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Westminster Hall

Volume 605: debated on Tuesday 9 February 2016

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 9 February 2016

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Emergency Services: Closer Working

I beg to move,

That this House has considered closer working between the emergency services.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. You and I share a passionate interest in the NFL and American football, so I am glad to see you here. I do not know whether you made it to the Super Bowl, but hopefully one day we will be at the Super Bowl at Wembley.

Today’s debate focuses on emergency services, and—by way of background—it follows a debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) on 3 November 2015 at the beginning of the consultation period. There were a number of contributions to that debate, and the Minister was rightly somewhat reticent to explain his beliefs on what the Government would propose—he was waiting to see what the consultation would say. I have looked at the Government’s response, and it is clear that there was widespread participation, with more than 300 responses from organisations across the country. Today is our first opportunity to raise questions with him on the specifics of the Government’s recommendations and to probe him for more details on the Government’s thinking and on his next steps to take the matter forward. This debate is also timely because we will shortly be having police and crime commissioner elections across the country, so this will be a live issue as people make their democratic choice.

In their response, the Government say that

“the picture of collaboration around the country is still patchy and there is much more to do to ensure joint working is widespread and ambitious.”

It would be helpful if the Minister pointed to some examples today to give us a sense of what he thinks the direction of travel in collaboration is likely to be. If it has been patchy, we do not want to go into a sort of organised patchiness. We need a sense of what the Government think are good ways to collaborate and of where they feel the case has not been made so significantly.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate ahead of possible legislation. He mentioned where collaboration is already happening, and I think he will concede that Hampshire is a good example. Some 750 staff now work across shared services between Hampshire constabulary, the Hampshire fire and rescue service and Hampshire County Council in the innovative H3 programme. We think that we are doing many things right, and hopefully we are letting other areas learn lessons for the future, so would he concede that Hampshire is a place to see where collaboration is already starting?

As a proud son of Bedford, and therefore Bedfordshire, I hate to give credit to other counties, but my hon. Friend is right that Hampshire is demonstrating a clear path, as evidenced by the fact that a significant number of Hampshire Members of Parliament are here today. One reason why I am pressing the Minister is that there are good examples. The PCC position is still new, and we should be honest about the record of PCCs across the country. Some have been very good and some—again, I speak from direct experience in Bedfordshire—have been less good, so we need a sense from the Government about what level of collaboration they believe makes sense.

The Minister will know—I do not—what is meant by

“a high level duty to collaborate on all three emergency services”.

That is what he intends to propose, so will he tell us today what it means? It would be helpful for us to know that before the Government introduce their legislation. What sanctions do the Government expect to impose on organisations that do not collaborate?

The Fire Brigades Union has spoken to me about same-service collaboration. For those of us who believe that we need to do more to reduce public expenditure to deliver public services more efficiently—I count myself as a fiscal conservative—a whole range of savings are available in the fire service through combinations of fire services across the country. One fear that the FBU and I have is that, by concentrating control through PCCs, the Government are giving up the opportunity for cross-border collaboration and the savings that will come from that. What is the Minister’s answer to the FBU?

One of my two main points is on the duty to collaborate with ambulance services. Other hon. Members are extremely disappointed, and I certainly am, by the half-hearted response of the ambulance services to this opportunity for them to participate in collaboration between the emergency services. On other issues raised in the consultation, page 19 of the Government’s summary states:

“By far the most commonly stated view was the need for ambulance services to engage more with the police and fire and rescue services.”

That is absolutely correct. There are many people in the fire and rescue services who believe that their humanitarian mission is much more closely aligned with those in the ambulance services, yet the ambulance services seem to drift along on their own thinking that it is okay to stay within their own silo and not participate in the Government’s positive and welcome change. Is collaboration by the ambulance services central to the Minister’s vision, or is it a “nice to have”? On the surface, it looks like a “nice to have.” If PCCs are to be the central organising point for emergency services, the Government have missed a step in not using this opportunity to propose measures to drag parts of the ambulance services into the overall responsibilities of the PCCs.

My hon. Friend is making a characteristically passionate and well thought-through speech. I understand his point about the importance of ambulance services being better involved in the debate, but it could be argued that there are unique pressures on them. In Poynton, to the north of Macclesfield, there is an interesting model of co-location between fire, police and ambulance services in an emergency hub. Does he agree that there are options, maybe at the margins or on the periphery, where ambulance services could play a more integrated role?

Not only do I agree, as usual with my hon. Friend, but I would take his idea and move it another step forward. There are opportunities not only for co-location but for training, skills development and establishing career paths that enable people to join a fire and rescue service and an emergency medical responder service and then determine whether they want to have a pure firefighter career path or whether they want to have a career path that includes achieving medical qualifications that make them capable of being EMRs. Such opportunities are relevant to the vision that the Minister wishes to outline, but the Government’s proposals give a free pass to the ambulance services to continue thinking in their own silo. There is an imperative on the Government to bring that under the overall arch of their recommendations.

I spoke to firefighters on the frontline in my constituency last week about that point, and it is not a difficulty—they have a pilot with the ambulance service. Last week alone, the fire and rescue service saved two people’s lives in Northumberland because of that joint approach. However, there is a huge difficulty with amalgamating with the police service, which is quite different.

I have a lot of empathy with what the hon. Gentleman says, which is another reason why the lack of effort, as it seems from the Government’s proposals, to try to bring in the humanitarian, ambulance and EMR capabilities will store up problems for later. There is a concern that it will be not a merger but essentially a takeover of the fire services by the police. I know that that is not the Minister’s intent—I am sure that as a former firefighter himself, he has a passion for the fire service and understands the unique skills it has better than many hon. Members—but unless the Government introduce stronger measures on collaboration requirements for the ambulance service, the fears outlined by the hon. Gentleman are likely to continue. It is the Government’s responsibility to try to cut them off.

