They should think again before pursuing these devastating cuts, and, importantly, they should put transitional protection on a legal footing. Until someone’s earnings reach the universal credit work allowance scheme limit, their transitional protection should be put on a legal basis. That is what I ask for.

Thank you, Mr Nuttall, for calling me to speak in this important debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) for bringing this important debate to this Chamber today. In the last Parliament, it was my privilege to work for three years on the Work and Pensions Committee. We conducted an investigation and produced a report on the introduction and roll-out of universal credit, and we visited jobcentres in the Greater Manchester area. Indeed, we also conducted an investigation at about the same time into jobcentres themselves, which was overwhelmingly welcomed by the people at the sharp end—the people who work in jobcentres.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited two local jobcentres—one in Runcorn and one in Northwich—and the staff told me that universal credit made it a lot easier to help people to get into work, particularly the long-term unemployed. Together with the changes that the Government have introduced to tax, which effectively take some of the lowest-paid people out of tax altogether, universal credit helps people who have been unemployed for a long time. There is a clear incentive to work, because people can keep more of their pay. The Government intend to introduce a system whereby people can earn £12,500—just over £1,000 a month—before they start to pay income tax.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this change marks a profound shift in the welfare system? As many people would expect, the welfare system is now a mechanism to help people into work, as opposed to a catchment for people to remain unemployed.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend; he hits the nail on the head. This change is about enabling people to stand on their own two feet and to get away from the welfare culture that grew under the 13 years of the previous Labour Administration. When Labour introduced tax credits, they were going to cost £4 billion; the figure is now £30 billion. That is simply unaffordable. As a nation, do we pay money to people for not working or do we encourage them to stand on their own two feet and get a job? And as I say, the tax incentive means that people can earn about £1,000 a month before paying tax, because Conservatives believe that people should keep more of their earnings.

Perhaps it is also good to remember that this Government are going to double the amount of free childcare to 30 hours a week, which for working parents of three and four-year-olds is worth about £5,000 a year per child. More than that, even for those on universal credit there is help. Universal credit currently covers up to 70% of eligible childcare costs, but from April that will increase to 85%. That is a huge difference, worth £1,368 per year for every child.

I am most grateful for that intervention; my hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. As I have said, jobcentre staff say that the changes that the Government have introduced to simplify welfare and benefits, and the incentive to work, enable those people who are unemployed to get into work quickly. And for long-term unemployed people who have been on benefits for many years, there are now clear incentives to get into work, because they will keep more of the money they earn; universal credit enables them to keep more of what they earn.

It has emerged clearly from this discussion that there needs to be greater awareness of the cuts to the universal credit work allowance that are coming in this April. Let me just give the example of a single parent—say, a single mother—with one or more children. That allowance will be halved from April from £8,808 to £4,764, which is a reduction of £4,044. In cash terms, that working mother will lose £2,628 from this April. How on earth is that an incentive to work?

We have to look at the whole scheme. We have to look at the fairness to those in receipt of welfare and benefits, but what we never hear about from Labour Members is that the scheme has to be fair to the people who pay for it, who are the hard-working taxpayers. If we look at people who are working—[Interruption.] I know it is controversial to talk about the people who actually contribute and pay for welfare, but we have to look at the people who make the decisions to work hard and work full-time. The examples that people always look at are of people who work part-time, and their income is topped up. Well, we have to look at the decisions of people who work hard every day. They have to work full-time—work, work—and make those decisions and pay taxes, which go into the welfare system.

I will give way to the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) and then I want to make some progress.

I intend to make a speech, and I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s courtesy in giving way. I gently say to him—this is important in a debate on universal credit—that Britain is not divided into two groups of people: those who pay taxes and those who receive welfare benefits. It is a lot more complicated than that. The point of universal credit was actually to allow a seamless transition between the two to support people. The point of this debate should be to point out that that transition is not working so far in the initial roll-out of universal credit. That is where the attention needs to lie in a discussion such as this.

As always, the hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. I am not saying that the system is perfect. Under the Labour Government, the welfare system was very complicated. In the previous Parliament, the Government tried to make it simpler and fairer for people in receipt of welfare while also making it fairer for the people who pay for it—hard-working taxpayers. Not for one minute am I saying that the system is perfect, but the people who work in Jobcentre Plus tell me that universal credit makes it a lot easier and simpler for them to help people, particularly the long-term unemployed, to get into work. That is the evidence in my constituency.

May I make a bit of progress first? I have actually got a speech here.

Everyone with the ability to work should be given the support and opportunity to do so. The previous system wrote too many people off for too long, and too many people were left in a cycle of welfare. The point behind the reforms is to break that cycle. The roll-out of universal credit will fundamentally transform the welfare benefits system in Britain and the north-west, making 3 million people better off and bringing £33 billion in economic benefits to society. Universal credit will simplify and streamline the welfare system, improve work incentives, tackle poverty among low-income families and reduce the scope for error and fraud.

The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston gave some powerful examples. I am not saying that errors do not happen; of course they do. Things are not perfect, but other nations around the world are looking at the welfare reforms that the previous Government introduced and are considering doing the same. Since the introduction of universal credit, unemployment in the north-west has fallen by 50,000—more than 30%. Unemployment in my constituency has more than halved in the same period. While that fall cannot be solely attributed to universal credit, its roll-out has had a part to play in that success, and it will continue to play a major part in entrenching that success as the roll-out continues.

The hon. Gentleman is making powerful points, but I am sure that he recognises the concerns of those of us on this side of the Chamber. Government Members may share those concerns, to be fair. Society is marked by its attitude to those on low incomes and the less well-off. In this House, we have a duty to them as well as to taxpayers, who provide income. Does he accept that universal credit is causing undue delays for many of my constituents and those of other Members in the Chamber? There is a knock-on effect on those receiving benefit with the changes to their income tax, tax credits and housing benefit. Some people are without money for periods of seven, eight, nine or even 10 weeks. There has to be something wrong with a system that cannot respond to the needs of those on low incomes when they need it most.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. There is a lot of evidence that delays are there, and those delays are unacceptable for the individuals concerned. I will not attempt to defend that. The system is not perfect, but any individual cases should be brought perhaps to the attention of the Member of Parliament, but certainly to the attention of Jobcentre Plus and the benefits agency. Those cases should be looked into and investigated.

People claiming universal credit are 13% more likely to be in work than people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. They are earning more money and are more willing to take a job. One constituent of mine, a hairdresser, was complaining. She said, “At this time of year, I usually get a rebate on income tax, but because I now have a far better personal allowance, I do not have that problem.” She is keeping more of her hard-earned money. That is what the Government are helping the lowest-paid to do.

Employment has been the Government’s real success. A thousand jobs were created each and every day during the last Parliament. That represents 2 million jobs over that period. The Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that a further million jobs will be created over the next five years. This country is the economic powerhouse of Europe. Yorkshire is creating more jobs than France, and that is why so many people want to come here. We have good quality, well-paid jobs, and the living wage is being introduced. We have a far better working environment than many other countries in the European Union. That all indicates just how successful the Government have been at getting people off benefits and back into work. There are so many opportunities in all our communities, and it is important that we expose those opportunities to those looking for work.

Crucial to the Government’s success has been the support towards childcare costs for parents, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) pointed out. Under universal credit, there is additional cover for childcare costs for parents, with up to 70% of childcare costs covered regardless of hours worked. That will be increased to 85% this year, with a monthly limit of £646 for one child and more than £1,000 for two or more children, helping more parents into work. When my children were younger, I remember Mrs Evans saying, “It is pointless me going back to work because of the childcare costs.” I know that the cover for childcare costs is an important step forward in helping working mums to work longer and keep more of their money.

The ethos of “It pays to work” is built into the DNA of the Government’s reforms, particularly universal credit. I have no doubt that as universal credit is rolled out further, we will continue to see more and more people getting back into work. The hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston referred to the region as a guinea pig, but I am comfortable and proud that the north-west has led the way. I was particularly pleased when universal credit started in my jobcentres in Weaver Vale, because it made a massive difference. I pay tribute to the hard-working staff at Runcorn and Northwich jobcentres for the fantastic work they do helping people back into employment. They are a great example of best practice, and their hard work was recognised by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions when he visited the jobcentre in Northwich at the end of last year. He gave the staff an award for the number of people they had helped back into work. The staff at Northwich jobcentre have told me that the introduction of universal credit has made their job easier.

A lot of people come into Weaver Vale to work. As the MP, I am puzzled why people travel great distances to work in my constituency yet I still have unemployed people. One of my challenges is to get my constituents to take the jobs that are virtually on their doorstep. That is why, when I became the MP, I started my jobs and apprenticeship fairs. The fifth will take place next month. The first time I did it, there were a lot of unemployed people, but that number has halved over the past four or five years. It is the harder-to-reach people who are left. The companies that come to my jobs fairs are fine-tuning their job offers for people who perhaps have not been in work for a long, long time.

I was most privileged to have the John Lewis Partnership come into Northwich. I am sure Members will agree that Waitrose is a fantastic organisation. When it came, it said, “We will guarantee that 30% of interviews will be for local people.” That was only an interview, not a job, but it was so impressed with the calibre and the quality of the interviewees that it ended up with more than 50% of its employees being local people. Some of those people had been long-term employed, but Jobcentre Plus had worked with the local authority and Mid Cheshire College, training the people for job interviews, CV filling out and what retail employers are looking for. That was a great example of organisations working together to get the long-term unemployed working for the great company that is the John Lewis Partnership. That 50% figure is an achievement of which we can be proud. The reforms are transforming the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities and giving people the skills and the opportunity to get on in life and stand on their own two feet.

I am keen to move Weaver Vale—indeed, Great Britain —from a low-wage, high-tax, high-welfare economy to a higher-wage, lower-tax, lower-welfare country. I support the Government’s reforms in welfare and universal credit. The system is not perfect, but it is far better than that attempted by the previous Government. I believe it is working, as proved by the reduction in unemployment, the growth in wages and the quality of the jobs now available in this country.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) on the eloquent way in which she put the concerns of her constituents—indeed, all our constituents—about universal credit, particularly the changes to the working allowance, which will disadvantage working people. That bears saying once more. Such people are taxpayers. There are not two groups—people who pay tax and people who get benefits—because people move in and out. They pay tax and they deserve support, but they will lose money. Some 20,000 people working full time in my constituency will lose money by 2020. That is appalling.

However, as I represent a pathfinder authority, I want to move on to the difficulties caused by the universal credit roll-out and the lessons we can learn to make sure that it goes more smoothly in the rest of the country. Call me cynical, but I worked in the Citizens Advice Bureau from 1986 and I saw the change from supplementary benefit to income support. We now have universal credit. The aim was always to simplify, not to make things more complicated. The basic fact is that people’s lives are not simple. Lives are complicated and a system has to be devised that deals with the complications and issues that people have at different times of their lives. Certain problems with universal credit have been highlighted in the roll-out, such as the mismatch in budgeting periods and the six-week universal credit waiting period. I take issue with what the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) said about everyone who is in work being paid monthly. In fact, only half of low-paid workers are paid monthly. Many are paid weekly or fortnightly, so they do not have a cushion to rely on when they first claim universal credit. Anyone who is paid weekly will have one week’s money to manage on for five or six weeks.

There is some difficulty in claiming advance payments, and people are loth to do so. We have seen a rise in debt of 42% over the past six months. People go to payday lenders and suchlike to cover that period of time. There are other delays, without the additional delays in receiving payments. According to the Citizens Advice report, three in 10 have experienced a delay of more than a week beyond the standard five weeks. One in 10 wait more than nine weeks and some wait four months, owing to administrative problems. I accept that things go wrong, but we can look at what happens when things go wrong and at how we can improve that for people.

Confusion about the council tax reduction needs to be looked at, but the major effect of delayed payments has been the increased use of food banks. My local food bank, the Brick, has reported that the majority of people visit because of sanctions and waiting for universal credit—that includes people who are in work. That is a key finding of the survey, which found that 80% have difficulty paying essential household bills such as rent and utilities during these periods. Wigan and Leigh Homes has said that rent arrears have gone up since universal credit came in. People do not realise that they are getting all their money, which is another issue. Many people have been pushed into debt simply because of universal credit.

My local citizens advice bureau reports a much greater level of debt among universal credit claimants compared with the claimants of the past legacy benefits. Some 63% of people say that they have difficulty buying food and feeding their families—a basic human need—which means that the rise in food banks is related in some way to universal credit. I do not think that that can be denied.

I remember claiming a benefit when my husband walked out on me and I had a young child. The whole situation was appalling. I went to the Benefits Agency and felt pretty bad at having to claim benefits. If I had had to go to a food bank as well to feed my family, how would that have incentivised me at that particular period in time to seek work? I was fortunate. I managed to find work within three months, but if I had had to rely on a food bank and wonder where the next meal was coming from for me and my daughter, I am not sure I would have been able to concentrate as much on finding work.

A claimant in my constituency went to my local CAB because they were sanctioned for hundreds of days—not a short period—because they were passed backwards and forwards between jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance. Both teams said my constituent was not eligible for benefit. Ultimately, that person received £4,000 in backdated benefits, and universal credit was put back into regular payment. It is very nice that they got £4,000 in backdated benefits, but how on earth did they manage to feed their family during the time when they were owed £4,000 by the Government?

We need a way to resolve such problems. I would like a universal credit claimant champion, as recommended by Citizens Advice—someone who can look at difficult cases and take responsibility for them. Part of the problem is the fact that no one takes responsibility and people are passed back and to. I do not know about other hon. Members, but I have certainly seen an increase in the number of people coming to my surgeries about universal credit problems since we became a pathfinder. They have to go to their MP because we have a helpline, but advice agencies should have a dedicated helpline. I want to plead for extra funding for advice agencies. Since the changes to legal aid in 2010 when welfare benefits were no longer seen as a legally aidable necessity, less advice has been available from such agencies. Indeed, welfare benefits specialists are having to find other work. We are losing our expertise.

We should have a review before the full roll-out to make sure that when things go wrong, they are quickly resolved and we do not get into a situation in which people are paid huge sums of money backdated, but wonder how they live in the meantime.

The helpline has an 0345 number, which is charged at a fairly high rate on prepaid mobile phones. Constituents have told me that they have run out of credit using their mobile phones to ring an 0345 number, because they have been passed back and to. As I have said before, we need a local number. There should be a freephone number. There should be more phone lines available in offices. Freephone numbers should be available so that people can use the few phone boxes that are available to ring the universal credit number.

I fully accept what the hon. Lady says. It is absolutely right that we should have a system whereby people are not penalised for phoning to get information or assistance. Perhaps a system should be set up where the person is able to use a freephone number. If not, perhaps they could send an email and be called back free of charge. I do not believe people should be penalised.

I agree, but, as for sending emails, the local authority did a survey to see how many people in Wigan use the internet regularly and found that 30% have never accessed or even looked at the internet. We need to think about those people. When we look at digital by default as a way of claiming, we need to provide more help for people to claim in other ways and not penalise them with a delay.

The hon. Lady is making powerful points and I do not disagree with a lot of what she is saying. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) also just made a very good point. On digital by default, when I left school there were no computers. I have had to learn how to use computers throughout my life, so I know how difficult it is for people of a certain age to gain access to the internet. Even now, I am not perfect—my children are far better. Does the hon. Lady agree that, in the 21st century, if someone is unemployed and looking for a job but is not very good with the internet and computers, they will not find many jobs in which some form of computer use would not be required at a basic level? It may be that 30% of the hon. Lady’s constituents have never accessed the internet, but as much help as possible should be given to that 30% to enable them to apply for jobs, because I am pretty sure that computers will be involved.

I do not disagree, but in the meantime people should not be penalised by having to seek help to claim the universal credit benefit because it is digital by default. If they want help to claim, there are agencies that can help, but there is often a delay in receiving an appointment for that. People should not be penalised because they have to wait to claim universal credit simply because they do not have access to a computer. That is another issue to look at.

When claims are refused, people are sometimes confused about why. Again, a helpline number—an 0800 number—would be extremely helpful for those people. When it gets complicated, there should be a named person to help them. I do not think anyone would disagree with the idea that we want to make the system as simple as possible. We know that people’s lives are complicated and that they move in and out of work, particularly those in low-paid work. Anything that makes the transition more simple should be looked at carefully.

The hon. Lady has made a number of valid points, and I have great respect for her. We worked together as councillors on Warrington Borough Council and I know that she has in-depth knowledge of the subject, beyond that of many Members, but as I understand it, as part of universal credit a named personal contact is now being offered to help individuals to seek work, as well as to ensure that they access the right benefits.

Although there is someone available to help them to seek work, I am looking for someone to help when things go wrong—someone with a detailed understanding of the universal credit system, not someone who perhaps has more knowledge of the work environment. People need someone to talk to about the complexities of the universal credit system and how it relates to council tax benefits and local authorities—all the major issues—rather than simply a work adviser.

Trying to make things simpler with universal credit is a laudable aim. We need to look at what has happened in the pilots and how the system can be made to work. I cannot finish without also saying that we need to look at how universal credit can incentivise people to work, which is certainly not done by cutting the work allowance and giving people less incentive to find work.

It is a pleasure to see a fellow north-west MP in the Chair for this important debate, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) on securing the debate, and indeed on the impressive work she has done since being elected to Parliament. St Helens is a place with similar issues to my borough, Tameside, so it is excellent that she is raising them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) is also present. She, too, represents Tameside, which was a universal credit pathfinder area, so we were one of the first parts of the country to experience some of the problems related to it. No matter what political perspective a person has going into the debate on welfare rights and the welfare system, it is important to listen to relevant experience, where it exists, of how universal credit has functioned so far. I should say at the outset that I completely support the goal of simplifying our welfare system—I do not think anyone in this country would not want that.

Like many Members, I use the Child Poverty Action Group handbook to help constituents when they come to me with problems. The handbook is sometimes referred to as the bible of welfare rights; indeed, it is the same size and written in a similar font as the Bible. That indicates the complexity of the system, so of course people should be trying to simplify it. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) said, we cannot get away from the reality that many people lead complex lives and have complex needs. The system must function in a way that gives them the support they need.

A number of the issues that come up at my constituency surgery that I wanted to raise have already been mentioned, but they are so important that I want to reiterate why they are key to making the system work properly. The first one is the first payment that people get. In my experience, there are immediate problems for people when they try to access universal credit because of how the system is designed. It is not a teething problem with the roll-out, but a structural flaw in how universal credit has been created. A lot of people are immediately put into a position where they struggle to afford food and heating. That simply does not seem to tally with the goal of supporting people into and out of the workplace. Instead of giving them a professional and efficient service when they need it, it often robs them of their dignity and puts them into crisis.

Like other Members present, at times of my life I have had to access support from the welfare system, particularly the tax credit system, which is almost always the case for those who have children at quite a young age. It did not lead me into a life of welfare dependency—it arguably led me to a worse life, as I ended up here in the House of Commons. Nevertheless, that is an important point, because so much of the Government’s rhetoric is based on the assumption that there are two sets of people in the country: an underclass of welfare recipients who must be punished and whipped back into the workplace, and everyone else who suffers from having to pay for the system. If that is the Government’s mindset going into the designing of a welfare benefit, the welfare system will simply never be designed in an appropriate fashion to meet the objectives of the people who have been described in this debate.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has brought up the question of whether that is what the Government intend, because the answer is clearly no. The greatest dignity that we can give to anyone is the dignity of work and employment. That is the main thrust of what the Government want to see. Getting people off benefits and into full-time work will provide them with dignity and give their children a role model to follow.

I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman’s motivation. Before the debate we exchanged some comments about that sense of there being a group of taxpayers paying for the welfare system and a group of people in receipt of welfare benefits. That is not the way to design a welfare system. We cannot do it in a way that divides the country so simply into those arbitrary classifications. Indeed, if we do that, it is impossible to design an effective system.

I mentioned the issues relating to the first universal credit payment. People have to wait a long time, because it is designed to be paid five to six weeks in arrears. As the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) said in an intervention, the assumption is that they are in the workplace and receiving a monthly salary in arrears, so they will have that support before receiving universal credit. I say this completely genuinely: that is not how the economy of my constituency works. A great many people are still paid weekly or fortnightly. A lot of people have different levels of income week by week because of zero-hours contracts. That does not seem to have been considered in the level of detail required to design how and when people will receive the support that they need.

Delays occur in any bureaucratic system, but there is an even bigger structural flaw in universal credit that I have heard about several times in my constituency surgeries. If someone applies for universal credit on the wrong day—perhaps one or two days before they really “should” apply; in other words, when they have lost their job but before they have received their final pay cheque from their former employer—the system becomes disastrous for them. We must bear in mind that a lot of people, on finding out that they are going to be made redundant, would go to the jobcentre to look at the available support. If they apply for universal credit but receive a further pay cheque from their employer, they will wait not five to six weeks but 10 to 11. That is an enormous problem that must be looked at. If that happens—if someone has to know exactly when to apply for the support to which they are entitled—it will go far beyond the current level of complexity. That would have to be sorted out before any national roll-out.

I have raised those points because we have to find a way to get a supportive system that copes with people going into and out of the workplace—regular or temporary work—in a way that does not completely reset the system and cause all kinds of problems if they then go back into work. That is what I mean when I say that we should not split the country with an arbitrary classification of those in work and those out of work and receiving welfare benefits.

