Wednesday 27 January 2016
[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]
Disabled People: Support
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the changes to funding of support for disabled people.
I thank you, Mr Crausby, for chairing this important debate, and I thank everyone for attending. I also thank all the organisations—especially the Disability Benefits Consortium—that have briefed MPs on today’s debate. [Interruption.] I also thank whoever is phoning.
The debate is important. The disadvantage experienced by disabled people is well evidenced. They are twice as likely as other people to live in poverty. The percentage of working-age disabled people in employment has dropped in recent years. Even in work, disabled people are worse off than non-disabled people. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, disabled men in work face an 11% pay gap, while disabled women face a 22% pay gap.
Disabled people also experience higher routine costs of living. The Scope-facilitated Extra Costs Commission, which began its work in 2014, has set out in detail the hundreds of pounds that many disabled people spend every week as a direct result of living with certain health conditions and impairments. Sadly, Government policies—particularly since 2010—have made things far worse for disabled people and caused them greater difficulty.
As to my personal background on this issue, my mum has schizophrenia, and that contributed to my work choices —I worked for the Disability Rights Commission, the National Centre for Independent Living and Disability Alliance UK among others. The issue is also very relevant to my constituency, because we have a higher incidence of certain mental health conditions, and about 12,500 disabled people—about one in nine of my constituents —live in Bermondsey and Old Southwark, according to the Library. The issue should, however, matter to everyone, because we should facilitate a society in which anyone can contribute, to the maximum of their potential. Sadly, however, that possibility is being undermined.
The debate’s timing is useful. Tomorrow is the last day of the Government’s consultation on the future of personal independence payments. Fears about disabled people losing work as a direct result of the introduction of personal independence payments are beginning to be realised. Over the weekend, the Daily Mirror covered the case of Denise Haddon which is yet another example of a disabled person who uses a Motability vehicle for work, but who could see that vehicle withdrawn, with them being forced out of work as a direct result of Government policy.
Today, colleagues in the House of Lords—certainly, Labour colleagues—will also be pushing amendments on the work-related activity group cuts in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which will affect half a million disabled people. This afternoon, we will have an Opposition day debate on supported housing, in which we will call for an exemption for such housing from housing benefit cuts. This debate is therefore very timely.
The Government have their priorities wrong. They keep coming back to disabled people and undermining support, rather than focusing on areas where there is more potential. Just this week, for example, we saw the Google fiasco, which demonstrates yet again that we are not all in this together and that there is a significant imbalance in whom the Government choose to squeeze more out of.
What is worse, the Government suggest that their measures are about supporting disabled people into work or about providing more support to those who need it most. If they believe that any group of disabled people has definitely benefited more as a direct result of any policy since 2010, I would welcome the Minister providing evidence to back that up.
On work, 53% of working-age disabled people were in work in 2010, but the figure is now under 50%. The Library has pointed out that, of the 320,000 disabled people on employment and support allowance referred to the Work programme since 2011, only 16% got a job. Although 43% of those on Work Choice—a more specialised programme—could be supported into work, which is of benefit, the Government have announced that the two schemes will be merged in 2017. It would be useful to have a stronger indication from the Minister whether we will see a levelling up or a levelling down of the support provided to disabled people. Will we see a return to more specialised, localised support, with smaller suppliers who are better able to provide the dedicated support that many disabled people need? We saw good schemes under things such as the future jobs fund and the working neighbourhoods fund, which were more localised and specialised, but which were unable to compete following the changes introduced in 2010.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that the issue is sometimes ensuring that training makes the right skills available for disabled people? Many disabled people want to get into work, but they are prevented from doing so by the inability to access the very skills they need to get into the workplace.
I completely agree that that training needs to be there. It would be useful to hear from the Minister how whatever new programme is put in place in 2017 will make training and dedicated, specialised support available.
Another thing we have seen is that the number of disability employment advisers, who have specialist knowledge, has dropped by 20% since 2010. There is now less than one adviser per 600 disabled people who are meant to be supported, so we are heading in the wrong direction.
People have been in touch with me about the Access to Work programme. For anyone who is unfamiliar with it, it is a specialised programme that helps disabled people to retain or attain work. The Department for Work and Pensions used to accept—it seems to shy away from accepting this know—that, for every pound spent on Access to Work, about £1.48 was returned through things such as national insurance contributions and income tax. However, fewer disabled people are now supported under Access to Work than in 2009-10—the figure has dropped from just over 37,000 to 36,700. That needs addressing, and it would be welcome if the Minister told us whether there will be more targeted support under Access to Work to increase those numbers.
In 2014, the Government said they were expanding Access to Work to include work placements acquired by the individual disabled person. I have asked questions about that and received no information to show whether the Government are actually delivering on that. In 2011, the Government said that they accepted all the recommendations of the Sayce review, including those on Access to Work. Perhaps we could have an update on how they are taking forward the review’s retention and promotion aspects. In the 2015 spending review, the Government announced that Access to Work funding would support 25,000 additional disabled people by providing IT help, but we have no information on what that means or how it will be rolled out in practice. It would be useful to hear more about that significant target.
The Down’s Syndrome Association has been in touch and has provided briefing for the debate to highlight its WorkFit programme. The association says the programme has supported 75 individuals with Down’s syndrome into work, but that only three have met the stringent eligibility criteria for Access to Work. The association feels that that needs to change, and it is keen to hear from the Minister whether the Government will take forward its recommendations.
I want to raise the issue of assessments and accessible information. I have a constituent called Norma who lives in Walworth. Her daughter, who is about 50, has learning disabilities and a visual impairment, and she is deaf. The DWP has been contacting Norma to press for her daughter to be assessed, and Norma feels that her daughter is being told she should be working, even though she cannot leave her home without support. Norma feels she is under considerable pressure. I will write to the Minister about this specific example after the debate, and I will encourage him to explain why Norma and her daughter feel they are under such pressure from the DWP.
Disabled people have also been in touch with significant concerns about universal credit. Some projections suggest that universal credit will be about 1,000 years in delivery, so perhaps some of the fears are unnecessary, as we will not be here. However, it appears that the Government have scrapped the limited capability for work element before any disabled person has been able to access it, which will leave 116,000 working disabled people £40 a week worse off. Once again, the idea that the Government want to support people into work is undermined by their policies. Citizens Advice has also highlighted in a report that in-work single disabled people will be worse off because of the scrapping of the severe disability premium, which will leave almost 250,000 disabled people worse off by between £28 and £58 a week. The Children’s Society has pointed out that, under universal credit, 100,000 disabled children could also lose £28 a week. I ask the Minister what message that sends to those disabled people.
Employment and support allowance is also a significant concern for many of my constituents, 5,630 of whom receive it. The Government recently announced that a cut of £1.4 billion will affect disabled people in the work-related activity group; that is £30 a week for half a million disabled people. DWP statistics show who those people are. They include a quarter of a million people with learning disabilities, autism or significant mental health problems. Again, I ask the Minister why those specific people were chosen for that measure. What are the Government seeking to achieve by targeting such a disadvantaged and vulnerable group?
An example given to me by Parkinson’s UK shows something of the challenge that disabled people have in accepting that the Government agenda is genuine. In a written answer to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) on Monday, the Minister for Employment revealed that since 2008, when ESA was introduced, 200 people with Parkinson’s in the work-related activity group were assessed and given a medical prognosis by the DWP that they would not be able to return to work for at least two years, or longer. The Department is telling people whom it has assessed as unable to work for two years that they will be receiving £1,500 less per year to get them back into work within that period. I hope that the Minister will comment on that. I hope, too, that he will answer the suggestion raised elsewhere that there will be no change for those already in the work-related activity group. Does that include those whose circumstances change, and those who undergo repeat assessments?
The change to ESA follows previous changes, including the time limiting of some support, which has left 280,000 disabled people with no out-of-work benefit. Some have very low incomes, and it is most unfortunate that the Government have managed to pick that group for an increase in poverty. I would welcome a comment from the Minister about that.
I want briefly to cover sanctions. In its briefing, the Child Poverty Action Group highlighted the fact that some sanctions mean that 100% of a person’s financial support goes. Those sanctions can last up to three years, under the increasingly automated system introduced by the previous Government. [Interruption.] I am glad that some Members find that funny. I find that very strange. Would the hon. Gentleman like to intervene?
No, because I am about to make a speech, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for the offer.
The hon. Gentleman is welcome. Perhaps I will enjoy his contribution as much as he appears to be enjoying mine.
The concern that I have about sanctions is the growing number of disabled people who experience them; 70,000 sanctions have been imposed on ESA claimants between December 2012 and June 2015 alone. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions highlighted the fact that safeguards may not always work effectively. My question for the Minister is: if he believes the system is adequate, how has he responded to the Committee’s recommendations, and when will the Department publish its own findings of a review of sanctions? Furthermore, as sanctions and benefit changes are specifically mentioned in some people’s suicide notes, how does the Department support Jobcentre Plus staff and other agencies in handling suicidal claimants and those who raise the matter of suicide in meetings with Government officials?
Disability living allowance and personal independence payments are a growing concern for many disabled people. In Bermondsey and Old Southwark, 3,600 working-age disabled people will be affected by the abolition of DLA and hundreds more children will be affected as they reach the age of 16. The DWP has revealed that 607,000 disabled people will lose help with the abolition of DLA. That struck me as quite odd, given that a former Minister for Disabled People accused charities of scaremongering, such as when the Disability Action Alliance suggested that half a million disabled people would be affected. Now that the Government have revealed that the figure will be 607,000, perhaps Ministers should apologise to the charities they accused. Instead, the Government attacks charities’ ability to challenge the Government agenda, which is most unfortunate.
The Disability Benefits Consortium, among others, recommended that there should be better trials of the new assessment process. The DWP chose to ignore that advice; then the National Audit Office reported that the early operational performance of PIP was poor, and the Public Accounts Committee suggested that early delivery was
“nothing short of a fiasco”.
What assessment is the Minister making and what monitoring is the Department undertaking of those changes and how they are affecting disabled people’s ability to work, in the context of the stories about Denise Haddon and others? What is the impact of the changes on NHS demand, for example? It would also be useful to have an update on the backlog of PIP assessments. Citizens Advice reported in August that PIP has now overtaken ESA as the most complained-about benefit system.
I want briefly to focus on the bedroom tax. The DWP acknowledges that two out of three people affected by the bedroom tax are disabled people. That is 440,000 disabled people. Assuming that average amount is £14 per week since the introduction of the bedroom tax, by the time it reaches its third birthday at the end of April, it will amount to a disability tax of almost £1 billion. Disabled people are also affected by issues such as the freezing of benefit of uprating. Even for those on ESA, the value of the uprating for the vast majority of their benefits is lower than the rises in their energy bills or transport costs, for example.
On housing, I have been contacted by John, who is pleased about this debate and the one this afternoon. He says that he lives in supported housing, which he relies on to live independently. He says that he has
“lived securely, independently and safely in a social housing wheelchair designated flat provided by Habinteg for 27 years and this is now potentially under threat.”
Many of his neighbours have considerably greater needs and are equally threatened. He finds the threat alone destabilising, let alone what could happen if the changes go through as the Government intend. He believes that the Government’s plans will stem the supply of wheelchair-accessible housing, particularly as there is already a shortfall in the availability of genuinely accessible housing. Has the Minister undertaken any impact assessment of how that specific change will affect the supply of accessible housing over time, given that we have an ageing population and growing demand for wheelchair-accessible homes?
On social care, a recent report from the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Age UK suggested that more than 12,000 blind and partially sighted people over 65 lost access to social care between 2009 and 2013. That is more than a third of those who were previously getting support. The role of the Under-Secretary of State for Disabled People should not just be to act as an apologist for the DWP. It should be cross-Government. I am intrigued to know what monitoring the Minister is undertaking with colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government, or the Department of Health, about where those disabled people go next if they lose social care. For example, is there a rise in demand for NHS services? Reductions in support for disabled people inevitably mean an increase in the demand for informal carers, who, without adequate support, can go on to experience health conditions and impairments of their own. There has been a rise in the number of children providing support for disabled parents and grandparents, which is a risk to their own long-term prospects if they do not receive sufficient support.
The independent living fund is being abolished. Its 18,000 users are very nervous about what happens next. It would be useful to have an indication from the Minister about how the people who lose it will be monitored, to see where they go next, given that the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services estimates that social care has lost £3.5 billion in funding since 2010. Many councils are losing about 28% of their budget but are spending about a third of their entire budget on social care. Councils cannot pick up the loss; they cannot step in and fill that gap.
I am sure that the Minister will want to mention the better care fund. My understanding of that fund is that it will only support new services, so those losing independent living fund support may not qualify for help. Scope, Mencap, Leonard Cheshire Disability and the National Autistic Society have estimated that one in six care users have fallen out of the system since 2008, and a further 36,000 working-age disabled people could lose access under the latest cuts as a result of the autumn statement. Will the Minister comment on what that loss could mean for other Government services?
Not only have social security and social care services been undermined by changes since 2010, but changes to a whole range of services used and needed by disabled people have had a negative impact. For example, there are 3,000 fewer nurses and hundreds fewer doctors in mental healthcare than in 2010. In my borough, we have therefore seen a rise in crisis treatment—that is, a rise in the number of people with mental health problems arriving at A&E, rather than having the right support further upstream.
In education, we have seen changes to the disabled students’ allowance. Randstad provided a briefing for this debate in which it highlights its concerns about both the changes to DSA and the regulatory change to how provision is administered. It quotes its survey of disabled students, which found that almost 28% of disabled students would not have attended university if DSA had not been available. Another third said they were unsure whether they would have attended university. The survey also found that more than three quarters of disabled students said that attending university as a disabled student was more expensive, with 42% saying they were more likely to drop out as a result of losing DSA. Furthermore, 87% of students said they were concerned that not completing their studies would impact on their future employment prospects. Will the Minister try to demonstrate that the Government are taking a long-term approach and looking at what DSA changes might mean in lowering income for disabled people and lowering tax contributions to the Government in the longer term?
Even on legal aid, the Government have acknowledged that changes to funding have the potential to discriminate against disabled people unduly. That is borne out in the case summaries since the changes. In 2011-12, there were 7,676 disability discrimination-related cases. That has fallen to 3,106 cases—less than half—in the last year stats were available. That collapse is not due to discrimination ending, though it would be useful if that were so. The Government’s concern should be that, without disabled people receiving the right support, the Government will not meet their commendable target to cut the employment gap for disabled people.
I suspect that the Minister will mention in his contribution the £50 billion a year spent on disabled people. The Resolution Foundation estimates that disabled people have lost more than £28 billion in support under a range of funding changes since 2010. If the Minister were to use that figure, he would therefore acknowledge that the Government have cut resources by about one third. That is not a record I would trumpet. It would be welcome if that figure were broken down into the different pots of support it covers. My concern is that it includes social care funding, without taking into account the charges that many disabled people pay to use social services, so it is not representative.
I want to conclude with a reference to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities inquiry into the rights of people with disabilities in the UK, which should report next year. Investigations by the committee are confidential, and the process, extent and scope of the inquiry are unknown, but it is widely believed that it will consider policies introduced by the coalition Government since 2010 in relation to welfare and social security benefits and, in particular, their compatibility with articles 19 and 28 of the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which cover their rights to live independently and to enjoy an adequate standard of living.
The UK is the first country in the world to be investigated by the UN in relation to that convention. We have moved from being at the forefront of disability rights, respect and inclusion globally to being the first state in the world under investigation for rolling back disabled people’s rights and undermining their equal citizenship. I simply end by asking the Minister this: can he genuinely be proud of that position for the UK?
I intend to call the three Front-Bench Members starting at 10.30 am. If they could give Mr Coyle an opportunity to sum up briefly at the end, I would appreciate it. I do not intend to impose a time limit, but if Members could self-regulate, that would be best.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on his wide-ranging speech and obvious knowledge of the issues concerned.
I have learned in my time in the House that it is often best not to attack an individual Member before they have stood up to speak, just in case that Member might actually intend to be helpful to the cause. At least the hon. Gentleman has saved me that dilemma, in a sense. I learned another lesson today, which is never to have stray thoughts during any parliamentary debate. I was not expecting to be here today—I was due to have a meeting at 10 o’clock, which got cancelled. I had an ironic thought about why it had been cancelled and the chance that I happened to be here, but if the hon. Gentleman in any way took offence at me making an audible noise, I apologise.
Since the hon. Gentleman thought I was referring to sanctions, let us talk about that for a few minutes. Sanctions are a particular concern in my constituency. I was fortunate to serve with the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, where we looked into sanctions. Indeed, I tabled amendments to our Committee’s report that went beyond anything even the shadow Minister felt able to table.
The hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned suicide notes citing sanctions. I remain a firm supporter of the idea that where there is any question of the benefits system playing a role in any untoward event, there should be a body—similar in scope to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, perhaps—that looks at the individual’s entire journey, from the first day they engaged with any Government Department to the end of their life, to establish what went wrong and where. Often, the fact that people experience a sanction is the end of a process of being poorly served by the benefits system, not the start of a process. I was pleased to see that mentioned in the final report.
I also gently make the point to the hon. Gentleman that much of what the Government brought forward in response to our Committee’s report far exceeded my reasonable expectation. I am sure it did not satisfy the shadow Minister, because she and I rarely agreed in our time on that Committee, but it went beyond what I reasonably expected the Government to deliver, so I welcome that.
The other interesting lesson I have drawn today, in addition to how I should keep a straight face during debates, is what happens when I walk past an annunciator. Walking past an annunciator yesterday, I saw that the short title of today’s debate was, “Support for disabled people,” and I thought, “Gosh! That’s very wide, isn’t it? That could almost cover anything at all.” I see today, however, that the title is actually, “Changes to funding of support for disabled people.”
An interesting observation we can make here is that support can never just be financial. One frustration I have found in my six years in this place is that when we discuss disability, we often start from a financial perspective. Most of the critique is about the amount of money going left, right and centre. I do not dispute for a moment that without a stable financial base of support for disabled people and a well run benefits system giving support to those who need it most, anything else is simply window-dressing. We always need to look at the wider picture of disability: support needs to be about more than just the amount of money we happen to give someone in some way. The Minister’s role has to be far more than administering our benefits system. Indeed, the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark pointed out that the Minister’s role has to be cross-governmental; it cannot just be located within DWP.
The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the Government’s welcome commitment to halve the disability employment gap. I said in this place just over a week ago that the Conservative party was the only party to make that commitment. We get a lot of credit from the various component parts of the Disability Benefits Consortium for making that commitment. They want to see it evidenced in policy, and I accept that entirely. I know how hard the Minister is working on the Disability Confident campaign, which may be nebulous in its concept and hard to measure but is fundamental to changing the nature of the debate. Once again, it is about not only the amount of money that the state gives but the amount of money that individuals themselves can obtain through employment, and the benefits that will flow from that.
We need to take other aspects of funding of support for disabled people into account as well. Given the hon. Gentleman’s professional background before he came into the House, I am sure that he is aware of Scope’s Extra Costs Commission, which reported just before the last election. The commission looked at the issue of the “purple pound”, as we like to call it now, and why we often talk about the poverty premium as a disability premium, too. It is a cost that people face.
Although disability living allowance and the personal independence payment are there to cover extra costs faced by disabled people, very often they cannot cover all of them. Scope rightly tried to look at how we can not only increase PIP, but decrease the extra costs. Why is it so hard for charities to perform collective energy price switching on behalf of many of their members and supporters? Why has there never been a Competition and Markets Authority investigation into why aids and appliances seem to have over-inflated prices, compared with the cost of producing them? The commission produced a thick, voluminous report, full of very challenging ideas, many of which can be taken hold of not only by Government but by the market. The hon. Gentleman talked about the Minister having a more wide-ranging role, and that is the sort of thing I envisage.
The hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to the current controversy over employment and support allowance and the work-related activity group, and I do not disagree that it is a difficult area for Government. His speech was a bit of a Christmas tree of briefings from all the different charities within the DBC, many of which I have met too. They seem to have great unanimity on what the Government are doing wrong, but when it comes to solutions and what we should do instead, I have found great differences in what they are suggesting. Each charity seems to have its own answer about what should be done, even though their analysis appears to have a degree of commonality.
I certainly see a specific problem in my constituency. People may not pass or get the result that they want from their work capability assessment. They may then not accept the judgment and might even reject participation in the ongoing process, but what they do not feel able to do is transition on to jobseeker’s allowance, whereby they might get different, more appropriate levels of help that might get them back into work. They get stuck in a no man’s land, because of the financial jeopardy of losing money as they transition on to jobseeker’s allowance. I accept that removing that financial gap is not the answer for every single person, but it is an honest attempt, in my view, to solve what I see as a real problem in my constituency.
In the longer term, however, I urge the Government to look at ESA as a whole. To me, it is now one of the last in the suite of disability benefits that was conceived when we saw disability mainly as a physical manifestation. Nowadays, we know about the interaction between mental health and physical health, and I think that benefits now—particularly PIP—are doing much more to look at how mental health comes into the picture.
I think that ESA needs more than just tinkering with; it needs substantial reform, because two people with an identical degenerative condition might be at the same stage in their prognosis but might be responding to that undoubtedly terrible news in very different ways. One might have a positive get-up-and-go approach and the other might be totally bowled over by it and unable to cope. Both responses are perfectly legitimate, but they have a major impact on how that person engages in the workplace. The benefit system has to be able to accommodate both those outcomes, without judging them in any way, shape or form. At the moment, I am not convinced that ESA is able to do that. That is why I would argue for a much more fundamental reform. As with other reviews of both WCA and PIP tests, for which we have the annual review, I feel that all we are seeing is more and more people being placed in the support group, almost as a default doctrine. I do not think that would fulfil the Government’s policy objective in the medium term.