A number of points in the proposals deal with governance and PCCs, and with management. When I read the consultation document originally, I thought that on governance issues, a pretty straightforward case could be made for or against, but that the management issues involved quite a lot of detail and potentially some weeds that we would not wish to get into. In their response, the Government rightly clarified the issues for chief fire officers, such as that the position of chief officer in a combined service is now open to them. It is now clear that they can take part in that way, but what about the terms and conditions for the bulk of the workforce in the two arms of the police and fire service? What will the single-employer structure mean for them?

The Government has rightly considered potential back-office savings. That is quite right, and we know all about co-location—those are the easy bits—but a single employer also has responsibility for human resource management, training and development, terms and conditions and pay. What is the Government’s plan on that? Can they give us some reassurance on terms and conditions that the changes are not a stepping stone to a substantial change in working relationships and opportunities for the fire service and police?

I am sure that there will be questions about force boundaries, as there were in the debate in November. As the Government have moved forward with their proposals, I can see instances working where multiple fire authorities are under a single PCC, because the PCC is the apex, but what are the Government’s proposals for the admittedly limited number of areas where the PCC is not the apex of the fire authority? It is not just that the boundaries are not coterminous; they go beyond the scope of the apex. Can the Minister address those issues? For example, Cornwall and Devon police forces are merged, but Devon and Somerset fire services are merged and Cornwall is independent. What does he suggest there? It is also proposed to merge Wiltshire and Dorset fire services, but there will be two PCCs for those areas. Can he give us some thoughts about that?

The H3 project that I mentioned in Hampshire also now combines its back office with Oxfordshire County Council. Clearly, that is outside the county boundary and the PCC boundary, but it proves that if local collaboration happens without being forced, where there is a will, there is a way.

That is right, but sometimes there is no will; what is the way then? PCCs are democratically elected figures, and they have a responsibility to the people who elected them to maintain their range of services. The proposals in the legislation are not clear about how that will be managed. It would be helpful to hear that from the Minister, because it will not apply to the vast majority of places across the United Kingdom. The number of places affected is small, but they are important. The people of Devon, Cornwall and Somerset will want to know the Government’s intentions, because in a few weeks’ time, they will be voting for someone who may well have that responsibility if Parliament passes the legislation.

I would like to make a few points about PCCs, starting with finance. All Members of Parliament will be aware that chief constables have made the case for a number of years now about the financial pressure involved in maintaining the desired levels of policing. Many of us on the Government Benches have pressed chief constables and others to look for savings and, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes positively, they have engaged with us. Guess what? Effective policing can be delivered with lower budgets. Who would have thought that possible? However, there is admittedly still pressure across the board on public and police financing, which is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was right to maintain police budgets in the autumn statement.

I am sure that we all look forward to that maintenance of funding, but I was concerned, not for the first time, by comments made by the police and crime commissioner in my county of Bedfordshire. Just last Sunday, the Bedfordshire on Sunday led with a story headlined, “Takeover threat for fire service”. It began:

“‘Help us with our funding or be taken over’, is the warning to the fire service from the county’s cop boss.”

The PCC may well be jumping the gun, because he does not have those powers yet, but I think that many of us would be alarmed to hear such an aggressive statement from a PCC who might be given responsibility for the fire service. The fire service is not a piggy bank for police and crime commissioners to raid for their budgets.

Order. If Front-Bench Members want to intervene on the hon. Gentleman, they can, of course, but otherwise, they should be quiet.

I am not sure whether the shadow Minister was speaking out in support of the PCC raiding fire service budgets. Perhaps she was; perhaps that is new news. Who would have known? Perhaps she would like to clarify.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify, and I congratulate him on securing this debate and on the tenor of his contributions. I was merely agreeing with his suggestion that some PCCs may well see the fire service as a piggy bank from which to fund the police service, and I wonder whether that was the Minister’s intention.

I am grateful to the shadow Minister, who came to my constituency last year just before the general election. She was very welcome in Bedford. The issue is not so much that some PCCs may be incapable of managing their budget effectively and who therefore think that this is an opportunity to take money from our firefighters—as the Bedfordshire PCC appears to think—but that they should not be permitted to do so. On that, I think she and I agree. We want to ensure that the funding for our fire service cannot be raided by PCCs such as the one for Bedfordshire, who wishes to get his hands on it.

Judgment is an important issue for PCCs, especially as they come before the electorate in May. I would argue that the judgment of the Bedford PCC has been flawed—I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees—in that, with huge reserves, the PCC still went to the electorate and asked for a 15% increase in the precept, which was rightly rejected. He was trying to raid the piggy bank of the electorate, rather than that of the fire service. Perhaps he should concentrate on his own financial situation.

I am tempted by my right hon. Friend to go further and talk about the PCC for Bedfordshire, but that is a bit parochial. I have one final point, which I think is relevant for all Members of Parliament. In Bedfordshire, we consider the fire stations that exist around the county. In my constituency, we have one in Bedford on Barkers Lane and one in Kempston. My concern is that the PCC will close that station. If he is already firing the gun and saying that he wants to take money from the fire service, that could mean real reductions in fire service coverage for my constituents.

Can the Minister tell us a bit more about the financing for the new arrangements that he is seeking? In particular, council tax is in separate precepts at the moment. Will a single precept be charged? Secondly, what accountability will there be within the PCC organisations to ensure that one budget is not raided for another? If there is no clarity that people are being charged separate precepts for fire and police, and there is no oversight in the service about how that money is used between fire and police, that is of great concern.

In their response, the Government say that they are quite rightly considering the issue of an inspectorate and how that should roll. My personal view is that that inspectorate needs to have a very strong mandate and, in particular, needs to see itself as maintaining the correct financing for both the fire service and the police service. That should be a specific requirement in the inspectorate’s brief and it should not have an overall brief to ensure that money is being used effectively by the PCCs. If we do not maintain that idea of separation, the predations of certain PCCs will be too strong.