Whenever problems with universal credit are raised, the Government say that advance payments can sort out all the problems, whether with housing arrears, heating or food. That is the first question I ask people who come to see me with problems with universal credit, and a lot of them tell me that they have not been told about the advance payments system. I do not know what the experience of other hon. Members is, but advance payments do not seem to be programmed into the initial assessment. If a person does not know about the advance payment system, they have an even bigger problem, because they cannot claim an advance payment if they are a number of days past their initial assessment. If people accessing unemployment benefits for the first time face a confusing system that does not give them the funding they are entitled to, given that they have paid into the system, and that prevents them from getting back into the workplace, that is not an improvement on the current system. There has been a lot of party political advertising of the employment rate, the Government’s successes, childcare and all that, but we need to look at these genuine, serious problems.

Despite the objective of simplifying the system, the roll-out would have been disastrous in my area if it were not for our welfare rights advisers. To my mind, the staff of Tameside citizens advice bureau are absolute heroes. The reality is that that kind of support is being stripped from all communities. Law centres and citizens advice bureaux are closing. If the system is to work, we have got to give people impartial, fair advice. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) made a fair comment about how people can get in touch with welfare advisers. That is important, and it is sad to see welfare advisers going at a time when people need them.

Universal credit is a big change, and if people do not have support to access it properly, their perception of it will be negative. We have to ensure that that is not the case. From my casework and experience, from what is happening in other parts of the country and from people’s testimonies, my overwhelming impression is that, despite the scale of the bureaucratic challenge of moving to universal credit, we are not tackling the big problems of our social security system. We are not providing sufficient support for people who have lost their job for the very first time—particularly during the global finance crisis—and who never thought they would be unemployed. When they find out what their national insurance contributions will buy, they are often frankly disgusted at the level of support available to them.

We are not tackling the sanctions, the conditionality and the job search criteria. Frankly, I think we are treating a lot of people like children and robbing them of their dignity. We are not giving them what they should reasonably expect when they access the welfare system. Most of all, the system is unable to cope with the flexible working patterns that are so common in our economy. Many people do not have jobs for life; often, they do not even have jobs that last for years. The system has to reflect that, but I do not think those things have been priced in. Despite the bureaucracy and our overall level of spending on the social security system, people in my constituency have been left genuinely destitute and reliant on charity and food banks to survive. That cannot be right. Given the resources we put into the system, there has to be a better way to do it.

I think we need an even more radical approach. We should look to other countries for best practice. Concepts such as basic income do not lead to a taper problem and do not disincentivise people from going back into the workplace; rather, people are supported in different stages of their lives and everybody gets something out of the system for what they pay into it. That is the direction in which we have got to be looking. We need something more radical than universal credit. Universal credit, if it worked properly, would be welcome, but at the moment there are huge teething and design problems. Even once those problems are sorted, it will not tackle the big problems of the welfare system. Let us sort those problems out, but let us not end the conversation about welfare reform here. Let us address the challenges and create a system that truly works for everybody.

We now move to the winding-up speeches. I gently remind the shadow Minister, the Minister and the Scottish National party spokesman to leave a couple of minutes at the end of the debate before 11 o’clock for the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) to wind up.

It is a pleasure to contribute to this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) for securing this debate. It is primarily focused on the north-west of England, but as it concerns the roll-out of universal credit across the isles, the implications of what is said this morning stretch much further than the north-west. I congratulate her on her very good speech. She rightly did not shirk the opportunity to give the Government a kicking on their record on this matter. I pay tribute to other hon. Members who contributed. In particular, the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) delivered a very powerful speech.

There are a great many issues at play around the changes to universal credit and the roll-out in the north-west and further afield. SNP Members are fundamentally concerned about the removal of the work allowance, which underpins the potential success of universal credit and the aim to support people into work and make work pay. We are also concerned about the monthly payment regime. Support for housing benefit recipients will not go directly to landlords, and payments will be made to households, rather than individuals.

I will make some progress; I am just starting.

Pilot projects across the country have shown that those areas of concern are problematic. That has been highlighted by a raft of third-sector organisations in reports on this subject. In principle, universal credit sounds tempting. We are told that it is a smooth, streamlined system to assist low-income families. However, as has been emphasised today, in reality it is fraught with flaws, and low-income families are the casualties of the Tories’ poor economic choices and ideologically driven cuts. The ineffective and costly roll-out of the system to date highlights the need for an urgent rethink of these draconian policies.

Universal credit was first introduced as a pathfinder in Ashton-under-Lyne in April 2013. New claims were taken from single unemployed people who satisfied the gateway conditions. The pathfinder was then extended to three other areas in the north-west—Wigan, Warrington and Oldham—in July 2013, and in the summer of 2014 universal credit was expanded to a further 29 areas in the north-west for single people and couples who satisfied the gateway conditions. After a relaxation of the constraints on single people claiming between September and December 2014, universal credit was expanded to cover all parts of the north-west of England. New claims from families with children have been accepted in some areas, and since last January new claims from families with children have been accepted throughout the north-west.

The north-west was the first area in which universal credit was rolled out to all jobcentres. Of the 155,568 claimants at mid-November 2015, 77,378 were in the north-west, and of those, 26,521 were in employment and 50,855 were not in employment.

May I go back to a point that the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) made about treating people like children? The hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) mentioned paying housing benefit directly to the landlord. Are we not treating people like children if we do not think they are able to pay their housing benefit to their landlords? Surely people in receipt of benefits are perfectly capable of paying their landlords.

It is not treating people like children. I totally disagree with that. People in such circumstances often live chaotic lives. Sometimes, although not always, they do not wish to have the responsibility for managing that extra level of financial responsibility. A great many people in my constituency have told me that they would far rather know that they have a roof over their head that is secure regardless of what happens elsewhere, and that they would rather see their benefit paid directly to their landlord. People should be given the choice over that matter, and at the moment they are not. It is being paid to them, and they are being given the responsibility, which is not always welcome.

I want to clarify for the record that my comment about treating people like children referred to people who have worked for 20 or 30 years and are forced to fill in a graph to show how many jobs they have applied for that day and that week. I do not think that is an appropriate way of treating people who have been in work for a long time and have lost their job; they should be treated with respect and dignity. On the point about paying housing benefit directly to landlords, I believe that there should be a choice. If people want to manage their money themselves, that is fine. There has been a huge increase in housing arrears in every area in which universal credit has been rolled out, which causes huge problems for everybody else because it has to be covered in some way. If that can be alleviated by paying housing benefit directly to landlords, I see no reason why that option should not be available to people.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention.

The New Policy Institute’s report “The rise of sanctioning in Great Britain”, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston, states:

“The expansion of conditionality under Universal Credit could see a substantial increase in sanctions: if sanctioning occurred at the same rate as for JSA claimants, then the number could almost double, with an additional 600,000 sanctions.”

That is very concerning. The Institute for Public Policy Research, an independent think-thank, found that low-income families in Scotland will face an £800 a year cut in their income by 2020 following the UK Government’s cuts while the richest 40% will see their incomes rise as a result of tax cuts.

A number of National Audit Office reports have come to damning conclusions about the ongoing universal credit transition, highlighting the early setbacks, missed targets and overspending. The numbers simply do not lie: 17,850 claimants were on universal credit in October 2014, but the Government had planned to have 500,000 claimants on universal credit by April this year and 7 million by December 2019. Not only does that show that the Government are completely missing their own targets, but they are spending huge budgets, wasting vital funds that could be better spent supporting poor families who are struggling to make ends meet. Indeed, the NAO published a report in May 2015 entitled “Welfare reform—lessons learned”. Speaking about the report, Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said that the DWP,

“has had to learn some hard lessons with significant financial and human costs.”

The hon. Gentleman has reeled off reams of statistics during his speech, but the key statistic is the legacy of the previous Labour Government: nearly one in five households in our country had no one working at all. That in no way brought dignity to those households, those families or their communities. Should we not be addressing that statistic as a priority?

Where people are capable of working, it is right that we should encourage them to do so. However, the problem with the changes that the Government are implementing through universal credit is that they are removing the work allowance, which is the only incentive to work in universal credit. It underpins the incentive to get into work and to remain there. Taking that away removes the premise that work should pay, which is a sad situation.

The DWP has said that universal credit will be simpler for claimants and will be treated like a wage for individuals, readying them for work. In reality, there are complex problems that will ultimately see less money in people’s pockets and more difficulties accessing adequate financial support. Analysis of the autumn statement by the IFS found that the benefit system is still much less generous in the long run, pointing out that universal credit now represents an additional cut on top of other changes, including the cut to benefit entitlement, of £3.7 billion a year in the long run. Some 4.5 million working families will be affected by the introduction of universal credit, and 2.6 million will lose an average of £1,600 a year.

This is where I must disagree with the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) and where he missed the point in his contribution. People are being encouraged into work, which is right for those who can work, but removing the work allowance aspect of universal credit takes away the only incentive to work. He also made the point that the social security system needs to be fair for those who pay for it, but he perhaps forgets that those in receipt of the universal credit work allowance are in work.

Absolutely. They are taxpayers.

Some 1.8 million non-working families will be affected by the introduction of universal credit, and 1.2 million families will lose an average of £1,000 a year. Over recent months, the focus of much discussion has been on tax credits, but changes to universal credit will also have profound effects. The Government’s so-called U-turn on tax credits is nothing more than a delay tactic, with the pain to be felt in the next few years under universal credit. Support for working households on low incomes getting universal credit was also reduced in the summer Budget. Ian Mulheirn of Oxford Economics said that,

“this may be a U-turn in April 2016, but it doesn’t look like a U-turn by 2020.”

In conclusion, the Scottish people voted in May 2015 for an end to austerity when they voted for the SNP. They deserve the leadership they voted for and not to face the social security storm that the Tories are brewing. The failures of the UK Government to give us full power over universal credit have left our country picking up the tab for the Tories’ poor economic choices and shoddy governance once again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I warmly compliment my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) both on securing the debate and on the dignified, cogent and passionate way in which she put her case this morning.

The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) spoke well about the staff to whom he had spoken at a Jobcentre Plus office in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) made an excellent speech, drawing on her experience at Citizens Advice in the 1980s and speaking powerfully about the sad explosion in the number of food banks in this country since 2010.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) for his speech, in which he spoke well about the complexity of the modern economy. He made a powerful point about our need to draw on experience, and any well thought out, coherent and simple policy is to be welcomed. I may even give him a shorter book to read in due course. There were also interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) and the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), for Bolton West (Chris Green), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans).

Much of today’s discussion has been about the language with which the debate is conducted, and I am extremely concerned about the language framework that the Government use. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said on the “Today” programme on Monday 8 October 2012:

“It is unfair that people listening to this programme going out to work see the neighbour next door with the blinds down because they are on benefits.”

Those are his actual words. He presumably thinks that that type of stuff is popular at the Tory conference. The real problem with that sort of language is how divisive it is. There is no sense that the person behind those blinds might be vulnerable or disabled. The Minister has an opportunity today to condemn such divisive language, and I sincerely hope that she feels able to do so.

Even if one accepts the abysmal logic, which I do not, the real problem is that the Chancellor is so lost in tactical mazes of his own construction that he is actually on the wrong side of his own dividing lines. He is attempting to separate people into the workers and the non-workers—that is precisely what he was trying to do in that quote. However, what we saw with the cuts to tax credits, which the Chancellor eventually caved in on, we are also seeing with the cuts to the universal credit work allowance from this April.

What was appalling under the previous Labour Government was the high level of unemployment, which meant more people spending time with the blinds down. Under this Government, employment has reached record levels, unemployment has dropped, and far more people are earning more money than ever before. Is that not bringing dignity to the British people?

I will come to people earning more than ever before in a moment. I make no apology for a Government who introduced the national minimum wage or for wage growth in the Labour years. This decade risks becoming the lost Tory decade, with wage growth lower than at any point since the 1920s.

The hon. Gentleman wants to talk about money in people’s pockets. I have already spoken about the effects of the cuts to the universal credit work allowance on single parents from this April, so shall I use some other specific examples? Take a couple, living and working together, one or both of whom has limited capacity to work as they are disabled. For them, the work allowance will be cut from £7,700 to £4,700, a loss in income of £3,000. That is for people who are actually in work. To take another example, single individuals will essentially lose everything, with a reduction of £1,332, at a net loss to income of £865.

When universal credit is damaging and attacking people in work, it is in danger of undermining the aims that it was set up to achieve. If Government Members do not want to take my word for that, let us take the word of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s “State of the nation 2015” policy paper, published on a big date for dumping things just before Christmas, 17 December 2015. The paper is available on the Government website if any Members want to see it. The commission stated:

“The immediate priority must be taking action to ensure that the introduction of Universal Credit does not make families with children who ‘do the right thing’ (in terms of working as much as society expects them to) worse off than they would be under the current system. That means reversing the cuts to Universal Credit work allowances enacted through the Universal Credit (Work Allowance) Amendment Regulations 2015 before they are implemented in April 2016.”

That is what the commission says should be the priority from this April.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the Labour Government introduced the national minimum wage. I supported that outside this place, as did many of my Conservative colleagues. This Government, however, are introducing a national living wage and—this is the key thing, which is lost on the Opposition—are keen for people to keep more of their own money. That is why the personal allowance has increased, taking the lowest-paid out of income tax altogether. He might remember Gordon Brown’s fiasco with the 10p tax rate, which penalised the lowest-paid workers in the country. The system is complicated, yes, but the underlying mantra is that it always pays to work. Getting low-paid people out of tax altogether is the best way of doing things, so that they keep more of their own money.

I am interested in history, as the hon. Gentleman might know, but I do not recall the Conservative party in the 20th century supporting a national minimum wage. His personal view might well have been different, but I do not recall his party voting for a national minimum wage—rather, at the 1997 election I remember the Conservatives saying that it would cost jobs. They seem to have changed their position significantly since, which is to be welcomed.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has special permission—I will take it up with him another time.

Another unfortunate pattern is the Conservative party putting forward various mitigations for its Government’s cuts. The latest one was on 6 January, when the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), tried to defend the cuts to the work element of the universal credit, saying,

“let us not forget, the fact that every time we fill up our tank with petrol there is a saving of £10 because of the freezing of the fuel duty.—[Official Report, 6 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 342.]

Back in the 1980s the Conservatives’ answer to the unemployed was, “Get on your bike,” but in 2016 it seems to be, “Fill your car.” That is the level of debate we have reached.

Confidence in the roll-out is another enormous issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston indicated. Let us not forget what the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions said in a press release on 1 November 2011:

“Over one million people will be claiming Universal Credit by April 2014.”

The actual number reached by November 2015 was 155,568. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale said with delicious understatement that that was not perfect. I have to agree—less than one fifth of the target had been reached. According to the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, the number will not exceed 1 million until April 2018, four years late. Does that not show the situation that we are in today? Given the cuts to the work element of universal credit and the sheer scale of incompetence with the roll-out, are we not in the worst of all worlds, where the Government lack both compassion and competence?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Nuttall.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) on securing the debate and on her contribution. I thank all Members present for their good, strong and wide-ranging contributions, including my hon. Friends the Members for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Cheadle (Mary Robinson), for Bolton West (Chris Green) and for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) and the hon. Members for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) and for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), to name but a few. I hope to cover many of the points they raised.

The debate has been interesting because of its content and the nature and variety of the issues raised. My opening remarks, however, will focus on what the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) said. I, too, welcome him to his new role. He rightly highlighted language and its use, which are incredibly important when discussing people, welfare, benefits and access to welfare. However, I do not accept his assessment that the Government use divisive language. I do not see the Government’s focus of ensuring that work always pays and that Britain moves from being a low-wage, high-welfare and high-tax society to being a higher-wage, lower-welfare and lower-tax society as divisive. Nor do I see as divisive the language used by the Prime Minister this week when he announced our life chances strategy, which is to do with this very issue of welfare and transforming people’s lives.

This Government and the Conservative party are focused on helping people with multiple barriers to their life chances, or with difficulties in life, so that they can get back into work or secure their routes to employment, which the debate has touched on. Importantly, we are securing the right kind of opportunities for all individuals. That is the right thing to do and is what all hon. Members seek to do when they are elected as Members of Parliament to represent their constituents.

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister when she is in full flow, as she often is. Will she clarify one point that arose earlier in the debate when the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) spoke about a “named contact”? I confirmed that, under universal credit, as I understood it, a named personal contact will not only act as a work coach, but also, according to the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People in a debate on 6 January,

“help them to deal with their individual case when they are navigating complicated benefit systems”.—[Official Report, 6 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 302.]

Will the Minister confirm that the named contact will supply the support necessary for people both to access their benefits and to get into work?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Claimants have access to personalised and dedicated support via a named work coach. Indeed, I have been to many of our jobcentres and sat in on universal credit interviews with claimants and work coaches. There is additional support available for claimants who require help with housing and other benefits, arrears payments or even budgeting.

It is therefore worth highlighting how much our welfare system has moved on, compared with the complex and distorted system that existed previously. Many years ago we had a number of benefits but, fundamentally, universal credit has rolled six benefits into one to streamline our system and to make it less complicated. The more complex a benefits system is, as we saw in the past, the more difficult it becomes to support individuals—they spend more time navigating the system than looking for or being supported into work.

All that goes back to some of the fundamental principles of the universal credit: it can support individuals and families not only in having a job, but in their journey to employment. Once they are in work and achieve sustained employment, they get support to secure long-term employment or to work more hours, which removes the barriers that existed under the previous system.

As we have said, universal credit supports individuals to make progress into work in particular. Yes, people are supported by the wages that they earn and benefits they receive at the same time, but, unlike in previous systems, we do not have the barrier of a 16-hour work requirement that may have caused people to restrict their working in order to avoid losing benefits. That is part of the changes brought in by universal credit, which stays with the claimants when they move into work and gradually reduces as their earnings increase. Therefore, people—in particular those on low incomes—do not lose their benefits all at once.

Lord Freud has said that there will be an automatic movement from tax credits to universal credit in two situations: “repartnering” and a

“new member joining the household”.

Will the Minister confirm that, if someone gets married or has a child, they will be moved from tax credits to universal credit?

We are clear that people being moved on to universal credit from tax credits will be supported and will not lose out. A fundamental principle of universal credit is that it removes barriers that may have existed and, importantly, it gives people the support they need when they come on to it. That is different from previous systems. It is different from tax credits, for example, which did not provide support for people when they wanted to increase their hours and earnings.

The previous system was fragmented and there was little incentive for people to take up even a few more hours of employment, but under universal credit people can benefit as soon as they start to work. It is a simpler system to understand. It comes back to the point that we have support in our jobcentres to help people to extend their hours of work or, when they are moved on to universal credit, to understand the system and support them.

That is different from what existed before. Under universal credit, no one will have to worry about the Government asking for money back because the real-time information system connects the employer and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on the number of hours worked. That is dramatically different from the situation when tax credits was introduced and millions of low-income families faced uncertainty about owing money back to HMRC at the end of the year. I am sure all Members have dealt with many examples of casework in that area.

I want to come on to the points raised, because I am conscious of time. There is evidence that universal credit is getting people into work and helping them stay in work. We have reviewed universal credit and, as a result of the support that people are given, we see that they spend 50% more time looking for work. We now see more universal credit claimants moving into employment compared with JSA claimants thanks to the focused support they get through their single point of contact, their work coach and other means.

Is not the point—surely this helped win us the general election—the message that no one should be better off out of work than in work? With the national living wage and higher thresholds, we have ensured that far more people who are in work will keep more of their money.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about people keeping more of the money that they earn rather than going through the process of having more taken away and then recycled through benefits such as tax credits. It is also worth reflecting on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale. He mentioned Northwich jobcentre, which has done a great deal of work to support people on universal credit. The award that the Secretary of State gave to staff members there shows how they are supporting people and transforming lives, which is fundamental to the welfare reforms that we are bringing in.

Many comments were made about universal credit in terms of the process, the roll-out and delays. I do not agree with some of the assessments and analysis given, and those with reference to the OBR in particular. We are rolling out universal credit as planned. Importantly, we no longer believe in the “big bang” model used in previous systems such as tax credits, which when introduced brought a great deal of chaos to jobcentres and the welfare system. We have adopted a test-and-learn approach to ensure safe and secure delivery and, importantly, to ensure that we can learn from individuals as they go through the process.

We have an enhanced digital service, which makes it clear immediately that a claim has not been progressed and that further information is needed. Jobcentre Plus and work coaches speak well of the system. I have seen it in action, with the immediate way in which data are exchanged and claims are processed. We have faster electronic payments to allow the Department to make payments via BACS on the same day to minimise further delays, because of course people need to be supported.

I do not agree with the comments made about the report from Citizens Advice, because we know that the research for that was based on anecdotal evidence from a small group of current UC claimants—the sample was less than 1%. Even Citizens Advice said that that was not representative of all claimants on universal credit.

We have universal support working alongside universal credit, which offers wraparound support for those who need it. That comes back to the points raised about no two individuals being the same. Situations are different for claimers and no one can count for the life circumstances of individuals, so universal support provides that wraparound support.

It sounds a little inconsistent to say that the Government did not want a big bang approach and want to learn from the roll-out, but then the Minister immediately dismissed one of the most useful and authoritative reports on the roll-out in our area. That report includes a number of cases that, based on my constituency surgeries, are spot on in the problems identified.

We are clear that we have an agile test-and-learn system. That is not a big bang approach. With all due respect to Labour Members, previous Governments went for the big bang approach on welfare systems and there were consequences: I highlight again the tax credits example.

I will wrap up, because I am conscious of time. In terms of incentives and support, from April we are increasing the amount of eligible childcare cost in universal credit to 85%. That will make a remarkable difference to families. Welfare is about much more than just giving people money. It is about removing barriers for individuals, understanding circumstances and giving people the support they need to get on in life.