I realise that we are trying to keep speeches brief, so I will try to do so. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Access to Work. We are always right to keep pressing the Government about how they are spending Access to Work money, which is a really important pot of money. The fact that there is no cap on it means that I would always argue for more ways to spend it, and he identified a few. I am very keen to see apprenticeships and pre-work situations being brought into the programme’s remit. Many people find, for example, that when they leave university they cannot access the help they need to demonstrate that they can do a job, so that they can get credibility with an employer and get the job offer. Bringing that process to a pre-appointment stage might give employers slightly more confidence that the person they want to employ can be employed and supported in the job. I continue to urge that we do far more to use Access to Work to keep people in work. I know that the Minister is doing more on that issue, but I think more could still be done.
The hon. Gentleman talked about IT. In my understanding, that relates mainly to some of the more mental health-focused interventions that Access to Work is now involved in. There has been, if I recall correctly, a 200% increase in the number of people benefiting from mental health interventions. Given the current levels of demand, I suspect that that needs to be 2,000%, but it is a good start none the less.
Finally, when it comes to financial support for disabled people—if we take that as the title of the debate—there is always room for continuous improvement in the delivery of benefits. I cannot think of a single suite of benefits that the Work and Pensions Committee could look at and not find recommendations on how it could be improved. I live in a constituency that is perhaps a bit similar to the hon. Gentleman’s, with a very high level of transience in the population. Many people do not have addresses that are stable from month to month. The methods of communication are often not suited to those highly vulnerable people, who are often facing addiction challenges of one sort of another. There are always ways of improving how we deliver the benefits necessary to support the most vulnerable, so the Minister’s role will always be about continuous improvement, but it cannot just be about managing a benefit system, because financial support has to come in numerous ways. Part of that financial support is considering what else the Government can do to lower the extra costs across the community—it is not just about how we give people more money to meet those extra costs. Both are important, and we need to give more attention to how we meet some of the extra costs through non-benefit means as well.
My speech was not short enough, but it was an attempt at being short, Mr Crausby.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate with you as our Chair, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing this important debate and on the excellent way in which he opened it.
I want to touch on the impact that the Government’s policies and proposals are having and are likely to have not only on disabled people, but on their family carers. The toxic combination of cuts to local authority budgets and changes to support are having a significant negative impact on disabled people and on their carers. My hon. Friend gave an excellent analysis of many of those impacts.
Social care is widely seen to be in crisis. The most recent survey by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services reported that 400,000 fewer people are receiving social care services than in 2009-10. Of those who are still supported, a significant number are now getting less care. Most directors expect that still fewer people will get access to services over the next two years.
There have been five years of funding reductions, totalling £4.6 billion and representing nearly one third of real-terms net budgets for local authorities. This year, adult social care budgets will reduce by a further half a billion pounds in cash terms. Taking the growth in numbers of older and disabled people into account, an additional £1.1 billion would be needed to provide just the same level of service as last year. Before the Minister tells us that the Government are putting £3.5 billion back into social care in future years, I should tell him that I see the Government’s funding plans for social care as risky, uncertain and late.
Proposed increases to the better care fund are risky, because they are so back-loaded. They do not reach £1.5 billion until 2019, but as I said, demand is growing each year before then and we have already lost £4.6 billion. Funding from the social care precept is uncertain; it can only raise £1.6 billion by 2019-20 if every single council decides to raise council tax by the maximum possible, and they may not do so. However, adult social care is in crisis now and there have been significant cuts since 2010. Local authorities are not helped by Government funding that is too little and that comes too late.
Two months ago, the High Court ruled that the benefit cap unfairly discriminates against disabled people and their carers. I am glad that the Government are finally conforming to the Court’s ruling and exempting full-time carers from the benefit cap. However, other changes to social security are still in the pipeline and are causing serious concern for carers. The Government have announced consultation on the possible devolution of attendance allowance to local authorities in England and Wales. I know that Carers UK is deeply concerned about that announcement.
Attendance allowance is an important source of financial support for older people with care needs. It is a gateway benefit entitling the carer to claim carer’s allowance. Currently 295,000 people receive carer’s allowance or other financial support because they are caring for somebody who is receiving attendance allowance. There are deep concerns that the Government’s proposals will mean further delays and variations in people receiving these essential benefits. Local authorities, such as mine, Salford City Council, are still under severe financial pressure due to budget cuts. Salford has had to cut its budget for adult social care by £15 million since 2010.
Without ring-fencing, it is feared that the funding for attendance allowance will be absorbed into local authority social care budgets and then start to be subject to ongoing cuts. It is unclear whether local authorities will be allowed to change the eligibility criteria and level of payment for attendance allowance. If they are given that flexibility, it could lead to eligible carers losing the right to receive their carer’s allowance.
I am sure we all accept that carers provide the bulk of the social care in this country and save the state billions of pounds. If carers are unable to claim carer’s allowance they may be unable to continue caring and be forced back to work, putting pressure on local NHS and care services. Will the Minister say what steps are planned to ensure that the availability of attendance allowance and the eligibility criteria for it will be protected from local variations? It would be helpful if he told us whether he has assessed how many carers would lose access to carer’s allowance as a result of the proposed changes to personal independence payment eligibility. I will come to that.
The proposals to alter the aids and appliances eligibility criteria for PIP may also mean that fewer disabled people will receive the support they need. Currently, 35% of people who are ill or disabled qualify for PIP solely through the aids and appliances descriptors. As PIP is also a gateway benefit for carer’s allowance, any move to restrict PIP eligibility will have a significant impact for carers. I understand that the evidence base for the proposed reforms to PIP is based on an analysis of only 105 claimants when over 611,000 people are claiming PIP. That seems to be an absurd evidence base. The PIP assessment cannot encompass the complexity and fluctuating nature of many health conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.
The Government’s rushed consultation on the changes will close on 29 January. Disability and carer’s charities have said that all five of the Government’s proposed changes would restrict access to PIP and therefore carer’s allowance. Cutting PIP further is likely to put disabled people and their carers at risk. There are currently more than 7 million carers in the UK and hundreds of thousands of them may be hit by the Government’s proposed changes to support for disabled people. In a submission to the Government, Carers Trust has said:
“Failing to support carers means failing to protect and secure the longevity of our health and social care system.”
Continued underfunding of social care will undermine plans for the NHS and the integration of health and social care. The key point is that it will also damage the health of carers, many of whom—Carers UK reports—are already reaching breaking point.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate, Mr Crausby. It was also a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) setting out clearly what many of us feel about the system that, with great respect, fails the people who need it most. That is what I feel and, in fairness, I believe that it is what everyone in the House feels.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of charities and I will not give a roll-call of them, but they have also contacted me. More than 30, including Mencap, Macmillan Cancer Support, Parkinson’s UK, RNIB, the MS Society UK and Mind, have written to the Minister outlining their deep concerns at the cuts in support for disabled people. This is not the first time we have discussed this matter in Westminster Hall. A debate not long ago was initiated by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard).
A poll by Populus on behalf of charities found that 71% of people think cuts to welfare will make the UK a worse place for disabled people to live. How will the Government address that? The Minister is always gracious in his responses and I know he will provide some answers and information. Just 6% of people thought the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would make the UK a better place for disabled people. In other words, 94% did not think that. Whatever people say about statistics, that cannot be ignored—94% of people are not satisfied or convinced.
We all know there needs to be an effort to make public finances sounder and that we must be careful with the budget for which the House, particularly the Government, is responsible. All Departments are being made to tighten their belts, but it is clear that public opinion sees these latest reforms as an attack on some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I judge society by its attitude to those who are less well off. My duty in the House is to help vulnerable people to manage better and that is also the Government’s responsibility.
Despite great services, such as the Access to Work programme, the proportion of people with a learning disability in paid employment has remained stubbornly low and, according to Mencap, which represents people with learning difficulties, seems immune to economic factors. That is worrying for us all. Indeed, the proportion of learning-disabled people known to social services in paid employment fell from 7% in 2012-13 to 6.8% in 2013-14, so there has been a fall. Perhaps the Minister will give us some idea of how the Government will respond to that and how they will directly address the issue.
The majority of people with a learning disability can and want to work, so let us encourage them and give them the opportunity. The figures are stark when the national employment rate of 76% is compared with an overall disability employment rate of just below 50%. In the Conservative party’s manifesto, the Government pledged to halve the disability employment gap. I am sure the Minister will say how the Government are trying to meet that manifesto commitment. Welcome moves have been made to realise that commitment, but the facts show that more needs to be done and more action needs to be taken.
In Northern Ireland, we have a scheme to help to reduce the disability employment gap. In addition to the Access to Work programme, Workable (NI) is delivered by a range of providers contracted by the Department for Employment and Learning. The matter is devolved. These organisations have extensive experience of meeting the vocational needs of people with disabilities. Using them is a great way of advancing social enterprise and supporting the sector. Sometimes, it is necessary to innovate, to be different and to think outside the box. The Minister is aware of our scheme and what we do, so I respectfully ask whether the Government are considering it for the mainland. If they are, it would be good news. Perhaps the Government will look at how the devolved Administrations are working to assist disabled people into work and at the solutions to the long-term problem that can be shared across the United Kingdom’s institutions of government.
On the face of it, these changes look completely contradictory to the Government’s manifesto promise and are seen not as a genuine attempt to put more disabled people who can work into work, but as an ideologically driven policy. The Minister will give us statistics, which I am keen to hear, but the cuts are at risk of doing the exact opposite of what they are designed to do. Disabled people already find it much harder to get and keep jobs and to access employment compared with non-disabled people. Their chances will be even less if they are unable to pay telephone or broadband bills, or afford smart clothes and transport to interviews or the jobcentre. Those are all necessities for job searching and they will be even harder to afford when the cuts have been made. When someone goes for an interview, presentation is so important. Employers know that, as do MPs who see people who come to us for jobs.
Some £640 million will be saved by 2020-21, but should we really be targeting vulnerable groups to make savings in public finances? It is already hard enough for ESA recipients to survive on £5,300 a year. Expecting new claimants to be more likely to find work on £3,800 is, with respect, nonsensical. In addition to these cuts, Department for Work and Pensions data show that between 2011 and 2015 the number of jobcentres employing a full-time advisor to help disabled people fell by over 60% from 226 to just 90, with reductions in every recorded year.The reduction in jobcentre disability advisers is surely contradictory to the Government’s commitment to reduce the disability employment gap. The effects of those cuts to services need to be closely monitored to ensure that they are not having an adverse effect on the efforts to reduce disability unemployment.
I will conclude, Mr Crausby, because I am conscious of what you said about keeping contributions to seven minutes. The Government need to look again at the proposals and ask whether this is really the right approach to getting more disabled people back into work, especially when such a plethora of stakeholders are making it clear that the proposals will have the opposite effect to what is intended. That is the opinion of those who are at the coalface and know what is happening; they have concerns. We want the number of disabled people in work to increase, but cutting ESA will only make it harder for disabled people who can work, to find work; and ultimately all the savings will be hindered by the increased payment of benefits when disabled people who want to work simply cannot afford to go on the job hunt itself.
It is a great honour to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing the debate. I agree with the sentiment that he expressed in his excellent speech with regard to the UN investigation and I agree with my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party, who, at Prime Minister’s questions on 21 October last year, said that it was very sad that the UK was being investigated by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, judging by the speeches this morning and from disabled people’s accounts of their experiences, it is little surprise that we are in this state.
I am pleased to say that I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group for muscular dystrophy. I would like to highlight how the Government’s reforms have affected people who suffer from muscular dystrophy and other muscle-wasting conditions. It is worth bearing in mind that such conditions are serious and progressive; they range from mild to severe disability and even result in premature death. Nationally, more than 70,000 people are affected. That is one in every 1,000 people in our constituencies.
The charity Muscular Dystrophy UK, which works with and for people with muscle-wasting conditions, has called for the Government to abolish the spare room subsidy, which we all know as the bedroom tax, because of its devastating impact on those who are struggling financially while facing the challenges of living with a long-term disability. For many people in that situation, extra space is essential for vital home adaptations and to store equipment, but only those who have been designated as needing 24-hour care and assistance from an overnight carer from outside the family are exempt. That means that many disabled people, who fall outside the exemption, are forced to pay the bedroom tax even though they need the extra bedroom to store essential equipment because of their condition. For many, finding that extra payment from a limited budget is a cause of great stress in their already challenging existence.
A number of those living with muscle-wasting conditions rely on Motability vehicles so that they can live independently and have a quality of life beyond the confines of their home. However, the Government’s decision to replace the DLA’s 50-metre rule with a 20-metre rule under PIP means that those who do not meet the criteria will not access the enhanced mobility rate and could lose their mobility schemes. Although Motability has devised a scheme offering a lump sum to people who joined prior to PIP being rolled out, it is offering only three “free” weeks to accommodate the mandatory reconsideration and appeal. That means that people will have only a seven-week period to resolve the issue if they feel that they have been inappropriately reassessed, but the reality is that in most cases that will take a lot longer. I ask the Minister what steps the Government will take to support those people whose appeal takes longer than the allocated seven weeks.
Muscular Dystrophy UK has been given many examples showing an alarming lack of knowledge among those carrying out assessments for PIP. For example, one woman, who has a long-term and progressive neuromuscular condition, was told that she might “get better”. Sadly, the organisation has found numerous examples showing that people are being treated with a lack of dignity and respect.
The organisation has also found that there are issues with the provision of employment and support allowance. Those have already been outlined by hon. Members. There seems to be a significant lack of understanding of the nature of neuromuscular conditions when cases involve a refusal to award ESA due to the misconception that with physiotherapy and/or other treatments, the condition can improve; it simply cannot.
Most worrying to Muscular Dystrophy UK is the cut of £30 a week for new claimants in the ESA work-related activity group, as it takes away the support that people with progressive and disabling muscle-wasting conditions need in order to look for and secure work.
The total effect of the cuts will seriously affect the ability of disabled people to live independently and play a part in society. Moreover, the cuts will lead to more pressure on health and social care budgets as those with complex needs deteriorate more rapidly without the correct support. The concerns raised by Muscular Dystrophy UK are based on the real experiences of people with neuromuscular conditions, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark will not mind if I take this opportunity to ask the Minister whether he will meet some of those people and Muscular Dystrophy UK to discuss their concerns in person and in more detail.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on bringing the debate to the House. As he said, it is timely not only because of the debate in the House of Lords later today, but because of yesterday’s developments regarding carer’s allowance. Indeed, as we have been sitting here in the debate this morning, the Court of Appeal has ruled that the bedroom tax is discriminatory. These things all stack up. They show that the Government’s approach to support, including financial support, for disabled people is completely wrong.
I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. She has a very strong track record of standing up for carers.
Disabled people and those with long-term health problems have faced huge upheaval and uncertainty during the past few years as the austerity measures have kicked in. For many, the changes to social security have already left them significantly worse off and living in precarious and reduced circumstances.
A couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to meet some of the disabled people who came to Parliament as part of the lobby organised by the Disability Benefits Consortium. I pay tribute to it and the other organisations that brief us on the real experiences of disabled people. We need to listen to them, because their experience should inform policy far more than it does at the moment.
As I mentioned, we are having this debate on the day when the Lords will vote on aspects of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. There has been speculation that the Government may well face another defeat, on the cuts to employment and support allowance that were mentioned earlier. I moved amendments to the Bill on Report, which I am pleased to say were supported by Opposition parties, that would have removed those changes. They are deeply regressive and punitive on people whose disabilities are so severe that even under the very flawed work capability assessment, they have been found unfit for work.
I would be among the first to acknowledge the shortcomings of the work-related activity group classification. It has not been helpful or effective for anyone, and I echo the wider point made by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) about the ESA process. However, the key point in our debate today is that people placed in the WRAG are people who are not currently fit for work. There is a wealth of evidence that piling financial or moral pressure on people when they are recovering from illness or living with long-term health conditions does not motivate them to get better any faster; it actually makes them more ill. Living in poverty while too unwell to work simply compounds the challenges that sick and disabled people already face and slows their recovery.
We get to the heart of the matter when we look back at the original announcement. Last summer, during his Budget statement, the Chancellor said that ESA was supposed to end what he termed
“some of the perverse incentives in the old incapacity benefit, but instead it has introduced new ones.”—[Official Report, 8 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 333.]
Quite seriously, that is what he said. He seems to think that ESA creates incentives for people to be disabled or sick. It is the Chancellor’s thinking that is perverse, because there is absolutely no incentive for any person to live with the limitations, the pain, the social insecurity and the material disadvantage of disability. If the Chancellor thinks that £102 a week of ESA creates an incentive, he must be wired to the moon.
Research published by the Disability Benefits Consortium for an earlier stage of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill showed that 70% of the disabled people surveyed by the consortium believed that further cuts to ESA would cause their health to suffer. Other hon. Members have alluded to that. The word “further” is most telling, because we need to understand the context of the cut in the work-related activity component. As others have said, it comes on the back of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, which allowed for the transition from disability living allowance to personal independence payment, cutting the budget for support for disabled people by £1.5 billion a year and significantly raising the bar on who can receive support.
Let us not forget that the bedroom tax was also a direct assault on the incomes of disabled people. Even when the legislation was going through Parliament, the DWP’s impact assessment showed that two thirds of the households that would be affected were home to someone with a disability. In Scotland the impact was magnified, and eight of 10 households affected were home to a disabled person. I am glad that the courts have ruled that the policy is discriminatory, as has been said all along and as hon. Members stated repeatedly in the House at the time. When we talk about the latest cuts, we must remember that the people who are being sanctioned are disproportionately affected by disability. We really should not need courts to determine those things when we have the evidence before our eyes.
We must take cognisance of the fact that the new measures come at a time when disabled people are already struggling on reduced incomes—and they are really struggling. The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) laid out in some detail just some of the practical ways in which that manifests itself. The Disability Benefits Consortium research revealed that 57% of respondents had found that the amount of ESA that they currently received did not cover the extra costs of living with disability, and, as a consequence, many experienced difficulties in paying for essentials like food, extra heating and the extra transport costs that they may incur.
I want to touch briefly on the parliamentary review, “Halving The Gap?” led by Lord Low, Baroness Meacher and Baroness Grey-Thompson, which makes valuable recommendations. The report notes that some 500,000 people with physical or learning disabilities, mental health problems or autism are currently assessed as being unfit for work. I want to emphasise that that is the reality. People in the work-related activity group have been assessed as not fit for work, even under the stringent criteria of the work capability assessment, and slashing their incomes by £30 a week is only punitive. It cannot make them better more quickly. It will not incentivise them back to work. It will only make them poorer. For some, it will damage their health. The Government say that they want to halve the disability employment gap, but the policy is still without substance. We are still waiting for a strategy, and I hope that the Minister will bring forward more substantial proposals.
The barriers that disabled people face in accessing and sustaining employment are real, so concrete support through the social security system is vital. Often, it is financial support that people need. The difficulty is the Government’s track record; they have had to be dragged through legal processes to force them to make changes. Last time we debated the matter, I raised the High Court ruling that the DWP had unlawfully discriminated against disabled people on the issue of carers and the benefit cap, as the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) mentioned. Yesterday’s Government U-turn was not announced in a parliamentary statement; it was sneaked out on Twitter. That is an interesting way to do things.
It is sad that it has taken a legal challenge for the Tories to accept the damage that their obsession with austerity, and their willingness to put disabled people on the frontline of austerity cuts, is inflicting on disabled people. Disabled people should not have to fight through the courts for recognition of their rights, and we should not need a High Court judge or a Court of Appeal judge to determine that the benefit cap and the bedroom tax discriminate against those people. I am glad that the Government have been forced into retreat on the matter, but I hope that they will now take far more seriously the disproportionate impact that their cuts are having on disabled people, who are already disadvantaged.
The inquiry by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is a real indictment of the Government’s approach to supporting disabled people. I reiterate the point that the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark made in opening the debate: the UK is the first country to be investigated by the UN in relation to the convention. The Prime Minister has tried to dismiss the investigation by saying that
“when you look at these investigations you find that they are not necessarily all they are originally cracked up to be.”—[Official Report, 21 October 2015; Vol. 950, c. 600.]
It is completely and utterly shameful for the UK Government not to take the matter more seriously. The UK is being investigated on the world stage for
“grave and systematic violations of the Convention”,
and the Government need to learn some humility.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) raised some devolved matters from a Northern Ireland perspective. In Scotland, we have made serious efforts to distance ourselves from the UK Government’s shameless and regressive approach. We have tried to insulate the most disadvantaged people from the worst aspects of austerity cuts by establishing the welfare fund and the Scottish independent living fund, and by mitigating the bedroom tax in full. No one is complacent about the impact that income cuts and sanctions are having on sick and disabled people, however, and there is a lot more that we all need to do.
The UK Government, first and foremost, need to start listening to disabled people and taking their views on board. They seem to want to bulldoze through cuts to ESA. I strongly urge them to learn from the High Court judgment, the Court of Appeal judgment and the UN, and to think again.
It is lovely to see you in the Chair again, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) on securing the debate and making an excellent, comprehensive and thorough speech. I will recap some of the points that he made.
Since 2010, 13 policy measures in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 have reduced financial support for 3.7 million people to the tune of £23.8 billion. I will not go through the list, but it is extensive, and it is there for people to read at their leisure. On top of that, as has been said, the closure of the independent living fund and the transfer of responsibility to local authorities have caused immense distress to many families of people with the most extreme disabilities. Because not all local authorities have chosen to ring-fence that funding, those people have experienced a cut of £1.2 billion.
Does the hon. Lady agree that we are not just talking about dealing with stress? The cuts are also likely to exacerbate any mental health difficulties that disabled people may have, leading them to feel hopeless and depressed, and, in some cases, leading to self-harm and suicidality.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. One of the woeful things about the measures has been the Government’s lack of assessment of their impact on poverty, on disability and on any other health conditions that disabled people experience. That is a real indictment of the Government.