I will be very careful what I say, because Dorset’s PCC is a man who I respect a lot and he does a very good job within his remit, but it would be fair to say that this whole argument is made even more difficult by the fact there is still a lot of doubt about the role of the PCC. Personally, I have always thought that we politicised the police force in one straight swipe and now there is a danger of doing so with the fire service. Does my hon. Friend agree that this issue is adding angst to an argument that is very difficult to resolve?

That is a fair comment, but there is no better person to alleviate angst than the Minister himself and I am sure that at the end of this debate the angst will be significantly lessened.

Overall, I hope that Members welcome both the consultation process undertaken by the Government and the broad thrust of their proposals to take these measures forward. There is a lot of good stuff in these recommendations and I think that all hon. Members want to help the Minister identify where there are perhaps ongoing concerns, so that he can consider them and refine his thoughts before he introduces legislation, and to encourage him on the path that he has set, which is most welcome for the people of Bedford and—I am sure—for many people across the country.

It is my intention to call for the two winding-up speeches no later than 10.40 am and I have seven Members who have indicated they wish to speak. My arithmetic tells me that means about seven minutes per person. I do not want to impose a time limit because that is not my way, but I ask Members to bear that guidance in mind.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Bone, and I thank the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) for setting the scene very well, as he always does, with his knowledge and experience. We thank him for that.

We look forward to hearing the responses from the Minister and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown). There is no pressure on the Minister whatsoever—he just has to absorb all the angst in the room and come up with the answers. Knowing him as we do from when he was a Northern Ireland Minister, we know that he has a great interest in his job and a passion for it.

I look forward to giving a Northern Ireland perspective. I know that the issue has been devolved to us in Northern Ireland, but it is always good for the House to hear about experiences from across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and in this particular case from Northern Ireland. I know that the Minister will encompass that in his response.

Just last September, a poll commissioned by the Police Federation of Northern Ireland was released. It found that 96% of those who took part believed that morale was at its lowest. That indicates how the pressures of budgets, the pressures on jobs and the changes in police officers’ circumstances have all lead to a reduction in police morale. The significance of the survey cannot be overstated. Some 2,527 serving police officers in Northern Ireland, which is just over a third of the total number, responded to it. Budget cuts, pension fears and internal changes have been blamed for the slump in police morale. We have also seen the hard-pressed Northern Ireland ambulance service declare major incidents, as it has been unable to cope with a combination of rising demand and cuts to funding.

What we are considering in this debate is closer working between the emergency services. I want to give a perspective from Northern Ireland, where the three services can work together, do better and respond to events because of some of the things that we have done in the Northern Ireland Assembly, to which power in this area is devolved.

We live in tough times economically, and all Departments are being asked to tighten their belt, but the statistics on police morale, and issues affecting the ambulance service and the fire service, are all causing concern. It is good to discuss how we can use co-operation between the emergency services to help those affected by the tightening of the purse strings to do more with less.

My hon. Friend is coming to a point that will hopefully command widespread support across the House and the nation. People want to see a pragmatic, sensible and practical series of co-operations between the emergency services, not just to raise morale among the staff in those services, important as that is, but, even more importantly, to deliver a more efficient and effective service to people across the United Kingdom.

As always, my hon. Friend and colleague makes a very focused intervention. Yes, we need to have that co-operation, and that is what this debate is about. It is not about attacking anybody or giving anyone a hard time; it is about considering how better we can have that co-operation. In Northern Ireland, we have done some things better than elsewhere, and some things have been done better on the mainland. We can exchange views, and it is important that we do so.

The answer lies in innovation—learning to do things differently. Reducing bureaucracy and red tape is a simple measure that would make co-operation between our emergency services easily obtainable. It is the attractive thing to do and the right thing to do, and if we encourage that process we could see some real results.

I know that the issue of how the three services can come together and help each other when it comes to training is a different one for a different debate. A previous debate in Westminster Hall addressed such training. However, in Northern Ireland we have taken some steps towards achieving that joint training. A location has been identified for it, but we do not yet have the training school to bring the three services together. I know that the Minister is aware of that approach, because I think he will have overseen it during his time in the Northern Ireland Office. Once again, there are some good steps being taken forward.

We have already seen what innovative approaches can do in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland fire and rescue service adapted to a tighter budget rather than simply doing things as it had always done them before. Reallocating shift patterns, having less bureaucracy and providing more autonomy for local stations and fire service men and women are just a few of the steps that the command of the fire and rescue service in Northern Ireland has taken to adapt to the challenging financial environment.

The most interesting part of all the changes that have taken place, and of those that will be made shortly, is that they have come from those within the fire service themselves. They have acted rather than waiting for Government. The initiatives came from people within the fire service—they want to provide a better fire service, as they are part of it. If we can do things better, let us do so.

In Northern Ireland, fire stations that would otherwise have closed are now staying open, and fire service personnel who would have otherwise been out of a job are part of a fire service that is looking forward, despite the challenging circumstances. There is real innovation and there are real ideas, and people are working together. Replicating that innovation in the other emergency services, and sharing the methods by which improvements can be made, will surely go some way toward alleviating the pressure of cuts to our emergency services.

We do not have any Scottish colleagues here today, but I always say that we are better together, in every sense of the phrase, and we want to stay together. However, we also have emergency services across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that do a good job. If we are doing things well in Northern Ireland, let us share that, and if there is something in Scotland, Wales and the rest of the mainland that we can learn from, let us do so.

However, while it is encouraging to see what can be done, there is no replacement for funding. Cuts have been made to our front-line services, and particularly our emergency services. We have to look at those cuts again—surely there are other areas in which the Government, and indeed the Northern Ireland Assembly, should focus attempts to save money. Greater co-operation, while always desirable, cannot be a smokescreen for cuts. The people will not be distracted, and the figures cannot be swept under the carpet.