I am deeply disappointed that the Employment Minister has not taken the debate seriously. Does she not accept that the language used by the Chancellor and indeed the Prime Minister is unacceptable? The trouble is, their words are at odds with the outcomes of the Government’s policies experienced by people in this country. She has not accepted that significant changes will remove people from the transitional protection arrangements. She should look at the Library briefing.

I ask the Minister to stop and think again. I ask her not to implement the cuts to work allowances. She should examine and address the real problems experienced out there in the pilot areas, as outlined so eloquently today.

The cuts in the work allowances remove the incentive to work. Transitional protection is not secure, because it is removed if one person leaves the household. There is more inequality and the dividing line is widening. The experience of people in our communities is worsening. There are examples of that in the report commissioned by the Minister’s Government, produced just a couple of weeks ago. She should read that report.

I ask the Minister to take seriously what is being experienced out there in the community and not to make the mess even worse. We are trying to help to improve roll-out across the country. She must examine and address the inequality and outcomes in the pilot areas before that. She should stop and address the problems, and not cut work allowances. Otherwise, there will surely be an outcry right across the country.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Defence Procurement

I beg to move,

That this House has considered defence procurement.

I am grateful to be having this debate, and I thank the Minister for coming here to discuss a subject that he and I have talked about on a number of occasions.

British defence policy should be exclusively aimed at keeping Britain safe, but is it? Instead of serving the national interest, it too often serves the interests of a cartel of defence contractors. Britain does not get military bang for the taxpayer’s buck. We spend about one tenth of what the United States does on defence, yet we have far less than one tenth of the Americans’ capability—in many areas, we can barely field 1% or 2% of their capability. We are the second-largest defence spender in NATO and the fifth-biggest defence spender in the world, but we are simply not getting value for money.

What is going wrong? The problem is procurement. Major projects routinely come in late and way over budget. To be fair to the Minister, it is not his fault; it is not even the fault of his predecessors. The problems are the culmination of successive Governments’ policies over many decades. Starting perhaps in the 1960s, successive Governments attempted to consolidate the defence-industrial base. They thought consolidation would deliver economies of scale and make the UK defence industry more viable. At a time when deindustrialisation was feared, it was believed that ensuring that different defence suppliers amalgamated and merged into one would somehow make them viable. The problem is that consolidating the supply base in any market means that the seller ends up setting the terms of trade, and so it is in defence.

I have often heard Members of Parliament say that defence inflation is somehow higher than inflation in the rest of the economy. That is often described as a fact of life—somehow inevitable—but why do defence costs and prices rise faster than prices in the rest of the economy? Higher defence inflation is a reflection of problems in the procurement process, where too much money chases too restricted a supply of goods. Restrictions on supply are fundamentally the problem. Procurement is the problem.

Some projects, such as the Nimrod MRA4—we cannot possibly blame the Minister for that fiasco—never get off the ground at all. Despite constant cock-ups, however, the MOD keeps going back to the same contractors; we keep seeing the same pattern of dependence on a handful of contractors and bad value for money. Yet, the same contractors keep getting the lion’s share of the defence budget.

The MOD should be sourcing the best equipment possible to keep our armed forces and our country safe. Too often, unfortunately, procurement ends up being protectionist. Protectionist procurement produces huge inefficiencies; it means less competition—it cuts competition —and as we know, competition drives down costs and raises standards. Without competition, contractors ended up being rewarded for failure. Protectionist procurement means we spend years designing and building new equipment from scratch, instead of buying cheaper, better, readily available off-the-shelf alternatives.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and it is good to see the Minister in his place. I look forward to a very positive response from him, because we have discussed this matter before. The hon. Gentleman is right. Defence is very important to our economy in Northern Ireland, where it provides high-tech, skilled jobs for the workforce. It is important that defence procurement is equally shared across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and that regions such as mine can receive the benefit. If that is done right, we all benefit.

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. I have to say that I am a little nervous about looking at the defence budget through the prism of what it means for jobs. Clearly that is important, but the defence budget’s primary purpose is surely not to act as some sort of Keynesian demand stimulus for a regional economy, but to make sure that our armed forces have the equipment they need to defeat our enemies and keep us safe.

We already have established companies in Northern Ireland that deliver the best and give value for money. The point I am trying to make is that they could do more if defence procurement was regionally spread.

I agree. If we allocated the defence budget on the basis of value for money, I am sure companies in Northern Ireland would get an enhanced share. However, if we create a system where public money is allocated on the basis of something other than value for money, we open the door—the revolving door—to lobbying and all sorts of nefarious influences. Not only is that bad in itself, but it has negative consequences in terms of giving us value for money as part of what will, by definition, always be a finite budget.

Those in the defence establishment will claim that providing Britain’s defence protection base is a strategic industry, and of course our defence industry is a strategic industry. However, they seek to justify giving privileged contractors the privileges they get on the grounds that that maintains our defence industry and that it is critical to our national security. However, let us assess that argument a little further.

The idea that Britain is self-sufficient in defence production is a myth. We need to import defence equipment and materiel. We did so throughout the last century, and it is thanks to our ability to do so that we won wars we would not have otherwise won. In fact, during the Napoleonic wars, we imported materiel and equipment from overseas through Harwich, near my constituency, to ensure that we prevailed in that struggle. Not for centuries have we been entirely dependent for our defence on equipment produced exclusively on this island, and it would be naive to assume we ever could be.

Today, British defence manufacturers cannot produce equipment without international support. There are few systems anywhere—from mobile phones to jets to missiles—that can be built and manufactured without some sort of international trade. I would say that that is a good thing. International dependence and complex international supply chains are a good thing; apart from anything else, they help to keep the peace and to enhance international co-operation. However, many supposedly British procurement options, which are sold to politicians, civil servants and Ministers as the most British option, actually mean we end up being ever more dependent on other Governments.

Let us take the example of the RAF’s new transport plane—the Airbus A400M. It is partly manufactured in the UK, and a very good thing that is too—I do not denigrate that at all. But it has a shorter range, a lower top speed and a smaller payload than the comparable Boeing C-17 Globemaster, and it is considerably more expensive to boot. However, here is the really shocking thing: if we bought the C-17, we would need the support, compliance and good will of only one Government—the United States Government. But the A400M option requires the compliance and support of the Governments of France, Spain, Belgium, Germany and Turkey, as well as that of the United States. The supply chain is even more interdependent. Far from giving us so-called sovereignty of supply, the A400M is an example of procurement that is protectionist and, at the same time, makes us more dependent and less operationally sovereign.

Defence protectionism has also created a contractor cartel. In an attempt to prop up the defence industry, successive Governments have promoted the supply side and consolidated it. That has created what economists call—this is a rather clumsy term—a monsopoly, which is a monopoly of supply. That means that a limited number of suppliers, not the state, control the terms of trade. Britain is paying over the odds because a tiny group of producers sets the terms of trade.

Big business is not the only vested interest that distorts procurement, either. Perhaps inevitably there is inter-service rivalry, so that projects serve the interests of different sectors rather than the defence interest overall. We have unenforceable anti-lobbying rules, which mean that former defence personnel can pursue what I would regard as inappropriate contacts on behalf of clients, without censure. Protectionist policy and those various crony corporate vested interests are undermining our national security. They are preventing our nation state from being able to turn whatever fiscal power we have into military muscle. We are simply being less efficient than we ought to be. We need a procurement policy that puts the national interest first and allows us to convert the fiscal power that we have into the maximum possible military muscle.

A few weeks ago, the UK Independence party parliamentary resource unit published an excellent paper called “Rethinking Defence Procurement”, in which we set out some ideas and suggestions—I think they are rather sensible, soft suggestions—on what we can do to get things right. First we suggest that the default—though not the exclusive—approach should be to buy a weapons system off the shelf. I grant that there are some weapons systems that we need to make in-house; we need that capability. However, if we want the best value equipment possible we need to be prepared to buy off the shelf.

It would be perfectly possible for us as a nation state to build smartphones that would be manufactured exclusively in the United Kingdom. Probably, they would be the size of a brick, there would be a waiting list for them and they would run on clockwork. It makes much more sense for us to buy smartphones that are the result of international co-operation, with chips built in South Korea, design from California and software from India. International co-operation enables us to have smartphones with a higher level of technology for less cost every year. We should apply a similar principle to defence procurement. We might think of off-the-shelf procurement as being almost like urgent operational requirements—which I know the military rather like. In other words, the military can buy what it wants, from whom it wants. We can think of it as an urgent operational requirement, but without the guddle and the rush.

Secondly, we need to start consolidating not the supply side but the demand side. By working with our allies we could initiate joint procurement projects. That is not a case of our building and manufacturing things jointly; that would be a supply solution. Rather it would be a matter of putting in procurement bids collectively with our allies, ensuring that in many areas we would have a buyers’ market, where the buyers collectively could set the terms of trade. We could do that with a number of countries—not just European countries and NATO members but countries such as Australia and India. If they and we needed a weapons system, why not put in joint procurement bids with our Anglosphere allies? That would drive down prices and ensure both we and our allies got better value for money.

Thirdly, I would like Parliament to have real oversight of the procurement process. Instead of just reviewing the annual report from the Ministry of Defence, the Select Committee on Defence should be required to oversee and authorise major projects. We should take back as a Parliament the power to scrutinise what the Executive spend on our account. Specifically in relation to defence, the Defence Committee should be required to approve and sign off on particular large projects. That sort of oversight would ensure that there was genuine accountability on procurement.

Finally, anti-lobbying guidelines need to become law. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), as Chair of the Public Administration Committee, making some suggestions about that the other day. I think that is exactly what we need to be prepared to introduce, to make sure that, yes, the expertise that exists in Government Departments can be shared with contractors, but that there are public records of those contacts and that where there is a revolving door there is some accountability to ensure that nothing untoward happens.

Britain needs a defence strategy that aims above all to keep our country safe. In an era of growing threats and constrained budgets, misspending is no longer a luxury that we can afford. We need real reform. I know that the Minister recognises the need to improve the way we spend our defence budget, and that he is a reformer. I also happen to know, too, that in his Department reformers do not always get an entirely easy ride. I look forward to hearing what changes he has in mind to improve things, and whether he will consider going further and recommending any of the measures I have outlined.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. It is all too infrequent that we have the opportunity to debate defence matters—and particularly defence procurement—in Westminster Hall, so I am especially grateful to the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) for securing the debate, and I congratulate him on doing so. The subject is one of great interest to me, and to him, but of somewhat less obvious interest to other Members. It is a pleasure to see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) here; he takes a personal interest in the subject on behalf of his constituents and Northern Ireland.

It is a good time to have such a debate, not least because it comes two months after the Government published the gratifyingly well received strategic defence and security review in November. The review was comprehensive and ambitious, and when combined with the Chancellor’s summer Budget announcement it was good news for defence. Defence procurement is central to our plans to deliver our national security objectives, and that was precisely the point on which the hon. Member for Clacton opened his remarks—that the purpose of defence procurement must be to provide the capability for our armed forces to keep us safe. That is the primary duty of Government, as has been recognised in the priority that the Government have given defence and in the reform of defence procurement processes, in which the hon. Gentleman takes such a keen interest.

By giving us an increasing budget, the SDSR will help us to protect our people with more new planes, ships and armoured vehicles over the procurement cycle. It will help promote our prosperity. An additional task for defence—an additional strategic objective—of contributing to the economic prosperity of the country has been emphasised through the SDSR in a way that has not happened before. That has a number of implications for how we go about procurement.

Promoting prosperity provides a stimulus for innovation, which is essential for maintaining technological superiority over our adversaries. It provides the opportunity for the Department to become a champion of small business, which in many respects is where innovation originates. It also allows us to encourage defence exports, which means that we can allow our defence supply chain to be competitive internationally, from which we benefit through our own procurement. All in all that is a good thing, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree as we explore the issue in this debate and on future occasions. We are on the right track. We may not have gone as far as he would like or necessarily as fast as we would like, but in my view we are making great strides.

Before I look to the future and address some of the hon. Gentleman’s comments, it is worth acknowledging the enormous achievements in the previous Parliament. I want to preface my comments on the document prepared by his party, which he referred to and which he has in front of him, by saying that many of the criticisms it makes—in many respects rightly—relate to a period that we are now some way beyond. They relate to the defence industrial strategy that was authored in 2005-06 under the previous Administration, which no longer prevails. Part of the disagreement that there may be between us will be about the extent to which today’s policy has moved on beyond the defence industrial strategy, rather than being grounded in it.

In 2010 we inherited a defence procurement position that was unquestionably unfit for purpose. It was not delivering to time, performance or, above all, cost. That is why, at a time of heightened pressure on the national finances, we had to make some tough decisions. We did not shrink from cancelling overrunning and massively expensive programmes such as the Nimrod MRA4 programme, to which the hon. Gentleman referred in his remarks. We embarked on the most radical series of defence reforms in decades, and I am pleased to say that those reforms meant that defence ended the last Parliament in a markedly better state than it began it in.

The National Audit Office’s major projects report for 2015, which was published before the end of last year and covered the most recently available material we had, recorded a fall of £247 million in the forecast cost of defence projects—the second successive year of reductions in the major projects it reviewed. That compares with a £1.2 billion in-year cost overrun reported for 2009 by the NAO in its major projects report.

The 2015 report builds on the success of the 2014 report, which reported the best cost performance since 2005 and the best time performance since 2001. That is powerful evidence of how far we were able to progress in improving performance during the previous Parliament. Indeed, Lord Levene of Portsoken said in his 2014 report on the Department as a whole that,

“a leopard really can change its spots”—

rare praise indeed from Lord Levene.

If I may reflect on the comments of the hon. Member for Clacton and the document to which he referred, we recognised the glaring inadequacies of the defence industrial strategy of 2005-06. That was why we determined to overturn it in a White Paper published in 2012, “National Security Through Technology”, which set out our thinking on industrial policy. It replaced outdated concepts of industrial sovereignty at any cost with a much more nuanced approach, saying that the sole aim of defence procurement was to equip our armed forces with the best capabilities we could afford at the best value for money. That meant putting an end to unaffordable gold-plated requirements and instead increasingly buying things off the shelf, from the global market where possible and appropriate.

“National Security Through Technology” highlighted the benefits of working with other countries, as the hon. Gentleman seeks to do, to open up each other’s defence markets and, where we share requirements, collaborate on international acquisition programmes. The best live example of that new way of collaborating on procurement is the F-35 programme—the largest defence procurement programme in the world ever. Eleven nations are pooling their demand signal to provide as large an order as possible to the contractor consortium—at the moment in annual buys, but in the future it will be multi-year buys. That order is for three different variants of the aircraft type, but it is essentially the same aircraft type for each customer, in order to avoid the bespoking that, as the hon. Gentleman said, becomes so expensive in defence procurement. We are already doing that, and we are doing it in a big way.

The White Paper also recognised that defence procurement is different from other procurement, so for some aspects of capability, we still need to take special measures to maintain our operational advantage and freedom of action, but we stated that those would become the exception rather than the rule.

Having pointed out some of the areas where we agree with the hon. Gentleman’s critique, I will have to disappoint him by saying that I do not see the document prepared by his party as a valid critique of today’s policy and the important work that has been done over the past five years. The White Paper that we published heralded a series of sweeping reforms to defence procurement, which went hand in hand with the much-needed reforms we made to the wider Ministry of Defence. We adopted the proposals outlined by Lord Levene to overhaul the structure and management of the Ministry of Defence. We have thereby created a much leaner, more strategic head office, devolved responsibility and accountability to the single services and, crucially, stood up a Joint Forces Command to look after cross-cutting areas such as helicopters and ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance. Far from being dominated by single service rivalry, the Department is now more joined up than at any time in its history. That was amply demonstrated by how we handled defence’s contribution to the SDSR, with virtually no trace of the behaviours that had so coloured the exercise five years before.

Nowhere has the extent of our transformation been more ambitious than in our procurement entity, Defence Equipment and Support. DE&S provides vital support to the armed forces, without which they simply could not operate, and I pay tribute to the civilian and military staff employed in that endeavour for their dedication. Re-formed as a bespoke trading entity in April 2014, DE&S now has the freedom to make the changes needed to transform it into a world-class acquisition organisation. DE&S staff numbers have already reduced by around 18,000 since 2007 and, through transformation, we will continue to professionalise it and focus on the people and skills we need.

Of those 18,000 people, how many have been re-hired in a contractor or arm’s length capacity?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact number, but some of the activities previously held within DE&S have been outsourced. One example is the operation of the Royal Navy operating bases, which had, for some historical reason, been managed within DE&S. That has now gone back to the Navy, so those jobs by and large remain, but a large number of the 18,000 are a reduction in individual roles, to become more efficient.

Turning to how we obtain equipment, it is not as simple as making direct comparisons with other nations’ defence procurement models. Structures, roles, operational commitments and, consequently, equipment needs vary. For the past three years we have published a comprehensive and fully costed 10-year forward-looking equipment plan that takes account of our defence priorities and the capabilities needed to support them.

Our £178 billion investment in equipment over the next decade will support all three services, including committing to the F-35 joint strike fighter, which I have mentioned, and to new maritime patrol aircraft. Incidentally, we have decided that those aircraft should be procured off the shelf, to take advantage of the existing production line in the United States, to maximise interoperability with the United States and the other allies that will be procuring that capability, and to minimise bespoking, so that the cost is as plain vanilla as it can be. Through the equipment programme, we will also invest heavily in the Navy through the Type 26 frigates and in the Army through forming the new strike brigades with its equipment, which will be state-of-the-art.

That will allow us to acquire the capability we need, with minimal costly bespoking, in the timescale required. The hon. Gentleman has just indicated from a sedentary position that he supports those initiatives.

We share the hon. Gentleman’s view that protectionism is not good for defence or for the UK in the long term, not because we do not want to support British industry—we do—but because we recognise that protectionism provides no lasting solution. It does not give us the capabilities we need when we need them, at a price we can afford. Above all, it does not help industry. It stifles innovation, saps productivity and suppresses competitiveness.

That is why we focus on competitive procurement, with one of the most open defence markets in the world. It is why, for example, we decided to procure the new fleet of Royal Fleet Auxiliary tankers from South Korea, which the hon. Gentleman touched on in his remarks. The fleet will come into operation later this year and draws on key British technology, with some 25% of the supply chain for the vessels coming from the UK. There is still a strong UK component to an international procurement, demonstrating that having an open defence market helps to sustain a competitive defence industry in this country.

We recognised that we needed to reset the relationship with industry, particularly on the large single-source projects of which the hon. Gentleman is so critical. For that reason, we used the Defence Reform Act 2014 to reform single-source procurement. It established a statutory governance framework to ensure that costs are fair to us and to our suppliers. We have also set up the Single Source Regulations Office as an independent review body, and it has now been operational for 12 months. No longer will suppliers have carte blanche to set the terms of the trade. We believe that that will help to address the hon. Gentleman’s concern about defence inflation by imposing a much greater spotlight of transparency on individual single-source contractors and the bill invoices they submit, which we think will put downward pressure on inflationary pressures.

I point out gently to the hon. Gentleman that some of the cost comparisons in his party’s document confuse different things, often comparing apples with pears by not taking into account some of the additional costs that appear when we procure in the UK, other than on an off-the-shelf basis. We tend to include the cost of support, training and simulators alongside the cost of the capital equipment itself, which can often distort a like-for-like comparison with an off-the-shelf purchase.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Care Homes: England

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered care homes in England.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. It is the second time I have done so; the first was on my first Bill Committee, and this is now my first Westminster Hall debate, so I seem to be following you around the corridors of the House of Commons.

I take pride in the fact that my first Westminster Hall debate is on the care that we as a society provide for older generations. Care homes are an essential part of our social care network, providing support and residential care for more than 400,000 older people. We must reassure older people, families, carers and society at large that we are a country that will continue to offer sustainable, quality, statutorily supported care in what is about to become an extremely difficult funding climate for them.

This is not the first time that I have raised this topic; the Minister will be familiar with the many parliamentary questions I have tabled on the subject. As he is personally dedicated to quality care for older people, I know that he will welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter in more detail than would often be the case for a humble Back Bencher such as me going through the normal channels of parliamentary protocol.

In many ways, it is strange that we need to have this debate at all. With an ageing population and estimates that the number of people aged 85 and over is set to double over the next 30 years, people would think that having a well-funded and secure network of homes to provide care for later in life would be a given. This is the 21st century after all, and we meet in a Parliament of one of the world’s largest economies—an economy that was built through the graft and ingenuity of the wartime generation, our security delivered through their sacrifice.

However, evidence and testimony from care providers points to a sector in a perilous state, primarily for two reasons. First, a significant amount of the funding for older people in residential care who lack independent means comes from local authorities, so the significant cuts in local council funding have led to a 17% reduction in real terms in local authority spending on adult social care for older people since 2009-10.

I recently took part in a conference organised by the GMB trade union along with carers and people who run care homes. Those who run care homes expressed specific concerns about the fact that they were aware of people—and particularly older people—sometimes being kept in hospital when there was no real medical need for them to be. If we compare the costs, it costs a couple of hundred pounds a day for them to be staying in hospital—

Okay. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should speed up the transitional process and put pathways in place, so that the move between hospital and care homes can happen much more efficiently?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an incredibly important point, and I know well from conversations that we have had both in the Chamber and outside it how much she advocates for her constituents who are in care homes. The fact is that the so-called bed-blocking problem is often caused not by a lack of beds, but by a lack of capacity out in communities, for various reasons. One of those involves communities and the care home sector itself. The fact that people are ending up in hospitals is indicative of the much broader problem of caring for people where they need to be cared for most, which is in their homes and communities. My hon. Friend makes that point very well.