I return to the cuts to social care. We know from the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services that £3.6 billion has been cut from social care, and that figure is likely to increase to £4.3 billion by 2020. That has led to a reduction in the amount of state-funded support for older and disabled people. In 2014, 500,000 fewer people were able to access social care support, and 12% fewer older and disabled people were able to get essential home adaptations through the disabled facilities grant.
Mencap has identified a whole range of issues with health services provisions for people with learning disabilities. Only 49% of trusts have a full-time learning-disabled nurse. In addition to the cuts to social security and to health and social care, there have been cuts to access to justice, 42% cuts to the access to transport funding that enables people with mobility issues to get out and about, and cuts—described as a “ticking time bomb”—to funding for training teachers who provide mental health support to school pupils. It goes on and on. My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned the cuts in the disabled students allowances. That is a looming threat.
Hon. Members have mentioned other cuts that are on the horizon, particularly as a result of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which is currently in the Lords. The cuts to the ESA WRAG were mentioned. In effect, there will be cuts of £30 a week for people in that group—people who have been found not fit for work, including 5,000 people with progressive conditions such as Parkinson’s and MS, and people with cancer. A survey conducted by the charity Macmillan Cancer Support found that one in 10 cancer patients would struggle to pay their rent or mortgage if ESA were cut. The woeful impact assessment has not assessed the impact of poverty on disabled people and the effects on their health conditions, but we know that half a million people will be affected by the cuts of £640 million in addition to the £23.8 billion I mentioned previously. Of 11 million disabled people, more than 5 million live in poverty. The cuts will exacerbate their plight, as 80% of people who live in poverty do so as a direct result of their disability.
The ESA WRAG cut is just one of the cuts facing disabled people. There is also the freeze in social security support over the next four years. My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned the cut to universal credit, which will affect disabled people. Liverpool Economics estimates that it will cause an average loss of £2,000 a year to each disabled person.
Friday’s closure of the consultation on PIP has been mentioned. A result of that consultation will definitely be another cut, based on a review of 105 of the 611,121 current PIP claimants. That is all in the context of a Tory manifesto that included a pledge not to cut disability benefits. I can only assume that the consultation is the result of the Government getting a little bit anxious that more people will qualify for PIP, because the 105 claimants included in the review were all awarded the daily living component as they would benefit from aids and appliances. I am reminded of a statement made by the Institute for Fiscal Studies just after the spending review:
“The OBR has significantly reduced its forecast of savings from disability benefit reforms—in particular the move from disability living allowance to personal independence payment. This is familiar. Year after year expected savings from this reform go down. In fact this change in forecast would have ensured that the welfare cap in 2020-21 would have been breached.”
That is on top of everything else.
A UN committee has been investigating the UK for breaches of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, to which we are a signatory. That is an indictment of our record. The Government’s mantra for disabled people of working age is that work holds the key, but we have heard about the lack of support that has been provided with the Work programme, Access to Work and Disability Confident.
My final remark is that my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark is absolutely right: this is down to Government choices. The Government have tried—and I say tried—to regenerate the economy on the back of the poor and disabled. Instead of denigrating social security, we should value it. Like our NHS, the social security system is based on the principles of inclusion, support and security for all, ensuring all of us dignity in the basics of life should any one of us become ill or disabled, or fall on hard times. The Government need to remember that that is the case and stop their attacks on disabled people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) for calling the debate. He is a formidable campaigner with a wealth of experience having been the head of policy at the National Centre for Independent Living, the director of policy at the Disability Alliance and the director of policy and campaigns at Disability Rights UK. His speech demonstrated a genuine and wide-ranging knowledge. I am grateful for the huge range of issues that have been raised. I will do my very best, in a limited time, to cover as many of them as possible and I will keep going until I run out of time. I pay tribute to all the other speakers who contributed to what was mostly a proactive and constructive debate in which genuine concerns were raised and suggestions made about how we can continue to make improvements.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) once again demonstrated his huge wealth of experience, setting out practical solutions, particularly regarding apprenticeships. His point was timely as I am due to meet the relevant Minister from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to discuss that issue. I hope that my hon. Friend will be kind enough to join me in that meeting as I would like to push the subject.
The hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) asked whether PIP recognises fluctuating health conditions. I feel that it does better than the DLA. The trained assessors are better at picking up on those conditions compared with the former DLA assessment. The main thrust of her speech concentrated on social care and attendance allowance. I understand that as I spent 10 years as an elected borough councillor, but I support the principle of localising the decisions. As a country, we have agreed that we will continue to devolve more responsibilities, particularly to Scotland, but I trust our English authorities to have the same responsibilities and opportunities. We have introduced the better care fund, the social care precept and the Health and Social Care (Safety and Quality) Act 2015.
There is a fear about variations and carers losing their eligibility because some councils are so cash-strapped. The difference is very unfair. Even the social care precept will be different, as authorities can raise different amounts. It is an unfair and varied field now.
I understand, and we introduced the Health and Social Care (Safety and Quality) Act to set those standards. To be fair, this issue could be a debate in itself and I am conscious that there were so many other points that I need to come to. I am happy to discuss the matter further.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was right to highlight the fact that more needs to be done. He is a vociferous speaker; I have never taken part in a debate in which he has not contributed. He is right to challenge and is always proactive in making suggestions, particularly regarding learning disabilities. The proportion of people with learning disabilities in paid employment is typically 6% to 8% regardless of whether the economy is on the up or the down. It is the one stubborn area with which Government after Government have struggled and wrestled to try to make genuine progress. I am interested to hear more about the scheme in Northern Ireland that the hon. Gentleman talked about, and I would be keen to meet him to discuss that further.
I have had a good meeting with the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) previously. I would be happy to meet with the group she described to discuss those issues further. We are taking action on the time it takes for appeals to be considered. First, the mandatory reconsideration process comes in before the independent appeal and picks up the majority of those cases in which new information has come forward and a mistake has been made. We continue to work on how we can access better information because, more often than not, decisions are changed when new information comes to light. To get that earlier would be beneficial for all. On the point about accessible housing, the discretionary housing payment funds will be increased over this Parliament by £800 million. I think everyone would welcome that.
To the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), to be fair, external groups, cross-party MPs, Lords, stakeholders and charities do get to influence policies. I spend a lot of my time meeting those groups. Her speech contained a lot of criticism. There are opportunities to make changes. We are reforming ESA through the Work and Health programme and the White Paper. Sometimes, it is good to suggest things that could work, rather than just saying which things are wrong. I reassure her that we do not announce things through Twitter. In the modern world, some people would welcome our doing so, but this week’s announcement about carers and the benefit cap was not made through Twitter. Lord Freud made the announcement in Parliament on Monday during the passage of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. I hope that provides some reassurance.
I will address as many of the points that have been made as I can. First, on unemployment, we all welcome the Prime Minister’s pledge that we will halve the disability employment gap. Some 339,000 more people with disabilities have been in work over the past two years, which is a good start, but we still have a long way to go. There is a real-terms funding increase in spending to help people with health conditions and disabilities to return to and remain in work. There is support throughout the system, and we are multi-skilling our coaches to ensure that they are all aware how to support people with disabilities. There will be opportunities to make improvements through the White Paper.
The point about smaller, localised, flexible options is important. I get to make many good visits, and I have seen local solutions meeting market needs to create and train the skills where the jobs are. I made an enjoyable visit before Christmas to Foxes Academy, where I was corrected on my inability to cut carrots—it was the hotel featured on Channel 5. Early this week, I visited Ignition, a local brewery that employs people with learning disabilities, where it is socially acceptable to sample the goods at 11 am.
We have introduced the Fit for Work service particularly to focus on helping people remain in work. It is a lot easier to help people remain than to help them back into work. The current figure for Access to Work is 36,760, with four years of growth. It is a demand-led scheme, but a funding increase for an extra 25,000 places has been confirmed, which is significant. We are actively considering the best ways to do that. We have an open mind, and I welcome any suggestions, but obviously greater promotion is key, particularly to smaller businesses where the scheme would be particularly helpful in removing barriers. Specialist employment support has doubled the job outcomes of residential training colleges, which is good progress.
We constantly evaluate PIP, and we work with external stakeholders, charities and users to look at ways we can continue to improve PIP. The waiting time for assessments has reduced by more than three quarters since June 2014. We are now at five weeks for an assessment, and 11 weeks median end-to-end for the process. It is fair to say that the launch of PIP was not good. The reviews highlighted that, and my predecessors will have spent a lot of time in Westminster Hall and in the other Chamber discussing it, but PIP has been in a settled state for quite some time.
The consultation is just completing, and we will analyse what people have had to say. We were right to do that following the Paul Gray review. He highlighted the issue following court judgments. On an earlier point, rather than waiting for the courts to continue to drag it through, it is right and proper that we have a thorough look at it, but I do not want to pre-empt any consultation. We are continuing to look to improve the PIP process, and I look forward to reading the hon. Lady’s comments, assuming that she has fed into that consultation.
Only 16% of DLA claimants secured the highest rate, and the figure is now 22.5% under PIP. As a specific example of an area of disability where people have benefited from the changes, 22% of those with a mental health condition would get the highest rate of DLA, but now 68% of mental health claimants are on enhanced PIP.
My point is that only 22% of those with mental health conditions would have qualified, and now the figure is at 68%, so more people with a mental health condition are qualifying for the enhanced rate. That is one example, and there are others.
We are in the process of the full roll-out, taking the 1.7 million DLA claimants over to PIP, but please be assured that that is being done in a controlled, measured and timely manner that learns the lessons of the reviews. We are doing the roll-out in a manner that meets the available capacity so as not to repeat the mistakes of when PIP was first launched. The disabled facilities grant currently funds about 40,000 house adaptations a year, and I am delighted that funding is due to increase by 79% next year from £220 million to £394 million.
A number of Members talked about working across the Government, which is a big part of my role. I meet not only Ministers but Opposition Members and Lords stakeholders. I make lots of visits, which is a part of my role that I very much enjoy. My door is always open, and I have met a number of speakers here today.
Some 16,900 have transferred from the independent living fund, of whom 91% already had some form of their care provided by the local authority. The funding was transferred in full. The protection was underwritten by the Care Act 2014. The Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Treasury are keeping a close eye on that as it progresses. I understand the importance of the issue, on which we have had many debates.
We must not forget that ESA WRAG was not a golden solution; it had been criticised by all parties for a long time. Only 1% of claimants a month were coming off that benefit into work. No Government ever invented could have spun that as anything other than failing the people it was meant to serve. Those already receiving ESA will see no cash loss. Anyone whose capacity to work is limited by severe work-limiting health conditions and disabilities will continue to remain in that support group. Existing claimants who undergo a work capability reassessment after April 2017 and are placed in, or remain in, the WRAG will continue to receive that additional rate.
The Government have invested an extra £1.25 billion in mental health support, and in our area we are doing a series of pilots on group work, telephone support, face to face, online and inside jobcentres to look seriously at how we can do that and scale it across the country to help people as quickly as possible, which is clearly the key. On the disabled students allowance, we recognise that progress has been made since the Equality Acts. Universities, like all public sector bodies, have a duty to comply with the law. We should not be paying for things that they should be doing and are underwritten by law. I have had a number of meetings on that, and I will continue to keep a close eye on it.
Finally, on accessible information, the Royal National Institute of Blind People rightly challenged me because it felt that the Government were inconsistent in how they presented information. It is important that my Department leads on that, as well as pushing the rest of the Government, so I set up a taskforce that includes the RNIB and a number of organisations and people with a wealth of experience who will work through how we communicate our information. I understand that, when people are looking to use services and claim benefits, we need to make their journey as easy and as helpful as possible, and I am delighted that so many organisations are supporting that valuable work.
It is a pleasure to have responded to this helpful debate, which is a credit to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I thank everyone who has contributed to this debate. The Minister seems to have left most of my questions unanswered, particularly on unemployment—there was just some indication there. I share the concern of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that, although we welcome the commitment to halve the gap, there is a reverse-Ronseal approach coming from the Government. The approach is not doing what it says on the tin. The number of people supported by Access to Work, for example, seems to be heading the wrong way.
On DSA and universities needing to do more, it goes back to the point raised by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) and my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). Look at the court case today: the Government do not do what they are meant to do on impact assessing or following their own Equality Act obligations. That from the Department that is directly responsible for representing disabled people and much of central Government disability policy. The Government are not doing enough, and to try to pass responsibility on to universities when the Government are failing to uphold their own responsibilities is crude.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) for her contribution. I completely share her concern about the Government’s risky, uncertain and late approach, and I thank her for all her work with Carers UK, which is based in my constituency. I consider her an honorary constituent simply because of the amount of time she spends with Carers UK.
The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) mentioned funding, but the Government still do not seem to co-ordinate a longer-term approach to planning. What happens when disabled people lose support and end up making increased demands on the NHS? He made lots of points about the extra costs of disability and then seemed to suggest, in some kind of sick joke, that disabled people in the work-related activity group of ESA should get JSA, which would be a considerable reduction in financial payment, because it might incentivise them into work sooner when we know they have health issues. That is a completely unacceptable approach, and sadly that is what we see time and again from a Government whose priorities are upside down—tax is not collected where it should be, and they keep coming back to disabled people for more.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Business Transactions: Cash Retentions
I beg to move,
That this House has considered cash retentions in business transactions.
As I lead off in this debate, I will say first that I know that some of my own party colleagues and others have indicated that they want to make some form of intervention. Time is limited, so I will try to keep my points to a minimum to allow as many people in as possible, Mr Crausby, if that is okay with you. If it is not possible, I hope that anyone who does not manage to get in will please accept my apologies.
Let me start with this point: cash retentions, specifically in the construction industry, are currently responsible for £30 million of moneys being held back from small firms. Normal guidelines state that cash retentions are calculated at around 5% of the amount certified as due to the contractor. I must add that this 5% is very often the firm’s profit margin.
By and large, the lead contractor will get paid in instalments throughout the term of a contract, as very often there is a large turnover on specific jobs. This has been normal practice for many years. However, we then must turn our focus to the issue of subcontractors and fair payment practices.
This is a massive issue and it is good to see the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise in her place; I hope that she will give a very positive response to the debate. Just today, the news back home in Northern Ireland is that the Groceries Code Adjudicator has found Tesco guilty of holding back moneys and of delaying invoice processing as well. At long last, we have an adjudicator that has teeth. It is just a pity that the legislative power to impose fines was not used, because the inquiry into this case started before it existed. Does my hon. Friend agree that at long last the adjudicator can make companies pay?
Yes, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. We have raised this issue of the Groceries Code Adjudicator in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee as well. It is good to see some power coming into this area, so that the larger companies can pay this money.
I mentioned subcontractors and fair payment practices. This area is where we begin to see major difficulties and cash-flow problems for companies. I can report in this debate today that £40 million worth of cash retentions were lost by small firms in 2015.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Was he as disappointed as I was last year when the Government failed to act on this issue and did not implement my amendment to the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015, which was specifically about cash retentions? And does he hope that the Minister and the Government will listen as the Enterprise Bill goes to the House, which is another opportunity for this issue to be addressed?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He mentioned subcontractors. May I quote to him a subcontractor in my constituency—Steve Murray, the managing director of W T Jenkins? He told me:
“Cash retention is harming our sector and our company in particular. We have to wait far too long for the retentions, if we receive them at all. We have lost a lot of revenue over the last five years due to many companies going into administration and taking our monies with them.”
On Monday in his office, Mr Murray showed me a shelf full of files about firms that owe him money, in some cases for more than eight, nine or even 10 years.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on securing this debate. Does he agree that although the Government are now undertaking a cost-benefit analysis of the retention system with the express aim of eliminating these retentions by 2025, there is a need for a statutory retention deposit scheme, which could be brought in through the Enterprise Bill and which would be similar to the tenancy deposit scheme as a means of protection?
We will deal with that as well—great minds think alike.
The figure that is reported is some £40 million, which is horrendous. Small companies come to the stage where they are forced to write off money they are owed, because the cost of recouping it would be far greater than the sum itself and therefore it is futile for them to try to recoup it.
The Government have been very vocal in leading the business community to look forward and they have encouraged businesses on sustained growth and productivity, which is a good thing. I know that the Minister has done that; she is very pro-business. I have been approached by firms in my constituency, and I know that this is a UK-wide problem. The firms in my constituency say they are on their knees, largely due to the retention of moneys they cannot recover from larger contractors that have already been paid for the job they have done.
A firm in my constituency reported to me only last week that it has had to wait up to four years for retention money when contractual agreements state that 12 months is the limit. They have categorically stated that this situation hinders their plans for growth. In the majority of these cases, the contractor has already been paid but holds on to these moneys to counteract discounts.
A significant employer in Northern Ireland forced a loss of £10 million to a large number of subcontractors and suppliers when it went into insolvency. While that big company faced the headlines, many of the small contractors were simply unable to sustain their business; they simply had to bow down and close their doors, which resulted in significant job losses.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate; he has made some good points. On that point about cash flow, I am a civil engineer and have worked in the construction industry, so I am well aware of the effects that cash-flow problems can have on small firms.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Scottish Government are currently trialling in the area of public procurement the operation of project bank accounts, which are underpinned by legal trust status? The system allows payments to be made into a project bank account, where the money is legally protected for subcontractors, so they actually get their money quicker. Of course, that system can be used to manage retentions as well, completely eliminating the cash-flow problem. Does he agree that the Minister should perhaps consider that system and speak to the Scottish Government about that trial?
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention and his point certainly has validity; it is worth looking at, to see whether something could be done in that field to try to resolve this issue for small companies.
I know that the Government are pro-business; the Democratic Unionist party and other Northern Ireland parties have seen our economy in Northern Ireland grow. It is the role of Government, MPs and other politicians to create the circumstances for businesses to develop. I speak as a businessperson myself—my business interests are set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—and it has taken my company 36 years to get to where it is today. Government have played their part in that, but this issue of cash retentions goes right to the core of small businesses.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. I know that he and the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) have been involved in the Patton Group issue. When the Patton Group became insolvent, almost £10 million in cash retention was lost. Does he agree that the reintroduction of the aggregates levy scheme and the exemptions within that scheme would enable and help cash flow?
I think so, yes. I will touch on that later. My hon. Friend mentioned a company that I referred to earlier, although not by name. It was a major blow for subcontractors in Northern Ireland. In 2012, poor payment practices were discussed in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who was the then Minister of Finance and Personnel, was questioned on why Government should intervene. His answer was:
“The reason that it is so important is that the businesses at the receiving end of this unacceptable practice are, more often than not, small and medium-sized enterprises…on which we are depending to help rebuild our economy.”
That is not just the economy of Northern Ireland, but the economy of the whole United Kingdom.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. Does he agree with the points that SELECT, which is the Scottish electrical contractors association, raised with me? If companies are ending up propping up larger businesses, they have less money to invest in education, training and innovation within their own business.
That is right, and that is exactly the problem. The issue needs to be addressed. Speaking from Northern Ireland’s point of view, it has been a major obstacle to small and medium-sized companies moving forward. To add to that, those SMEs have no protection against cash retentions. Banks do not consider unprotected retentions as sufficient security for lending purposes, and that is a major problem for SMEs. Even though that money is on the books, the banks will not let them use it as security for overdraft facilities. In addition, and perhaps most alarming of all, public bodies and large companies are using millions of pounds of small firms’ retentions to boost working capital. That is happening with a lot of the major supermarket chains. They are using the money that they hold back to move their companies forward, to buy premises and to buy land. That has been the story for some considerable time. That is not just speculation; it is happening in today’s society while the Government are reviewing the matter but have not yet agreed to legislate, and we need to see that legislation.
My next comment is on a somewhat disappointing matter. In 2015, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Baroness Neville-Rolfe, acknowledged the problem and said:
“issues with retentions go to the heart of the industry’s business models…low levels of capitalisation mean that the industry is heavily reliant on cash flow.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 3 March 2015; Vol. 760, c. 127-28.]
In addition, she said that the Government had no plans to legislate to tackle the issue. That point was raised earlier, and I again emphasise that the Government need to look at that.
While the sector is delighted that the Government recognise that there is a problem—they are to be supported in their efforts to eliminate cash retentions by 2025—and I very much welcome their long overdue review of the retentions system, we need to see some action.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He is making a compelling case for the elimination of cash retentions. Would he agree with me that the situation, particularly in Northern Ireland, for those involved in the construction industry was compounded when the aggregates levy credit scheme was withdrawn? That was remedied in the European Commission and the European Court of Justice some months ago, but the British Aggregates Association is now taking a further case against the Commission ruling. That could plunge our industry into further peril and financial difficulties.
That is an excellent point, and we have been lobbied on that over the past days and weeks. That case could have a devastating impact on the construction industry in Northern Ireland, so it will be fought tooth and nail. We hope that the Government will support people in that.
It is not enough for the Government to talk about removing retentions by 2025; we need to see some form of legislation to stop retentions. We cannot sit back and ignore a potential loss of £360 million over the next nine years, as calculated by the loss of £40 million in 2015, while the Government work towards elimination but have no plans to legislate. That is grossly unfair and frankly hugely debilitating to the construction sector and the UK economy.
There has been huge interest in the debate. I am sure that many Members, like me, have been briefed by the Specialist Engineering Contractors Group, which has been the voice for SMEs on this poor payment practice. Like many here today, I recognise that cash retentions work in theory. They were originally established as a protection against any defects that might have been left when a job was finished or left unfinished. These days, since all contractors have to go through a lengthy pre-qualification process to be able to take on any job, there should no longer be any need for retentions to be withheld. However—this is quite embarrassing for the UK—we still have not legislated to have retention moneys placed in safe keeping. France, Germany, America and Australia are already leading the way and have put in place effective processes to secure the money, should the larger contractors go into insolvency or adopt poor payment practices when releasing the finance to their subcontractors.