I return to my comments about the police service survey. Of those surveyed, 96% said that morale is low in what has to be one of the most important institutions for Northern Ireland’s future. We need law and order in place, and it is good that we have it, but we also need the emergency services to work together better. The fire and rescue service, the ambulance service and the police can do that. Co-operation is desirable and always beneficial, but it will not always be a good enough smokescreen to cover the fact that our emergency services are facing cuts to their budgets. What matters is how those cuts happen, how budgets are then brought together and how we deliver a service that our people can depend upon.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on securing this interesting debate. I shall ask my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) to bash me when I get to six minutes; I would be most grateful if she did so.

I will quickly touch on the overall picture in Dorset, then I will give the views of four representatives in Dorset—the chief constable, the police and crime commissioner, the chief fire officer and the chief executive of the south-western ambulance service, Ken Wenman. I asked my team to tell them that I was going to participate in the debate and that I wanted to hear from the coalface, as it were, exactly what people in Dorset thought.

In Dorset, we already have close collaboration between the police and the fire service—it is already a fact of life. The Dorset police and fire services already share seven buildings and facilities, and two years ago Dorset police and fire became the first 999 blue light street triage service—I think that is the jargon—in the country, with police officers, fire officers and mental health professionals working together. First-aiders with in Dorset police advanced training will respond to life-threatening emergency calls on behalf of the ambulance service if the latter’s attendance is unduly delayed and police resources are closer. That is the overall picture in Dorset.

The view of Chief Constable Debbie Simpson is that blue light collaboration is not helped by the ambulance service being regional. The police and fire services are not regional, so who partners with whom? That is a question for the Minister. The chief constable says that although there will be some efficiencies, the majority of those working in each emergency service train for entirely different functions, and that

“we struggle to put together teams across forces, let alone across different blue light disciplines.”

She would prefer the police to look at the criminal justice family—courts and probation—as an area for closer collaboration. She thinks that the police have a closer affinity with those organisations than with the other blue light services.

Martyn Underhill, who I mentioned in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford, is the Dorset police and crime commissioner and also the national representative for PCCs to the Government. He says that there is a natural synergy between the police and fire services nationally and that the idea of the PCC being responsible for fire and rescue services is good. However, he feels that in Dorset it will not work. We already have the combined Wiltshire and Dorset fire services, which will merge on 1 April 2016. The merged service will be associated with two police forces and two PCCs, for Wiltshire and Dorset, but they are not coterminous—that is a dreadful word, but I think you understand what I am trying to say, Mr Bone. Will the Minister comment on how that situation can be resolved in the interests of further “efficiency and effectiveness”? In Dorset’s case, the PCC supports the chief constable’s view that collaboration across the criminal justice system might be more fruitful.

Darran Gunter, our excellent chief fire officer, and the new authority that has been formed—the shadow Wiltshire and Dorset fire authority—unanimously reject the proposal that the fire service should be governed by the PCC. They are concerned about over-complexity, but they support localism, local democracy and accountability. The fire service’s first priority is prevention and behaviour change, and only then responding to save lives. Joining up should not be viewed solely in operational terms.

Darran Gunter is not sure that there is any proven evidence of efficiencies from combining the blue lights, which have different vehicles, equipment, competencies, conditions of service, personal protection kit and so on. His view is that closer control of fire services in the past has failed. I cannot remember how many millions it cost, but I know the Minister is aware of the disastrous case of the past attempt to regionalise the fire service. The fire and rescue service area is shared by two PCCs—Dorset and Wiltshire—so how will overall responsibility be addressed? The PCC posed the same question. If the PCC takes control of the fire service, how will the fire authority, which is already elected and has a duty to the community, be consulted? What about the views of the community? There should be a demand-led culture.

Mr Gunter says that the fire services does not want to alienate other public services, such as those for children, families and adults, and health partners, by exclusive collaboration with other blue light services. It is disappointed that the duty of collaboration is limited to the three emergency services. He says that local authorities, clinical commissioning groups, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the voluntary sector and others should be included.

Responsibility for the fire service has now moved to the Home Office, which is responsible for the police. How will future funding work? Police budgets are protected, while the fire service is to be reduced by 30% over the next four years. In Dorset, 85% of operational vehicles are crewed by retained firefighters—one of the highest levels in the country. Some fire services are still in county councils, some are in combined fire authorities; and some are in metropolitan fire and rescue services. Further changes; could come with the new arrangements for mayors. There are significant challenges in combining services, so does the Minister agree that that is one area in which the Government should offer a blueprint?

I turn to the views of Mr Wenman, who is the chief executive of the South West Ambulance Service Trust and a trained paramedic who still goes out today. He is an extraordinarily nice man, and an affable and very able paramedic. His view is that the ambulance service

“is the emergency arm of NHS, not the medical arm of the blue light services.”

There is a big difference. Each regional ambulance service deals with anything from 750,000 to 2 million calls a year—10 times the activity of the fire service. The ambulance service provides a broader response than conventional fire and police services, with its responsibilities including the 111 and 999 services. Its services are aimed at “hear and treat”, with clinicians giving advice over the phone and pointing patients in the right direction. Some 85% of the response is urgent rather than emergency care.

I will make a few final points, so as not to go over my seven minutes and interfere with colleagues’ time. As far as first aid is concerned, the fire service is currently trained to “plug holes” and “manage airways”, backed up by paramedics from the ambulance service. Mr Wenman can envisage there being fire service paramedics, with three years’ training, and understandably many firefighters are keen to do that. In 2006, the ambulance service saved a significant amount of money through the reduction from 34 ambulance services to 10 statutory NHS ambulance trusts. Money could also possibly be saved through localism in services.

That was a quick sketch, covering the views of four professionals who deal with the very business we are talking about, and right hon. and hon. Members will see that their views are mixed.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on his great speech. He has given so much support to the firefighters and the fire service. I declare that I chair the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group, so I have a real interest in the issue.