The significant cuts to local council funding have led to a 17% reduction in real terms for local authority spending. Industry research cited by ResPublica points to a shortfall between the cost and provision of the average weekly fee paid by local authorities, which worked out as £42 per resident per week in the period between October 2014 to September 2015.

As the hon. Gentleman may know, I have been a great champion of care homes and the need to meet the challenges over many years. Does he at least, despite being absolutely right to raise these problems, feel some comfort from the 2% precept? I understand that many of the county councils are going to take up that precept, which has been introduced to alleviate some of the challenges that he alludes to.

I am very grateful for that intervention. I will come to the precept in a moment, when I would welcome further interventions as we talk about the detail of the precept and how it actually, while being welcome on a surface level, will be rolled out in different ways and impact on communities differently. I will keep my eyes open, as the hon. Lady might well want to come back to this when we tackle those issues.

The pressures on care providers will only be exacerbated by the increases in the minimum wage that will come in from this April. However, let me restate my position on the rising minimum wage for the avoidance of any doubt: I believe that those working in the caring professions deserve a pay rise for the fantastic jobs that they do, especially considering that it has sadly become a low-pay sector. I am glad that there is now cross-party consensus on the ambitious rise that is deserved by all those on low pay. However, we must make this work, and it will only work if we are aware of and prepare for what will happen in the areas that this will impact on hardest.

The National Care Association, for example, has estimated that the rise will add at least 5% to payrolls this year and a further 7% year on year by 2020. Without extra resources, local authorities will end up pushing independent, statutorily funded care homes closer to the brink. The excellent ResPublica report from November laid bare the startling and shocking fact that an unfunded living wage could end up with the loss of 37,000 care home places. I know that the Minister and his colleagues will point to two actions that they think will mitigate that, so let me address both of those in turn.

First, there is the social care precept. Introduced in the autumn statement, it gives local authorities the power to raise council tax by an additional 2%, the proceeds of which are ring-fenced for social care. Although all additional funds are welcome, that is a drop in the ocean compared with the additional resources needed. Following the autumn statement, the King’s Fund estimated that the funding gap for social care could be as high as £3.5 billion by the end of this Parliament.

What is more, the precept may well end up generating extra revenue where it is least needed. At present, residential care home funding is split between people who pay for their care themselves and those who have it paid for by their local authority. Self-funders pay 50% more than those funded by councils so, in effect, they subsidise those paid for by the public purse. It is not hard to work out that the homes with a smaller number of self-funders are the ones who are most at risk financially from the cut in funding rates from local authorities. The split varies across the country, but on the estimated figures put together by LaingBuisson in its “Care of Older People UK Market Report”, the number of self-funders in 2014 was only 18% in the north-east, with the majority of other regions hovering around the 40% mark. It is pretty obvious that the power to raise council tax will generate the most revenue in the areas with a higher council tax base, namely the southern regions of England, which—you guessed it—have a higher number of self-funders.

Does my hon. Friend share my opinion that council tax can be a regressive tax, and that for areas such as mine, which have levels of deprivation and are already hit by a tax that is not particularly fair, this precept is not a progressive tax? Those areas that have already been hit hardest by cuts in local government funding will be hit yet again by this tax.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. In representing Redcar, she knows better than anyone that people in residential care homes that are heavily reliant on statutory funding will be hit the most because of the cuts that are going into local authorities, and they will be hit again by the precept, which, because of the process that I have just outlined, will be front-loading resources into the areas that need it least. Her area of the country will have people who are more dependent on statutory funding for care home places. The 2% is based on a lower percentage of people paying council tax in the first place and will have to cover more people. That is why the precept is not fair and will not get to the people who need it most.

The hon. Gentleman is being incredibly generous with his time. He raised a point about inequality. Does he agree that we should be asking the Care Quality Commission to look at how much funding is being supplied in each county to each home? At the moment, it seems that it is a bit of a lottery, for all sorts of reasons, which may or may not be part of his argument. At the very least, we should agree the standard of care and it should be equal across the country.

I will always be generous with my time for the hon. Lady because, early in this debate, we have found common ground. Later in my speech, I will call for assessment of exactly those areas. We need to understand how the funding changes and the new mechanisms are impacting on the ground and geographically across the country. We must make sure that any revenues generated, particularly in these times of restraint, are going to the parts of the country that need it most. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) made the point well from the Opposition Benches. In this case, the support promised by the Government will simply not end up where it is needed most.

Secondly, on the better care fund, Ministers have belatedly recognised some of the flaws in simply relying on a precept to generate the extra funds needed for social care. There is simply not enough revenue being generated in poorer areas. The Government have said they will take that into account and use a formula for allocating extra funds for these areas taken from the better care fund. That was announced less than a month ago and we wait to see exactly how the details will operate in practice. There are murky areas and a lot of detail is coming. We must make sure we know exactly how this will impact providers in the front line.

Care England, a leading representative body for the independent care services, has already voiced its concern. It doubts whether the funding will get to the care homes that need it most. It is more likely that it will be used on other unfunded projects across the social care budget. It is worth remembering that the initial funding for the better care fund was not new money; it was funding to assist health services which was re-allocated to local authorities. I want to give the Minister the opportunity today to confirm whether the £1.5 billion is new money, or is again taken from existing health service budgets.

Local authorities will not see any of this money, whether new or recycled, until 2017-18 and even then it will be only £105 million. It could be too little, too late to prevent parts of our care home sector catering for the most vulnerable people in our society collapsing or withdrawing from the market and focusing on self-funding residents. Initial better care fund plans have been signed off by local authorities and NHS England. It would be great if an evaluation was conducted into how the funding to date has helped to support residential care homes, if at all.

I think the Minister can now see that there is cross-party support for this kind of independent evaluation into how funding mechanisms are impacting on front-line care provision. It could act as a best practice guide for authorities going forward, even when the extra resources the Government referred to become available. Will the Minister commit to this evaluation covering the impact of funding on the sector? Both Government and Opposition Members would find that helpful.

The majority of media coverage of the sector has been about the state of big providers, such as Four Seasons Health Care and HC-One, and speculation about their future viability. It is important to realise that the 10 largest providers account for about only 25% of the market, the rest being much smaller, independent providers. In my constituency there is a small family home, Wilbury rest home. Last year I sat down with the owner, Graham Dean, shortly after the Chancellor’s announcement on the living wage. Graham is the second generation of his family to run the home and, remarkably, he was born in it. Listening to him and other local independent care home managers talking with kindness, compassion and outright professionalism about the people they care for day in and day out has left a deep impression on me. They provide the kind of loving, caring environment that every human being deserves into their old age.

There are countless homes like that dotted around the country, but they are being pushed to the limit. Indeed, a survey from the National Care Association shows that almost a quarter of providers could exit the market altogether. That would be a tragedy for residents and society, and a crisis for the Government.

Another issue that is putting pressure on the sector is the national shortage of nurses, which has resulted in the increased use of agency nurses. In some cases that costs double the amount for permanent staff. To the Government’s credit, they have recognised that there is an issue and have been working with the care sector and with the Government’s skills body to develop a new training scheme to create a career ladder into caring professions. Sadly, that project was axed last December, just weeks before it was due to be launched. I understand from written answers that I have received that that was not a decision taken by the Department of Health. As a member of the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, I am happy to take up this cause with the relevant Ministers in that Department if the Minister feels that would be helpful. I would like to aid his work and I hope that his officials have already been doing much work behind the scenes to fight for its reinstatement.

As I move to my closing remarks, I would appreciate some reassurance from the Minister that the Government have a plan—dare I say it, a plan B—that is ready to be implemented should the worst-case scenario predicted by ResPublica and other respected think-tanks in the health sector come to pass. Do the Government have in place a robust contingency plan should the statutorily funded care home sector collapse, resulting in the nightmare scenario of 37,000 older people becoming homeless?

When Southern Cross Healthcare went bust in 2011, there were just enough resources from other providers in the sector to take over. Due to the current state of the industry, no private provider has the capacity to respond to a shortfall of 37,000 beds.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He is outlining the scenario that might lie ahead if the Government do not increase their intervention. Does he agree that, for the first time in history, the UK is reaching a stage where, in addition to senior citizens being dependent on care they receive in care homes, some of their sons and daughters are of such an age that they, too, are senior citizens, so the level of dependence is even greater?

I am extremely grateful for that intervention. I had not considered that and I will take it on board. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing it out and putting it on the record.

It may not be a Southern Cross that fails first. In fact, it is most likely to be the smaller, independent providers in areas that are most dependent on local authority placements. Can the Minister reassure us that his Department and local government have the capacity to respond to any piecemeal closures that are likely to occur?

The Minister is nodding and I look forward to testing the argument in his statement.

Everyone here wants to ensure dignity for all later in life. That can be assured only if there is a properly resourced residential care sector with stability and financial security. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response and receiving reassurances that all Members, of whatever party, want to hear, and I look forward to being able to work with him and care home providers in the months and years ahead to ensure that that type of residential care sector becomes a reality.

Mrs Anne Main (in the Chair): I shall call the Scottish National party’s Front-Bench spokesman at 3.30 and then the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman and the Minister. Quite a few hon. Members want to catch my eye and if they divvy up the time between them that will be helpful.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), one of my constituency neighbours, for securing the debate and permitting me to consider the role that care homes play in my constituency.

Some 27,000 of my constituents are aged over 65 years. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the ResPublica article, which states that by 2050 the proportion of people in the UK aged 65-plus will have risen to 25%. In my constituency it is already at 28%, against a national and regional average of 17%. Indeed, Bexhill and Battle has the fifth highest proportion of people over 65 years old in the UK.

As a result, many of my constituents live or work in care homes. Before and since my election, I have visited many of those care homes and been hugely impressed by the levels of care and devotion afforded to that most special group of constituents. It is therefore right today to celebrate the role that care homes play in our country and to say thank you.

There is an unfortunate perception of care homes, which regular visitors such as myself try hard to dispel. Although many people feel negatively towards hospitals, they are considered to be places where improvements in outcomes are possible. The same is not often said of care homes. The perception is of a place that people move to when their lives have deteriorated and will continue to deteriorate. That perception means that the public rarely hear about the improvements in outcomes that care homes deliver, the innovative treatment that residents are afforded and the compassionate care that owners and their staff deliver to residents. I hope that we can use this debate to celebrate what care homes do for our constituents.

However, it is right to highlight some key challenges for care home providers, and I shall list two that require the support of the House and the Government. The first, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is local authority funding. The gap between local authority care home fees and the cost of care home places in real terms continues to grow. That has represented a drop of almost 5% for council-funded residents over the past five years. That situation could be exacerbated by the welcome announcement of the Government’s new living wage, which will give care home staff a wage of £9 an hour by 2020. I was glad to hear the hon. Gentleman celebrate that pay rise for hard-working care home staff, who, as he mentioned, have been underpaid for many years.

Many of my local care home providers have approached me with concerns that they may have to cease operating if margins continue to be squeezed. On their behalf I have lobbied Ministers to highlight the funding gap, and I am pleased that the Government have now given local authorities the right to add a 2% council tax surcharge for adult social care. In East Sussex, local authorities and the NHS are delivering our “Better Together” integrated healthcare programme. Although I continue to lobby for lower taxes for my constituents, I hope that they will embrace that new tax levy as a means to support the funding of care for our elderly community. I therefore hope that the gap will be plugged, at least in part. It will be interesting to hear the responses of my right hon. Friend the Minister to the other questions that the hon. Gentleman asked.

I would like to touch on staff recruitment. In the care home sector, the staff turnover rate is 32%, which is incredibly high. It is clear that the sector has issues in recruiting and retaining staff. Reliance on staff recruitment from abroad is very strong. I am delighted that the Government have added care home nurses to the shortage occupation list, albeit temporarily. Those who criticise net increases in immigration to the UK need to understand that our population is getting older and needs more care, which means more carers. I welcome the desire of the care home industry to win more contracts from our clinical commissioning funders, because I hope that that will make jobs in care homes more fulfilling, skilled and desirable. I also hope that it will allow us to rely less on staff coming from abroad—from countries that are underdeveloped and whose own residents may need care and assistance even more than people in this country do.

I will conclude, to allow other hon. Members to speak. I welcome the debate, and I celebrate the role that care homes play in this country. I have visited care homes where dementia sufferers are taken on incredible journeys back to their childhoods, where schoolchildren are invited in to go through their exercise books with residents, where residents play games and sing and where there is a great celebration of the rich lives that they have experienced and will continue to experience. I look forward to visiting more care homes and championing their owners, staff and residents in the years to come.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). I echo what he said about some of the excellent care that we see in care homes.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) on securing an important and timely debate. He highlighted many of the key concerns of care providers in the UK. One is the current funding crisis in social care. Over the past five years we have seen social care budgets across the country cut by almost 11%. In Enfield, the local authority has had to deliver net savings in its adult social care budget of 16% over the past four years, and by 2019, the savings requirement that the council will need to initiate will further reduce the budget by £19.8 million, from £80.8 million this year to £61 million. That is equivalent to another 25% reduction in the net budget. How do the Government seriously expect local authorities such as Enfield to cope with a cut of that level?

I have been a councillor, so I know that budgets have been quite tight in local authorities over the years. A care home in my constituency, Siegen Manor, is possibly due to close. Does the right hon. Lady agree that we need to look at the way councils spend money? In my new city council, there is a lot of wastage. We need to look at how councils spend their money, because I could give a lot of examples of how they could—

It is always important that we have a weather eye on how any public authority is spending its money and that we get the best value for money; that goes without saying. However, I think—I do not believe the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) was disagreeing with me on this—that we need to hear from the Government how local authorities can be expected to cope with the size of cut that has been happening and is continuing to come their way. I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention.

Spending reductions of the size that my local authority is facing will almost inevitably result in cuts to the services that Enfield delivers to some of the most vulnerable people in the borough. Given the huge pressures on shrinking resources, I commend Enfield Council for its nationally recognised standards of best practice and the gold accreditation that it has received for its safeguarding work. Enfield has a wide range of care homes, which provide support to older and disabled people not only from the local area but from other areas. However, the deep cuts from central Government have already seen care homes close, and a significant increase in the number of people placed in the borough by other councils has meant that nursing home provision, particularly for people with dementia, is under severe strain. As a result, an ever increasing burden has been placed on our local NHS services and family carers. In those circumstances, it can be no great surprise that there is difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff to work as care providers.

Front-line care workers are all too often grossly undervalued. They offer vital support to people with ever more complex conditions, yet in return they often receive very poor wages. So although I welcome the introduction of the national living wage of £7.20 from April 2016, that figure is nowhere near the current London living wage of £9.40. Many care workers working in Enfield and elsewhere in London need that hourly rate just to get by. However, the Government have yet to explain how the care sector will be able to cope with the increased pressures on payrolls when funding has been so drastically cut. It is estimated that the introduction of the national living wage will add at least 5% to payrolls from 2016-17 and a further 7% every year until 2020. That will drive even more front-line care providers out of business and make a bad situation even worse.

I would like to draw to the Minister’s attention a letter I received from the Enfield Carers Centre in August last year. It read:

“Dear Joan Ryan

I am writing to you on behalf of Enfield Carers Centre to ask if you will support us in an urgent call that we are issuing to the Chancellor George Osborne in advance of the 2015 Spending Review.

In the Summer Budget, the Chancellor announced that, as of 2016, there will be a new compulsory National Living Wage of £7.20 per hour. We welcome support for care workers who deserve decent pay. However since we are dependent on local authorities paying us enough to pass this on to our valued care workers this increase therefore has to be reflected in the hourly rate paid by local authorities for care and support.

A report by the UK Homecare Association (UKHCA) has found that councils are going to need an additional £753 million to ensure their local care providers can meet these new pay requirements. Without that funding, care services risk closing down entirely…Care services have been badly affected over recent years by cuts and this is a financial stretch which we cannot meet. Quite simply the home care market, is at risk of collapse.”

I do not think that the Enfield Carers Centre got the answer it was looking for from the Chancellor, and I hope that it will hear some better news today from the Minister. I agree with the National Care Association when it states:

“UK Care Services are an irreplaceable part of the fabric of the NHS. There should be no doubt that what is under threat is a UK support service which is essential to local government and NHS care provision.”

I would like to know how the Minister will address those concerns and what steps the Government intend to put in place to provide a transparent and sustainable funding settlement for social care. The older and disabled people who rely on the service, their families and the all too often unsung heroes who work in it deserve no less.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) for securing this important debate. Proper funding for care homes and social care can go a long way to reducing the pressures faced by our NHS. We must continue to do all we can to integrate social care and the NHS. I am worried that under this Government, it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so, and care homes are becoming increasingly underfunded and overstretched.

Last November, figures were published showing that 5,247 patients were stuck in hospital beds. They were well enough to be discharged, but doctors and nurses felt they could not discharge them because of the lack of care available to the patient. The majority of such people are elderly. They cannot leave hospital because there is no space in their local care homes, and there are not the facilities or staff to look after them in their own homes. Our adult care facilities are not adequate for many people up and down the country, and the problem will only get worse, in many places, under the Government’s proposals.

I have some concerns about the new proposal to give councils the ability to raise council tax by 2%, which they will be able to spend only on social care. It looks like a good initiative at first glance, but council leaders and healthcare professionals can see that it is simply smoke and mirrors. The social care precept, as it has been labelled, will disproportionately affect poorer councils. Councils such as Rochdale will be worse off, while richer areas will be better off. The leadership of Rochdale Borough Council have rightly raised concerns about the policy. Because much of Rochdale’s housing is in council tax bands A and B, the proposal will raise only an extra £1.3 million. That is why poorer councils will be worse off. Rochdale council has already faced cuts to its budget of up to £200 million since 2010. We are struggling to cope, and services are being stripped to the bare bones.

The precept is welcome, but it will barely scrape the surface of the problem. The funding gap in social care and care home provision is getting worse. The Local Government Association estimates that it is growing by £700 million a year, and the King’s Fund estimates that it will be £3.5 billion by the end of this Parliament. The 2% increase will raise the least money in the areas of greatest need, so it will only increase health inequality, and it will vastly increase funds for councils that are already wealthy.

The most vulnerable have already seen their social care provision cut. The Joseph Roundtree Foundation points out that during the last Parliament, spending on social care fell by £65 per person in the most deprived communities, compared with a rise of £28 per person in the least deprived communities. The Government must do more to help the most vulnerable.

In the autumn statement, the Government announced that from 2017, funding expected to be worth £1.5 billion in 2019-20 will be available to local government. That funding will be included in the better care fund, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hove pointed out. It will go some way to addressing the funding gap and the disparities that will be caused by the 2% rise, but it will not be enough. The director of adult care for Rochdale, Sheila Downey, has made it clear to me that she does not know how much of that money will arrive in Rochdale, or how the funding gap will be filled until 2017.

The increase in the minimum wage will also have an effect on social care services and care homes, as has been pointed out. I welcome the raising of the minimum wage, but it must be accompanied by increased funding to allow for it. Care workers are some of the most underpaid, and they deserve their pay rise, so let us fund it properly. Rochdale’s director of adult care has raised that with me, because she is concerned about how she will find that money in her budget. She is working with local providers on the fees that will be required, but she is adamant that the pressure of the wage increase on social care budgets will not be fully met by the 2% increase. The widely cited ResPublica report from November, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hove mentioned, suggests that 37,000 care home beds could be lost if we do not fund the increase properly, because care providers will simply not be able to remain open. Alarm bells should be ringing. The loss of beds will need to be made up, and it will simply be made up in the NHS.

I finish by saying that I share the vision of an integrated health and social care system. We must achieve that if we are to have a health system that is fit for the 21st century. To achieve that, however, we cannot simply plug the gap; we need to invest in our social care and care homes now. Investment in care provision and homes can take the stress off the NHS. We saw all too recently in the case of the floods what a lack of investment can do. Let us not make the same mistake when it comes to social care.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) for securing today’s timely and important debate. As a country, we need to give deep thought to the importance we place on social care. We have heard in this debate that constrained finances are skewing the opportunity to do that. I have always said that we can judge a country by the way it treats its older people, and I wonder how we really think we are doing against that test. Those who have served our country in so many different ways deserve the very best care, and I am not sure that our system is built on that model. In fact, the model is now built more on minimal provision as opposed to optimal provision. I wrestle with that approach, and I believe that we really need to think about the direction in which we are going.

The current black hole in state funding for care has been made more challenging as the years have gone on by local authority cuts. We have heard clearly about the impact of a 10.7% budget cut over five years, and the fact that care providers have to pay more has added further challenge. I really welcome an uplift in the pay of care staff, because they are paid a ridiculously low amount of money. They are also faced with pension uplifts, and they have had to wrestle with the rise in national insurance and steep rises in the cost of energy, food and other services. That has all happened at the same time as they face the increasing demands of a challenging and changing demographic, including people with multiple needs, and tighter budgets. What we are seeing is unrealistic: the demand is greater, but the money is less.

Will my hon. Friend add to that list the fact that the CQC rates more than 50% of nursing homes as inadequate and needing improvement? The people living in those homes are therefore living in inadequate situations. How will that change, given the circumstances she outlines?

My right hon. Friend makes a really pertinent point. There has to be a debate about safety and about providing good, secure homes for individuals. If people are living in substandard conditions, that is simply unacceptable. If there are not the resources to put that right, we obviously fear for the future.

Another thing we know is that the pressure being put on so many care organisations will make older people far more vulnerable. As we have heard, tens of thousands of beds could be lost. If people do not have security in later life, it can have a real impact on their wellbeing.