My hon. Friend is being very generous with his time. Does he believe that there is a parallel with the legal industry, where a solicitor can exercise a lien over something of importance until the contract is concluded, whether that is deeds, money or cash? That is regulated by the Law Society. Lessons could be learned from the regularised and legislated procedure of a solicitor’s lien.
That question could only come from a barrister, but my hon. Friend is right. There is a role for that. As MPs, we all have companies that come to our offices or that we go and visit. Time and again, retentions are the issue that is raised, and some companies and subcontractors are begging us to try to resolve it.
I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) said, and there is an option to look at that, but as the hon. Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) said, we already have a suitable model in place under the Housing Act 2004 with the tenancy deposit schemes. Deposits paid in connection with shorthold tenancies must be placed in a Government-authorised deposit scheme. Similarly, retention moneys could be placed in a secure deposit account, as already happens in many other countries. That option is there, so perhaps the Government could look at that to try to ease the burden.
The Government and the Minister know that the construction industry in particular has gone through a devastating time. That is perhaps not so much the case in London and the big cities on the mainland—I think there was something like 12% or 13% growth last year in the City of London alone—but the regions of the United Kingdom have found it difficult to try to get the construction industry moving again. Money is being held back and banks will not take retentions as guarantees. The industry is struggling with cash flow.
I will finish now because I am excited to hear what the Minister is going to say to us, but I must ask the Government why they would object to developing a model for the funds that would allow our SMEs, which I and other Members often champion in our constituencies, to be the backbone of our growing economy. We need protection against poor payment practices and the misuse of SME funds, because it is their money.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) not only on securing the debate but on the powerful speech that he made. There have been many interventions, and powerful points and arguments have been made.
This has been a good debate, although it has not been a real debate, because we have not heard anybody who does not agree that there are strong and powerful arguments for taking action on the problem of cash retentions. Hon. Members are probably getting the drift of the fact that in some ways, they are banging at an open door with this Minister. I absolutely understand the arguments about the need for reform, including the powerful arguments this morning.
I want to mention someone who came to see me, Mr Simon Bingham, who is head of one of the small businesses that the hon. Member for Upper Bann referred to. Mr Bingham’s business is just 100 metres over the constituency border in the seat next to mine, which is held by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), so strictly speaking he should have gone to her, but he came my way because I made an error, and we had a great conversation. He has a company called Caunton Engineering Ltd. He also chairs the contracts committee of the British Constructional Steelwork Association, and he gave me the real-life evidence that the hon. Member for Upper Bann referred to, because he lives in the real world with the outdated way of doing things that we have heard about.
There are good reasons and arguments for having some sort of retention. I do not think any of us disagree with that. We know about snagging, and the faults that exist, and things that have not been done properly that come to light only six months after the completion of work on a contract, or even later. There needs to be provision so that such things can be rectified. As the hon. Gentleman and, I suspect, the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) know, in major construction projects, such as the recent tram project in my constituency, problems occur and we need a device to make sure the job is properly done and finished.
Equally, we know from our experiences that in the case of large housing developments, bonds are put in place at the beginning of the process, before the first sod is turned, to ensure that if the developer or builder gets into difficulty, funds will be available to make sure that the roads are properly finished. I have an example in my constituency, which I will not bore hon. Members with, but bonds are specifically put in place at the insistence of local authorities so that roads are completed and all the other work is done, and so that money is available in the event of somebody going under or some other catastrophe happening.
I cannot understand why a similar scheme cannot be operated in the construction industry. That sounds like good news, but I may be about to disappoint hon. Members. I fervently ask hon. Members not to seek to amend the Enterprise Bill, only because we have launched a review. I am grateful to Andrew Wolstenholme, the chief executive of Crossrail, who absolutely understands the problem and has agreed to oversee the review. It will be an extensive review that will take evidence and look at evidence, but its work will not be completed until the end of this year, when its recommendations will go out for further consultation. I accept that it could be said that that is an inordinate length of time, but I promise that I will look at the time that we have currently given to that review, because there is a growing feeling among all parties that we really need to get on and sort it out.
The review seems like good news. I am sure the SEC Group and others who, like me, have been campaigning on this issue for five years will see it as good news. However, promises have been made in the past, and there will be concerns that this will be seen as yet another prevarication to address the issue.
Never. I can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that I take the issue very seriously and know that we need to make progress. There are reasons why we would want some sort of retention, but not in a way that is onerous, particularly for small businesses. As I said earlier, Simon Bingham came to see me and gave me real-life examples of how some of the bigger companies effectively use retentions for their cash flow. The money can sit with them for year after year, and the small business takes a serious hit.
I accept what the Minister is saying, and it will be of some comfort to some companies. However, she will surely agree that large companies should not be allowed to hold on to money and use it to their own advantage to build their own businesses while small companies suffer.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. What happened yesterday with the Groceries Code Adjudicator has already been mentioned. I am grateful for the comments of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on that. It was a very important day to see the Groceries Code Adjudicator not holding back, not pulling any punches, and absolutely making it clear that Tesco had flagrantly breached the groceries code in a way that was completely unacceptable. That will have consequences for Tesco, although it will not be subject to a fine because the provisions have only just come in. I pay tribute to the Groceries Code Adjudicator. Bigger companies have got to learn and understand that none of us will tolerate their not playing fairly and properly, especially in relation to smaller businesses.
Our definition of smaller businesses, which is accepted by everybody, is any company that employs fewer than 250 people, so they can be quite large small businesses, not just sole traders who might employ one or two people. My officials are keen for me to say that the Government tell various agencies that when they handle taxpayers’ money, they must follow guidance and not engage in poor practices. It is not mandatory, but we provide subtle hints and nudges. Apparently the Highways Agency does a good job, but not everybody does, so there is much more work to be done. I undertake to take the matter forward with my officials to see whether we can make progress.
Good points have been well made today. Such practices must be brought into 2016. We must make sure we do the best thing by our small businesses.
We can all sympathise with the companies in their difficulties with banks and so on, but sympathy does not get the job done. That is what the companies tell me when I meet them. I can go on to the next case or deal with another constituency issue, but they want action. I am grateful for what the Minister has said thus far, and I trust that the Government will deliver on it.
I could not have put it better. I will definitely see what progress we can make. I am happy to continue to work with the hon. Gentleman and with the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth to try to sort this out once and for all and as soon as possible.
Question put and agreed to.
Syrian Refugees: Resettlement
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the resettlement of Syrian refugees.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the Minister and all hon. Members for their attendance to discuss this subject, which seems particularly fitting on Holocaust Memorial Day.
I am told that Syrian refugees arriving in Britain are asking three questions in particular: when can I learn English; when can I work; and when can my child go to school? A family who arrived in Kent in December already has an answer to the third of those questions. Their six-year-old daughter has now been at school in Ashford for four days. She proudly says that she has made a friend and learned how to write “dog” and “cat”. Her parents only wish that her sister could be at school, too, but her sister died last year in a refugee camp of a lung infection.
I am sorry to intervene so early in my hon. Friend’s speech, but she mentioned Ashford, so this is an appropriate time to ask her to join me in welcoming the courageous and correct initiative of Ashford Borough Council, which was so early in saying that it will provide accommodation for 250 Syrian families over the next five years, and its success in beginning to integrate them into British society.
This is different, but I have a list of asylum seekers in receipt of section 95 support who have been in the country for longer than the Syrian refugees arriving now. As far as I can see, under the previous regime, Ashford provides a home to only one asylum seeker. Other boroughs in the country provide homes for more than 1,000. Why does the hon. Lady think that places such as Ashford and her own local authorities are stepping up to the plate now, but have not been prepared to do so in the past?
I hope we can explore many questions in the debate, such as how well we are doing at resettling not only Syrian refugees now, but asylum seekers who are already in the country, many of whom are in Kent. I will come on to the question of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children already in Kent, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman will address his own point if he makes a speech.
I was speaking of the family who arrived in Ashford. Theirs is only one story. Throughout our history, Britain has offered a safe haven to vulnerable people, from the French Huguenots in the 18th century, to the Kindertransport or the Ugandan Asians in the 1970s and now to the 20,000 Syrians, but recently we have heard about asylum seekers being made to wear wristbands or their doors being painted red, which is a reminder that, however well-intentioned we may be, we do not always get things right. That is why I asked for the debate.
After all the focus, particularly last year, on the number of refugees whom we should accept—people are still calling for more—it is time to talk about the practicalities of resettling our 20,000 refugees, to ensure that we are doing a good job with them. Have those who have already arrived settled in well? Are the children in school? Are the adults learning English? Are they in decent accommodation? How have they been received by their host communities? Are we on track to take 20,000? Will we manage that, or might we overshoot?
I look forward to hearing answers from the Minister and to hearing from colleagues, especially as I am sure that several of you represent constituencies that are taking refugees. If your constituency is not taking many, you might be able to encourage them to step up and take some more.
I accept that the debate today is about the resettlement of Syrian refugees here in the UK, but does my hon. Friend agree that we should also use our substantial Department for International Development influence and clout to get large multinational corporations establishing free zones to ensure that significant numbers of refugees in Lebanon and Jordan have opportunities to work there, so that they may stay in the region, although that may well be for months and years, and then to return to Syria, rather than coming to Europe?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I have visited a refugee camp in Turkey and one of the things that struck me was people’s frustration that they could not work, which was one of the reasons why they wanted to leave the camps. Exploring work opportunities for people in the region is important, yes.
Having visited that camp in Turkey, as well as the migrant camp in Calais some time ago, I felt that humanitarian instinct, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could take in more refugees?” However, I feel strongly that there is no point bringing people away from the middle east, across Europe and far from their homes, their extended family and their friends, to a different culture and a very different climate in the UK unless we can offer them something better than the life they were leading in those countries in the region.
The hon. Lady is being generous with her time. On Thursday I, too, visited the jungle camp, with Secours Catholique who said that up to 300 people there in Calais probably have leave to remain in the UK but are trying to get here illegally because they do not know their legal rights. The Government are not providing enough access to lawyers or legal advice to get such people back into a country where they have leave to remain.
I am sympathetic to what the hon. Gentleman says and I have seen the desperation of the people in Calais. It is important that those who might have a right to live in the UK should be helped to explore the possibilities, but on the detail of the right way to do so, which is complicated, I will defer to the Minister.
Those whom we are bringing to this country through the resettlement scheme are among the most vulnerable—for example, they may have specialist medical needs or have suffered from religious or sexual persecution. We have a particular responsibility to get resettlement right for those vulnerable people. Only when we are confident that we are doing that should we have the conversation about whether to increase the number of refugees we are taking.
One thousand refugees were resettled in this country before Christmas, and we are due to take about 4,000 more this year. The Government, in my view rightly, have said that they will not impose refugees on any area, because that would be unlikely to result in a good experience for the refugees and possibly lead to resentment locally. The councils I have spoken to have welcomed the fact that it therefore feels as though it is their choice how many refugees they take. Those that have been quick to offer to house refugees feel proud to be at the forefront of the effort.
In the absence of centralised distribution, however, there is great uncertainty about where the refugees will go and how the 20,000 target will be met. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether enough local councils have come forward and offered enough places for the coming year. Is the accommodation secured? Is this a commitment or an aspiration to accommodate the refugees? Are there enough places in the pipeline for us to achieve the 20,000 over the five-year period?
My constituency covers two boroughs, Swale and Maidstone. Swale Borough Council has committed to take two families a year. It previously resettled two Afghan interpreters, learning in the process about the pitfalls of placing migrants in a small, rural village in Kent. Maidstone Borough Council plans over the five years to take six single men, because of its shortage of family accommodation.
Councils tell me the settlement of about £8,500 per person is reasonable, if not generous, but some have told me that they are worried about what happens should the refugees move, as they are free to do. The funding follows the refugees, but what if the council has commissioned services or taken out leases, so its incurred costs will continue? Also, the funding for subsequent years decreases. Refugees are likely to cost less as they settle in, get work—I hope—and are more independent, but the worry among some councils is that future funding might not be sufficient. Will the Minister clarify how councils can ensure the necessary funding?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. She makes some persuasive points about local councils. In my constituency and in the broader district of Bradford, under the previous gateway settlement programme, we housed many Syrian refugees who have made a positive contribution to the fabric of the district. On the cost to councils and the concerns that they have, many councils, including Bradford, are really suffering as a result of the Government’s cuts and they are rightly concerned because they are often left to pick up the tab. I ask the hon. Lady to reinforce that point, which perhaps the Minister can answer and give some clarification on as well.
Thank you, Mr Gray. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s reference to the gateway scheme, which is highly spoken of both in this country and around the world as a good example of how to resettle refugees. We can use that experience to ensure that we do a good job with the Syrian refuges and this scheme.
On housing refugees, in the south-east, where my constituency is, the shortage of housing is a particular problem. Even though we are talking about small numbers of refugees—just a few families a year—many of my constituents wait years for social housing, private rents are high and only a limited stock of private rental housing can be paid for with housing benefit. However, the lesson from some councils is not to be deterred by those barriers. Councils should ask themselves and their communities not “Can we accommodate refugees?” but “How can we accommodate them?”
Kingston upon Thames is encouraging people who have empty properties, such as those who have elderly relatives in care, to rent them out to Syrian families, which has led to several homes becoming available. In Ashford and in Tunbridge Wells, some landlords and Churches have offered accommodation specifically for Syrian refugees. Those councils are finding properties that are not in the letting market rather than having Syrians compete for scarce market properties. In Faversham, in my constituency, Sir Bob Geldof has offered to put up three Syrian families in his home.
To secure a future in Britain, refugees need to work. In a refugee camp in Turkey, I saw for myself the frustration and demoralisation of refugees who are unable to work. It is therefore important that Syrian refugees are settled in areas where there are jobs so that they can work and there is no resentment that they are competing with British people for scarce jobs.
This is more of an issue for the Minister, but, given my hon. Friend’s experience on the ground, no doubt she will have a view. Given the acute crisis in the camps, which, I fear, are now a big recruiting base for extremism, is there any case for accelerating the process and having more migrants, provided that local authorities can cope, or is 20,000 over the next five years on a progressive basis the right way forward?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I, too, heard about connections between camps and people going back to Syria to fight to get an income. I would be keen to hear from the Minister about accelerating the scheme and whether we could front-load or bring more people more quickly, but that must be done in the context of making sure that we are doing a good job with those we are bringing here. To ensure that we do the job well, it is important that the scheme where councils volunteer to take people continues and that councils do not have numbers imposed on them.
On jobs and qualifications, there are many examples over the years of people who have come here from places such as Afghanistan, where they were skilled professionals such as dentists, engineers, teachers and even doctors, but they find that their qualifications are not recognised in this country. They therefore find themselves doing other jobs and not making full use of those qualifications. I understand that it takes about two years to get a foreign qualification recognised in the UK, so will my hon. Friend the Minister tell us whether it is possible to expedite the process to get international and Syrian qualifications recognised in the UK? Obviously, there must be a requirement for appropriate language skills; it is clearly important that people speak English as well as having professional skills.
Some hon. Members are calling on the Government to take in around 3,000 more child refugees. That sounds like a wonderful thing to do. In Kent, however, already about 1,400 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and care leavers are being looked after by the county council, so services in Kent are under immense strain and foster homes are completely full. We have limited school places.
In November, the Government called on other local authorities to volunteer to take in some of the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children; but unfortunately, few have done so. Offers have materialised for just 35 of the young people. Kent has therefore welcomed an amendment to the Immigration Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, to make it possible to compel local authorities to accept young asylum-seeking children. While it would be a good thing to take in more refugee children and it should be considered seriously, I ask Members who are urging the Government to do that to urge their local councils to ensure, if possible, that they to step up and take their fair share of the young asylum-seeking children and minors we have in the country at the moment. We have got to do a good job by the ones who are here before we start taking in more.
We must not overlook the challenges of integration. There are cultural barriers, but because integration is a two-way process, there is also an opportunity to harness the good will of the British people. We have seen an enormous upsurge in people who want to help, which was triggered particularly by the pictures of what is going on in Europe and the image of the child on the beach last summer.
Communities have seized on the arrival of refugees as an opportunity to do something practical. I heard about a teacher in Tunbridge Wells who has given up their time to teach English to a recently arrived refugee. In Ashford, council staff started their own fund for refugees and donated toys to be given to children. The challenge, however, can be in channelling such offers, and some charities and councils have struggled to co-ordinate enormous numbers of volunteers, so I wonder whether some businesses might be able to help with match-making technology and in other ways or whether the Government could facilitate that, given that this is a problem throughout the country.
Our experiences show that if councils and communities embrace the refugee programme, it could be an incredibly positive experience. People in places such as Ashford and Kingston, and not least their councils, feel a real sense of pride in what they are doing. It is easy to think of reasons not to take refugees and to think about the barriers, but it is much better to think of ways to overcome those barriers, especially when the numbers are so small. If each of the UK’s 391 local authorities took just 51 individuals over the five years—that is about 10 families each—we would achieve the 20,000 target, and some are already planning to take five times that number.
Councils should be bold and take this opportunity to do the right thing. Those who are reluctant and cautious may be surprised by the support that they would receive from voters.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She is talking with some pride about the many people who want to be of assistance in this unprecedented crisis, but does she agree that while some countries in the middle east are inundated with migrants, some nation states have not done anything to help? If we could see some of those nation states helping, that would certainly help people in the UK feel that everyone was putting their shoulder to the wheel to try to address this unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We all—the whole of Europe and of the middle east—need to be seen to be doing our part. Some countries have been particularly criticised for not taking more refugees. I have heard, for instance, Saudi Arabia’s name come up. I am aware of countries that are taking refugees but not making such a noise about it. Some of this may be a question of communication, with countries taking refugees but not calling them refugees and giving them resident status. Those refugees are being integrated, and they have family members with them. In some areas, the process is just not so visible. There is no question but that the countries in the region around Syria are taking enormous numbers of refugees and putting a lot of resource into supporting them.
The Government should take on the role of facilitating the sharing of expertise on taking in refugees. We have lots of expertise, but some areas may be taking refugees for the first time and will be doing their very best but might not know what the risks are. I would like to see the Government ensuring that we do the best we can across the country and providing more ongoing transparency about how well the resettlement programme is going. Mistakes can and almost inevitably will be made. There is a risk that the generous funding—it is a substantial amount of money—might not be spent in the best possible way. Any mistakes should be quickly identified and addressed, to ensure they are not repeated elsewhere.
My final questions for the Minister are as follows. What is being done to help councils to access people or organisations with the expertise to help them with the resettlement programme? How are the Government enabling the sharing of that expertise and information on what is already known about how to resettle refugees effectively? How are the Government monitoring the resettlement programme to identify how well it is going, to pick up any problems as they emerge and to celebrate the successes?
I want to emphasise that final point: we should celebrate success. We should feel proud that Britain is the second largest donor to refugees in and around Syria, where the British pound goes much further than it does here in the UK. We should feel proud that we are giving thousands of the most vulnerable refugees a chance of a new life in Britain. Kofi Annan recently told “Newsnight” that Britain’s “effective and smooth” approach is the right one. We should celebrate the councils and communities that are stepping up to take refugees and the charities and the volunteers who are helping, while encouraging all those who are reluctant or sceptical to support this thoughtful strategy. Britain rightly has a reputation as a compassionate country of opportunity that welcomes people from around the world. Some have doubted us recently, but we should make that a reality for 20,000 Syrians.
Before I call the next speaker, it is perhaps worth pointing out that a number of Members are trying to catch my eye. While I am not keen on formal time limits, I would have thought five minutes is about right for most speeches, out of courtesy to one another.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately). She made an excellent speech, and I can happily say that I agree with everything she said. She has brought this important and serious topic to the House not only because we should be proud of what Britain has done but also because there are problems ahead that we need to address. The people of Kent and her local council need to be congratulated on what they have done.
I want to do something pretty rare: get up and congratulate a Home Office Minister on his performance. This could be the end of his career, but I want to commend the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), for the work he has done in this area and for overseeing the one immigration target that the Government have actually managed to reach—certainly in the eight years that I have been Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. That target was the Prime Minister’s pledge, made in a full and open way, to ensure we have 1,000 Syrian refugees resettled in Britain by Christmas. The Minister did it, and he should be commended for doing so. Because of that success, our Committee will be pressing him even harder to ensure he delivers on the rest of the Prime Minister’s pledge.
We need to be conscious that this is not a crisis on its own. It is part of the most difficult crisis the European Union faces: the migration crisis. It is not going to get easier; it is going to get much worse. As we saw at the meeting in Brussels yesterday of EU Home Affairs Ministers, the crisis is dividing Europe and showing the fault lines that exist. There is a challenge to ensure that the overall refugee crisis and the migration crisis affecting the EU are seen in a much wider context than just what is happening in Syria.
All European countries need to be commended for the way in which they have singled out those from Syria in need of a fast-track service, which at the moment is being provided by the United Kingdom but not necessarily by other EU countries. When the Minister responds, I hope he will tell us more about what is happening on the deal made with Turkey. The European Union has pledged €3 billion to Turkey in order to ask it to provide better and greater assistance to those who have landed within its area.
Of course we need to do what we promised to do and take in the numbers that the Prime Minister mentioned. However, we also need to ensure that good allies such as Turkey and good members of the EU such as Greece are doing their bit to ensure that when Syrian refugees arrive in the EU, they are treated well. Indeed, if Turkey fulfils the promise it made to the leaders of the EU, it will be able to take EU funds and provide the kind of assistance that a number of hon. Members have said it should provide. The Minister will be aware that the way to solve the Syrian crisis is through the political situation in Syria. Unless we deal with that, and unless we have a stable Government in Syria, we will not see an end to a crisis that is clearly engulfing the European Union.