First, I want to point out how disappointing I found the announcement in January that responsibility for the fire and rescue service was to be transferred from the Department for Communities and Local Government to the Home Office. That is no reflection on Home Office Ministers, or the shadow Minister. I was in the Home Office way back when the fire service was the responsibility of that Department, and if anyone spoke to my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), who was the Fire Minister at that time—at the beginning of the century—it would have been clear to them that fire not only got a minimal share of resources but suffered a kind of neglect. It was very much the little bit of the Home Office, and that was characterised by the big issues, such as immigration and criminal justice, getting so much more priority.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. In those days, in the Home Office, the Fire Minister was separate from the Police Minister, and that is exactly why the Prime Minister has made me the Police and Fire Minister, to ensure that the mistakes of the past do not happen again.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be a very good Minister, particularly given his background. He was an FBU representative at one time, I think. For me, however, this is about all the emergency services working together, and somehow the ambulance service and the whole medical side have been left out. That will genuinely affect the very good work that firefighters do in prevention and protection. The level of that work is already falling, and there will be fewer school visits and that kind of thing—I can see that that is the way it is going.

I am also a little disappointed in the consultation. There is no substantial evidence in the document for bringing about the change, and it has the usual kind of civil servant feel to it, with questions being asked to get an answer that coincides with the preferred outcome, because the decision had already been taken. The document did not ask the crucial question, whether having a single employer for the two services is a good idea. I do not think it is. The public have great trust and confidence in firefighters, even when, unfortunately, they occasionally have to withdraw their labour. Support from the public has been enormous, unlike in many other areas where strikes have led to huge public dissatisfaction. There is huge confidence in them, and they are seen as independent and impartial lifesavers. The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) have left, but firefighters in Northern Ireland had to work hard for all the communities during the many years of difficulty, and there was confidence in them.

I have a lot of confidence in my local police, particularly Commander Richard Wood, but there is no doubt that the public do not feel the same way about the police as they do about firefighters. I genuinely think that the reforms could damage the reputation that firefighters have built up in their neighbourhoods over decades, so I am concerned. Co-operation will come about if people want it to happen, not because it is made to happen from the top down. The Hampshire examples are good, and the system works there because everybody wanted to work together.

The example that my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) mentioned of the fire and ambulance service working together shows that it can work, and that it does not have to be just about saving money. Of course we all want to save money, but I am keen to hear from the Minister what is really at the bottom of the reforms—unfortunately, I will have to leave slightly early.

I particularly want to pick up on the point that the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) made about the role of the PCCs. They are not popular, as the turnout at their elections showed. It is crass to try to lump the two services together. It means we will lose accountability, which is very important in London. We need democratically elected people who have an overview and a link into the community. We need to be able to feel that people can be got rid of, which I do not think people feel at the moment.

There are many questions I could ask the Minister, but I do not have time. The Minister should look at this matter again. As enforcers of the law, the police do not have the universal access that the fire service has to people’s homes and to the many hard to reach communities. It is vital that the fire service retains its distinctiveness to ensure continued trust in it. That is my most crucial point.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the fire and rescue service and the ambulance service could do a lot of business together? Those services are humanitarian services that have the confidence of the people in their communities. The police service, which seeks out crime, is not a life-saving organisation, and it does not have that same confidence of communities. Further integration will jeopardise any community spirit in the places we are trying to secure.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. He sums up why I feel so unhappy about this move. It has been rushed through, and I do not think it will work. Even people who felt that there was a role for PCCs are now beginning to say that their introduction was a mistake. If the reforms go ahead, I think we will be back here in a few years saying that they were a mistake.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on securing this debate. It is a great pleasure to praise the example that we have in Hampshire of how the emergency services and the local authority—Hampshire County Council—can work together. We already have some of the finest services in the county, with Hampshire constabulary leading the way in efficiency and focusing on the priorities of policing. I was sad to hear of the departure of Chief Constable Andy Marsh, and I know other Hampshire MPs will want to join me in paying tribute to him. His successor will inherit a strong and effective force, which I will be pleased to support in Parliament.

However, I must sound a note of concern about the plan that the police and crime commissioner has unveiled to close police stations in Portsmouth. I am going to be parochial for a couple of minutes to illustrate a point. The city faces unusual challenges of geography. We have only three main roads on to Portsea Island, and they lead into the most densely populated space outside London. It is unthinkable that we should be left without a fully supported police station and I hope that Mr Hayes will reconsider his options. The first that any of us heard about this plan was through our local newspaper, which is no way to manage a service that we all depend on for public safety. In the light of the proposals for the police and crime commissioners to take on greater responsibility, it is a real cause for concern. I know from my postbag that the closure plan is alarming to constituents, and I will continue to oppose it.

However, to get back to positives, in the fire service we have had the recent consultation on its future as a service in Hampshire, and how it can adapt to a changing physical environment and capitalise on a steady improvement in fire safety. We know that over the past 10 years, the number of call-outs to domestic incidents has halved. Call-outs overall are down by almost a third, and Hampshire fire and rescue is in the best-performing quartile in the country for response times.

As has been mentioned, in Hampshire we already have a highly evolved co-operation between the emergency services. It is called H3: Hampshire fire and rescue, Hampshire County Council and Hampshire constabulary. The sharing of facilities between Hampshire fire and rescue service and the police has been achieved without radical surgery to governance; it is all about common sense. The fire service works with the South Central ambulance service as a co-responder, and they share buildings in parts of the county, too. There is a genuine willingness to co-operate in Hampshire, which is perhaps at a more advanced stage than that assumed by the proposals to legislate. So I hope that any legislation does not impose unwieldy structures where there is flexibility at present. I know from the Hampshire fire and rescue service consultation response that that is of concern. It also makes the excellent point that there is the potential for co-operation nationally in bringing ambulance services into the mix. That is a very powerful argument from a service that already knows so much about collaboration.