As others right across the Chamber have said in the debate, the autumn statement has left many question marks, and one of the issues we are going to see as a result is inequality. Some of the communities with the most demand for investment in social care will get the least money from the precept the Chancellor set out. Taken with the further cuts that local authorities will experience, that will have a cumulative negative impact on the provision of social care. That is happening at the same time as the NHS is really struggling with discharges, because the provision is not there in the community. In my constituency of York Central, some of the transitional beds will be lost because of a care home closure programme, which I will return to.

Cuts to support services for the elderly, such as day care placements, are happening because of the cuts to local authorities, and they are having a detrimental impact. The little things that local authorities could provide that kept people safe in their homes and connected in their communities are now very much part of history, as opposed to part of the solution. We keep hearing that finances are tight, but we must remember that it was not the people in our care homes who caused the financial crash—but, my, how they are paying for it.

A care provider in my constituency has highlighted the challenges of the new minimum wage rate and asked how on earth they are going to pay it. They already have staff who are engaged on zero-hours contracts. They tell me they cannot pay for staff to travel between visits. I obviously question that, and I support paying staff proper wages, but I really worry about how providers will deal with these issues in the future and how they will survive. I have written to the Government to raise those concerns.

The issues I have outlined are particularly challenging in a city such as York, which has a high cost of living and high housing costs. When those are combined with low wages, it is virtually impossible to recruit care staff, and that adds to the sector’s challenges. As a result, the care model we have does not really address people’s needs. That has had a real impact on discharges from the NHS and on being able to give individuals timely care in the community. We are now seeing the cumulative impact of these things, as the care home closure programme across York means that fewer beds are available.

The problem we have is that care is seen as a zero-hours, minimum wage, low-esteem industry, when it should be regarded as a high-skilled, professional service and the funding should match that. Those who have the means can afford to pay for what they get—only just, but they can. However, for the rest, care packages are being driven to the absolute minimum. It would therefore be appropriate for us all to agree that current provision is totally unacceptable. We need to draw a line under that and to have a real debate about what needs to be done. After all, who are we talking about? Who are we providing care for? It is our mums and dads. It is the most vulnerable in our society—those with multiple disabilities, those with learning challenges, those with mental health challenges and those whose bodies are not quite working as they once did. One day, it will be us.

Who do we expect to care for those individuals? It is highly trained professionals—the very best—who are rewarded appropriately, motivated and driven to learn more and deliver more. Like everybody else, I have met care workers right across the sector—in fact, I spent time doing care work myself—and I know the passion they have for providing the optimum care for individuals, but if they are not given the time to care, how can they deliver that service?

The Kingsmill review “Taking Care”, which Labour brought forward before the last general election, set out a clear programme for improving care standards and providing training and remuneration. It also dealt with the important issue of registration. It is really important that care workers are state-registered to ensure public safety. The steps the review set out show how we can secure high standards in care and safeguard service users.

We then need to think about how and where care needs to be provided. Of course people have different needs, including physical needs. In my own clinical practice as a state-registered physiotherapist, I would often get people’s confidence up and get them back on their feet, only for them to go home and lose the support and stimulation they had had, because support was not available continually in the community. Falls prevention work, which really puts in investment upstream and provides care, means that individuals avoid things such as a fractured neck of femur, which is so expensive to treat, putting more pressure on the health service. Little steps can make such a difference in the community and in care homes, keeping people well and addressing their physical needs.

Likewise, we know that so many people have mental health challenges in later life—two thirds of the occupants of care homes experience some form of mental health challenge. It is really important that the setting individuals are placed in appropriately addresses those needs. We need to start thinking big on these issues. The Dutch—I hope I say this right—Hogeweyk dementia care village is a fantastic scheme. It is about state provision. We need that kind of investment and that imaginative, big thinking around how we provide care in our country.

The issues I have mentioned are exacerbated by some of the most prevalent diseases in our country—loneliness and isolation, and the social and emotional health of the most vulnerable in our society. The tightening of budgets is having a major impact on the wellbeing of old people. Investment in the issue can mitigate the worst aspects. I am totally passionate about that. It is heart-breaking that older people are just given 15-minute appointments, often with a stranger, as opposed to a full support network and a real life. Our goal should be helping people to live, not preparing them to die.

On the challenges we face, we need to take a step back and think about what we want from care provision in future. These are political choices and are possible if somebody believes they can deliver them. I talk to carers who share the vision I have outlined and who want the very best for the people they serve. I also talk to people in residential care, who want hope in their future. Those people would give momentum to a Government who would dare to grasp the nettle to make sure that we provide appropriate care in future.

I want quickly to set out the situation we have in York. I have had many conversations with the residents of care homes, their families and the staff. We are going through a transition. That has already resulted in two care homes closing, and a further two—Oakhaven and Grove House—are set to close early this year. Residents and their families are distraught about the fragmentation that that is causing. Residents are being moved to placements across the city and away from their families. Some placements are on the other side of the city from where their families live, so family members can no longer just pop in to see mum as they do at the moment. Residents are being moved away from their friends in the care home—for some, these are the only friends they have in the world. Staff are also being moved away from their homes. Residents feel that they have not been listened to and that they have been ignored, which is unacceptable.

The council has put its plans ahead of the support that it purports to want to deliver. It is remodelling social care. I very much support the last Labour Administration’s vision for that. However, the sequencing of the changes is detrimental. It is about putting money before people’s needs. We need to hold back on the transition that is taking place, to make sure that there is investment upstream, as opposed to making people fit the system and sacrifice some of the only bonds that they have.

We have gone badly wrong in many areas of social care, and do not currently place the value on care users and staff that we should. As I have said, this is about political choices and political priorities. I ask the Minister whether there could be any greater priority than getting this right. I urge Parliament from today to take the debate forward. I want all those who have participated in today’s debate to make sure that we prioritise social care so that it is seen as an urgent need to be addressed by the Government in this term, so that we do not have to face challenges and struggles we face at the moment of questioning the finances and the value we put on social care. The question is whether the Government are willing.

It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) for obtaining this important debate with his customary determination to tackle the big challenges of the day and his concern for the most vulnerable in society. As everyone on both sides of the House has agreed during the debate, older people deserve the right to live with dignity and decency; but, as has also been discussed, too often that is not the case, and I am afraid the situation seems set only to get worse.

Eighty-six per cent. of care home places are run by the private sector for profit. Local authorities are the largest single purchasers of those places across the country. Because of intense budgetary pressures, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) and my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) clearly explained, local authorities reduced their fees by an average of 5% between 2010-11 and 2015-16. According to the sector analysts LaingBuisson, the care home sector is closing more beds than it is opening for the first time since 2005, with a net loss of 3,000 across the UK last year. In the north-east we expect to have a substantial crisis in social care as a result of the Government’s failure to grip the issue.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hove said, the homes most at risk are those dependent on residents paid for by local councils at rates far below those paid by self-funding residents: proprietors say rates are actually below break-even point. In the north-east, only 18% of people requiring care are self-paying, compared with 54% in the south-east. In Surrey, by contrast, only 1% of people in residential homes are paid for by the state.

The Financial Times has noticed that the care home market is highly polarised between lucrative self-pay homes, mostly in south-east England, and those with local authority residents, such as Redcar and Cleveland, which are struggling. Given that disparity between areas such as Surrey and areas such as mine, and since there is a crisis in the funding not of residential care but of state residential care, it is probable that the market will not collapse nationally, but will fall over in areas such as mine where the state is the main payer. If a major provider struggles it is likely to mean that it will close its homes in the north but not the south.

There is no capacity in local government to take over those homes. Any private sector supplier that did so would be taking an unsustainable risk, because they are currently loss-making businesses. At the moment there appears to be no plan B for the Government. I want to ask the Minister whether he accepts the scale of the impending crisis. Crisis point will be reached shortly in our region as demand continues to increase while spending is drastically cut back. The Government’s care legislation will further increase the burdens on councils in England. The only way in which providers can make any money is by cutting services and by squeezing workers’ pay and conditions.

The comprehensive spending review in December 2015 gave councils the option of adding a social care precept of up to 2% to annual council tax bills to raise extra money to pay for adult social care. However, as well as being regressive, as we have already discussed, the precept will at best raise £2 billion by 2020, against a predicted funding gap of closer to £8 billion. Indeed, the King’s Fund estimates that at best the precept will raise £800 million.

I want to use this opportunity to raise some contributory factors to the crisis, which the Government need to address, and I will begin by talking about the care workforce and national minimum wage compliance. The Resolution Foundation has estimated that care workers—both those in care homes and those providing home care—are already collectively cheated of £130 million a year because of sub national minimum wage pay. That is driven by chronic underfunding of the care sector, poor employment practices, poor commissioning practices and the ineffective enforcement of the national minimum wage by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

One employer, which will remain nameless at this stage, has put to its workforce a set of proposed changes to terms and conditions, to prepare for the introduction of the national living wage. Those include withdrawing all bank holiday and overtime enhancements, removing contractual sick pay, scrapping the meal allowance for workers when they are eating with clients, asking workers to pay for their own registration with the Disclosure and Barring Service, enforcing eight hours per annum of unpaid training time, introducing new duties and making changes to existing duties. In care homes non-payment of the national minimum wage is driven by a failure to pay for actual hours worked, such as when staff are not properly recompensed for overnight sleep-ins or time spent training; failure to pay for uniforms; and deduction of money for accommodation that does not form part of an employment contract.

The Financial Times has said that,

“businesses that run care homes for the elderly are at risk of going bankrupt, especially those reliant on revenues from local authority funded places, from a double blow of the imminent increases in the minimum wage and tighter immigration rules, making it harder to recruit from overseas”.

That is the issue I want to discuss next. The care sector is particularly dependent on migrant labour. The latest estimates suggest that nearly a fifth of the workforce are non-British. Unison has highlighted a particular problem in the care home sector with regard to the treatment of migrant workers. In a recent round-table event, a group of Filipino workers reported that they were paying £300 a month each to share a flat with only one toilet and no lounge at the residential care home where they worked. The rate paid for the work they did was £7.02 per hour, but there were then monthly deductions. The deductions were for their uniform—they got one per year but had to pay every month—and for training; that is a breach of national minimum wage law. The cost would normally be more than £200 a month, and it transpired that the workers were not necessarily getting the uplifts in the minimum wage that they were entitled to.

The round table also heard that a working week for the staff could sometimes be as long as 60 hours, depending on staffing levels, despite the fact that they were contracted for 36 hours. They could also find themselves working a 10-hour night shift for a paltry £35, way below the national minimum wage, and with no sleeping permitted. The employer extorted £500 each from that group of workers as their initial five-year period in the job came to an end, on the basis that payments were needed to retain a licence to hire foreign workers and to protect their immigration papers. The staff were also subject to body searches before meeting the employers. To compound matters, they were then obliged to pay fees of £2,000 each for a solicitor to renew their work permits—in cash. The work permits are for work with that one employer, so if the workers lost them they would lose their visa and have to leave the country. Not only is the exploitation of immigrant workers immoral, but it drives down terms and conditions across the sector for all workers and reduces the number of job opportunities for local people.

I want to discuss some wider problems in the care home sector. The social care workforce are predominantly female, with the latest estimates suggesting that 82% of care workers are women and that the percentage is broadly similar across all types of care. Social care is a highly gender-segregated sector, with low pay and poor conditions reflecting, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Central has mentioned, the historic undervaluing of what is deemed to be women’s work. Compared with other sectors, the workforce are also particularly concentrated in the 45 to 60 age bracket. Government-backed attempts to move away from that disproportionately middle-aged demographic have foundered, largely on the basis that the quality of work, pay and conditions is simply not attractive enough to bring in younger staff.

Residential care tends to be based on shift work and there are often problems with short-staffing, with care workers being called on at short notice to cover shifts. That can be particularly problematic for night shifts, where the compensation is often insufficient. There may also be pressure from care providers to work beyond a 48-hour working week. Vacancy rates and staff turnover are high across the sector. Councils are struggling to retain social workers in the face of high caseloads, a blame culture and competition over pay. High turnover has damaging implications for the continuity and quality of care.

There is no English language requirement for care workers whose first language is not English. The overall level of training and qualifications across the care sector is low. There are expectations of induction training for staff but the nature and quality varies considerably. There is less training available in outsourced services, and there are particular concerns about agency staff not receiving training. There are increasing expectations for care workers to carry out medical treatments that have previously been the preserve of nurses or other NHS professionals, but there is no concomitant expansion in training. There are no longer any universal standards for providers to meet benchmarks for percentages of trained staff in their workforces. Without obligations it makes no business sense for providers to do that training voluntarily, because of the high turnover of staff. There is also no central quality assurance mechanism for training, which leads to a lack of faith in qualifications, and no incentive—

I will. In summary, the Government’s crisis in funding for care homes has pushed the sector to the brink. Terms and conditions for the workforce are being squeezed, and the current funding structure for local authorities is simply unsustainable. The Government must get a grip.

I thank the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) for securing this important debate. As Members might imagine, I have listened with great interest to the debate, albeit from a Scottish perspective. However, it is in all our interests and, indeed, in the interests of a decent society that those who require care can access the care they need, and are treated with dignity and respect wherever they live in the United Kingdom. There are challenges, many of which have been debated this afternoon, as our ageing population grows in number and as needs become more complex, requiring additionally trained and supported staff, and bringing all the pressures outlined by the hon. Member for Hove.

I declare an interest in the issue as my mother-in-law, Iris Gibson, is fortunate to receive wonderful care at the marvellous Haylie House, which is located in the lovely Ayrshire coastal town of Largs in my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran. Hon. Members might be interested in the approach taken in Scotland under the Scottish National party Government, who have been working hard to ensure that as many people as possible who need care in Scotland receive care in their own homes. Indeed, the number of older people receiving personal care services in their own homes in Scotland has increased from 36,000 in 2004-05 to 47,810 in 2013-14.

Since July 2002, local authorities in Scotland can no longer charge for those personal care services. In addition, payments for free personal and nursing care have been increased in line with inflation annually by the SNP Government since April 2008, improving the lives of about 7,000 to 8,000 vulnerable older people in Scotland, but, of course, funding continues to be a challenge in Scotland and across the UK.

As for carers, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has pledged to increase carer’s allowance to the same rate as jobseeker’s allowance, which is a clear recognition of the very important job that carers do. I want to pick up on something that has been highlighted by several Members, which is what I would call the so-called national living wage because it is, in fact, nothing of the sort. It is a minimum wage, unlike the Scottish living wage that actually relates to the cost of living. The Scottish Government are a living wage employer and continue to encourage Scots-based businesses to become living wage accredited employers.

The hon. Member for Hove is correct that the caring sector has become associated with low pay. That is a scourge on that important sector, and must be acknowledged and tackled in any discussion about the future of the whole care sector. I agree very much with the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) that the provisions of the social care precept are not enough. What is needed is more investment in the care of older people from central Government. Many private care homes argue that they will struggle to pay the national living wage, as outlined by the Chancellor, of £7.20 an hour from April—never mind the living wage that the Scottish Government are encouraging employers to pay, which currently stands at £8.25 an hour.

We have heard from the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) about some shocking employment practices. The SNP is committed to improving the quality of care in Scotland and will consider carefully the impact of the living wage on the care sector. Make no mistake: any discussion about how to improve the quality of care must include a discussion about the scourge of low pay. Indeed, the Scottish Government are taking forward the recommendation of the residential care taskforce to undertake financial modelling of the costs of paying the living wage.

Order. I ask that the hon. Lady sticks as closely as possible to the subject of the debate, which is care homes in England. I have given her some latitude but she is somewhat straying off the point.

I was simply going to ask the Minister to ensure that the scourge of low pay is tackled as far as possible under the Chancellor’s arrangements to ensure that the wage levels are at least enforced. As we have heard from the hon. Member for Redcar, that is not even currently the case.

It is clear that there are urgent concerns about care homes, which must be addressed. I look forward to the Minister’s taking the opportunity to do so. The urgency of the concerns are apparent as care home margins are squeezed by a lack of investment and a failure to deal with the funding of long-term care to an acceptable and sustainable level with local authorities facing even tighter budgets. We should recognise that care services are a vital component of the fabric of the NHS.

What happens in the care sector in England has a direct consequence for the care sector across the UK. Caring for our older population and caring for our carers is an issue of social justice. Of course there is a price tag and a cost for supporting older people, but politics is about choices and the challenges of our ageing population will only increase. We must make the choice to treat them with dignity, and to support carers and our older population as much as we can. We cannot afford not to.

It is a pleasure to speak in a debate with you as the Chair, Mrs Main. I think it is the first time for me, although others have a different experience. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) on securing this important debate. As well as his speech, there have been speeches and interventions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan), my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Redcar (Anna Turley), the hon. Members for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) and for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), and the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson).

The care home sector in England is in crisis. A toxic combination of a chronic lack of funding plus rising demand and increased costs means that care providers are facing an extremely difficult time. I will go on to say more but we heard a great deal about that during the debate. The social care settlement announced in the autumn statement does little to provide the additional resources that the care home sector needs. As I said in Health questions last week, the Government’s funding proposals for social care are risky, uncertain and late. They are risky because the better care funding is back-loaded. It does not reach £1.5 billion until 2019. Indeed, it offers nothing this year and only £100 million next year.

Funding from the social care precept is uncertain. It can only raise £1.6 billion if every single council decides to raise council tax by the maximum amount and that is by no means certain. Only about half of councils chose to increase council tax this year. Despite social care pressures, it is unlikely that all councils will want to implement an unpopular tax increase at this time. Both sources combined are late, because they do not help this year and they only reach £3.5 billion in 2019-20. Council leaders—including, I think, a council leader in Essex—wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to move some of the funding forward.

In a joint review of the spending review undertaken by the King’s Fund, the Health Foundation and the Nuffield Trust, the total funding gap for social care is found to be between £2.8 billion and £3.5 billion by the end of this Parliament. We need to make it a goal to close that gap. The three organisations conclude:

“Public spending on social care as a proportion of GDP will fall back to around 0.9 per cent by 2019/20, despite the ageing population and rising demand for services. This will leave thousands more older and disabled people without access to services.”

I suspect that it is probably hundreds of thousands, not just thousands.

The plans for the social care precept are seen as unfair due to the wide variations in the revenue that local councils can raise from their council tax base. Deprived areas can have the highest need for publicly-funded social care, yet councils in those areas are less able to raise significant additional revenue from council tax.

Let me give the example of my local authority in Salford. The adult social care budget is now £61 million. It has had to be cut by £15 million since 2010 due to cuts in the central Government grant, and 2% of our council tax—the maximum we could raise if everyone paid and, of course, they do not—is £1.6 million a year so that does not close the gap. Ministers have failed to explain how the social care precept can be implemented in a fair way that addresses the differences in need across the country. That is important.

The care sector responded to the spending review by saying:

“We believe the package put forward for social care will not enable us to fill the current gap in funding, cover additional costs associated with the introduction of the National Living Wage, nor fully meet…growth in demand due to our ageing population… the settlement is not sufficient, not targeted at the right geographies and will not come soon enough to resolve the care funding crisis.”

That is absolutely clear, and it is the sector itself saying that.

The social care funding crisis is most apparent in the care homes sector. In his opening speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Hove gave a useful analysis of the differences between large and small providers, but I will focus on what could happen with the biggest care home operator. Four Seasons owns some 470 homes and cares for 20,000 residents, mainly older people. It has been reported that, in the third quarter of 2015, Four Seasons lost more than £25 million before tax, and the rating agency Standard & Poor’s has warned that Four Seasons could run out of money in as little as six months. Squeezed local authority fees and the cost of temporary nursing staff are cited by the company as the reason for its financial difficulty, and we know from this debate that those pressures are only going to rise.

The so-called national living wage will be introduced in April 2016, and we have just heard the views of the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran, the Scottish National party spokesperson, on that. Perhaps the key thing, whatever we think of the level of the national living wage, and it probably is not enough, is that the Government have so far provided no assistance to help care home providers or local authorities to address the increasing costs caused by their own policy, welcome though it is, because increasing the pay of staff working in the care sector is vital—I think we all agree on that.

Before the spending review, a sector-wide group of charities, organisations and providers wrote to the Chancellor expressing concerns about the funding gap in social care. They said that a £2.9 billion social care funding gap would have these results:

“Up to 50% of the care home market will become financially unviable and care homes will start to close their doors. 74% of homecare providers who work with local councils, have said that they will have to reduce the amount of publicly-funded care they provide.”

Care homes are already finding it difficult to provide quality care, as we have heard. The CQC’s 2015 report recognised that, of course, adult social care providers face challenging times, but it raised concerns, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hove did, that nursing homes provide a poorer quality of care than other adult social care services. Indeed, just under half of nursing homes rated up to 31 May 2015 were rated good or outstanding, and one in 10 were rated inadequate. That trend is likely to continue unless the funding gap is addressed.

We have heard about the ResPublica report released in November, which projected a funding gap of more than £1 billion for older people’s residential care alone by 2020-21. My hon. Friend referred to that, and it could result in a loss of some 37,000 beds, which would be greater in scale than the collapse of Southern Cross. A loss of beds on that scale would have significant costs for individuals, families and the NHS. If all the residents of lost beds in care homes included in the report were to flow through to hospitals, the annual cost to the NHS is put by the report at £3 billion.