I have just three further points to make within your informal time limit, Mr Gray. The first is about the big and open offer made by a number of residents of the United Kingdom—including, I should say, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and the Archbishop of Canterbury—to provide assistance and shelter for Syrian refugees who are coming over. The hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent said that Mr Geldof—or Sir Bob, as he is now known—has offered sanctuary to some Syrian refugees. I cannot quite understand why the Government still have not acted on such offers from the British people.
In the Minister’s eloquent evidence to my Select Committee, he said that the Archbishop of Canterbury should, in effect, contact Lambeth Council if he had an offer of support. I can just imagine the archbishop on the phone to Lambeth Council, waiting to go through its automated system, finally getting through to some caseworker in the housing department and saying, “This is the Archbishop of Canterbury on the phone. The Minister for Syrian refugees has suggested I should ring and offer some of the rooms I have at Lambeth Palace. Could you tell me what to do?” I imagine the phone would probably be put down or the call transferred to another section of Lambeth Council—maybe the health department. We need something more concrete. Big offers have been made by the British people. Let us take those up.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and I were present at the Home Affairs Committee’s session yesterday when we heard from G4S, one of the Government’s providers of asylum accommodation, which I know is different from what is provided for Syrian refugees. G4S said that the number of asylum seekers in this country for whom it has to find accommodation has gone up from 9,000 to 17,000 in the space of just three years.
The pressure on council housing, and indeed the private rented sector, is now enormous. It will be extremely difficult to find available housing for those who are coming over. We need to be very serious about the issue of housing, because we do not want Syrian refugees to be placed in the same position as some asylum seekers in Middlesbrough were. Our Select Committee looked at that very subject yesterday, because we have enormous concerns about how asylum seekers were being housed there.
My final point relates to regular information. In the Minister’s celebrated appearance before our Committee, I asked him—he keeps reminding me of this—seven times to tell us how many Syrian refugees had arrived. He batted the question away like a great cricketer at the crease, faced by a number of fast-coming balls. He said he was not prepared to give a running commentary on the numbers who had come in and that we had to wait for the statistics that are published on a quarterly basis. He told everyone that except, of course, the Prime Minister, who decided not to wait till the publication of the quarterly statistics, but to tell the House of Commons first, in the last questions session before Christmas, to give us all a warm glow and a feeling of happiness that the Minister had reached his target. We think we should have regular information, and not just about the numbers who come in. We do not need to wait for the quarterly statistics, and we need to include information about inclusion, as the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent said.
When the Ugandan Asians came to Leicester and enriched that city and places such as Watford, where the Minister comes from, and other constituencies represented by Members here, we were able to include them in the mainstream of our country’s activities. Some of the Syrian refugees will want to go back to Syria when the country is stable and returns to prosperity, there is no doubt about that. Some will want to stay and be part of our country and live here for the rest of their lives. It is important to include the diaspora—there are many people of Syrian origin who have lived in this country for many years—in a formal or informal resettlement board, because Whitehall does not know best about these issues.
Thirty years on from when the Ugandan Asians arrived in Leicester, they are now an integral part of this country—indeed, some have even been elected to the House of Commons—and they have shown themselves to be model citizens. Let us use that example of what Britain does best, provide asylum to those who need asylum and include those people in the mainstream of our public life.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on her speech, which was so comprehensive that what she said about the practical elements of resettlement does not need to be repeated. I will therefore take a wider view, although it will permeate through to the practicalities of providing the dignity that we all want to provide for those seeking refuge.
It is right that we are debating this issue on Holocaust Memorial Day, the theme of which is not to stand by when genocide is taking place. We have to say what it is: although we are responding to a humanitarian crisis, which is referred to as a migration crisis, we are also responding to genocide. It is important to say that, because the Yazidis and the Christians have been victims of genocide. It is important to say that—indeed, I call on the Government to say it properly and not to wait for international courts to say it—because there are implications of doing that, not least for resettlement. When we are resettling victims of genocide, calling it that will have a profound impact and a long-term effect, so we need to do that.
Part of what we are remembering today is those who did not stand by; those who stood up and took notice. The Minister knows about those individuals, families and communities all too well. They are very much part of his legacy and family history, and his motivation for the great work that he is doing is the heroes who did not stand by and who rallied individuals, families and communities. That led to refuge being found from the Nazis for thousands of individuals. That motivation must permeate all the way through what we are doing in our response.
I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister extended the relocation programme in September in response to cross-party calls, which had gone on for some time, to welcome more refugees. This is an issue of numbers—although politicians and the media can get stuck on that side of the issue, we do need to hold the Minister to account on the numbers, because of the pledge that was made. I welcome what the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, on which I am proud to serve, said about holding the Minister and the Government to account.
However, there is also the fundamental issue of human dignity. In many ways, I see the number of 20,000 as a minimum. We need to be ready to have that flexibility, and to respond to people’s vulnerability in this tragic situation. We need human dignity both in the assessment stage—the Minister is working hard to get the assessment right to ensure that the most vulnerable refugees can make their way into this country—and all the way down the line to when people are received into our constituencies.
Sadly, that contrasts with the reports that we examined yesterday of the painted doors that identified asylum seekers. We have no truck with that in the way that we do things—it is not the British way or the decent way. On the Home Affairs Committee yesterday, we were concerned that the company involved, G4S, said that it did not know about that because there had been no complaints from asylum seekers. That is not the right response. Such companies should respond properly and responsibly, as a matter of human dignity. They should not wait for some complaints process to be activated. We must ensure that we deal with the people seeking refuge with care and attention, based on human dignity, not on whether they are agitated.
I welcome the Government’s primary response of providing international aid of well over £1.1 billion. That is important, because it is tackling the issue as everyone in non-governmental organisations says we need to tackle it—at its root and by ensuring that we support the regions. The World Food Programme has made it clear that the lack of humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugees and the barriers to securing legal access to livelihoods—my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) picked up on that point—are directly linked to the increase in flow of those fleeing to Europe. We must focus on that.
I welcome the leadership of the Secretary of State for International Development and her conference, “Supporting Syria and the Region”, which will take place shortly. It is important to identify particularly vulnerable groups— women, children and young people—and ensure that other countries step up to the plate and provide aid. I am concerned that religious minorities are not included in the invitation list and are not recognised, and they are some of the most vulnerable groups. When we are looking at who is the most vulnerable—I understand that the resettlement and relocation programme is based on that—we should ensure that we do not ignore some of the most vulnerable groups.
The Select Committee on International Development, which is chaired by my predecessor in my constituency, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), produced an excellent report. It identified, as NGOs have, that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community, religious minorities and children are the most vulnerable and are discriminated against, whether in access to healthcare, in not being able to return to their country of origin, or particularly in not being able to go into camps.
Ninety per cent. of Syrian refugees are not from camps. As the Minister has said in response to questions from me and others, it is not just about having a programme of relocation from camps. Most of the most vulnerable refugees are outside the camps—indeed, the relocation programme includes relocating from outside camps. The problem is registration. Many people, particularly from religious communities—particularly Christians, it has to be said—will not go to the camps, because they fear double persecution there. They do not want to come out into the limelight. They seek refuge through churches and other communities and are dispersed. They are not being registered, and we need to recognise that they, among others, are the most vulnerable groups. We need to ensure that the relocation programme involves Christians as well.
We must also respond to the wider calls relating to unaccompanied minors. The Committee heard horrific statistics from an Italian parliamentarian yesterday—that 4,000 unaccompanied minors were lost in 2014, which has gone up to 6,000 now. They risk exploitation, and it is not just a Syrian issue. It involves young Eritreans who are being trafficked. We must tackle the issue well, given our leadership on modern slavery, and ensure that we do not stand by, whether as a Government, as parliamentarians or individually. I very much welcome us taking practical action through this debate.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for securing a debate that will no doubt be followed closely by the many individuals and organisations around the UK who hold a relevant interest in this subject. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Lady, because I believe the debate today is an important opportunity for all Members to reflect on the process of resettling the Syrian refugees who will now be calling the UK home.
I also welcome the chance to discuss some of the measures being undertaken in my constituency of Inverclyde, and I hope we are able to share examples of best practice from all our local areas. I am aware that in some instances, there is a wide variation in the approach being taken to resettlement and we can improve the process by resolving the problems that have been identified as the first group of Syrian refugees are welcomed into our communities.
I am pleased to put on record that due to the efforts of the Scottish Government and Inverclyde council the resettlement program in my constituency has been an overall success. Inverclyde Council’s previous experience in participating in the Afghan resettlement scheme has been invaluable in taking forward the practicalities of the Syrian resettlement. In that programme, Afghans fleeing persecution, including former British Army interpreters, have found a new home in Inverclyde. One Afghan couple was so delighted that their most recent child had been born in Scotland that they insisted on giving it a Scottish name—it may be the first Scots-Afghan baby born in my constituency.
Inverclyde Council has made an initial commitment to support 10 Syrian families over the five-year life of the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. Periodic reviews of the process will help to determine whether the council can make a further commitment to take more.
The first two families arrived in November 2015, and a third family arrived shortly afterwards. On arriving in Scotland, they were met at the airport by council staff and transported to Inverclyde, where they temporarily stayed in a hotel, before moving to permanent accommodation. Housing was provided by locally registered social landlords, and the three families now live within walking distance of each other. In placing the families in accommodation, the local authority felt that it was best to cluster them together, but not to concentrate them too much. That allows them to live within a comfortable distance of each other, but it also ensures that they can integrate more effectively with their neighbours.
Inverclyde Council has assisted the families by helping them to establish bank accounts and by registering them with local GPs and dental practices. I am pleased to report that, throughout the entire settlement process, there have been no major incidents or problems, and the Syrian families continue to settle into their new community.
The hon. Gentleman is doing exactly what I had hoped: he is bringing up examples of how well things are working practically. He mentioned his council clustering people, but not putting them too close together, and that is exactly the kind of good practice I have heard about in other places. I thank him for bringing up that detail.
I thank the hon. Lady.
I am proud of the people of Inverclyde, who have shown such generosity in offering clothing, food, cash and their time to support their new neighbours.
Despite the warm welcome offered by local residents and the range of services available from Inverclyde Council, however, challenges remain for the incoming Syrian families. Most notably, refugees may experience difficulties in seeking work, because of language difficulties or because their professional qualifications are not recognised in the UK. Furthermore, if refugees have been victims of torture, we must ensure that local authorities continue to have the necessary physical and mental health support services to enable them to settle and thrive.
I would like to turn briefly to the issue of asylum seeker dispersal areas. The UK Government have asked local authorities in Scotland whether they would like to become dispersal areas for incoming asylum seekers. That is pertinent to the debate, because many of those fleeing Syria will have to make a claim for asylum before possibly being granted refugee status in the UK. As one of the few local authorities with a declining population, Inverclyde would usually give serious consideration to becoming a dispersal area, because that would be an opportunity to bring a younger population into our community.
The UK Government are, however, making their request without a commitment to provide funding to cover the cost of the additional support services that would be required. A properly thought-out and fully funded package of funding would likely see a number of Scottish councils willing to become dispersal areas, but authorities will be reluctant to risk the success they have already achieved in resettling Syrian refugees by taking on the many challenges of becoming an asylum seeker dispersal area without the required funding support. I hope the UK Government will consider those concerns as they move ahead with plans to establish more asylum seeker dispersal areas in Scotland.
In closing, I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent for securing the debate. I hope we will continue this discussion outside the Chamber over the next five years. In doing so, we will ensure that the resettlement program continues to build on the successes we have already achieved.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on securing the debate.
In April 1939, a 10-year-old Jewish refugee from a small industrial town called Ostrava in what was then Czechoslovakia was put on a train by his mum and teenage sisters. He was the only member of his family allowed to leave, and it was the last time he would see the other members of his family, because they were murdered in the holocaust. He grew up to become the youngest grammar school headmaster in the country, and he was honoured with an MBE for his charitable work and his services to education. He adopted four children, of whom I am the second. I therefore know all about how Britain has welcomed refugees and about the benefits that they have brought to our communities and our country.
In January 1939, Kurt Flossman, a 14-year-old German refugee arrived at Dudley’s grammar school. His father had died in 1937, and he travelled all the way across Europe on his own. Students at the school clubbed together to raise the £50 a year in fees and expenses that he needed to go to their school, and local firms sponsored his clothes. Stories such as that show how Dudley has always worked to welcome those in need and to build a tolerant community.
Over the years, Dudley has welcomed refugees from all sorts of conflicts all around the world, including from Vietnam in the 1960s, and, later, from Uganda and Kosovo. No one can say that we are not doing our bit now in Dudley and the black country; in, fact there are as many asylum seekers in the black country as there are in the south-west, the south-east and the east of England put together. Although people in Dudley are proud of Britain’s history of providing a safe haven for the victims of fascism and persecution, it cannot be right that Dudley supports nearly half as many asylum seekers as the entire south-east.
Refugees are overwhelmingly concentrated in poor communities in the north and the midlands. Birmingham and Liverpool provide a home for 1,400 asylum seekers each, while Rochdale, Manchester and Bolton have more than 900 apiece.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful case that draws on his own personal testimony. The problem with the resettlement programme thus far has been that it has involved a private sector contract with Serco, under which asylum seekers are flown into Manchester airport in my constituency, put up for a number of nights and then dispersed around the conurbation, going overwhelmingly to Bolton and Rochdale, in Greater Manchester, which has more asylum seekers than the whole of the south put together, and without any redress to any of the councils for the services that are affected. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must do better?
My hon. Friend is completely right. The central point I want to make today is that, when the Government embark on their new programme, they must learn from the mistakes they made in the past when housing people who came to this country to seek asylum.
My hon. Friend mentioned Bolton and Rochdale. There are also 850 asylum seekers in Leicester, 800 in Nottingham and 750 in Middlesbrough. Bradford, Derby, Leeds, Newcastle, Oldham, Stockton, Wigan and Coventry each have 500 or 600.
Meanwhile, much wealthier, much posher communities in the south have turned their backs on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. Local authorities represented by the Prime Minister, the Secretaries of State for Defence and for Communities and Local Government and seven other Cabinet Ministers have not opened their doors to a single asylum seeker. There are just 380 asylum seekers in all the seats covered by all the local authorities represented by all the Cabinet—fewer than in individual local authorities such as Sandwell or Wolverhampton. The local authorities of Swale and Maidstone, which are represented by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent, who called the debate, have housed just three asylum seekers between them. Watford has housed 15. Camden has housed 21. Islington houses just 34, while Hackney houses only 38, and Oxford houses just 12.
Dudley has pledged to step up and to house Syrian refugees coming to this country, but if the 20,000 Syrian refugees are housed around the country in the same way as those who currently seek asylum are, the north-west will have almost 5,000 and the west midlands will have almost 3,000, while the south-east, the south-west and the east of England will house just 1,200 between them.
I would therefore like the Minister to recognise that the impact of our response to this crisis should be spread much more evenly across the country. The hon. Lady said her local authority had pledged to take six asylum seekers, but if every local authority across the country was prepared to share the work equally, they would each take about 50 or 60 over the next five years.
The way people have been dispersed and then concentrated in localised areas can put pressure on public services such as housing, schools and the NHS, which are already under great strain. That is also unfair on the refugees themselves, who are moved to communities without sufficient Government support and then left waiting for years for their applications to be processed. That is the result of what can only be described as a shambles in the Departments responsible.
In parts of the country such as London, these issues are balanced by the presence of wealthy migrants. It might come as a surprise to hon. Members taking part in the debate, however, to learn that we do not get many millionaire American bankers, German City traders or French hedge fund managers moving to areas such as the black country. Will the Minister therefore examine how the economic benefits that migration brings to some parts of Britain can be used to reduce the pressure elsewhere on schools, housing and other public services, and to improve local infrastructure and public services in places such as the black country? Could he also consider how unspent EU structural funds that the Government are not drawing down could be used in areas such as the black country that face the greatest pressures on public services, to employ the extra primary school teachers or GPs needed so that we can more easily accommodate people in need from around the world?
People in Dudley will rise to the challenge and play a full part in welcoming those fleeing persecution abroad, just as we have in the past; but it is about time people elsewhere did the same.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on securing this important debate. It has been four months since I wrote to the Prime Minister, along with many others, to urge him to respond to the escalating refugee crisis affecting mainland Europe. When he and his Government finally woke up, their response was modest and insufficient. By committing themselves to resettling only 20,000 Syrian refugees—a far smaller number than the EU, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, many in Parliament, the Scottish Government and the country demanded—the Government may have damaged our humanitarian reputation overseas.
The Government have rigidly stuck by that decision, but whereas their response was lethargic, our communities responded rather differently. I am immensely proud that my constituents welcomed the refugees with open arms. People in Paisley and Renfrewshire collected donations, opened shops, travelled to Calais and did anything and everything in their power to help those in need. The first refugees arrived in my constituency in November, landing at Glasgow airport. It may have been an all-too-typical cold and wet night, but the response that our new friends received would have shown them the warmth of Scotland —and the UK. Our new Syrian friends are living in local authority areas throughout Scotland and well over 3,000 individuals have signed up to help them resettle, through the “Scotland Welcomes Refugees” website.
My local town of Paisley has helped to resettle 50 refugees, and it appears that they have met the traditional warm welcome that I would expect from Paisley “buddies”. The Sunday Herald asked one of the new families whether they were happy in Paisley. They responded:
“It feels like we never left our families back in Syria because of the warm welcome we received in Scotland. We are among our families again.”
It should be noted that a lot of work has been done to ensure the smooth resettlement of our new Syrian neighbours. My office is part of a working group in Renfrewshire, which came together to ensure that the refugees’ arrival, introduction to, and integration with, Renfrewshire was as smooth as possible. That all-party and cross-sector group is attended by religious leaders, council officers, elected members from all levels of government and other important local stakeholders, and we have all worked to make sure that our new Paisley “buddies” settle into the area as smoothly as possible.
Renfrewshire has been opening its doors, but in turn our Syrian neighbours have opened theirs. They have been sharing Syrian food and culture with local people. They have appreciated the beauty of Scotland and we too appreciate their humility and hope. Despite all they have suffered, which is more than any of us can imagine, they look ahead to a new life, making plans—
I was just flicking through the figures. It is fantastic to hear how well the Syrian refugees have been welcomed—absolutely brilliant, and I am delighted to hear it—but why has North Lanarkshire not housed a single section 95 asylum seeker over the past few years? The other local authority that the hon. Gentleman mentioned was Renfrewshire, which housed just two.
There was a person in my constituency wanting to be accommodated under section 95 in Enfield, but he was unable to do that. He was directed to be housed not in Enfield but in Cardiff, in an area where the Government have a programme of section 95 support. Therefore he is being provided with support in the community, and voluntarily, in Enfield. Perhaps that will throw the figures given by the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) into sharp relief. There is a need to ensure that there is shared responsibility; but, unfortunately, authorities that want to open their doors as has been suggested may not be able to, because of the particular section 95 programme.
I am very grateful. I just want to point out that a number of people currently housed and seeking asylum in Dudley, from local authorities in north London, were sent there by those local authorities, which are paying for their care but prefer housing them in cheaper accommodation in the midlands to looking after them in north London. Perhaps the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) should discuss that with the local authorities.
I think the hon. Gentleman has made his point. Obviously, that is not really the issue that is being debated today.
Overwhelmingly, the families who have come to Renfrewshire have met a warm response; however, there is still a small vocal section of the population who are not so welcoming. My local paper, the Paisley Daily Express, ran a story with the headline “Shame on You”, which highlighted, exposed and shamed locals who posted nasty and bigoted messages on social media. I salute my local paper for shooting down those bigots and racists, but the story is a reminder that there still exists a section of the population that we have not won over.
The Government have committed to resettling only 20,000 refugees, compared with Germany’s 800,000. That rather larger “bunch of migrants” is 4,000% more than the UK’s. The question we should now all be asking ourselves is “What’s next?” What do we do next to help those still caught up and affected by the crisis? First, we need to reassess whether accepting 20,000 Syrian refugees is the limit of our compassion, capability and capacity. I argued at the time that we should be doing more to help play our part in this crisis, and I support Citizens UK in its call for a target of 50,000 rather than 20,000. The families and children fleeing conflict never asked for war, and it is important that we do all that we can to help them. That is why I would echo the calls made by Melanie Ward of the International Rescue Committee, who said:
“It cannot be argued that accepting 4,000 Syrian refugees per year—or around six per parliamentary constituency—is our fair share of the millions who have fled Syria—this is more the case now than ever before”.
To house 50,000 refugees requires massive local government resources; yet the Scottish National party Government in Edinburgh is cutting Glasgow’s budget—it is the mainstay of asylum seeker reception in Scotland—by £130 million a year. How can the hon. Gentleman justify calling for 50,000 refugees while the council’s budget is being cut by that much?
I will gladly go back to the topic in hand—thanks very much.
As well as reassessing the 20,000 target, the UK Government have to look at the funding of local authorities that are housing refugee families. I have spoken with the leader of Renfrewshire Council, who has confirmed that, although there is an indication that there may be funding allocated for years 2 to 5, that, and the level of any future funding, are still to be confirmed. Will the Minister give Renfrewshire Council that guarantee and, if so, let it know to what level the funding will be allocated?
Let us debate this issue but let us also follow up our debate with meaningful action. We have a proud humanitarian tradition in this country. However, with the UK now taking more formal and direct military intervention in Syria, we have an onus and responsibility to take more Syrian families, who are now fleeing not only Daesh and Assad but bombs dropped from American, Saudi, French, Australian, Turkish, Jordanian and British bombers. As we are now very much one of the push factors involved in the mass migration, we owe it to those in flight to offer refuge for a lot more than 20,000.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) on bringing this matter forward for debate. It is an important issue that cannot be ignored. Everyone has an opinion on it and it is nearly impossible to avoid it. The migrant crisis was one of the defining issues of 2015, because it affected everyone. Whether it is the negative consequences in Cologne or the success stories of relocated refugees settling into their new society, it is a major issue that will take some time to resolve. At the extremes in the UK are those who say we can take no more, and those who say, “Open the door wide.” Somewhere in between we must get a balance, and I think, in fairness, the Government have grasped that to an extent.