Indeed, it is important that the differing roles and competences of our emergency services are respected when it comes to matters such as accountability for complaints and personnel. There are plenty of areas for potential integration, such as communications and service planning, and in outreach and safety issues of all kinds. Let us make sure we focus on what is practical first and keep that flexibility for our emergency services to design the best services for their particular region.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), who demonstrates that some local authorities are ahead of the game on this issue. It is also a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Mr Bone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on securing the debate and on the eloquent way in which he described the conundrums and dilemmas facing the Government.

I should declare an interest. I was a member of the London fire brigade for 23 years. It celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. I was a former Fire Minister. I am secretary to the fire and rescue service all-party group and am chair of Fire Aid. I am also a Member’s representative on the House’s Fire Safety Committee. If colleagues have not done their online fire training yet, go on to the intranet. Only 30 out of 650 Members have done the training for their own safety, let alone the safety of the staff and constituents who come in, and it takes only 10 minutes.

There are two key questions for me: governance and the question of operational issues. As has been mentioned, the Government recently changed control of the fire service back to the Home Office from the Department for Communities and Local Government. As the Minister has already said, it was there before. Government moves things around; I do not think that matters too much. We have had a national fire service and we have had local government controlling the fire service. In London we have had the London County Council, the Greater London Council, the Greater London Authority, the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, and now control is going to the Mayor. Do the public know? Do they care? I do not think it matters at all.

The key question, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and others, is about accountability. Having someone to go to to make a complaint or to congratulate and praise is the most important thing. Given the state of the fire service in recent years with the disputes and strikes, we have hardly had a model of a successful operation of the fire service. I do not think the integrity of the service will be affected by a transfer to police and crime commissioners, although my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) made a powerful point about the integrity of the fire service, which was accepted by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall and which the Minister knows is out there in the public domain. I am not a big supporter of PCCs. Police and fire services would be better located with local government, along with some health matters, as many colleagues know, although I do recognise the points made about shared services.

More important for me is operational effectiveness. As the Minister knows, the fire service will always respond. A great recent example is its response to the floods. There is a suggestion that the fire service should have a statutory flood duty, allied to those of the Environment Agency and the water companies. The Government’s response so far has been that we do not need a statutory duty because the fire brigade will always turn up. Well, the fire brigade always turned up to fires before it became a statutory duty. The point is to make somebody responsible, and for it be somebody’s job to do the planning and argue the case to Government for the resources for a particular job. That is another question that is out there.

The fire service is a victim of its own success. The reduction in the number of fires, deaths and injuries has led to reductions in the number of fire engines, fire stations and firefighters. The service is being cut because it has been successful. The Minister knows all the reasons why that has been the case: better building construction, double glazing, central heating, and fewer candles and paraffin heaters. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall said, there has also been much better fire protection, with the fire service reaching out to communities. That is another important factor, which goes back to the Fire Precautions Act 1971.

We need to be clear about the suggestion that there are now fewer fire deaths. That is generally the case in some regions, but regions such as Merseyside have seen a huge increase in fire deaths, and the trajectory is likely to go up over the next couple of years.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. If we cut services when the service has been successful, at some point it hits rock bottom so it has to start bouncing back. The statistics demonstrate that we do not have enough police officers or firefighters, but they show that only after there has been a rise in crime or in the number of fire deaths.

The hon. Member for Bedford made a powerful point about the number of fire brigades. One reason why the last Labour Government’s botched attempt at regionalising the fire service failed was the intrinsic opposition of so many fire empires throughout the country. The Minister knows only too well who I am talking about.

This is a missed opportunity: it is not until question 15 of the consultation document that the ambulance service is even raised. That is despite the successful operation of combined fire and medical services in most states in the United States of America and the fact that most European Union states have combined fire and emergency medical services. That is despite the greater need for first-aid skills in firefighters; despite the arrival of idiot-proof defibrillators—I am not saying that they have to be idiot-proof for my fire colleagues to be able to operate them, but it makes it easier for us all; and despite the 2013 report from the Government’s fire adviser at the time, Sir Ken Knight, called “Facing the Future”, which looks mainly at the more developed area of co-working with ambulance services. That ought to be a key recommendation.

The fire brigade in London has been cut because of its success. We see the London ambulance service under pressure, with a rising number of calls. It is criticised for not making its call times and is under budget pressures. More lives could be saved in London through the more efficient use of the emergency services, particularly the ambulance and fire services—frankly, if the Minister wants to add the police to that list, that is not the most important issue to me. More savings could be made in London through co-location, the disposal of property assets and closer working. I have not seen any of the candidates for the mayoral election bring that up, but I have been feeding it out to them and am still hoping.

In conclusion, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bedford again. He says that the Minister intends a higher level of collaboration. I look forward to hearing what both the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), and the Minister, with his excellent knowledge of the fire service, have to say. I am interested to hear whether the ambulance service and the fire service can be brought together.

It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) on securing the debate. At this time on a Tuesday morning we would normally be sitting in the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, so this makes an interesting change.

Since I was elected to this place, the issue of closer working between emergency services—particularly police and fire—has been a priority for me, so I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to speak today. Since I secured a Westminster Hall debate on closer working between the police and fire services in November 2015, there have been some welcome developments. In December 2015, Staffordshire fire and rescue agreed to undertake a review of how it could work more closely and collaboratively with Staffordshire police. That was welcome news, as it was something for which I, along with some of my Staffordshire colleagues and our police and crime commissioner, had been calling for some time. I was, however, disappointed that it took around six months to reach that point.

More recently the Minister, whom I am pleased to see in his place today, published the Government’s response to the “Enabling Closer Working Between the Emergency Services” consultation. I was particularly pleased to see the Government’s proposals, which include two matters that I shall discuss further: a statutory duty for blue light services to collaborate to improve efficiency and effectiveness, and police and crime commissioners’ taking over responsibility for fire and rescue services, where a local case is made.