There has been excellent coverage in this debate of the postcode lottery that exists in certain regions of the UK. Of course, care homes in certain regions are much more likely to be subject to significant financial pressures. A market insight report by LaingBuisson found that the proportion of self-funders varies dramatically between regions, and we have already heard some examples. In 2014, in the north-west, only 18% of residents were self-funders, compared with 54% of residents in the south-east. That contrast has already been drawn out by my hon. Friends. Those differences have significant implications for the financial viability of care homes in regions with higher levels of local authority-funded residents.

It is no surprise that the Government’s policies have failed to attract investment in state-funded social care, and it has not happened on its own; but many providers have been forced to attract private funders to maintain their profitability, and LaingBuisson concluded:

“Prospective new care home developments for state-funded clientele…struggle to meet investment criteria because of inadequate fee levels on offer from local authorities in most areas of the country”.

That is a serious point.

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle raised the issue of migrants working in nursing in the care sector, but there is a further issue with recruitment to which my hon. Friend the Member for York Central referred. Independent Age and the International Longevity Centre produced a report called “Moved to Care,” which raised that issue:

“Migrants and particularly non-EU migrants play a big role in the care workforce. Nearly 1 in…5 care workers was born outside of the UK”.

The report states that one in seven care workers—more than 191,000 people—is a non-EU migrant. The care sector has a vacancy rate of nearly 5%. That is the recruitment problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Hove talked about. Given those statistics, the serious thing is that care workers do not appear on the shortage occupation list, so a fall in net migration could have a serious impact on the care sector. As the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle asked—this is in addition to what I was going to ask today—would it be viable for skilled care workers, including senior care workers, to be included on the tier 2 shortage occupation list, as are nurses?

Good quality, affordable care in old age is a basic right, but the current pressures that care providers and local authorities face mean that there is a risk that good care will become the preserve of the wealthy. Julia Unwin, the chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has said that the effects of reduced home care capacity would be “devastating.” She said that,

“care homes are already under financial pressure.”

We have heard ample examples of that. She continued,

“if proper funding is not provided…with these additional costs, the Government risks creating a two-tier care home system where good care is only available to those who can pay for it.”

Ministers must do more to ensure that the most vulnerable people in our society start to receive the good-quality care that they need.

A sustainable financial settlement is needed, but the Government’s policies are ineffective and are failing to take account of differing needs across the country. We had an opportunity for a settlement with the Dilnot reforms, but chronic underfunding has led to long delays in implementation. Will the Minister reiterate his support for the implementation of the Dilnot reforms? After all, page 65 of the Conservative manifesto—that was not very long ago—stated that that is what the party would do.

Whatever we do about the cap on care costs, we must first address the deepening funding crisis. A first step would be for the Government to admit that the plans announced in the spending review do not address the funding crisis that has been so amply referred to in this debate. What steps will be taken to protect services from collapse? That is the priority. Without a radical change in policy, care homes will be unable to offer the services needed to ensure what almost everybody in this room would want—that every older person has the care they need and the dignity and respect that they deserve.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) on securing the debate and thank him for introducing it courteously and knowledgeably. He is a valuable addition to the House, as indeed are a number of the new Members who have spoken. This is another example of a debate where the House’s knowledge and passion is conveyed in an entirely reasonable but challenging manner. I do not think this is the only debate we will have on this subject, so we will return to a number of issues.

I thank colleagues for their contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) spoke about the quality care provided in our care homes, and it is important not to lose sight of that. The right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) spoke about costs—we will come back to that—and workforce issues. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) spoke about the need to ensure that local authorities in poorer areas are covered, and I will speak about that. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke about choices, and I will come back to her on that in a moment.

The hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) spoke knowledgeably about workforce issues. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson)—we wish her mother-in-law well in the home where she is situated—gave more examples of what is happening in Scotland. I am always keen to see whether we can find anything that can be extrapolated from what is done up there. The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) spoke with her usual eloquence and from her strong background in the subject. Again, we will be covering a number of these issues over quite some time, and it cannot be completed today. I thank colleagues from all parties who made interventions.

I will not be able to respond to every point in 10 minutes. I will talk about quality and care issues, the spending issue and contingency—what to do if there is a problem. I think those are the three biggest things. That does not mean that I am uninterested in integration and winter pressures, which we believe we are working through and tackling. I will not talk much about the workforce, but I entirely agree that we should value the workforce at all levels and provide a decent career path. I agree entirely with the view that everyone has to be valued in a way that has not really been the case in social care up to now.

There are a number of other issues that I will just not be able to touch on. If there were specific questions directed at me and I do not cover them, I will go through them and write to the appropriate Member.

In general, we all start from a common position on the importance of this issue and the context in which it is set: an ageing population; people living longer with multiple long-term conditions; and many of our care workers working with dedication, both in homes small and large and in domiciliary care. I praise Chris Ryan of Bedford, who does much the same job as the gentleman the hon. Member for Hove mentioned in looking after a smaller home. It is a family business with a great sense of care and compassion, and I see those things in many homes.

May I start with a few words about quality? I am conscious of time, and I will try to keep my remarks on the three main issues that I want to cover quite short. In a way, we cannot win with the inspection regime. If inspection is done thoroughly and reveals things that need to be changed and improved, I can be lambasted for things that are inadequate. On the other hand, if we do not have a regime that turns up the things that need to be changed, then we are missing things.

The tougher inspection regime and the work that the Care Quality Commission is doing are good for us all. The bulk of homes—60% of the homes inspected, and a third of all homes have been inspected—have been rated “good” or “outstanding”. The CQC started with some local knowledge and wanted to go to the most difficult homes first. When it goes back to them it sees improvement, because the job of inspecting is not just about closing people down; it is also about seeing what improvement needs to be made.

In many cases, care is not about resource per se. I will never stand here as Minister and say that money and resource do not matter, but I will always say that making sure there is good-quality care is about many other things as well. There is tremendous variability of provision. There are people who handle the same resource in very different ways, and some are poorer at it than others. Quality of management, quality of leadership and in particular the use of registered managers in homes are all important issues, and there is much that can be learned through the inspection regime.

It is important for us to set out the five key questions, so that we remember what the regime is intended do. These questions are asked of each service that is inspected: is it safe, is it caring, is it effective, is it responsive, and is it well led? All inspections deliver a rating for the answers to each of those five key questions, on a scale that ranges from “inadequate” to “requires improvement” to “good” and “outstanding”. It is right that we do that, and I am not afraid of the answers that have been produced.

However, I want to go slightly beyond that process. I am never content to rest on what the inspection regime is bringing forward; I listen to other voices as well. Although I do not respond to all the tweets I receive, I read them all, and I am in contact with some of those who represent families and with those who have uncovered things and who do not feel that the inspection regime is doing its job. I say to them that we can do more, and I am listening carefully. I want to use the experiences of those who have been through poor circumstances to see whether we can make any changes that will make such circumstances less likely. There will never be nil bad circumstances, although there should be, but we must do all we can, and I am listening carefully to some less heard voices to try to ensure that that is the case.

I will speak about spending, which I know is at the heart of this debate, before I cover contingency. The hon. Member for York Central spoke about choices. I will not labour this point, but it needs to be said, because it is at the heart of all we do—yes, there are choices to be made. In a different context, I hear much talk about “mandate” from Opposition Members. The Government also have a mandate, and it is a difficult one. It is to try to ensure that our spending on public services matches the needs of the population and also looks after the future, ensuring that we are not running a continuous debt and running into more debt. It is a difficult choice, and we put it to the people and they gave their answer. We are working with that mandate.

The hon. Lady also said that how a society treats its old people is a measure of the quality of that society. That is quite true, as it is of our treatment of our children, those with mental health issues and our prisoners. It is also true of how we treat the future and what we leave for the future. That is why this Government, like every previous Government who have had to make difficult choices, including Labour Governments, have never been able to spend as much money as some would have wished. That is at the heart of this debate as well. We will do what we can with what we have got, and I will explain how we will do it, but that is the difficult choice that we have to make, and the hon. Lady does not have to do so yet. All I will say is that I will explain what we are trying to do in making that choice.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and for letting us know that he reads all the tweets he receives, because that has opened up another avenue for communicating with him; he may well regret that, even by the end of today.

Part of the Minister’s mandate is to reduce spending—we understand that—and part of his mandate is to spend money better, which is an issue that has come up time and time again in this debate. There was cross-party support for an independent evaluation of the better care fund and how it applies to the care home industry. May I specifically ask him whether he will support the call for that evaluation, which came from Government Members as well as from Labour Members?

We are constantly evaluating the better care fund. We work on it with local authorities on a regular basis, and with the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, so it is constantly being evaluated. I do not know whether something else would add to that process.

I have made the point about choices to the Chancellor in the past. Perhaps the Minister has not got the Chancellor on side yet; I hope that he will do so. However, the inheritance tax giveaway that this Government have enacted will cost £1 billion by 2020. How far would that £1 billion go in social care? A long way.

We could all pick items of Government spending that we do not particularly fancy and say, “Oh, if only it was applied to this, it would be great.” Every single Government and every single Chancellor have faced the same argument. We are where we are. We have made choices about a whole variety of things, and we have a range of obligations to deliver to the public. In this particular instance, however, I want to talk about what we are spending and what is new. I will do so briefly, but I must cover that.

The Government are giving local authorities access to up to £3.5 billion of new support for social care in 2019-20. We believe that the precept could raise up to £2 billion a year, and with that money and the £1.5 billion that was included in the spending review, we believe that by 2019-20 there will be the opportunity for a real-terms increase in spending on social care.

I just want the Minister to say how councils such as the Essex council that wrote to the Prime Minister will manage until 2019.

I will give two responses to that and talk about the equalisation of funding. First, we are working closely with local authorities and with ADASS. I do not pretend in any way that the situation will not be tough for the next couple of years; it will be. However, we believe the resource is there. Secondly, the social care precept will come in this year, and that money will be made available more quickly. It will be difficult and it will be tight, but a lot of changes are being made and a lot of work is being done to ensure that services are more efficient. Those things are going on all the time.

I want to address the problem that was raised about the precept and explain how it will be used to ensure that local authorities do not miss out. The Department for Communities and Local Government published for consultation a provisional local government finance settlement in December. Recognising that local authorities have varying capacity to raise council tax, it is proposed that the additional funding for the better care fund that will be available from 2017 should be allocated using a methodology that provides greater funding to authorities that benefit less than others from additional council tax flexibility for social care. That will include consideration of the main resources available to local authorities, including council tax and business rates.

No, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me; I have 90 seconds left.

That is how there will be some degree of equalisation, to respond to the point made by the hon. Member for Rochdale. More money is being spent, and there is an equalisation process.

I will speak about contingency plans briefly. Local authorities now have a responsibility, through the Care Act 2014, to monitor the care providers in their area for any early warning of difficulties. In total, 44 care providers are included. Local councils are also under a duty to provide contingency plans for what would happen if there was a failure of provision, and 95% of local authority areas are currently covered by such contingency plans. Of course, I am looking for answers from the other 5% to ensure that coverage is there. If there is a failure of provision, local authorities have a responsibility to step in, and we are addressing the situation to ensure that contingency provision is in place.

We believe that we have put in money that will assist the system and provide the care that is needed. With local authorities, we are constantly looking at what can be done to make things more efficient. We want to ensure that money is spent properly. That is why the social care precept is there; it can only be spent on social care. I have mentioned the position of councils that might be in particular difficulties over that issue, and over time, we will see whether that provision is sufficient. The Government and I will keep this issue under constant review, and we will talk about it again—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Dartford Crossing: Congestion

[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered congestion at the Dartford Crossing.

It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I am pleased to secure this debate on an issue that has dominated road transport in the south-east and beyond: the congestion so often found at the Dartford crossing. Local people have in their thousands signed a petition relating to the issue, and that has prompted a response from the Government. I do not believe, however, that it is right to wait for the number of signatories to reach the 100,000 trigger point for a debate in the House, so I am pleased to have secured a debate today.

The tunnels have caused problems in the area for pretty much all my life. It is fair to say that there was a period of respite when the bridge was built, but that was back in 1991, and the problems have grown ever since. In Dartford, we believed that there would be further respite when the tollbooths were finally removed but, alas, that has not been the case. Today we have congestion like I have never known before.

Quite simply, the approach to the Dartford crossing is Britain’s worst stretch of road. I challenge the Roads Minister to name one stretch of road in the UK that is worse than the Dartford crossing approach. It will be interesting to see whether he can come up with a single road in the whole United Kingdom that can compare. The congestion has a huge impact on local residents. Children cannot be picked up from school and people cannot get to work or home from work. People say to me that often it is like being a prisoner in their own home. Businesses are also affected, particularly those on Crossways Boulevard. If the congestion continues, it will ultimately cost Dartford hundreds of jobs.

We have a growing economy. London and the south-east are envied around the world for their wealth creation. The south-east provides not just thousands but millions of new jobs. It is very much the financial engine of the country, but the whole area is held back by Britain’s worst stretch of road. It is pointless to have a financial engine if the tyres are punctured. As the Prime Minister said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson), we cannot secure inward investment for Kent unless we have a modern road system. That applies as much to the A249, which my hon. Friend asked about in Prime Minister’s questions, as it does to the Dartford crossing.

The congestion is not only a transport issue; it also leads to pollution. The pollution created at the Dartford crossing is nothing short of a national disgrace. It is both noise pollution and air pollution. According to Public Health England, a staggering 6.7% of the deaths in Dartford are at least partly attributable to long-term exposure to human-caused particle air pollution. In other words, more people die from air pollution in Dartford than anywhere else in Kent or Essex. The figure is the second highest in the whole south-east, behind only Slough, which is of course home to Heathrow airport. The worst area in the east of the country is Thurrock, and we know where the Dartford crossing links up to. Why should the people of Dartford be subjected to such high levels of pollution? Why should the health of people in Dartford be put at risk by the road scheme?

The congestion at the Dartford crossing will be properly dealt with only when we have another crossing in the lower Thames area. In my opinion, that crossing should be located away from Dartford and east of Gravesend if it is to provide a proper alternative for the motorist. I shudder to think of the problems that will be caused if another crossing was to be built at Dartford.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and echo some of his comments, particularly on air pollution in Thurrock. I am privileged to represent parts of that area. He talks about an additional crossing east of the existing crossing. Does he agree that both options A and C answer a question that was posed 10 years ago? We should broaden the debate and potentially look further east, and west into London, to resolve the issues.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I pay tribute to his campaigning on behalf of his constituents on transport links in Basildon and Thurrock. As I understand it, the Mayor of London continues to assess the alternatives to the Blackwall tunnel, and that work is ongoing.

With the Dartford crossing, I argue that options D, E and F have been assessed previously and have been properly looked at. We are left with options A and C. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) is a vociferous opponent of any crossing east of Gravesend. I disagree with that stance; I believe that there needs to be that alternative for the motorist, but we need a decision. We need something to be built as soon as possible, because the current situation is completely untenable.

Would my hon. Friend accept that any crossing east of the Dartford crossing would have to take account of the existing problems on the M2 and the A2?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I would add the M20. It has been years—I cannot remember it happening in my lifetime—since we have seen any major improvements on the M20, A20, M2 or A2. It is high time that we had some road improvements in the county of Kent. We have increasing levels of traffic coming from the port at Dover through to the east of England and round to ports such as Harwich. Kent is being used as a thoroughfare. There are too many pinch points and too many roads that simply cannot cope with the amount of traffic that we have. A garden city is being built in my constituency. We have population growth throughout the county, which in many ways is welcome, but we must have the infrastructure to match that, and a crucial part of that infrastructure is investment in our road network, because the local roads simply cannot cope with the demands of the levels of traffic.

On whether there should be a crossing at Gravesham or Dartford, my argument is that another crossing at Dartford would give us years of roadworks. As a consequence, we would have more traffic squeezed into what is already a pinch point. It would be nothing short of a disaster for the town.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. It strikes me that we need to fix the appalling problem at Dartford—I was not aware of the awful statistics he mentioned on respiratory illnesses—but is not the answer, therefore, to fix the problem at Dartford, rather than unnecessarily create a whole range of problems for 20,000 people to the east of Gravesend?

My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham and I disagree on this. Understandably, he wants a crossing, but not in his constituency, and I fully understand the reasons why. My argument is that if we had another crossing east of Gravesend, we would see far less of the stationary traffic that creates the most pollution. It is estimated that 30% of the traffic currently using the Dartford crossing would move east of Gravesham, where there would be another crossing, giving not only relief to Dartford but an alternative for the motorist. If we insist on having just one crossing point at Dartford, no matter how wide we make it, it puts so much pressure on the roads in the area that they will not be able to cope. One single problem on the M25 at Dartford can cause mayhem in the area. We need an alternative. Unless we have that alternative, there will always be problems at Dartford.

Does my hon. Friend not agree that the reason for the northbound back-up is that we have a tunnel bore? According to Highways Agency staff, the problem is caused by dangerous goods vehicles backing up. It takes seven minutes to reverse one. Should he not concentrate on fixing the problems at Dartford, rather than creating problems for people living elsewhere?

The existing tunnels were designed for roughly 140,000 vehicles a day, and anything up to 170,000 vehicles currently use them. Inevitably, according to the laws of physics, there will be congestion at certain times going through the existing Dartford tunnel. So we have two options. We either build a crossing further away from Dartford to give motorists an alternative, or we put another crossing next to the existing one, putting an increasing amount of pressure on local roads that cannot cope at the moment. If we put more traffic there, even after the roadworks are finished we will have even more problems.

That is the point. If my hon. Friend wants to protect his constituents from respiratory problems, he has to have a way of stopping those great build-ups at Dartford. Of course the multi-billion-pound answer is to build another crossing, but another bridge at Dartford going northbound will help his constituents much more quickly.

Even if we had 100 crossings at Dartford, we would still rely on a small geographical area that would inevitably be a pinch point. The only solution is to have another crossing east of Gravesham. I struggle to think of organisations outside of Gravesham that believe Dartford is the best location for another crossing. The organisations I have spoken to—outside of Gravesham—agree that there should be a crossing elsewhere and an alternative for the motorist. That is the way forward and it is the only way in which we will see real relief from the problems we have today.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and being so generous with his time. Does he accept that the danger with his approach of championing a crossing east of the current crossing is that we will still experience air pollution at the existing crossing and create a new area of air pollution to the east potentially coming into my constituency? Because both options A and C land in Thurrock, we will end up with pollution both in the west and the east of the borough. Would it not be better to move some of this to a wider extent and not concentrate it in south Essex?

My argument is that if all the traffic uses one area, it inevitably leads to traffic hold-ups and increased pollution. The best way of dealing with pollution in an area is to relieve the congestion. The only way to properly relieve congestion in north Kent is to have another crossing away from Dartford—east of Gravesend —that gives motorists an alternative and ensures there is less chance than we have now of the horrific jams that we so regularly see in that area.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate today. My constituents complain continuously about the tunnel and congestion. They also think the charges are a tax on local businesses in the south-east. Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever option is put forward, we need a real strategic view and a project that suits north Kent’s development over the next 20 years and meets our needs? We are an important part of the UK and any project must be suitable for the future—not just for now—and not simply solve a problem in the short term.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. That is why option C ensures that the vehicles using the M20 are able to access the Thames. We must take into account the growth in population in the area. I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Lady has put in for her constituency. I know that the problems with the Dartford crossing affect her constituents, a number of whom have contacted me. I pay tribute to the work that she has put in on their behalf to help alleviate some of the problems that they have had, particularly using the Dart Charge system.

I need to make progress; I am aware that the Minister will have limited time to respond. I will focus on the small part of Dartford where a lot of the problems are caused—the roundabouts at junction 1A and the Bluestar roundabout at junction 1B. These need a major overhaul and greater enforcement of the vehicles that block traffic on the roundabouts. Highways England correctly points out that that is an issue for Kent County Council. We therefore look to those organisations together to tackle the issues.

I recently held a round-table summit for all authorities with responsibility for the crossing. Both Kent County Council and Highways England know that the current situation is untenable, and that they need to find a solution. Congestion is also caused at the slip road from Bob Dunn Way, which causes huge problems for the people who live on an estate called The Bridge, which is adjacent to that road. If Kent County Council is unresponsive to requests made by Highways England, it should make that publicly known. Kent County Council must work with Highways England to find a solution to the problems that we currently face.

The new road layout was put in place to facilitate the free-flow system that saw the back of the tollbooths. I still maintain that it was right to remove the tollbooths, but the road layout simply has not worked. The Dart Charge system is riddled with administrative errors and incompetency. Hardly a day goes by—I am sure this is the case for my colleagues in Kent and in Essex—when I am not approached by a motorist who has been wrongly or unfairly given a penalty notice. I do not want any tolls on the crossings in the area, but where they exist motorists have a right to have confidence in the tolling system. The London congestion charge rarely makes a mistake, but the same cannot be said about Sanef, the company that runs the Dart Charge system. Will the Minister look again at withholding payments to Sanef until it can rectify the mistakes it frequently makes?

I anticipate that the Minister will claim, on behalf of Highways England, that journey times have improved since the new road system was put in place. I do not dispute that traffic flow has improved from Essex into Kent. However, it is hard to find anyone in Kent who thinks that journey times the other way round have improved. Highways England claims that journey times northbound have improved by five minutes. However, that calculation is obtained purely by measuring traffic flows for just 1.5 miles before the tunnel entrance, compared with 6.5 miles approaching Kent from Essex. Why the difference between the two? It seems that the figures have been taken to obtain the most favourable outcomes. I hope that this is not simply a case of cherry-picking. Why not measure from the same distance northbound and southbound? Parliamentary answers today show that such figures are not available.