More than 13.5 million Syrians need help, of whom 6.5 million are internally displaced, and 4.2 million Syrians have fled abroad, mostly to neighbouring countries in the region. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) spoke of the plight of persecuted Christians, and 600,000 Christians have been displaced in Syria. They went all over the place. Many were given the ultimatum: convert or die. To continue to practise their religious beliefs, they had to leave. We cannot ignore those issues.
Many of those who fled were traumatised, as well, so it is about not just finding a new home but living with the horrors that they have experienced. The Minister has done extremely well, and the Prime Minister has given his commitment. The Government clearly have an objective of addressing the issues, and British DFID funding is very effective.
Syrian nationals were only the fourth largest group of asylum applicants in the year ending September 2015. We need to be careful about the migrant crisis, because it is clear that some illegal immigrants set on purely economic migration are capitalising on the plight of Syrian refugees. Figures from the UNHCR show that about 60% of migrants arriving in the bloc countries are now economic migrants. Slightly more than 10% of Syrians who have fled the conflict have sought protection in Europe, and some 681,700 asylum applications were made between April 2011 and October 2015. I am not a pro-European—you will know that, Mr Gray, as will other hon. Members—but the European Commission has given each resettled Syrian refugee some €6,000, and money can be drawn down. In reality, the numbers that we have are only the tip of the iceberg, and thousands more people are making their way through Europe undocumented.
Regardless of the approach we take, we need to ensure that refugees are processed correctly to give genuine refugees the dignity they deserve and to root out potential criminal elements or security threats, which have clearly happened. Northern Ireland has offered free English lessons, a move that is sure to help vulnerable people to settle and to integrate into their host society. Some 1,000 refugees crossed to Northern Ireland just last year. Those lessons will make life easier for everyone by helping refugees to integrate and offsetting any social or cultural tensions that may arise. They will cost some £20,000 a year and will be a long-term investment, ensuring translation services and covering other expenses associated with providing services to those who cannot speak English, to help integration into Ulster and Northern Irish society. Those who want to learn Ulster Scots can do so, but it is most important that they learn English. Some may want to learn Irish also. The lessons will apply only to refugees and not to economic migrants, a move that will ensure that only those in real need will benefit from lessons at a cost to the public purse. Illegal economic migrants cannot take advantage of the generosity being offered to refugees.
Many churches and charities have been involved, as hon. Members have said. Whenever there is a crisis, people come together and those who can help do help. Churches in Northern Ireland have risen to the challenge, as have charities.
Sweden and other countries have provided social instruction classes, particularly on how to treat women, because it is important to address such issues. Those classes have been successful in helping to educate refugees about how to behave appropriately in western society. We could learn from that innovative approach, which would go some way to improving integration and ensuring we do not have another Cologne.
We have all seen the distressing images of people drowning while desperately trying to cross the Mediterranean. One would have a heart of stone not to have been moved by some of things we have seen. However, the European Commission’s chief spokesman has admitted that the majority of people moving across Europe are in fact economic migrants. We need to ensure that only those in genuine need can avail themselves of services such as the English lessons in Northern Ireland, and that we discourage those who are not in such desperate need from making the perilous and often fatal journey to Europe.
We must address the migration issue in Syria—we cannot address it only here. We are reactive, but we need to be proactive in Syria. The issue will not go away, and as we start to welcome more and more refugees into the United Kingdom the innovative approaches in Northern Ireland that I have mentioned should be shared and discussed in Scotland and across the United Kingdom’s political institutions, to ensure that the resettling and integration of refugees is as efficient and smooth as possible.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that British military action in Syria is confined to bombing oil fields, disrupting ISIS and helping to bring the conflict to a conclusion? It is unlikely to result in a wave of more refugees arriving on our shores, as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) suggested a moment ago.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Obviously he has a particular point of view, and an important one, but when we need a global strategy, we must sometimes do deals with people we do not want to do deals with. We have to look at how best we can come together as a world—NATO, Europe as a whole and the countries bordering Syria—to ensure that some sort of stability is returned to it. If that happens, people can go home again, and I think that is where they really want to be.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for bringing this extremely important and timeous debate to the House. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak in it as a member of the Select Committee on International Development, having been involved in the recent inquiry into the Syrian refugee crisis.
Feedback from Scotland, including from local authorities, is positive—400 refugees of the initial 1,000 have been settled in Scotland. There is still a long way to go, but we are certainly making excellent progress in that regard. I understand that Ministers are visiting refugees around Scotland as we speak. More work is needed to ensure that refugees do not feel isolated and that we have English classes that are appropriate and sufficient for their needs.
It is important that refugees’ needs are matched to local areas and that over the longer term, they can utilise any skills, qualifications and experience they may have. As the hon. Lady said, that process should be expedited and any healthcare and psychological support that may be required to help their adaptation should be provided.
Following on from the International Development Committee’s report, I echo the comment of the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) that it is extremely important to ensure that the most vulnerable individuals are assessed and registered by UNHCR. They are not all able to reach camps, particularly those with disabilities or learning difficulties, those in rural areas, Christians and minority groups. Will the Minister ensure that data are disaggregated so that we can ensure that vulnerable groups across the board are fully included in the resettlement process?
I commend DFID and the Minister for their work on resettlement and in the camps. It is important to ensure, as DFID has tried to do, that children have access to education, safety and child protection, and that refugees have the opportunity to work. That is a task in progress.
However, humanitarian crisis funding is not sufficient for long-term planning, particularly when crises are protracted over many years. We must look at funding issues and ensure that needs are met in the long term. Will the Minister ensure in discussions with Turkey and other partners that stipulations on the provision of assistance are met, so that refugees have access to education, healthcare and employment, and that a scrutiny process is enacted and long-term outcome data are collected?
Reports by Save the Children estimate that 26,000 child refugees arrived in Europe without any family in 2015. Children on their own are extremely vulnerable, and figures reported by Italy indicate that of the 13,000 unaccompanied children who arrived through its borders in 2014, almost 4,000 have subsequently disappeared, with concerns that they may have fallen victim to people trafficking. A study from Belgium in 2008 revealed that unaccompanied refugee children and adolescents are five time more likely than accompanied refugee minors to demonstrate severe or very severe symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. That obviously has implications for their vulnerability and resettlement.
Save the Children has led calls for 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees in Europe to be resettled in the UK, in addition to the 20,000 already accepted. That amounts to five children per parliamentary constituency. In September 2015, the Prime Minister indicated that the Government will continue to discuss the proposal, but no decision has yet been made. I reiterate that unaccompanied child refugees are a particularly vulnerable group and need urgent help.
The recommendation of the International Development Committee was resettlement in the UK of 3,000 unaccompanied children, and that proposal is supported by the Scottish Government. However, that is the tip of the iceberg in Europe. I request that the Minister collaborate and speak with European partners to ensure that unaccompanied children are registered, that child protection issues are engaged with extremely quickly, that childcare workers and staff are employed and that children do not continue to go missing within Europe.
I thank the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent again. She spoke extensively and eloquently about the efforts that her local authority has made and about the emotional and practical requirements of refugees when they are resettled and local arrangements are made. She described her own profound experience of visiting refugee camps and the impact that has had on her understanding.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) discussed the importance of delivering on the pledge, raised important issues in relation to the EU and the wider context, and said that it is vital to address the political situation in Syria. Of course, we would all agree about that.
The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate discussed the issues of human dignity and vulnerability and reiterated points about minority groups, which I emphasise. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) spoke about local best practice initiatives and shared learning on resettlement in his area. The hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) spoke eloquently about his own historical family situation and about the need for councils across the UK to engage equally in the process. That should also be addressed.
Order. I say to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that it is a normal courtesy for those who have taken part in the debate to remain present throughout the winding-up speeches. It is not considered courteous to leave the debate during the winding-up speeches, but if any hon. Member does so, he will find that he is not called in subsequent debates. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. [Interruption.] Order.
A number of hon. Members have asked specific questions of the Minister. Therefore, I will be brief so that he gets the chance to give answers to the questions that people want answered.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), not only on securing the debate but on the tone and content of her contribution at the start. I, too, have been to the camp in Calais. I went just three weeks ago. I went to Calais and to Dunkirk, and the conditions there are truly appalling. That is the case particularly at Dunkirk, which—for those hon. Members who have not been—is basically a forest in which there is a swamp. On the ground is mud, water, urine and everything else that one would expect to find mixed in when there are no toilets or running water. In the middle of that, on any piece of semi-firm soil, are pitched flimsy tents. I do not think that anybody could go in any capacity to those camps and not come back a changed person.
Of course, the camps include Syrians among other nationalities. That is not surprising. The figures have already been given. More than half of the pre-war population of Syria are in need of help—13.5 million of 22 million—6.6 million people are internally displaced and 4.3 million have fled abroad, so there are Syrians in Dunkirk, Calais and many other places across Europe. I saw there—in Dunkirk in particular—in the flimsy tents, settling down for the night, at 4.30 because there is no electricity and no lights and it was getting dark, children the same age as my own. I met individuals such as the Iraqi Kurd who showed me around. He explained that he had fled with his family because he was given an ultimatum by ISIS as it was coming into his town to join it or die. He ran for his life with such of his family as he could and is now in Dunkirk.
I acknowledge everything that the Minister has done in his brief so far. He will know just how important language is. I ask him, for that Iraqi Kurd and the others in the camps, whether he will distance himself from what I thought were disappointing comments from the Prime Minister this morning when he described people in those camps as “a bunch of migrants”. Some of the people in the camps will have been deeply disappointed and hurt to have been described in that way, because they hold our politicians—our leaders—in very high esteem.
May I touch on a couple of issues of process? In those camps and others across Europe, among the Syrians who have fled are individuals who are undoubtedly entitled, under the Dublin III arrangements, to be reunited with their families already in the UK, yet on the ground it is clear that that process is not working; it is not working in Calais or Dunkirk. I ask the Minister whether it is possible to have an urgent review of the Dublin III arrangements—the practical operation on the ground.
The voluntary resettlement programme was started, I think, in January 2014 and extended in September 2015 to the 20,000 Syrian refugees. That is welcome. On all sides, we should always say that it is welcome that that initiative has been taken by the Government; and the Government are right to ensure and insist that there are proper arrangements for those arriving, so that they can be housed, they have proper welfare, they have proper support and they have education. Given the various contributions made today, it may be time to review quite how and where people are located, but it is a very welcome initiative.
It was perhaps wrong to fix a cap in 2015 when we do not know what will happen during the next five years. I hope that the number can be revisited, because all the predictions are for a greater number of refugees next year even though we have already had a record year. We may need to come back to the 20,000 figure to see whether it needs to be revised.
I do ask the Minister and the Government—I have done so on a number of occasions—to give serious consideration to the question of unaccompanied children. There are 26,000 across Europe; 3,000 have been specifically identified by Save the Children and others. These are children on their own in Europe. Some may well have the right to be reunited with people in this country. It is probably unlikely to be their mother and father, but could be more distant family. This is Holocaust Memorial Day—a very important day when we consider children on their own in Europe. I ask the Government to look very seriously at the now very powerful case for taking some among that number of unaccompanied children.
I will turn now to two issues raised by other Members. When asylum seekers arrive in this country, whether from Syria or elsewhere, it is important that they are treated with dignity and respect. We have had, for the second week running, examples of treatment that has not been thought through and is deeply offensive to anybody with any experience of working with and for refugees. The red doors policy in Middlesbrough was raised in the House last week, and it was the wristbands in Cardiff this week. We need to appreciate several important points in those cases. Both examples have come to the attention of the House and been debated only because of the work of journalists. As I understand it, a Home Office inspection regime looks at the arrangements for asylum seekers to ensure the quality and so on of the accommodation and support that they are given. I called last week, and I call again now, for an urgent review of the arrangements to ensure that those sorts of crass arrangements are weeded out as fast as possible and to ensure that they were confined to Middlesbrough and Cardiff—in other words, to check that similar practices in other parts of the country will not come to the attention of the House in future weeks. Such a review is much needed.
I return to where I started. The steps that have been taken so far are welcome and should be supported on all sides, but it is time for the Government to look at whether we can go further in a number of material respects.
As always, it is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) for securing the debate and for her contribution. The Opposition, in all their forms—Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, the Scottish National party and everyone else—have been very helpful in everything that the Government have done on the Syrian resettlement programme. That does not mean that the Opposition have not been critical, but I think we all realise that we all have exactly the same intention.
However, ladies and gentlemen of the jury—if this were a jury, as in the former profession of the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) —I am a little bit off my normal form, owing to the shock of being complimented by the Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). That stopped me concentrating for a moment.
I want to reiterate something that the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) said, which I may have overlooked in my comments. During my research for the debate, I heard so many positive things about the Home Office and the Minister’s work. He certainly deserves the praise that he has received.
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. If I could receive such comments during the rest of my political career, I would be fortunate. We have very little time. With permission, I will attempt to answer most of the questions that have been asked, but if by chance I miss anything, I would be happy to discuss it privately with any Member of this House. Quite a few of the questions were grouped together, so I will try to summarise them.
There has been a bit of a misunderstanding about local authorities and the criteria for deciding where refugees should be settled. I have a lot of respect for the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin)—we are both very interested in holocaust affairs and are involved in the Holocaust Educational Trust, of which I am a trustee—and we agree on most things. However, the list of people settled under the asylum programme is fundamentally different from the system that is used in the resettlement programme, and that is the reason for the confusion between him and my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent. Local authorities have come forward to help in many areas, such as Ashford in Kent. I pay tribute to the leader of Ashford Borough Council, who passed around a video to other local authorities saying how welcome refugees are in Ashford. The council has resettled quite a lot of families.
I am sorry, but I really do not have time, because we have only got five minutes and I have got loads of things to say. Participation in the resettlement scheme is voluntary for local authorities. I would like to cover the finance point, because one of the very good contributions from the Scottish Members had a slight mistake in it. It is not just year 1 funding that has been arranged; there is a full programme for years 2 to 5. I am happy to go into detail in writing or to talk to hon. Members about it. Suffice it to say, within the time available, that most local authority leaders are quite satisfied with the funding, because years 2 to 5 are provided for.
As far as local authorities are concerned, the Government are conscious of the fact that settlement requires more than housing. That housing is provided predominantly by private landlords and paid for through local authorities, but with Government funds, deliberately so as not to interfere with the housing stock in those areas. In addition, each area is responsible for programmes to welcome people, introduce them to the local community and ensure that they register with doctors, schools and so on. I mention that because one of the faults of previous such programmes was that people were housed but forgotten about, and we are determined that that will not happen. Those are valid points to raise.
The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee made many erudite points, one of which was to ask what the Government were going to do about all the offers of spare rooms and shelter. He mentioned the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom I was with this morning—
Indeed, and your name was mentioned—not your name, Mr Gray, but the right hon. Gentleman’s. I apologise for not mentioning your name to the Archbishop, Mr Gray; I know that you know him very well.
On a serious point, we cannot take up the kind offers of spare rooms in people’s houses because we are not interested in providing temporary accommodation to refugees. Our programme is intended to settle people where they will live, if not permanently, for the foreseeable future. However, that does not mean that we are not using all those offers of help. I discussed the matter this morning with the Archbishop. He is, by the way, in touch with Lambeth Council, and I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Leicester East has such a low opinion of Labour councils and their housing departments that he thinks that he would not be treated properly.
Putting that to one side for the moment, we are considering lots of other things through community sponsorship so that those kind offers can be used. One example is mentoring people into jobs, which is being trialled in a scheme in Bradford at the moment. Another is twinning families with other families, who can help by taking them to job interviews and English language lessons, which we are encouraging. We are doing lots of community sponsorship things—I would be happy to go into them on another occasion, but I am conscious of the time—so the good will of those people is absolutely not being turned away.
I will leave the right hon. Gentleman’s running commentary points for the moment, because there may be another occasion to discuss that. He said that it was very important that we include the diaspora of Syrians who already live here. I met all the groups during my first few weeks in office and I asked them to form one umbrella organisation, which they have done. I met some of them yesterday, and I will meet more of them tomorrow, to make sure that they are used in all the areas where they have people. A slight problem is that they are concentrated in certain areas and not present in many areas where refugees are going, but they are being very co-operative.
The point about religious minorities is particularly important, because there has been a general belief that our system of taking people from the UNHCR, using the vulnerability criteria, is all well and good, but that some people—particularly Christians, but also other minorities—have been left out. I am determined that that will not happen. There is one rule on which I think the Government have every right to be inflexible, and that is that people have to register with the UNHCR, because it is the only way in which we can work out the vulnerability points, such as health and all the other things that we deal with. However, I have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Catholic Bishop Patrick Lynch, whom I met last week, and every other body that we work with to give us evidence of places where there are pockets of people who are not registered. The Department for International Development is funding the UNHCR to provide outreach staff to register those people. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) that on meeting a Catholic bishop who came back from Jordan last week, I was told for the first time that there are green shoots, with more evidence of Christians registering. I want to make it clear that the Government have no policy of discriminating against Christians or anybody else, because what we are interested in is vulnerability.
As far as the contributions from Scottish Members are concerned—I am sorry to group them together, but there is not time to go through their individual contributions—I pay tribute to the way in which the Scottish Government, the Scottish local authorities and the Home Office have worked together. It is a very good model for democracy, because no one cares about who is in which party or about trying to score points off each other, and the end product has been extremely good. I cannot stress that enough, and I can say that because I have experienced it myself.
This is a very complex issue. A lot of people have mentioned the 3,000 children, and have said that 20,000 refugees is not enough. It is certainly true that hundreds of thousands could be picked out. I would like to stress two points in my remaining time. First, hon. and right hon. Members must remember that the 20,000 is a small part of our overall humanitarian policy. Most of our work is in the countries adjoining Syria, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and I think that this country can be proud of that work. One Member mentioned Germany. Germany has a lot of migrants, but compared with Germany, we do a lot of work on the ground on matters such as accommodation and health. It works both ways. There has been a lot of talk about the children, and all I can say in the few seconds I have left is that the Prime Minister is considering the situation, and I believe we can expect an announcement shortly. I am sorry that I cannot give any more information than that, but the points have been very well made.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the resettlement of Syrian refugees.
Small Businesses: Late Payments
[Albert Owen in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered late payments to small businesses.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, for the first time in this Parliament.
One of the biggest drags on small and medium-sized businesses—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
As I was saying, one of the biggest drags on small and medium-sized businesses is the scourge of late payments. Timely cash inflow is the lifeblood of a small business. It is the difference between growth and stagnation, between profit and loss and, in some cases, between success and failure. There are some 5.4 million private sector businesses operating in this country, and more than 99% of them are small businesses, with 4.1 million consisting of just one person. The last thing someone in that position needs is the late payment of invoices by customers.
A recent survey by the Federation of Small Businesses concluded that central Government Departments and Government agencies tend to pay reasonably promptly, with more than 70% of invoices being paid early or on time. By contrast, more than 50% of invoices from SMEs to larger businesses are paid late. Research from Bacs Payment Schemes Ltd, published in February 2015, revealed that more than three quarters of UK businesses are being forced to wait at least a month beyond their agreed contract terms before getting paid. The Bacs research also found that SMEs bear the brunt of late payments. At the time, £41.5 billion was owed in late payments across the British economy. Some £9 billion was owed to larger corporates but a staggering £32 billion was owed to small and medium-sized businesses.
The late payment difficulties for SMEs are further compounded by the additional costs that have to be borne by businesses as a result of late payments, which average around £700 a month per SME, including staff costs for chasing late invoices. That equates to a total cost to small businesses across the year of more than £8 billion. The Minister is working incredibly hard on this, and the Government are committed to cutting £10 billion of red tape over the course of this Parliament. Can colleagues imagine what would happen if we also managed to eradicate £8 billion of late payment costs from SMEs? It would provide exactly the sort of boost to jobs, productivity and economic growth that the Government want to encourage.
Smaller companies have told the FSB about the very real costs of late payments: reduced profitability; lateness in paying their own suppliers; difficulties in paying staff; lateness in paying Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and all the negative consequences of that action; and, ultimately, lost contracts. There is also the very real risk of insolvency.
Turnover and sales are the predominant drivers for a small businessman, but does my hon. Friend agree that cash flow is a big problem and that the smaller the business, the bigger the problem it is? Consequently, when large companies withhold payment, a small business often cannot implement any early payment schemes because the large company can just go to somebody else and another small business will take the hit for them.
The adage that cash is king matters most to the smallest businesses, so my hon. Friend is right that cash flow is vital for a small business, as it is for larger businesses. The sum total of all this is that the very real risk of insolvency sometimes results from late payments. A poll of 1,000 business owners carried out in August 2015 by the electronic invoicing network Tungsten showed that more than 20% of businesses faced with unpaid invoices were having a brush with insolvency, and some of them, sadly, were having more than a brush.
The complaints that have come in to me from the Thames valley area as a result of my work with the FSB are wide-ranging and come from a range of industry sectors. I hear that large companies apply pressure in all sorts of different ways. Pressure is being applied to accept 90 to 180-day payment plans, fees are being charged to remain an approved supplier, and all sorts of complicated processes for submitting invoices have to be followed. Sometimes, payment is simply delayed with no reasonable excuse whatsoever.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Many SMEs in my constituency have expressed exactly the same concerns and fears. Does he agree that SMEs are effectively at the mercy of larger companies and that their survival depends on these cash payments being paid, and being paid quickly?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and I will address the culture of late payments within big businesses, which is sadly prevalent in the UK but is perhaps not always the case in other jurisdictions.