First, I welcome the proposals on a statutory duty for blue light services to collaborate, because, as has been mentioned a few times, collaboration has been patchy to date—Sir Ken Knight highlighted that in his 2013 review of fire and rescue authorities. That is not to say that there are not some excellent and successful examples of collaboration. We have heard examples from Dorset and Hampshire from my hon. Friends the Members for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), but sadly that is not the case universally. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford said, there has not always been the will locally to collaborate. That is a challenge that must be overcome.

It is absolutely right that blue light services have a statutory duty to investigate where they can share control rooms, back-office staff, offices, human resources, payroll and procurement—I could go on. It is just common sense, as my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South described for Hampshire. Eradicating duplication, which often exists at a local level, even within towns, will mean better outcomes for the public and taxpayers, and will ensure that funding can be targeted to front-line services.

Secondly, in the Westminster Hall debate that I secured in November 2015, I expressed my concerns that PCCs would take responsibility for fire and rescue services only where a local case was made. As the Minister may remember, I called for it to be mandatory. My concerns were based on the potential for resistance to considering such a transfer—again, there is the issue of patchiness and the possible lack of will locally. Although I look forward to seeing more detail, I am reassured to some extent by the Government’s proposal to enable cases to be put to the Secretary of State where parties are not in agreement about the transfer. It will then be up to the Secretary of State to make a final decision based on local consultation and an independent assessment of the business case. It is important that local priorities drive decision making, but equally important that decisions can be scrutinised if necessary.

Ultimately, I am keen to see police and crime commissioners universally develop into a broader role, potentially becoming public safety commissioners. In the first instance, they should incorporate fire services, but over time things could go further—for example, we have been discussing ambulances. That said, I do recognise that there are some complexities and that the regional structure of the ambulance service makes things more complex.

As the role of PCCs develops, might there be a need to consider whether their title should evolve? There are several reasons for that: we need to ensure that there is no perceived police takeover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford said earlier, and that the public are clear about the role of these individuals. In terms of the latter, it will be particularly important to build on the benefits of the electoral accountability of PCCs. They, like Members of Parliament and local government councillors, are directly accountable to the public, and members of the public can express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with them at the ballot box. To date, such direct, clear accountability has been lacking for fire authorities. Although I appreciate that elected councillors serve on those authorities, they are appointed to those positions, rather than elected by members of the public. We must ensure that the public are clear about who and what they are voting for. I think the name “police and crime commissioner” can cause confusion; are there any plans to create a new title for the commissioners in recognition of their broader remit?

I am a keen advocate of greater collaboration and I welcome the positive steps that have been taken in recent months to ensure more collaborative working across the blue light services, but I recognise that we can go much further. I look forward to seeing more detail when the Government’s proposals are brought before the House.

Before I call the shadow Minister and the Minister, I remind Members that it is now tradition that the Member who moves the motion gets a couple of minutes to wind up.

It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. We have had an excellent, well-informed debate and hon. Members have made many good points.

Labour supports close collaboration among the emergency services, but we fear that these proposals come with significant risks and are being carried out in a cavalier fashion. The consultation exercise that preceded the proposals gives us the distinct impression that the Government decided that they would make radical changes before they spoke to the key stakeholders. In any serious consultation, stakeholders would be asked what they think of the substance of the proposals. Instead, they were merely asked to comment on the process by which PCCs will gain control of their local fire service, not on whether the process has any merit, and they were asked a litany of leading questions.

The proposed process by which a PCC takes control of a fire service is rather authoritarian. Although they must seek agreement from the local fire authority, if agreement is not forthcoming the matter will be arbitrated by the Home Secretary, who will decide whether a change is

“in the interests of economy, efficiency and effectiveness or public safety”.

That is a recipe for hostile takeovers.

In Northumberland, the police and crime commissioner was opposed to further integration with other blue light operations. Will my hon. Friend comment on the position there?

That one passed me by, but I will come to Northumberland and have a conversation about it. I am sure the Minister has an answer.

The Government are ignoring the advice of the 2013 Knight review. When Sir Ken Knight considered expanding the role of PCCs, he recommended that, if such a policy were pursued, it ought to be trialled through a pilot, rather than be rolled out immediately. Why did the Government choose categorically to ignore that key recommendation?

I fear that these proposals carry a number of serious risks, and I worry about the continuation of the successful, locally driven collaborations that have been talked about at length in recent years and have saved lives. When I was shadow Fire Minister, I visited a number of fire services, including Northumberland’s, and I heard of collaborations with ambulance services. I was particularly impressed by the Lincolnshire fire and rescue service and the East Midlands ambulance service, which ensured a swift, comprehensive service to isolated parts of the county. Firefighters responded to medical emergencies and took patients to hospital if they could do so more quickly than the ambulance. It really did save lives; it was an exceptionally good collaboration.

Only yesterday, we heard that the ambulance service has missed its targets six months in a row. Our paramedics work hard, but they cannot be everywhere at once. Our fire and ambulance services recognise that, and they work side by side to be part of the solution. What will happen to such innovations in the brave new world of combined police and fire services? Will PCCs be charged to continue that work, or will it simply fall by the wayside? What guarantees do communities have that such innovations, which are important to them, will be top of PCCs’ agendas?

To save money and be more efficient and effective, local services successfully share back office functions. A good example is the North West Fire Control project, which set up a single control centre for services in Cumbria, Lancashire and Greater Manchester. It works really well. What will happen to such collaborations? Will those services be disaggregated? I do not know. Perhaps the Minister does. I worry that there is a danger that such locally driven projects will be crowded out as energy is spent on responding to an agenda that has been dreamt up in Whitehall.