In conclusion, Highways England has accepted that it needs to do more, and I agree. The approach to the Dartford crossing is a hellish, unpredictable nightmare for motorists. The crossing strangles the town of Dartford and causes misery and anger. It damages both the economy and the health of the local area and must be improved as a priority. The road layout needs a major overhaul. Britain’s worst stretch of road needs to be given priority by both Highways England and the Department for Transport. It is essential that everybody who has been stuck in jams at the crossing hears that action will be taken to improve the situation in advance of a new crossing being built.

Before you start, Minister, I apologise for the short time you have to respond. I thought it was important that the local Members had a chance to participate in the debate and get their message across.

Thank you very much, Sir Alan. We need to ensure that local Members’ voices are heard—I have absolutely no problem with that and will rattle through what I have to say. The need to champion the constituencies in the area, recognise the problems and seek answers has come across very strongly.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing this debate on an issue that is incredibly important to him. We have discussed it on previous occasions, and he is a vigorous local champion and continues to highlight the issue. It will be no surprise for him to hear that we agree on many of the issues he has raised. He has played an important role in bringing people together locally, and I hope that, as that work continues, I will be able to offer support, and that we will be able to work together and count on each other’s mutual support as we make progress and develop solutions.

The crossing consists of two bored tunnels for northbound traffic and a bridge for southbound traffic. It was initially built as a tunnel 50 years ago to provide a link between Kent and Essex, and provides the only road-based river crossing east of London. It is a link in the M25, which is used by many to orbit or bypass the capital, as well as a connection to several strategic radial routes. As my hon. Friend said, since it was originally built, the area has seen enormous growth. The M25 has been constructed, as have the Lakeside and Bluewater shopping centres. Traffic levels have increased, including freight, and the crossing provides connections to a host of international gateways in the south-east, including the port of London, the Medway ports, the port of Dover and the channel tunnel.

The incremental upgrades that have been made as growth has occurred have led to a layout ill-suited to the needs of today’s traffic. The crossing is now one of the busiest stretches of road in the country. I cannot say that it is the worst road in the country, because I am afraid to say I have heard that accusation from many colleagues in this place, but I can certainly agree that it is a real problem, so we have to work together to find a solution. The Dartford crossing is hugely busy, with more than 50 million vehicle crossings each year, and it has been operating well above its design capacity for years.

When incidents occur, the consequences for the road network are severe. Delays can take a long time to clear, meaning that road users have to endure unreliable journeys. There are typically more than 300 unplanned lane closures every year. When the crossing closes, users have no choice but to wait it out, use the Blackwall tunnel, or take the long way around the M25, all of which are unacceptable options. Such resilience issues will worsen until we build on the actions we have taken recently and get the planning right for future capacity.

The free-flow system has been mentioned a number of times in the debate. Until recently, the road layout on the south shore of the crossing broadened out to multiple lanes to accommodate toll booths and then merged back into four lanes in each direction. The new arrangements, known as free-flow charging, require remote payment of the Dart Charge. Drivers no longer need to stop to pay at a barrier, and there is no need for multiple lanes to merge back in. The new arrangements have reduced journey times, although I recognise the concerns that my hon. Friend has about the accuracy of the data. I will pass them on to Highways England and ask it to write back. I will then forward the reply to him. The latest data from Highways England show that journeys are now on average a third faster than before the new system was introduced. Those traveling from the north to the south are saving almost 7 minutes, which is a reduction in journey times of around 36%. Less positively, for those traveling from south of the river the journey time saving is around 3 minutes per trip, which is much smaller.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to be a lot more creative if we are to rescue the people of Dartford and prevent the blight on 15,000 homes? We have to think about things such as using the tunnel for local traffic and anticipating the huge future effects of driverless cars. We also need to do pretty straightforward things such as running freight trains—rather than unloading them all at Dover, we should let them run north.

I entirely agree that creative approaches are required. We will need to take a number of approaches, because there is no single, silver-bullet answer to this question. If I have time, I will discuss some of these issues shortly.

After several months of close working, in December, Highways England made proposals to both Kent County Council and Dartford Borough Council to make better use of technology, such as signalling and signs. The proposals have been with Kent County Council for a short period, and a response is due in the next few days. In addition to that partnership, I hope data sharing will help both authorities to agree strategies to help traffic moving between the local network, which is controlled by Kent County Council, and the strategic network, which is run by Highways England. I expect decisions to be made and improvements in place by February. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has supported the initiative through his work to bring all parties to the table, and I hope he will be pleased with the results as it develops.

Highways England is working hard to improve the traffic safety system, which meters traffic if congestion is backed up on the other side of the tunnel to prevent the dangerous build-up of traffic inside the tunnel. Nevertheless, I agree with my hon. Friend that there are still unacceptable levels of congestion at the crossing, caused by the limits to its capacity and driven by the extreme growth in traffic. More needs to be done. That “more” is the development of a lower Thames crossing. From the debate today and the conversations I have had with colleagues, I recognise that a new crossing is not going to be an easy option. There will perhaps be some difficulty in getting everyone aligned behind it, but I have no doubt that we need to get it in place.

The Dartford crossing’s capacity has been exceeded. In July and August 2015, the bridges and tunnels carried 20,000 more crossings a day than they were designed for. Dart Charge is at best a medium-term solution to the capacity challenges. The 2011 national infrastructure plan named a new lower Thames crossing as a top-40 project. Successive Governments have investigated the need for additional crossing capacity in the lower Thames area and where to locate it. The Government are committed to delivering the investment required for a new lower Thames crossing in the next road investment period. Highways England is currently concluding its examination of routes at the two remaining location options: a further crossing near the existing Dartford-Thurrock crossing, or a new link further east to connect the A2/M2 with the A13. There would be many benefits to a new lower Thames crossing, some of which have already been articulated during the course of the debate, but the decision is very important and will affect thousands of people, so it is vital that we get it right.

On the administration of the Dart Charge scheme, Sanef’s performance is of concern to colleagues. I have called Sanef in to meet me at the Department to highlight our concerns. Complaint levels are at their lowest to date, but I will continue to monitor the situation and ensure that the feedback from colleagues present is delivered back to Highways England, Sanef and Kent County Council. Local service providers are working together, and I guarantee my support for finding solutions to make the situation better. I will do all I can to support them and local Members. The situation is very challenging. It is driven by growth and capacity constraints. We can take some short and medium-term measures to improve the situation, but a long-term measure in the form of increased capacity via a new crossing is the only answer that will make a significant difference.

Question put and agreed to.

Hand Hygiene: NHS

I beg to move,

That this House has considered hand hygiene in the NHS.

I am grateful for the chance to raise these concerns. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I secured this debate to highlight some important issues. The germs that cause infections are spread to patients primarily on the hands of healthcare workers, so cleaning hands is the No. 1 way of reducing the spread of infection. Guidelines and rules are already in place, but they are not followed closely enough and the inspection regimes do not do their job and do not produce meaningful data about hand hygiene compliance levels. This serious issue has a dramatic effect on the health of many thousands of patients a year. For many of them, it could be avoided. There is a way of dramatically improving this issue for patients.

The data on this issue are scary. The 2011 prevalence survey showed that 6.4% of hospital patients—one in every 16—contracted an infection while in hospital. Imagine going to a restaurant where one in 16 customers was made ill by the food. No one would go back again; we would not allow it to stay open. But that is what the data showed for our hospitals five years ago. We should not be willing to accept that.

Infections contracted in hospitals affect 300,000 patients every year and cause 5,000 deaths. They have a dramatic impact on those individuals and a significant impact on the NHS, because patients who contract such infections remain in hospital on average two and a half times longer than patients who do not. They spend an average of 11, and a maximum of 25, extra days in hospital at an estimated cost of about £1 billion a year. It is estimated that 30% of such infections can be avoided simply by better applying the existing rules and practices.

The NHS must improve its performance on this fundamental issue. We should not be willing to accept that level of unnecessary infection. I am not saying that such infections are caused by people deliberately not washing their hands enough. They probably do not realise what they are doing, and their behaviour is not corrected. I suspect that most people in the NHS do not realise how many times they should wash their hands when they see a patient and do not know that they are not doing all they can. I am sure most people are extremely keen to do everything they can to fix this problem and prevent such infections. We must look at what more we can do to put systems in place and enforce them. We should give people support, training, peer pressure and peer reviews to ensure it is happening, rather than blame individuals. This issue will become increasingly important as the problem of antimicrobial resistance grows. We cannot rely on antibiotics to fix such infections and tackle the problem, so it is important that we stop the infections in the first place and prevent the situation from getting worse.

I want to talk about the existing hand-washing rules, the systems for monitoring them and why they do not work. I will look at some things that can be done to improve the situation. I hope the Minister will accept that I do not intend these ideas to be controversial or costly; they are ways of enforcing the rules that are already in place and of using the existing systems.

There is a generally accepted international standard for the number of hand-washing moments when nurses and doctors treat patients. It is not controversial; all nurses and doctors are taught it as part of their training. It is an accepted standard in the NHS and most hospitals around the world. I am not asking for a super gold standard for the UK. I do not want to create anything new, different or complicated. That set of moments when hand-washing is needed is accepted by everybody; it is just a question of how many of them are acted upon.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence put in place rules for hospitals to assess compliance with that number of hand-washing moments, so we do not need a new framework or a new duty on hospitals. Hospitals already have a duty to assess how well their staff comply with the rules for the five hand-washing moments when they deal with patients. When the Care Quality Commission audits hospitals, it checks how well those rules are enforced, so the systems are there but they are not working and we are not getting the outcomes we ought to have.

One of the problems is that hospitals check the compliance of their staff mainly through observations carried out by a member of staff on the ward or a member of the team. Normally, a nurse who happens to have half an hour spare one day is asked to review how well her colleagues are performing the five hand-washing moments. If I am doing a job and someone tells me, “Right, today you’re being observed on these criteria,” my performance goes up a bit because I know I am being observed and I do everything I can to comply—far in excess of my normal behaviour.

Another issue is that the staff members conducting the review are not trained in how to do it. They may not be entirely familiar with how many hand-washing moments there are or how many arise in the care of patients, so there is a combination of effects. If the people reviewing their colleagues, perhaps their friends, have not been trained to do so—they are not specialists—and are not fully familiar with the rules, it is not surprising that we do not end up with the most reliable data.

The vast majority of the observations show that the nurses and doctors observed are somewhere in the high 90s for compliance, which means they clean their hands more than 96% of the time, as they are meant to. The problem is that independent assessments carried out by people in a more reliable way suggest that compliance is significantly lower. Those data suggest that the actual compliance levels are somewhere between 18% and 40%. There is a set of rules and a system for checking compliance, but it is producing a dramatic false positive. It suggests that we are in the very high 90s for compliance, when we are nearer 20% compliant. It overstates the results by a factor of nearly five, with the terrible effect that there are more infections than there need to be and patients are suffering.

The NHS and other international health bodies accept that the levels of compliance with the hand-washing rules in the high 90s cannot possibly be right. Everybody knows they are false positives, but they give excessive reassurance to the boards of trusts that their staff are compliant, so further action is not taken. Everybody accepts that there has been progress in recent years in tackling infections, which have been reduced from even higher levels. The measures that were adopted to tackle infections had an effect on clostridium difficile and MRSA, but the problem is that we do not track instances of other infections, so it is hard to get data on how many are being tackled.

There have been various studies to try to assess levels of hand hygiene compliance to see what can be done to improve it. I am grateful to the Deb Group, one of the large employers in my constituency, which has an interest in this issue because it makes hand hygiene gel. It has some innovative ideas about how we can monitor hand hygiene compliance. I am grateful for the information it gave me for this debate. I should be clear that I am not advocating any one solution or product; we need a greater recognition in the NHS that this is an issue, and that there are better ways of assessing compliance. We need to encourage greater compliance.

As for recognition of the issue, Sir Mike Richards, the chief inspector of hospitals at the CQC, has highlighted the inaccuracy of local hand hygiene audits, so one would think that action is required. If we recognise that hand hygiene is important and if we recognise that we are nowhere near as compliant as we ought to be, one would think that many hospital trusts would be taking action to try to improve the situation. Sadly, that is not the case. Trusts have a lot on their plates and there are many issues, financial and others, to deal with, so they may decide that an area with compliance levels in the high 90s is not a stone that they want to turn over. They may fear that some proper audits might lead to the discovery that they are only 25% compliant and thus incur some unnecessary wrath.

However, the experience is that hospitals that take the matter seriously do get positive feedback. The CQC report on Burton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which was in special measures until last year and is not too far from my constituency, highlights its use of a method to count the number of hand hygiene moments and the number of times ward staff were complying with the rules. It received some positive feedback in the letter from the chief inspector of hospitals in the report, which states that the hospital was using

“innovative practice to increase hand hygiene, using the latest technology monitoring the use of alcohol in sanitising gel.”

They were not marked down for having discovered an issue; they were complimented. The report states:

“We saw innovation in practice on ward 11 (male surgical ward) where the infection control nurses had worked with staff to reduce infection control risks and increase hand hygiene. The team implemented technology which counted the use of alcohol sanitising gel and compared it against the target of how often it should be used. This was in response to hand hygiene audits which needed improvement.”

On action that the trust must take to improve, the report states:

“The trust must ensure that ward assurance targets, such as hand hygiene practice and recording of patient observations, is achieved at a consistent level in the emergency department.”

We can see from that that if hospitals take the matter seriously, recognise that they are not as compliant as they ought to be and take action, that helps them in these audits.

The big ask here is what more we can do to ensure that CQC reviews identify that hospitals are perhaps fooling themselves into thinking that they are compliant when they are not. Perhaps asking, “Are you really doing accurate and competent monitoring of whether your staff are complying with the hand hygiene rules? Do you have any independent assurance that that data is accurate or are you just relying on surveys done in an idle half an hour by a member of staff who is not really trained, which can produce false positives?” should be a regular feature of all inspections. Work done over a long period to improve levels of hand hygiene compliance in hospitals has produced data showing that when hospitals improve performance and increase the number of hand hygiene moments, infections decrease at a pretty similar rate to the increase in hand hygiene moments. Data exists in the public domain that shows that that is not just a coincidence. If a hospital can increase compliance, infection rates can come down, improving outcomes for patients and reducing costs to the NHS.

My suggestion is not particularly complicated or expensive. It would not lead to the creation of new rules or new burdens that people have not been trained for. I am simply asking that hospital trusts around the country comply with the rules that are already there and monitor whether their staff are complying with the standards that they have been trained in. The NICE guidelines could be tightened up so that hospitals must not only monitor whether staff are compliant, but do so in a competent, independent and impartial manner and not rely on the occasional untrained observation by members of the same team.

When the CQC goes around hospitals assessing cleanliness and patient safety, we should expect it to check whether competent work has been done. If it has not, it should encourage and instruct hospitals to take the matter seriously. When hospitals show higher than average instances of infections, it should check that they took this issue seriously and that the relatively simple and low-cost measures that can be taken to reduce infection were applied. When hospitals are not doing that, it should be regarded as a serious issue.

There are many things in health that we cannot control or fix or that are incredibly expensive, but what we have here is a set of rules that already exist. It is a simple thing that most people are trained in. By doing everything that we can to comply with it, we could save a lot of money and a lot of patient suffering. There is the potential for real improvement. I hope the Minister will accept that this is a serious situation, and that there is more that NICE and the CQC can do and more that hospital trusts can be expected to do, so that the prevalence of infections in the next report is at the lowest possible level.

As the debate is only an hour long and we have three quarters of an hour remaining, I want to inform Members that I intend to call Back Benchers first, then the Front-Bench Spokespeople and then the Minister. I will call the Back Benchers who stand.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I commend the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) for calling the debate. It is such a simple issue. We are taught from early childhood to wash our hands, and yet somehow it seems to get lost. It seems to have disappeared out of our daily practices. We are failing on one of the easiest ways of addressing so many conditions that are costing this country a huge amount and causing the NHS a terrible problem.

We are told every day whether we should take vitamins or whether we should drink red wine, which is either good for us or destroying our lives, and we are told what superfoods to eat, but a simple, life-changing thing that can be added to the daily routine is washing one’s hands on a regular basis. It is one of those bizarre things that came up during a quiz. The question was, “What is the fastest thing that a human being can do?” and the answer was sneezing. Apparently, a sneeze comes out at 100 mph and can spread across a huge area. Most people catch it in their hands and do not then think to wash them. We all know about washing our hands after going to the bathroom, but we somehow cough and sneeze into our hands and pass diseases on, particularly to those who are vulnerable, in the most frightening of ways.

Globally, poor hand-washing leads to 600,000 deaths a year. Another horrible statistic is that 28% of commuters across the UK have faecal bacteria on their hands. I dread to think who found that out and how they did it, but there we are. It takes just 30 seconds of washing to stop an infection being passed on to someone else and it can make huge difference. In Europe alone, 25,000 people a year die from infections resistant to antibiotics. Resistance to antibiotics is on the global agenda and hand hygiene is a way that we can actually reduce our dependence on antibiotics and prevent common illnesses such as food poisoning.

I want to bring to the Minister’s attention today a deeply concerning condition that sadly not many people seem to know about, but hand-washing really can make a difference to it. CMV, or cytomegalovirus, is a common virus that can infect anyone. Most people will not know they carry it, but if a pregnant woman contracts the virus, she can pass it on to her unborn child with catastrophic results. Almost 1,000 children are affected by the condition every year. CMV can cause miscarriage or stillbirth. Five out of 1,000 babies will die in their first year of life, and two to three babies a day are damaged by CMV, which was identified in 1956 by the same research team that discovered polio, mumps and rubella. There is no vaccine to deal with it, but we can prevent passing it on simply by washing our hands.

CMV is responsible for 25% of childhood hearing loss, as well as for vision loss, physical impairment, ADHD—attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—behavioural and learning difficulties, and cerebral palsy. It is passed on by bodily fluids, mainly saliva and urine, often from small children. It is battled simply by washing hands in soap and water and by getting parents to understand that they must not share food, cutlery or drinks with their children. No parents, I hope, would think of changing a child’s nappy without washing their hands, but how many parents wipe a child’s nose without thinking to use a handwashing sanitiser or washing their hands? Parents should ensure that they wash their hands both before and after feeding a child. Those are simple ways to prevent dramatic changes.

Hand-washing can prevent diarrhoea, vomiting, food poisoning, the norovirus and MRSA. It is a simple way to change infection rates. We could save the NHS huge amounts of money. I am pleased that nurses are very conscious of it, but we almost need to have every patient watching for other people’s visitors and ensuring that they use the antibacterial washers as they enter the ward. The statistic mentioned by the hon. Member for Amber Valley—one in 16 patients acquires an infection—is horrific. That is not something that on the whole doctors have to combat; it is something that every one of us as patients, visitors and fellow citizens should take responsibility for tackling. I am delighted that we have had the opportunity to raise the profile of the issue today.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) for securing the debate and for his support of my campaign on hand hygiene. I also thank the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) who, with the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds), worked with me on a cross-party campaign on hand hygiene. Recently, we got more than 50 MPs to sign up to it. I ask anyone present who has not signed up to join us, please. Hand hygiene is a bit of a personal crusade of mine. We simply cannot ignore the importance of hand hygiene in hospitals and the community. It is the single most effective, yet simple, way to prevent avoidable infections and so reduce the burden on the NHS.

I will talk a bit about my background and why I am such a fierce advocate of hand hygiene. My father, Clifford, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2011; the prognosis was good, but he got fluid on his lungs and he went into hospital for a routine operation. The simple procedure should have taken about 20 minutes, but a junior doctor practised reinserting the lung drain with medical students for two hours. My father subsequently became infected with MRSA. What we saw in the hospital was shocking. One nurse walked in, put antibacterial cream on her hands, put something up my father’s nose and did not wash her hands. Basic things were not happening. I constantly observed a failure to follow basic hygiene procedures, which I mentioned to nurses at the time, but I was ignored and even rebuked. A few months later, in November 2011, he died from MRSA.

Afterwards I got in touch with MRSA Action UK, the charity, and became its regional representative. In Parliament, I set up an all-party group for patient safety for the Patients Association—I commend the Minister, the Secretary of State and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for supporting it. From my conversations with the Secretary of State and other Ministers, I know they are taking hand hygiene seriously and have plans to deal with it.

On areas for improvement, the World Health Organisation has taken a lead in establishing good practice in hand hygiene around the world, although through Dame Sally Davies, our chief medical officer, and the Prime Minister we have put the issue of antimicrobial resistance on to the global agenda. The WHO talks about the five moments for hand hygiene and identifies when medical workers should wash their hands, providing clear guidance that could make a real difference to hand hygiene routines. I commend the work done by everyone at the WHO.

In England, hand hygiene is most frequently monitored through direct observation—a member of the ward staff will take time to observe colleagues and their adherence to the five moments of hand hygiene. Such studies often produce incredibly high rates of compliance, nudging around 80% or 90%. That is because direct observation is ineffective. Only a minimum of 10 moments have to be observed, which on a busy ward is negligible. Furthermore, staff are aware that they are being monitored and will often change their behaviour—I know that from personal experience.

The APPG had an evidence session at which a lady from the Royal College of Nursing was present. I asked her a simple question—whether she had ever disciplined anyone or taken any of her nursing staff to one side to discipline them on lack of hand hygiene. The answer was no. That was in a 20-year career. We need to ensure a place of consequence if hand-washing is not adhered to.

The hon. Member for Amber Valley and I were presented with some startling statistics at a recent meeting with the Deb Group, which kindly sponsored our cross-party Handz campaign. They included registered rates of hand hygiene compliance as low as 20% to 40% in hospitals in which Deb systems were installed. Such figures are common to other companies offering a similar service in the healthcare sector. We cannot ignore the fact that, although the hospital statistics show a high rate of compliance with the five moments, in reality it is not always the case.