I will quote some of the businesses with which I have been in contact. A machined plastic parts supplier that has been doing business for 50 years without any problems suddenly found that a large company it had been dealing with demanded payment of a non-negotiable fee to a third party to remain on an approved supplier list. The supplier said that it had reported the situation to the large company’s
“own ethics team who seem to think it is normal business practice and I have had it confirmed that we will be de-listed if we do not pay.”
An SME with 10 people and a turnover of less than £2 million that supplies goods and services to large telecommunications companies in the UK and Ireland contacted me:
“I could write a book on the various hoops we have to jump through”.
The examples provided by the SME include self-imposed cash arrangements by large companies and pressure to accept long payment terms.
A direct supplier to a local authority contacted me. It has had that contract for a long time, but it was suddenly told that it had to procure work through a particular procurement portal. The supplier told me:
“It was free to register (ignoring the not-insignificant effort in doing so), but the portal company then informed us that ‘a 5% fee...will be deducted from your agreed rate for each work opportunity you secure via the portal’”.
That is a 5% mandatory fee being put on a small business, which is completely unacceptable. The owner of the business went on to tell me in conversation:
“In our opinion as a small business unable to fight the process, this amounts to supplier bullying.”
I have had businesses in the construction sector contact me. One said:
“Our industry (construction) is full of poor payment practices despite the Construction Act.”
Finally, a service provider that supports pharma and medical device companies across Europe wrote:
“We have experienced very late payments with UK based companies only, either by paying after 90 days…or after starting legal proceedings. In contrast working for a German based company we do get our invoices settled usually within 2 weeks.”
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) made a point about corporate culture. As we have heard, these problems are cross-sector and do not relate to just one part of British industry. Having run a business in Germany myself, I can tell the House from personal experience that German corporates are generally pretty good at paying on time. In Britain, some large businesses have developed a culture of late payment over the years. Squeezing small suppliers has been considered normal business practice, and hang the negative consequences for the supplier. The risk of late payment in Britain is considered to be higher than in many other European nations, according to the latest European payment index, and it is clearly not an acceptable way of carrying on.
In the past few days, colleagues will have seen the outcome of the Tesco discussions. To be fair, Tesco contacted me before this debate and told me:
“Smaller suppliers with spend from us under £100,000 a year, will move to 14 day payment terms.”
That is a win for the adjudicator, for small businesses and, ultimately, for Tesco and British business in addressing the culture of large companies in doing business with small suppliers.
What are the Government doing? I am sure the Minister will talk about the measures to address late payments that have been implemented, or are planned to be implemented, but I will highlight a few areas on which I would be interested in getting feedback either now or in writing, if the answers are not readily available.
The first is the strengthening of the prompt payment code, which clearly has happened because of Government encouragement. It is a real success and a badge of honour for businesses. Also, thanks to the input from the Government, not only has the number of companies signing up to the code increased but the code has been strengthened so that 30-day payment terms are now considered standard and 60-day payment terms a maximum.
One of the suggestions made to me by the FSB is that the Government should commit to making sure that any supplier that supplies to Government should sign up to the code; being a signatory should be an absolute requirement before a company starts to supply any Government body or agency. I would be very interested in hearing the Minister’s views on that suggestion.
The second point is with regard to the EU directive relating to late payments. Of course, that directive was originally based on pre-existing UK law and it requires that businesses pay their suppliers within 60 days or face interest payments on money owed. However, the UK implementation of the directive allows businesses to agree longer terms
“provided it is not unfair to the creditor.”
For a small business, even 90 days is a very long time to wait to get paid. Given that the prompt payment code suggests that 60 days be considered a maximum period for payment, will the Minister consider amending the legislation to ensure that 60 days is considered the mandatory maximum period for paying suppliers?
Thirdly, I welcome the requirement from April this year for large and listed companies to publish their payment practices twice a year. Can the Minister confirm whether this piece of secondary legislation is on track and what the definition of a “large company” is? Is it one that has more than 250 employees? That is certainly the European definition of a large company.
My fourth and final point relates to the Government’s plans to establish a small business commissioner, who will help to solve complaints from small businesses about late payments. I hope that the Minister will agree that the commissioner needs to be an individual who commands respect across the business community. Perhaps it could be a former chief executive officer of a large business. I would not go so far as to say that we should get a poacher turned into a gamekeeper, but I think she will know what I mean. I know that we will have the Second Reading debate of the Enterprise Bill in the coming days, but hopefully she can provide a bit of commentary on the role of the commissioner. I welcome the creation of the commissioner; they will help SMEs, but only if they are seen to have some real teeth. If they come to be seen simply as a postbox for complaints, I am afraid they will lose the confidence of SMEs and will not command the respect of large businesses.
The FSB wants the scope and remit of the commissioner to be broadened to consider complaints about poor payment practices in the public sector as well, which I understand is not currently the role that has been prescribed for it. The FSB is also rather keen that the commissioner should have the power to make referrals to the Competition and Markets Authority. Both these suggestions are worthy of serious consideration. I would be interested to know the Minister and the Government’s view of them, if not today then perhaps in the Second Reading debate.
As I have said, there are more than 5 million small businesses in the UK. I do not think anyone expects that the commissioner will set up a huge administrative bureaucracy, mechanically processing complaints, so there needs to be a holistic approach for dealing with complaints. What I would like to see is the commissioner establishing a public register or website, loosely based on those that review holiday destinations, on which SMEs could enter verified complaints about late payments or poor supplier policies practiced by their customers.
Once SMEs start coming forward with issues, many of which will be recurring in terms of their scope and the identity of offending large companies, that will enable the commissioner to spot patterns of poor behaviour within different sectors. The commissioner should certainly have the power to bring CEOs from big companies around a table to ensure that they act collectively to end poor practices. I think we would find that if we were able to tackle 20% of the problems that are identified, that would solve 80% of the problems related to late payments.
Eradicating late payments will provide a boost to jobs, growth and productivity, and I am absolutely convinced that greater transparency will help to eliminate what I regard as a corporate disease.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) on securing this debate on an important topic. We know that late payment is one of the biggest complaints that small businesses have. They rightly complain about what are effectively two types of late payment. One is when they supply services or goods to people, and as part of the terms and conditions of the contract they find themselves almost over a barrel. They do not want to turn away business or fall out with an important customer, so they sign up to terms and conditions that in a modern age are, frankly, unacceptable.
Of course, someone can take action against anybody who breaks the terms of a contract. They can go to court, but for obvious reasons there is a reluctance to go to court. It costs money, and it could also sour the relationship between the two parties, which would not be good for the smaller business. It is important to put on the record that, for our purposes, when we refer to a small business we are referring to any business that employs fewer than 250 people. That ranges from a very small business, or even a microbusiness that employs between one and five people, to companies with much bigger turnovers that employ up to 250 people. The small business sector is huge and, as we know, it is absolutely the engine of our economy.
The second type of complaint comes from businesses that have signed up to being paid within a certain period, only to find that term or condition of the contract is broken. As I have explained, they feel reluctant to go to law, but there is a remedy available to them.
As I say, there are two types of complainants: those who find themselves signing up to onerous terms and conditions in the first place, and those who, having signed up to a contract that may on paper include good terms regarding when payment will be made, nevertheless find that the company’s practice is to breach those terms. They do not really want to go to law. I accept, and the Government absolutely recognise, the case that my hon. Friend makes that the situation we find ourselves in is unacceptable. Things have been getting better, but we know there is more to be done.
It is important that I put on the record my thanks to the Groceries Code Adjudicator for what happened yesterday, which in many ways was astonishing. What Tesco was doing was a scandal, but it was a great day for smaller businesses, which found themselves having a champion who did not pull her punches in criticising and exposing Tesco. After a year-long investigation, she made it very clear what Tesco had done, which was a flagrant breach of the groceries code.
As we know, since last April the Groceries Code Adjudicator, which was set up by the last Conservative-led Government, has had the power to impose fines of up to 1% of turnover. That is serious money for any business, but especially for big businesses. So credit where credit is due; yesterday was a good day for smaller businesses, and full credit to the adjudicator and to the last Government for doing all of that.
I will deal with a few important points, then I will come to my hon. Friend’s asks in a minute. The small business commissioner, which will be set up by the Enterprise Bill, will have a specific role of considering the problem of late payment. The commissioner might want to look at other things as well, but primarily he or she will look specifically at that problem.
We know that people can go to law if there is a breach of contract. The small business commissioner will look at the practices that lead to unfair terms and conditions and at those that mean people breach terms and conditions and make late payments. What I am looking for in the commissioner is somebody who will take up the complaints of much smaller businesses, which invariably reflect trends in what bigger companies are doing.
The real aim is to change the culture. My hon. Friend said that the problem stems from a culture that is unacceptable in this day and age, and I want the small business commissioner to change that culture. He was right to ask for the commissioner to have some teeth, but then they would turn into a very different creature and we would have to go down the route of having someone whose role was quasi-judicial. In any event, people can take to court a claim for breach of contract, and we will be wildly encouraging mediation. That will be another role of the small business commissioner. We do not want to create a quasi-judicial role, because we would be beginning to get into quango land. I want someone who has respect and authority, so that when a phone call is made the bigger companies do not flinch but pick up the phone. It is about banging heads together and changing the culture.
I agree with the Minister, of course; we certainly do not want another quango. That would not help anyone, particularly small businesses. Does she agree that whoever is appointed to the role has to be a serious and hugely respected business figure? They have to be respected by small and large businesses, because it is the office and their individual personality that will help to drive things and get large businesses around a table when heads need to be banged together.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. The person we appoint will be critical in achieving what we want. We want someone with gravitas, so that when a telephone call goes to a chief executive, that chief executive does not hesitate to say, “This is a call I have to take. This is someone I have to listen to.” When I spoke to the Australian equivalent, what struck me was that when he has that conversation with a chief executive and tells them, “Did you know what your finance team are now saying has to be in the terms and conditions for small businesses?”, invariably the chief executive says, “I had no idea what was going on. That is absolutely unacceptable, and that is not how we do business.” It is fair to say that the new chief executive of Tesco, for example, was clear yesterday that it will no longer treat smaller businesses in that dreadful way. I welcome the change in policy so that very small suppliers will be paid within 14 days, but we must be clear that they supply only about £150,000 of goods to Tesco. They are very small contracts, and I look forward to Tesco extending its new-found policies to all its suppliers across the piece.
The small business commissioner will be expected to have a website. I want it to be a series of portals that will show small businesses where they can go for advice, especially on mediation. I am not sure about the idea of turning it into a sort of TripAdvisor. I always get a little nervous about people being able to post things, which would require a lot of regulation to ensure that no one was saying anything defamatory. I want to make it absolutely clear that the small business commissioner will produce an annual report, in which they will be expected to name and shame all those who are not doing the right thing by small businesses, especially in relation to prompt payment. What happened with Tesco yesterday was so important because it was all across the media, and damage to a business’s reputation is hugely important and hugely powerful.
The Minister is being generous with her time. I hear what she is saying about the potential risks of a TripAdvisor-type website, although such websites of course operate already, so I am sure that it is possible to construct something that might work. Whatever mechanism is used, we need to ensure that there is a way of getting complaints in and processed in a timely and fast way. I reiterate that the last thing we want is a quango, and I know she does not want that either.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Speed is of the essence. We have reduced the maximum size of company that can make a complaint. The limit will be around the 50-employee mark, because we anticipate that there will be a lot of complaints. Those companies will be symptomatic of a way of doing things in particularly large businesses and of culture. We think that we are aiming in the right direction to get the sort of results that we want.
We introduced new reporting requirements in 2015 for the UK’s largest companies to report on their payment practices and performance, including invoices paid beyond agreed terms. I want to make it clear that those reports will be published in a central digital location, which sounds pretty ghastly, but most importantly it will do the trick. It will bring in the oxygen of publicity, which invariably cleanses things and makes them better. I am going to say something slightly controversial and be very blunt.
I know. It is not like me, and my officials are now having huge palpitations, but it says on my brief:
“Government is leading by example by paying its suppliers fairly and promptly.”
I wonder whether we really are. Shall we be truly honest about this? My hon. Friend gave an example of a local authority that is not doing that, and I have examples of local authorities that are not doing that. I have an example that was brought to me—I will not go into the detail of it now, but I will be taking it up in a serious way.
We all know that we have to be careful. We can make great headline statements, but when we drill down into the reality—most of us, certainly on the Government Benches, live in the real world—what sounds like a good headline is not borne out in practice. I have seen evidence that by the time something that looks like a Government contract has come through the first subcontractor, the next subcontractor and the next one, the payment terms are something in the region of 120 days, and I am concerned about that. That is not a fault of Government, because we have been clear about what we expect, but the danger with over-regulation is that there is always a way around it. The most important thing is changing the culture and policing it. People will be very clever in looking for the loopholes and different ways of doing things, but we have to ensure that we find them, track them down, expose them and ensure that those sorts of practices cease. I will be keen to take that up so that we practice what we preach.
The Minister is always at her best when she is being controversial. She raises the issue of how the public sector deals with small businesses, so can I come back to one point? Will she at least have another look at whether the small business commissioner should cover Government quasi-public bodies as well as private sector companies?
I absolutely do not have a problem with looking at that. I place on record, however, that I am looking at that now. I will not bore Members with all the details, but someone who is not a constituent came to see me. He runs an excellent small business called Caunton Engineering. By bad fortune for some of the contractors, he happens to chair the relevant committee for his sector. I am taking the issue seriously, and we will look into it to ensure that we are doing the right thing.
The last Government made huge strides forward with the prompt payment code and the publications that bigger companies have to make. The directive that my hon. Friend mentioned is wishy-washy. Am I going to say that we should change it? Actually, I do not want to over-regulate. I would much rather that we changed the culture rather than put strictures on small business, but he makes a good point. I will look at all the points he has raised, and I congratulate him on bringing the matter to our attention.
I feel proud: the Conservative party is undoubtedly the party of small business. We get it. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) is here, and he runs a small business, no doubt extremely well. We know the area and we understand it. What we now have to do is this: I ask all Members to bring me their examples, and I will not hesitate to take them up with bigger companies and be the champion of small businesses, to ensure that we deliver in the way that we want and encourage small businesses.
Iraq Historic Allegations Team
Because of time factors, if the Member who secured the debate takes 10 minutes, all the seven Back Benchers, including Mr Stewart, who have indicated that they want to speak will have four minutes before I bring in the Scottish National party and Labour party spokespersons for five minutes each, and the Minister will have 10 minutes to respond.
Thank you, Mr Owen, for overseeing our proceedings today. I am grateful to the Minister for being in her place and to so many colleagues for showing so much interest in this important matter.
I have a view of our armed forces that is similar to my view of other public services. Just as with the NHS and the police, I revere the people who work for those services for being the best at what they do and for showing exceptional courage and professionalism. I also accept that the armed forces, like other public servants, sometimes fail. In wanting them to remain the best armed forces in the world, I want there to be a proper sanctioned system, clearly understood by all ranks, to act as a deterrent against those who might break the rules of law. Here I admit a prejudice. As somebody who has served on operations and saw men under my command have their self-control tested to the extreme, I constantly wonder how young men, often with little education, can show such intelligent restraint at times of great provocation. I am only talking about Northern Ireland.
This year sees the 25th anniversary of the first Gulf war. Hundreds of thousands of young men and women have seen more combat in the quarter century since than in any period since the Korean war. To mark it, Help for Heroes, in conjunction with King’s College London, has produced an in-depth report that shows that roughly between 60,000 and 70,000 regular veterans and around 20,000 reservists will need our support in the coming years as they face the effects of combat. Those are the people I will talk about today and they should be our absolute priority.
I secured this debate because something has happened to some of our veterans in recent years that I think needs the urgent attention of Government. Some call it “lawfare”. It is having a profound effect on the morale of our armed forces and on how we will be able to fight wars in the future.
My hon. Friend is right, and I would add that when decisions are taken through judicial process, with the benefit of hindsight, sometimes more than a decade later, it is very hard to try and put oneself in the position of those who are taking the difficult action.
Does my hon. Friend agree with one of my constituents who explained in an email that the present wars are not the same as wars in the past, where it was obvious who the enemy was and certain standards were adhered to on both sides? We are working in very difficult times at the moment.
Most of the asymmetric conflicts that we have fought in recent years are extremely difficult. We are fighting an enemy who does not sign up to the Geneva convention and the basic rules of war. I will make suggestions for the Minister that I think might address those concerns. My hon. Friend is, as always, absolutely right.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) co-wrote a landmark report last year called, “Clearing the Fog of Law”. I recommend it to hon. Members. In it he makes some recommendations that are intellectually researched and will go a long way to address the problem that we discuss today. I am also grateful for any contribution to the debate from my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) whose understanding of these issues within the machinery of Government is second to none.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who has asked me to say he is sorry he cannot be here as he is in hospital, wrote a powerful article last week in which he described an action in which a sniper shot and killed an insurgent who was about to fire an RPG-7 round towards troops. The shot was made from 1,200 metres—an act of skill that is hard to imagine. However, in absolutist terms, it could be that this fatality was illegal as the sniper did not issue a verbal warning. To give such a warning in a language that an assailant can understand over that distance is clearly a ridiculous concept, even before you try to second-guess the thoughts racing through the sniper’s mind as he balanced the rules of engagement with the safety of his mates. I think he did the right thing. Now we are led to believe that he is being investigated because a firm of lawyers—sitting, no doubt, in the comfort of offices in London or Birmingham—have realised that there is money to be made here. The lawyers have tracked down the deceased’s family, who have no doubt been told of the riches available on a no win, no fee basis or possibly from legal aid. This has to stop.
The Iraq Historic Allegations Team was being set up in the last days of the previous Labour Government. It was put into operation by the coalition Government for a perfectly respectable reason, and no doubt also to offset some of the threats from international judicial processes, to tackle alleged crimes in that conflict.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. I was an opponent of the International Criminal Court Bill that was proposed by the Labour Government and would have subjected our soldiers to the International Criminal Court. I said at the time that
“we must foresee the possibility of the court saying that this country has been unwilling to take action although we believe that it would be inappropriate for our national courts to do so. In such circumstances we must provide maximum protection to our troops.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 1 May 2001; c. 247-48.]
Is it not the case that the Government introduced this because it feared that otherwise our troops would have been taken to the International Criminal Court?
I find it depressing that we are talking about this so long after my right hon. Friend made those remarks. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister what advice she has received about the need for the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. Perhaps the debate will be able to draw out some of the reasoning for it.
As we know, IHAT was set up in 2010 by the then Minister, Sir Nick Harvey, who in a written statement said that he expected it to complete its work within two years. In July 2014, the Secretary of State recognised that IHAT’s work was not going to be completed by the end of 2016. He approved additional funding of £24 million to cover the period from the end of 2016 to the end of 2019, which increased the level of funding of IHAT to £57.2 million. I want us to think of 2019 in relation to when some of the instances it is investigating actually took place.
IHAT employs 145 people and is still recruiting. The job specs actually say that contracts are initially short term, but are likely to be extended for significantly longer. The IHAT website gives 2019 as the likely date when it will complete its work. If it was exposing systematic and institutionalised war crimes, I would at least understand why such persistence was a good idea, and feel that the cost to the British taxpayer was justified. Estimates in the press say it costs £5 million a year, but other estimates vary. A look at IHAT’s website shows that 18 investigations have been completed, one of which has resulted in measures being taken against somebody, and a £3,000 fine being awarded. Of the others, 15 cases have been dropped and two cases have been passed to other authorities, but no action has been forthcoming.
By June last year, following a huge increase in IHAT’s caseload, the diagnosis was even worse. It is not necessary to be a mathematician to appreciate that, at this rate, the task of investigating allegations arising from the activities of British armed forces in Iraq will never be fully completed. The Ministry of Defence guide describes what has happened to the 59 allegations of unlawful killing that IHAT has reviewed up to this month: 34 cases have been closed, or are in the process of being closed, with no further disciplinary action; seven are currently subject to further limited, focused lines of inquiry; and 17 are under investigation. Only one of those cases was referred to the Director of Prosecutions, who directed that there should be no prosecution. So, on the face of it, that is not a great record.
At this stage, I want to make it clear that I do not blame the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. It no doubt has worthy detectives sifting the evidence, but after 10 years it is finding two things: evidential trails have run cold; and it is being inundated with claims, many spurious and many the result of the malign actions of lawyers, who see this is a Klondike-style fee-fest or, perhaps, as a way to get at the system that conducted what they believe to be an unjust war. If anyone doubts my last remark, I suggest looking at the interview on YouTube given by Mr Phil Shiner of Public Interest Lawyers to that great beacon of impartiality, Russia Today.
IHAT’s caseload now involves just over 1,500 alleged victims, 1,235 of whom are victims of ill treatment and 280 of unlawful killing. Given that backlog, the burden will hang over the heads of many of our veterans for many more months and probably years. That is utterly intolerable.
All that falls into the concept of what “Clearing the Fog of Law” calls “legal imperialism”. The worst case of such a culture are the allegations that culminated in the al-Sweady inquiry. The allegations surround actions taken during what became known as the battle for Danny Boy, a brutal attack on a checkpoint of that name resulting in a fierce firefight. British troops showed exceptional courage and resolve, and a number were decorated for bravery. The inquiry that followed cost £31 million; the fees were about £5 million. Some mistreatment was discovered, but the allegations of torture, mutilation and murder were baseless and the product, according to the judge, of “deliberate and calculated lies”.
The Government and many others have accused the two firms promoting the cases, Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day, of attempting “to traduce” the reputations of the Army units concerned. We have heard that the alleged actions of one of the law firms, Leigh Day, have resulted in referral to the Solicitors Regulation Authority. I hear that Public Interest Lawyers might also be referred to that body.
We could all take up lots of time venting our collective spleen at the behaviour of firms that trawl places such as Basra trying to convince people of the great riches in proving that they were victims of bad behaviour. We could take up much more time asking the shadow Defence Secretary, the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), why she and the Labour party thought it right to accept donations or donations in kind from those firms.
I share my hon. Friend’s feelings. Rather than spend the time talking about our views of those lawyers, however, which would be self-indulgent, I want to get to the bottom of this concept of legal imperialism.
I am glad that since I requested the debate the Prime Minister has announced that he has asked the National Security Council to produce a comprehensive plan to stamp out the industry. He is looking at banning no win, no fee schemes; he is speeding up the planned legal aid residency test; and he is strengthening penalties against firms that abuse the system, possibly even including suing those who have been found deliberately to withhold facts that could prove the innocence of the servicemen or women concerned.
That is all good stuff, but I want to press the Minister for more information on the timescale for the reforms. I suggest that they can only be seen as work in progress. May I respectfully suggest that the Minister add to the Prime Minister’s wish list the suggestions made in the report by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling?
In order to draw a line under the situation, for recent and future conflicts the Prime Minister should consider these powerful recommendations. The Government should derogate from the European convention on human rights in respect of future overseas armed conflicts, using the mechanism of article 15 of the convention. The Government should revive the armed forces’ Crown immunity from actions in tort during all future “warlike operations” overseas by ministerial Order under the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987. The Government should take the lead—this is important—in supporting efforts by the International Committee of the Red Cross to strengthen the Geneva conventions on the conditions of modern warfare, which addresses the point made in an early intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani). The Government should make an authoritative pronouncement of state policy, declaring the primacy of the Geneva conventions in governing the conduct of British forces on the battlefield.
I am grateful that we are having this debate. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that alongside the conflicts of the past we need to concentrate on the past in Northern Ireland as well? We should also look at a proactive media presence so that we are in front when defending our servicemen, rather than waiting for every case to get to the papers.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I support the plea by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) that incidents such as that of the arrest of Lance Corporal J of the Paras under caution should cease. Society wants a line drawn under such things. We seem to have moved too far towards favouring the actions of our enemies and we do not seem mindful enough of those to whom we owe a great debt.
The recommendations I have just outlined are clearly set out in the report of my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling. It makes it clear that we are not only talking about alleged victims of war crimes, excessive violence in combat or the mistreatment of prisoners. The definition of “lawfare” extends to the ability of the courts to judge the actions of commanders—decisions often taken in the heat of battle and then judged years later by people for whom such circumstances are alien and with the mantle of hindsight.
I go back to my own experience. I got to know well a 19-year-old soldier who, in a tense situation, shot and killed someone contrary to the so-called “yellow card” rules for opening fire. He was convicted for murder. The case has haunted me for 34 years. My worry is that the legal imperialism we have seen in recent years and the existence of organisations such as IHAT will put a dangerous caution in the minds of the sniper of the future. Rather than taking a life to save many, caution prompted by a fear of legal implications might, to quote my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex,
“put a splint around his trigger finger”.
The analogy extends into every area of war, involving everyone from the most junior soldier just out of training to the most gnarled veteran of a quarter century of expeditionary warfare. The Apache pilot, the mortar platoon commander and the frontline rifleman all need to be governed by the rule of law—but which law? That is the matter that the Minister and the Government must tackle with haste. However despicable we might think the actions of certain lawyers are, they are only responding to circumstances created by Governments past and present. My argument is that the rules we have created put our servicemen and women in greater danger in future. That cannot be right.
I pay huge tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for such an excellent speech and for bringing the subject to the Westminster Hall Chamber. I will now gabble through my speech in two minutes and 51 seconds.
As a former soldier, I welcome the opportunity to put on the record how deeply disturbing I find the relentless pursuit of our servicemen and women by unscrupulous and opportunistic lawyers. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to clamp down on the abuse, but I wish he would go further. I understand, however, that shutting investigations down would create an even more legalistic nightmare.
We all acknowledge that if and when atrocities are committed, or are alleged to have been committed, they need to be investigated. The Iraq Historic Allegations Team was established for that purpose in a genuine attempt to right historic wrongs and to deliver effective criminal investigation of allegations of murder, abuse and torture. In the case of Baha Mousa, for example, it worked.
One of the problems of the investigations now is the time that they are taking. Over the past five years, only a small number of the 1,500 cases have been looked at, and then only after nearly £60 million was given to IHAT to look into the allegations. Will the Minister comment on that when she sums up?
Another problem is that hundreds of the cases were fed to IHAT by only two legal firms, Public Interest Lawyers and Leigh Day.
I really do not have time, so I will fire on, if I may.
The perception is that left-leaning lawyers are intent on undermining one of the pillars of the establishment—namely, the armed forces. Given the opportunity, they are jumping to the task with relish. Unbelievably, it is alleged that middlemen touting for clients in Iraq received referral fees, which are prohibited, thus inviting fabrication and fantasy, which was never the intention. Those self-serving and unscrupulous firms have wrapped themselves in the banner of human rights, creating a compensation industry funded by the taxpayer.
Although I am delighted to learn that the gravy train is now coming off the rails, with both firms facing the Solicitors Regulation Authority and Leigh Day now referred to the solicitors disciplinary tribunal, the damage has been done and remains in the huge backlog of cases. For example, one British soldier could now in turn face investigations by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team and the International Criminal Court at the Hague; civil claims for compensation in the High Court; and finally an inquest by the Iraq fatality investigations—you couldn’t make it up!
Our soldiers are left feeling persecuted and betrayed. Those still serving are demoralised and people thinking of serving may think again. How on earth will we prosecute a war in the future if at every turn our servicemen and women fear being investigated for doing their duty, which, let us not forget, is to kill the enemy?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, especially in this debate, which has aroused so much interest around the country and goes to the heart of so much in UK politics at the moment. I thank the hon. and gallant Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for bringing the debate to the House.
There is no doubt that the personnel of our armed forces do their job with a minimum of fuss, operating in conditions that most civilians would find intolerable, usually to a remarkable standard, because of which they are worthy of our praise and we must take time to understand specific circumstances. However, just as those men and women are the pride of their communities, we can be proud of our record on human rights, rooted in historic documents such as Magna Carta and, in Scotland, the Declaration of Arbroath.
In this debate, we should remark on the fact that IHAT is something of a classic British fudge. The idea that we should allow the UK to uphold its commitment to human rights, while protecting those who have given so much from unnecessary legal intrusion, has instead become an underfunded, sub-prime body that has lost the confidence of many it purports to help. It is also unfortunate that this necessary debate has been somewhat hijacked by those who seem to be obsessed by promoting an anti-European agenda.
In my work in the Select Committee on Defence, on which I serve with the hon. Member for Newbury and others here today, it has been made clear to me that we have the most professional, dedicated and capable armed forces in the world. They are men and women who hold themselves to the highest standards both at home and abroad. I am sure we agree that they are experienced personnel and professionals who can account for and justify their decisions on the battlefield. That does not mean, however, that there is not room for improvement in their practices.
The three services are a result of steady evolution, adaptation and best practice. It must be noted that a strong commitment to human rights has played a vital part in that evolution. We must agree, however, that the allegations brought forward are serious. The very reputation of our armed forces—indeed, the reputation of the UK and its commitment to human rights—relies on proper adherence to procedures and the rule of law.
On the other side is the ridiculous list of cases brought forward that contain false or exaggerated allegations that exploit the fundamental character of the justice system. Soldiers who have served with distinction and valour in the Iraqi conflict should not be unnecessarily hounded. Many in my party are clear that those who abuse the system must be dealt with severely.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for his kind words and for calling for the debate. I will try to reduce my speech in so far as I can, but these matters did concern me in my working life for many years. I was in charge of the MOD’s litigation team in the Treasury Solicitor’s Department when the claims started flooding in in 2010. We faced a tsunami of litigation. I am not going to talk about individual cases, but I will give some recommendations from my experience.
First, IHAT was the least bad option available. The civil courts are not the place for criminal investigations to take place. Some of the claims made were very serious and needed to be investigated. IHAT is independent but secure. It is staffed by excellent officers who can investigate criminal allegations. Unlike the Baha Mousa inquiry, for example, they can refer cases to the Service Prosecuting Authority. Given where we are at the moment, IHAT should be encouraged to press on, but we should find new ways to deal with such issues in any future conflict.
Secondly, lawyers should not act without real clients with whom they are in touch and from whom they can take instructions. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] If, for example, offers of settlement are made, it is essential that a lawyer can get in touch with their client immediately; anything less makes litigation impossible.
Thirdly, access by IHAT officers to the Iraqi complainant should have been provided with speed, but it was not. I can see no explanation for that at all. There is no need, nor is it usual in police investigations, for those who complain of a crime to be represented by a lawyer from the other side of the world.
Fourthly, our disclosure rules should not be used to pervert the course of litigation and push the Ministry of Defence into a position where it feels it cannot defend itself or its soldiers. Fifthly, I support scrutiny of whether legal aid should be available to non-UK nationals bringing action against the Government. That money, in my view, would be much better spent on rebuilding Iraq than on lawyers based in the UK.
Sixthly, I think the UK should derogate from the European convention on human rights—I am certainly no anti-European—whenever we deploy soldiers abroad. The authors of the convention, who were writing at a time when the horror of the holocaust and the battlefield was still fresh, intended international humanitarian law to apply to soldiers. International humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict is robust law, designed for that very purpose; the ECHR is not.
In conclusion, we are not dealing in the main with the fog of the battlefield, but rather with the confusion of detention and interrogation. In Iraq, solders were detaining men who minutes before might have been shooting at them or killing their friends or who were believed to have had information that might have helped us to prevent further attacks on our troops. They were usually not in custody suites, offices or cells, and time for gathering information was perilously short. It was hot—
I do not want to repeat much of what has been said already, but as everyone knows the situation has got completely out of hand. It is beyond parody, because what we find ourselves in is not the product of any of the individuals now charged with sorting this out. Throughout the rest of the world, there is not another country whose legislators or political representatives are putting its servicemen and women through anything remotely similar. Every day, those same legislators use the freedom of speech and freedom of will that so many have fought so hard to defend. Indeed, we are the only first-world country that seems to take such a passive and reactive approach to anything to do with veterans’ affairs.
That we find ourselves in this situation is astonishing, baffling, embarrassing and wrong. That we can take a battlefield and all that goes into it—train hard, work hard and be the best we can possibly be to ensure success—and then have our homework marked by those whose love of this country does not wander far beyond their own bank balance is simply beyond me. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] We cannot withdraw from IHAT now—I accept that. That we are here is ridiculous, but here we are and we must, as ever, fight our way out.
What is really going on in this investigation? Our soldiers have retired police officers who have answered the noble call of exciting new opportunities and above market rates of pay turning up at their door with a letter summoning them to court, with no warning. Yes, they have access to a lawyer afterwards from the MOD, but they got no warning from the Government they represented that this—a Government inquiry—is turning up. That is not good enough.
No one has a problem with scrutiny. Our professionalism is what separates us from the rest. We work so hard to imbue moral courage in our men and women, along with mental strength and resilience, precisely to get decisions right in warfare. The truth is that, by and large, we do that and, when they do not, someone speaks up and it is dealt with, without fear or favour, for we are the British Army and we are embarked on a relentless pursuit of excellence.
I do not know how many times I must say this in this place, but I will keep going until my time here is done. We have a duty to look after these people and this is not how to do it. I urge the Government to follow the Prime Minister’s lead and do everything they can to protect our men and women: be proactive; warn them of what is coming; calm them; and support their families. The time for letting veterans fend for themselves and seek out a charitable shoulder for support is over. It ends in this Parliament. These people are the best of us—the true patriots; the warrior generation. We owe these men and women. Let us not let them down.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing the debate. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer).
We ask our armed forces to serve us abroad, so that we can be safe at home. I represent a constituency with a proud military tradition, particularly in the naval sphere. I hear and see at first hand the service and sacrifice of our armed forces, and therefore my constituents and I share what the Prime Minister described as the “deep concern” that Iraq war veterans could face the threat of prosecution due to fabricated or unjustified claims.
Although we expect our armed forces to adhere to the rule of law and the rules of engagement, we should commit to ensuring that we protect them from those who irresponsibly abuse the process of law. I therefore very much welcome the commitment from the Secretary of State for Defence to clamp down on bad practices. I also support the Prime Minister’s action. Asking the National Security Council to produce a clear, detailed plan of how we can stop our troops facing this torment is positive news.
I hope the Minister will confirm that the National Security Council’s work is proceeding well. Several of the proposed steps are especially welcome. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury referred to the imposition of strict time limits for the lodging of claims, to residency requirements, to the prevention of no win, no fee deals and to the reviewing of legal aid provision to certain firms that have been implicated in the al-Sweady deal. Those are all very welcome.
The unjustified claims against British troops are harmful for at least three reasons. Operationally, such claims harm morale. They affect recruitment and damage the operational effectiveness of our troops at a time when we are relying on them more than ever. From a financial perspective, every false claim that IHAT and the Government respond to, investigate and defend diverts spending from the frontline at an important time in our country’s activities. Politically, such claims threaten to unjustifiably undermine the outstanding work of our armed forces in the eyes of the public, even when those claims are later found to be unfounded. The al-Sweady inquiry, which reported last year, is a case in point.
Time is short. In closing, I hope that all hon. Members will join me in paying tribute to not only our armed forces but the many charities that champion and care for our veterans when they come home, from Combat Stress and SSAFA to the Royal British Legion. Their approach stands in stark contrast with those who pursue our veterans, rather than protecting and caring for them.
Finally, I congratulate again my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury on securing this timely debate on an important issue. I welcome the Government’s commitment to positive action and look forward to hearing from the Minister. I am confident that when she gets to her feet, she will reassure us that this Government are very much on the side of our brave armed forces personnel, who serve us abroad and protect us at home.
It is very difficult for any civilian to sit in judgment of a soldier. I have no experience of the unique and extraordinary pressures under which they operate, nor the snap life and death decisions they are forced to make. Too many people in the legal profession lack the wisdom or the humility to take that view and hound our veterans with self-righteous enthusiasm.
Just this week, the BBC announced that the Iraq Historic Allegations Team has dropped nearly 60 cases of alleged unlawful killing—cases that have cast a shadow over the lives of innocent veterans. As we know, in 2014 the al-Sweady inquiry found that previous allegations against British troops in Iraq were “deliberate and calculated lies” intended to smear our military at a cost of £31 million, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) said. As a result, Leigh Day, one of the law firms involved, faces a full disciplinary tribunal from the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The Prime Minister has threatened to sue that company to recover the millions of pounds it has claimed in costs, and I hope he will find support from across the House for that measure. He has also outlined a broader crackdown on so-called tank chasers, including reforms to legal aid, to no win, no fee arrangements and to the civil courts regime.
Clear-cut, conventional wars against uniformed enemies are increasingly a thing of the past. Today’s foes increasingly know no rules of war, yet just as the old conventions of conflict are breaking down, we are handing our opponents unprecedented opportunities to attack our troops in the courts. Even though it is right we hold our armed forces to high standards, such self-flagellation is completely ridiculous.
Such challenges are not confined to the middle east. Veterans of the campaign against IRA terrorism in Northern Ireland face their very own historical inquisition. Meanwhile, the terrorists they were fighting—men and women who deliberately targeted civilians and murdered several Members of this House—are shielded by an amnesty. I understand that it is important to hold our armed forces to account, but this country has one of the most disciplined, effective and professional armies in the world, and we should be proud of it.
Unless we trust our troops and give them the leeway they need to make hard decisions in extraordinary circumstances, we will find it increasingly difficult to wage war at all. Troops on the battlefield will hesitate to act, for fear of years of harassment and potential prosecution. Potential recruits will see the reward for serving and seek careers elsewhere.
War is, and will always be, a messy and brutal business. Rules designed for civilian life are inadequate for its challenges, and we shall only end up crippling the armed forces if we make perfection the enemy of good in upholding the conduct of conflict. Cases against our forces should be considered and advanced by an uninterested party, not by lawyers looking to maximise profit.
I congratulate my good friend, the hon. and gallant Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), on securing the debate.
Just over 400 soldiers have contacted me. Most of them I have never met; some I knew from my service. I want to represent them in the short time I have, and I want two thoughts to be brought to the attention of the House. The first is that those soldiers feel they are being chased down by unscrupulous lawyers who do not give a damn about their wellbeing, some of whom seem to imply the soldiers are guilty before that is proven.
The soldiers feel extremely irritated that the Ministry of Defence seems to have set up an organisation to join with those lawyers to chase the soldiers down. I use the word “seem” because the soldiers do not understand why that is happening. We can spend all the time we like explaining and saying, “It’s because we’ve got to investigate things. We’ve got to do it properly, otherwise you’ll go to the International Criminal Court,” but our men and women in uniform do not accept that, so this is a communication problem.
My second thought is this. I have given evidence with my soldiers in Northern Ireland on murder charges and in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Our soldiers, our men, our women, our sailors, our airmen and our airwomen loathe doing that. They are frightened by having to appear in court in front of slippery-tongued lawyers who have a much better gift of the gab than they do. They feel they will slip up, and that terrifies them. Often, their thought is, “I’d much prefer to be on the frontline, under fire, than in this poxy court where no one seems to be on my side.”
The problem we have is trying to tell our servicemen and servicewomen that this is actually for their own benefit. I had to tell two soldiers, after they had been in a firefight, that they were being charged with murder in Ireland. They did not believe it was possible. I explained that the reason was to take them to court to prove they had acted under the law, so that they could never be prosecuted again.
I speak, I admit, with some emotion on behalf of our men and women, and I tell you this: we should listen to them and communicate better.
I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on bringing forward this important debate, and I also congratulate my hon. Friends who have taken part in it. The debate demonstrates the strength of feeling in the House that our armed forces are not being well served by the campaign of what is known as lawfare, rather than warfare.
Our armed forces go and fight and do their best in the most difficult of circumstances. A number of my hon. and gallant Friends have been out in theatre. I have been to Afghanistan six times, so I know what it is like. I fear that by putting our armed forces into harm’s way in this fashion, we are undermining their morale and thereby threatening the war-fighting capability of the next generation of those who will be called upon to serve their country. I believe we are doing them a disservice.
The Prime Minister is absolutely right to express his concern about this matter. The Government need to do more; we owe it to the 120,000 troops who have served in Iraq in Her Majesty’s armed forces. We cannot have a situation where men and women go out to fight in the most appalling of circumstances, dealing with an enemy that they sometimes cannot distinguish from the civilian population. They do their level best and then come back—many of them suffering injuries and some of them traumatised—and may have to wait years before finding out that they might face prosecution from their own fellow civilians. That cannot be right.
I have constituents in Aldershot, the home of the British Army, who served with distinction in Northern Ireland. They still, 43 years on from Londonderry in 1972, face the possibility of prosecution. That is not right. It is not in the interests of natural justice that our men and women who serve our country should be treated in that fashion.
I thank the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) securing today’s debate. It is crucial that we not only support our service personnel but uphold human rights and have the UK show leadership in promoting international human rights.
Our armed forces carry out a vital role on our behalf, often in harsh and dangerous conditions. Their courage and professionalism are to their immense credit. As part of that professionalism, our armed forces should and must be able to justify their decisions and actions against clearly defined standards of conduct. When allegations are made that conduct has not met the high standards expected by both society and the armed forces, they must be taken seriously. When there is a case to answer, the case must be investigated fully and fairly.
Since the inception of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, a number of issues have arisen that require consideration, as many speakers have touched on today. They include the scope of the investigations, the considerable volume of the case load, the amount of time that has passed in some of the incidents involved and concerns about the credibility and veracity of the allegations. Each of those issues presents challenges to IHAT and to us, who oversee it, in the dispensing of justice.
The latest figures that I have seen indicate that 1,514 allegations have been reported to IHAT, making up 1,329 cases. Of those, 43 have been closed and 57 dropped, with 280 UK veterans under investigation. It is only fitting and fair that we are concerned about the number of allegations and the speed of the investigations, and it is no surprise that many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), have raised that issue.
I understand that IHAT has about 150 staff, so in my view, it is reasonable to question the speed at which cases are being dealt with. Indeed, if I were a member of a committee scrutinising the issue, I would have serious questions for witnesses and would be pressing them on the apparently slow rate of progress and for a comparison with other legal jurisdictions.
I fully understand that we are talking about a unique situation in many respects, given the challenges in investigating allegations. However, the rate of progress is an issue. The hon. Member for Newbury raised the issue of trails going cold on some of the investigations. We need to address that and face the reality that in some—indeed, many—cases, it might not be possible to get the evidence we need to establish whether an allegation is true. That might simply mean that the case cannot proceed, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that.
Turning to the credibility and motives of those bringing complaints, which many Members have raised, I have concerns that there may well be instances in which the current system is being abused, and that spurious allegations are being brought against military personnel and service veterans. The answer lies in ensuring that we have a system in place that allows the prompt dismissal of cases that are brought on flimsy evidence or are not evidence-based. In cases where evidence is found to have been falsified or deliberately distorted, I would want to see penalties imposed for what I consider to be akin to the criminal charges of perverting the course of justice or, at the very least, wasting police time, or its equivalent in Scottish law.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) said, our legal system in this area must uphold the values of the European convention on human rights, as well as other international human rights treaties. We have to work with other nations to set an example of our values on human rights. Some Members have expressed the desire to derogate from the convention, but that is not the right way forward. The European convention on human rights was born out of the horrific events of world war two, which rightly made the international community think very carefully.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good point, but the problem with regard to derogation is that it was specifically intended by the authors to allow for operations outside the territory. The danger of the argument he is making is that the Scottish National party is turning soldiers from cannon fodder into courtroom fodder.