We need to implement a new system for proper observation and monitoring, hand in hand—excuse the pun—with proper awareness of the risks of poor hand hygiene. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire has told me a lot about the fantastic work being done in NHS Scotland, educating the public with a proactive campaign of posters and information.

As the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) has suggested, there are simple ways in which to improve hand hygiene. Recently, when visiting a school, I noticed that children were washing their hands to the two verses of “Happy Birthday to You”, which seemed to be going down well and was doing the trick. Does the hon. Lady accept that that is a good way of introducing children to hand hygiene at an early age? It is cost-effective, simple, memorable and starts the hand hygiene routine at a very early age.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. With MRSA Action, the charity that I am involved with, I have been going into schools and we use that technique of singing “Happy Birthday” twice. The Handz campaign with the hon. Members for Central Ayrshire and for Wolverhampton North East is about education in schools and promoting hand hygiene from a young age. It is a year-long campaign running through to October and we are also going to go into care homes—there was a recent Westminster Hall debate on care homes—to emphasise the importance of good hand hygiene with the vulnerable in care homes.

Going back to what I was saying, hospitals in Scotland are covered in reminders for people to wash their hands and about the risks brought on to the ward if they do not. I am sure that the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire will mention this herself, but, in Scottish hospitals, people observe staff members when the staff members do not know they are being observed, which is a much better system than the one we use.

To sum up, we need to do a number of different things to improve hand hygiene compliance. First, we need to improve observation and reporting of hand-hygiene breaches so that we can get real and effective reports on compliance. As I said earlier, we need a place of consequence when that does not happen.

Secondly, we need to make it clearer to patients and staff when a ward is not hitting its compliance targets. NHS staff strive for brilliance and we thank them for their hard work, but we need to ensure that they are aware of areas in which they need to improve.

Thirdly, we need to ensure that people are properly aware of the risks of poor hand hygiene compliance in hospitals and elsewhere. Those achievable aims would make a real difference. The hon. Members for Wolverhampton North East, for Central Ayrshire and I are working hard to increase awareness through the Handz campaign and are planning further events.

Hand hygiene goes beyond people catching infections in hospital. More infections means that more antibiotics are needed for treatment, which leads to antimicrobial resistance, which is a huge global threat. Dame Sally Davies, our chief medical officer, has been an advocate on that issue and supported our campaign.

Hand hygiene is incredibly important. I reiterate my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley for securing the debate, which will make a valuable contribution to discussions on the subject. The UK already leads the fight and it is great to see so many colleagues from the Government and other parties with such great enthusiasm for the subject.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. It was especially nice to hear the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) introduce the debate, and it is good to participate in it. I would like to give some personal knowledge and put forward some viewpoints.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on so succinctly setting the scene for the rest of us to follow. To add a bit of background to the debate, patients in the NHS today have a 6.4% chance of catching an infection in UK hospitals. There are 300,000 healthcare-acquired infections annually, of which 5,000 result in mortality. We cannot ignore the mortality rate—5,000 people dying in our hospitals is 5,000 too many. If the figure was one, that would be one too many. If we can take steps to prevent those deaths, we should do so.

Although our figures are below the European average, many other developed countries perform better, including the United States at 4.5%, Italy at 4.6%, Slovenia at 4.6% and Norway at 5.1%. I know that the Minister will address that in his response, but if the States, Italy, Norway and Slovenia can do it better, I am sure that we can achieve their levels, which would be a two percentage point drop or thereabouts from our current figure.

Not all healthcare-acquired infections are preventable, but it is believed that approximately 30% of them could be avoided by better application of existing knowledge and realistic infection control practices. Hand hygiene is an essential component of that.

I remember when my brother was in an accident. He liked racing motorbikes, but unfortunately 11 years ago he had a very serious accident that resulted in him being in a coma and in intensive care for some 19 weeks, followed by 2 years of rehabilitation. Whenever we visited him in the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast, we all had to wash our hands. He was not able to respond to us at that stage, but his family and other people who knew him wanted to go and see him because of the severity of his injury. The nurse was clear: she said, “You have to wash your hands every time you go to that bed, because the risk of infection for someone in that extreme circumstance is very real.” Every time we left the bed and went outside the ward, we had to wash our hands before we went back to the bed—that was clearly outlined.

To me it was clear: we do that because we want to visit the person in the bed, but we may unwittingly have infections on our hands. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) spoke earlier about sneezing. Unwittingly, we cover our mouth with our hand and then rub our hands. Then we might stick our hands in our pockets and rub them on the pockets. Even when using a hanky, there will still be infection on the hands. That is the point I am trying to make. It is clear that we have to do something.

The infection prevention and control sector claims that basic hand hygiene standards are not being met on many NHS wards. If that is the case, a clear guide needs to be given to those on wards to ensure compliance. The Deb Group claims that although 90% to 100% compliance with hand hygiene standards was reported by UK hospitals—it is easy to say that—the true figures are between 18% and 40%.

As health is a devolved matter, I have asked the Minister responsible for health back home questions on MRSA infections in hospitals, because even though we have few infections, it is clear that something needs to be done. Back home—it is probably the same elsewhere—many would say, “If you’re ill, be careful in hospital, because you have people with open wounds and people whose immune systems are down. If you bring in your colds, flus and coughs, or whatever it may be, that can have an impact.”

Deb also argues that the data collection method is flawed and that direct observation artificially inflates compliance, as nurses observe colleagues meeting the requirements and undertake a tick-box exercise. There needs to be more than that. NICE issues guidance on hand-washing in hospitals and encourages strict hand-washing practices, but it does not include a demand that accurate data be recorded. We want to ensure that that happens. If we record the data, we are making an effort and, if we are doing that, we are washing our hands. There may be some weight to Deb’s concerns, and that should be extremely worrying for all of us.

Good hand hygiene practice in hospitals is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of infection, and we should take action to ensure that more effective records of hand-washing on NHS wards are made in future. That is a simple yet effective way of making our hospitals safer, and with the recent growth in antimicrobial resistance we need to act sooner rather than later to ensure that poor hand hygiene does not further increase the severity of HAIs.

We have had an extensive hand hygiene strategy in Northern Ireland since 2008, and although some problems persist—in all honesty, we cannot stop all infections—we have seen results from simply adopting a thorough hand hygiene regime in our hospitals, with education on the importance and effectiveness of hand hygiene being an essential part of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s regional infection control strategy. Like in Scotland and in some individual trusts, we are taking action to address the issue.

Accurate records are the starting point for addressing the problem. There are many examples across the world, but a recent three-year pilot in a hospital in South Carolina in the United States of America found that once staff were trained in how to use electronic hand monitoring systems, compliance with best practice increased and MRSA rates dropped. That saved the hospital $433,644 from April 2014 to March 2015. There was therefore also a financial advantage, and although that is not the reason to do it, it is an example of what can be done to stop infections and address costs.

As we seek to have a more streamlined and cost-effective NHS, those are the sorts of approaches we need to look into. Indeed, the introduction of such a system at Burton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust drove up hand hygiene compliance by up to 50% in just three months. That is an example from this country, which shows what we can do if we put in the effort.

With 5,000 people dying each year as a result of HAIs, it is clear that action must be taken. With resistance to antimicrobial treatment increasing, we need to get on top of the issue before it is too late. Hand hygiene is the simplest and most effective way to do that, so let us make sure hospitals are doing that right and doing it well.

We now move to the Front-Bench Members, and we have only until 5.30 pm. I therefore ask Members to be succinct. Minister, if it is possible, could you give a minute or so at the end to the Member who moved the motion to allow him to wind up the debate?

Thank you for calling me, Sir Alan, in a debate that sounds simple but is important. The education centre in my hospital in Ayrshire is named after Sir Alexander Fleming, because the man who discovered penicillin was an Ayrshire lad. It may be that people have got complacent and think that the age of infections is done with. In earlier generations, children did wash their hands, but then people got too casual.

In Scotland, we began to be much more fixated on hand-washing in 2001, after some of the evidence about the impact of hospital-associated infections came out. In the early 2000s, our uniforms changed: white coats were banned, tops needed short sleeves and eventually we moved to no ties or jackets. We also began to have more audit in the system. We went through a painful experience between 2006 and 2007: a massive clostridium difficile outbreak in the Vale of Leven hospital in which 163 patients were affected and 34 died. Nicola Sturgeon, our First Minister, was the Cabinet Secretary for Health at the time, and she instantly set up a hospital-acquired infection taskforce when the problem became obvious. The whole approach accelerated.

We have several different organisations that are part of driving hand-washing, but it is about the culture. It is not a question of someone facing the threat of losing their job or being sanctioned; it is about getting people to see hand-washing as part of the rhythm of every contact. There is observation, as has been mentioned, and there are also ward champions. The observation is hidden, so no one knows it is happening. I must say, to my chagrin, that in every single audit of staff, doctors were the worst. That fact was published, to shame doctors by showing that we were the slowest to adopt the right practice. We also observe visitors, and there is alcohol gel as people come into wards. My office was on the ward, and it was easy to see physios, nurses, doctors and visitors interacting with the alcohol gel.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) for setting up the APPG for patient safety, which I am part of, and the Handz campaign. In Scotland, we have the “Happy Birthday” hand-washing campaign, which has been running for some time. We already have that campaign in schools, but it is important to raise the issue.

To verify hand-washing, we have the Healthcare Environment Inspectorate, which turns up without anyone knowing it is coming. Its inspectors are down under the beds and poking around in the mattresses on the trolleys. They are observing staff and, believe me, if there is a dusty corner, they will find it. They also look at surfaces—is there a cracked surface or a rough bit of floor that could be difficult to clean? It is about not only hands but the cleanliness of the entire ward.

My hospital was lucky in that it never outsourced cleaning. We never had companies coming and going. We kept our ward maids. It was their patch, in which they took pride. The supervisor comes along, like your mother-in-law, wearing a white glove, to check exactly what everything looks like. They can be seen under the bed, in among the frame, cleaning every pick of it while chatting to the patient. Those are simple things, but we need to do them, because we are moving into what could be a post-antibiotic era. To think that we could lose something that we started using in 1942 after 80 years is absolutely terrifying, so we need to bring that culture back.

In the NHS, every single trust publishes its infection figures every quarter. The hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) mentioned all infections, and as a surgeon I have to admit that infections happen for all sorts of reasons. The reason why C. diff and MRSA are so important is that their root cause is the poor use—prolonged use—of antibiotics, which causes C. diff, and poor hospital hand hygiene, which causes MRSA.

Trusts’ infection rates are published every month and pinned up on the wards, so that visitors can see them. We also put out the reports of the Healthcare Environment Inspectorate. I have shown a critical report on one of our hospitals to the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood, to show how thorough and challenging the inspection is; there are no holds barred. That is what has to be done. There are also infections out in the community. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) mentioned cytomegalovirus, which, again, can simply be reduced by hand-washing.

We in this place have to realise our part in all of this. We shake hands with hundreds of people. We go and eat our lunch, and I do not see people forming a queue at the ladies or gents to wash their hands. We should all have a bottle of alcohol gel in our bags. I am on the House’s medical panel, and I have put on the agenda that we should have exactly the same dispensers of alcohol gel used in hospitals outside our canteens. We need to set examples, whether that is by visiting local schools or simply by showing all the people we interact with.

The NHS has a responsibility for hand hygiene. We need to change the culture in the NHS, so that if a member of staff is near a patient and touching not only them but their environment, the member of staff washes their hands or uses alcohol gel before their next contact. We in this place also have a role in getting the message out into society.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) on securing this important debate. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on patient safety and has been a passionate advocate on the issue. Indeed, infection prevention was the first subject that the APPG decided to focus on. She referred to the startling answer given by an RCN representative at our first meeting that no nurse, in her experience of some 20 years, had been disciplined for failing to wash their hands. I do not know whether that is because this system is, by its nature, self-policing, but it raises questions about whether the issue is treated with the appropriate importance that we would all agree it should be.

There have been excellent contributions today. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) rightly said that washing hands after coughing and sneezing is such a simple thing to do, yet so many of us fail to do it. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend mentioned the devastating effects that CMV can have, and how easily it can be prevented. There were also excellent comments from the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), who spoke from her personal experience with remarkable candour about which health professionals have the most to do to catch up in this area. She is right: this is all about the culture in which our health professionals work.

During my Christmas break, I spent a Saturday night shadowing an emergency medicine consultant at the Countess of Chester hospital. It was an incredibly busy environment, and the pace was relentless. Despite the extremely challenging circumstances faced by staff, there was a continual focus on hygiene at every stage. Hands, as well as equipment, were constantly cleaned and sanitised before and after every contact with patients. Indeed, I am now something of an expert at cleaning trolleys.

My experience, however, was not an isolated one. The importance of compliance with hand hygiene is something that NHS staff treat with a high level of importance, and it is worth recognising that, despite the difficulties highlighted today, most staff in the NHS do the right thing and do a fantastic job.

Despite the improvements in recent years, the rates of healthcare-acquired infections in England remain stubbornly high, with what can only be described as inadequate checks on compliance with hand hygiene best practice. As the hon. Member for Amber Valley said in his opening remarks, around 300,000 people per year—or, to put it another way, one in 16 people—get an infection while being cared for in the NHS in England. As he rightly pointed out, if that was our experience at a restaurant, we would not consider it acceptable.

As well as the devastating impact on the patients who are immediately affected, those infections have a significant financial impact on the NHS—the most recent reliable estimate derived from the Plowman report puts the figure at £1 billion per year—and lengthen hospital stays.

The growing threat of antimicrobial resistance adds to the seriousness of the matter and the urgent need for the Government to act. Antimicrobial resistance-associated deaths are projected to increase 2,000-fold by 2050. A report by the World Health Organisation states that resistance is very frequent in bacteria isolated in healthcare facilities and that, at present, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are the cause of over half of all surgical site infections.

Given the clear scientific evidence that good hand hygiene by health workers reduces infections, and in particular MRSA, it is clear that hospital workers are on the frontline against this threat. We therefore need more action to bring about improved hand hygiene to avoid problems in future.

Of course, not all hospital-acquired infections are preventable, but it is believed that around 30% could be avoided by better application of existing knowledge and good practice. It is also widely accepted that good hygiene practice in hospitals is the single most effective method of preventing the spread of infections. That was recognised by NICE in early 2014 when it issued a new quality standard, which included six statements designed to reduce infection rates, with the central aim being that all patients should be looked after by healthcare workers who always clean their hands thoroughly, both before and immediately after contact or care.

While those aspirations are laudable, since the publication of NICE’s guidance, the positive progress made in recent years appears to have stalled, and in some cases possibly reversed. The most recent figures I have seen make worrying reading, with C. diff showing no reduction in the past year, the rate of MSSA increasing and the rate of MRSA increasing by a worrying 14%. For all its aspiration, the NICE guidance is seriously flawed, not least because it relies upon monitoring by direct observation by nurses, which not only takes up valuable nursing time but has been found to overstate compliance rates.

The chief inspector of hospitals for the Care Quality Commission, Mike Richards, has drawn attention to the inaccuracy of local hand hygiene audits. The high compliance rates reported by hospitals simply are not supported when we look at the levels of hospital-acquired infections. We have heard that the compliance rate is more likely to be 18% to 40%, rather than the 90% to 100% reported by hospitals. As the hon. Member for Amber Valley set out with great clarity, there are possibly a great number of reasons for such a discrepancy, and there seems to be an element of self-fulfilment about how assessments are carried out. The trials that have been undertaken to ensure that there are more accurate data have also been shown to improve compliance with best practice.

The introduction of electronic monitoring equipment at Burton hospitals NHS foundation trust was found to improve hand hygiene compliance by 50% within three months. I would therefore welcome an expansion in the use of data and electronic monitoring, and I would be grateful if the Minister could set out in his response how he intends to address that. There is clearly a role for the Care Quality Commission. A key element of every inspection needs to be an assurance that proper checks on hand-washing are carried out. The greater use of data would also enable a new era of transparency to be ushered in. Patients should have the right to meaningful information about hand infection control and hygiene.

Another cause of the recent increase in infection rates is the chronic shortage of nurses on many hospital wards and the increased use of agency staff, caused in part by the Government’s decision to slash the number of nurse training places after taking office in 2010, as well as the worrying retention trends. Significantly, when there is a high turnover of staff, it is much more difficult for best practice to be instilled, monitored and ingrained into the culture of a hospital. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will say a little more than he was able to last week at the Dispatch Box about improving the retention rates for nursing staff.

Finally, as well as improving practices within the NHS, we need to improve hand hygiene among the public at large. Studies have shown that, despite awareness about good hand-washing practices being widespread, one in five people do not wash their hands after using the toilet. According to the Royal Society for Public Health, one of the major barriers has been an assumption by people that they do not carry any diseases. However, on average, studies have shown that hands can carry about 3,000 different bacteria, so we also need to explore what more we can do to improve good hand-washing practices among the public. The cross-party Handz campaign, which was launched by the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood, has already done very good work to raise awareness of these issues, and I hope it will provide a catalyst to drive forward improvements both inside and outside the NHS.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) for bringing this important matter to the notice of the House, and I thank hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber for their speeches and contributions.

Hand-washing is an interesting thing, is it not? For the majority of human history, from Pontius Pilate to Lady Macbeth, it was associated with a bad act. Hand-washing was what someone did after they had done something wrong. It was only through the transformation in clinical knowledge in the 19th century that the understanding of hand-washing and its criticality in reducing infection rates became commonplace, but it was a long fight. It is worth remembering that Ignaz Semmelweis, the man who made people understand that washing their hands in obstetric and maternity settings reduced the risk of infection, was so criticised by his colleagues that it drove him to insanity, and eventually to death in an asylum. This was a hard-won victory, and I utterly endorse the wise comments made by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford): perhaps it is because it has become such a commonplace part of our modern understanding of hygiene that we have forgotten its central importance in reducing infection.

My hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) came to the Department of Health a few months ago and sat in on one of the Secretary of State’s Monday morning care meetings to discuss her Handz campaign and the fact that she wanted to set up an all-party parliamentary group on hand hygiene. I know that her personal testimony brought acuity to our understanding of why this is important. It is all too easy to see MRSA, E. coli and C. diff rates plotted on a chart and to forget that, actually, the result of those infections can lead to the tragic and completely unnecessary loss of life. However, even if it does not lead to that, it can often mean a very extended stay in hospital, with serious injury sometimes incurred as a result of infection.

The overall story of infection caused by poor hand-washing has been good over the last decade. Rates of MRSA, MSSA, C. diff and E. coli have all come down— very considerably in some circumstances—but, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), rightly noted, we have plateaued in almost all of those, and worryingly so. In fact, in the case of MRSA, there has been a worrying, albeit slight, increase in rates in hospitals. That has now been consistent enough to constitute a trend.

We have to be clear that, from the Government’s perspective, we are still not entirely sure in each case why the reductions have not continued. To some extent, it is clear that an increasing role is played by community infection and community onset, or expression, of infection. We do not yet have a full understanding of the relationship between community settings and hospitals, and the chief medical officer is working very hard to try and understand it. Therefore, this is a pressing moment, not least because of the problems of antimicrobial resistance, which the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire mentioned, and which is why we have to be particularly vigilant.

Overall, the one thing that will guarantee that we do not make more progress is if I make a central directive from Richmond House and then ensure compliance through a massive, bureaucratic reporting mechanism. The only point on which I differed from anyone in their observations was when the shadow Minister, in his generally very wise comments, talked about the relationship to staff retention. That was because, although general infection control should be part of how teams work, it should be part of the personal, professional responsibility of a clinician, no matter where they work—whether in the community or between hospitals as a bank nurse or clinician—to take infection control very seriously.

How do we improve matters? How do we make sure that, as in so much of the NHS—to copy Bevan’s words, which I do not tire of using—we are “universalising the best” and lifting poor performers, of which there are several, up to the best standards in the country, some of which can be found with our neighbours in Scotland?

I have not worked in a hospital in England, but the poster campaign that the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) referred to involved massive posters that were in the lifts and targeted at visitors, porters, nurses and doctors. The five points of contact were above every sink and in every room. If we are trying to change a culture, I wonder whether the first thing is actually just to try to get the campaign out there among staff and visitors.

I take the hon. Lady’s point, and I agree that we have to re-educate the public that we have not won the battle and that we have to re-engage. I will take her comments to the chief medical officer and talk to her about what more we can do to re-engage the public in the debate on hospital-acquired infections.

My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) has outlined some of the initiatives taken by the Scottish Government and the NHS in Scotland. Despite those measures, hospital-acquired infections in Scotland still cost the NHS £183 million a year. If we managed to reduce those infections by 20%, that would give us a saving of £36 million. A 40% reduction would give us £73 million. Does the Minister agree that there is a huge financial incentive to reducing the infection figures as much as we can, especially in these times of public spending restraint?

The finances follow the far bigger win, which is the benefit to patients and the saving of lives.

One further thing that I will attack quickly is compliance monitoring. It is a very interesting area, and I would encourage local trusts to look at it in detail. The CQC has it as one of its main targets and, in the new inspection round, which will come very soon, it will want to look at the area as a central part of its monitoring.

I thank everyone who joined in the debate. We have raised an important issue, and I thank the Minister for his recognition of its seriousness. We were never asking him to issue a direction from Richmond House. However, we have a set of rules and instructions to trusts that they should be checking this, and I think we want to see those rules enforced—

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).