I also worry that dismantling the existing structures of accountability will cause a democratic deficit. The next PCC elections are in May, and the major political parties have already selected most of their candidates. Does the Minister expect the candidates to detail in their manifestos their intentions about fire services? Should that be a central issue in the election debates? I gently say that I do not believe that the Home Secretary or the Minister expect the fire service to be a central plank in the PCC elections. Is that not worrying in itself? It is as though the Government see the fire service as a secondary concern to policing.

Peter Murphy, director of public policy and management research at Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University, said that

“if the current plans are implemented there is a very strong chance that the fire and rescue services would go back to the ‘benign neglect’ that characterised the service from 1974 to 2001 when the Home Office was last responsible for fire services. Police, civil disobedience, immigration and criminal justice dominated the Home Office agenda, as well as its time and resources.”

If the fire service becomes the lesser partner in a merged service,

“the long-term implications will include smaller fire crews with fewer appliances and older equipment arriving at incidents. Prevention and protection work, already significantly falling, will result in fewer school visits and fire alarm checks for the elderly, not to mention the effect on business, as insurance costs rise because of increased risks to buildings and premises.”

I think his assessment is right. There is a real danger that fire will become an unloved, secondary concern of management—a Cinderella service. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how he will ensure that the service is improved, that we invest in the best equipment and training, that vulnerable people continue to have fire alarm checks and that schools are visited and children educated.

I want to ask a basic question about reorganisation. The Government appear to assume that it will be easy for fire and rescue services to reorganise to suit the PCCs’ boundaries, but to talk simply about transferring responsibility from a local authority belies the complexity of the situation. Fire budgets are very integrated in some councils to ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of the service, so it will be difficult to unravel them, as has been shown by previous attempted mergers of fire services. Has any work been done to assess the complexity? What conclusions has the Minister come to about the difficulties he might encounter? What concerns have county and metropolitan councils raised with him about disaggregating budgets and the effect on important emergency services?

Finally, on funding, fire and rescue services have already had to reduce spending by 12% over the course of the last Parliament, which is a cumulative cash cut of some £236 million, and further projected reductions are to come. When I met some fire services, I was told that their service would not be viable in future as a result of the cuts. That is the reality of the tough financial context in which PCCs are being asked to take on fire services.

There are alarming signs that the front-line service is beginning to suffer. Response times are creeping upwards. As the Minister knows full well, every second counts when people are stuck in a car wreck or a burning building. What risk analysis has the Home Office done to ascertain how PCCs will be able to reduce fire spending without increasing response times and reducing resilience and safety? I ask him to publish that risk assessment so that we can all evaluate it. It is not as if police forces have spare money to pass to the fire service, as we heard in the effective speech by the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond). They are still absorbing cuts of 25% to their funding from the last Parliament and face further real-term cuts. They have done amazingly well in such tough circumstances, but one has to wonder whether PCCs are happy that the Government are handing them another Whitehall-imposed funding crisis to deal with. Again, does the Minister expect PCCs to cover the shortfall in funding by introducing privatisation into the fire and rescue frontline? The last time I asked that question, the Minister shook his head but offered no verbal or recordable assurances whatsoever. Will he allow PCCs to end the full-time professional fire service or to sell it off bit by bit? What assurances can he give the House that those paths will not be followed? What control will remain in Whitehall to ensure that our fire services are not privatised or sold?

In conclusion, we genuinely support closer and more effective working between the emergency services, which we have seen work really well, but we have serious concerns about the inherent risk in the Government’s proposals. If the Minister is convinced that they are the way forward, he should publish a risk assessment and be confident that a rigorous pilot will demonstrate their merits. Until he commits to that, I feel that the risks involved are too great and pose too much of a threat to our communities for us to be able to support the proposals.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, not least because the Northamptonshire police and crime commissioner is one of the best in the country, offering the sort of innovation that we have heard about during the debate. It is sad that he is not standing for re-election in May.

I welcome today’s debate and the opportunity to bust some myths, which is important and can provide confidence going forward. I am generally a friend of the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), and we get on 99% of the time, both inside and outside this Chamber, but some of her comments frankly amounted to scaremongering. I will address the points that have been made during the debate, but, as always, I will write to colleagues if I cannot cover everything.

Like the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), I have a passion for this country’s fire service. I was a member of it for a short time but nowhere near as long as him. The fire service that turns up to our homes and factories to protect us is a public asset and will stay so—let me throw this privatisation thing out of the window once and for all. However, when my constituency was blown to smithereens on 11 December 2010, I welcomed firefighters from anywhere, including the private sector, which has huge experience in the type of fire that we were fighting.

We must also get away from the London-centric perception that all fire stations stay open 24/7, because they do not. We have an absolutely fantastic voluntary service based on retained firefighters, who make up the vast majority of firefighters around the country. Brilliantly, we now have full-time retained firefighters—it was not allowed when I was in the job. I understand that there are retained London firefighters who live in my constituency, but I must be slightly careful about that as I do not want to get them into trouble. The Fire Brigades Union in London does not like retained firefighters. On Merseyside, there are only 25 retained firefighters for the whole area, even though many firefighters have told me that they would love to be retained when they go back to their villages and homes. We also have full-time day-manning, as I call it, with firefighters being retained and on call later. Only the other day, I was in Lancashire to congratulate firefighters on their fantastic work during the floods. They have just moved to a new system with no 24/7 stations, but the cover is safe and the unions have accepted it. We must therefore remember when looking around the country that one size will not fit all.

However, we must consider—the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse hit the nail on the head—that other countries often have emergency services that work together much more closely than ours and protect their public much better. Of all the countries that I could refer to, it is America, the nation of privatisation, where firefighters have paramedical skills vastly in excess of any fireman in this country. I am really passionate about that. I took five years to qualify as a military paramedic before paramedics were even heard of in civvy street. When I started the job in Essex after passing out, I was posted to the station in Basildon. I was given my trade union card—I had no choice in the matter—and I was then given my first aid certificate, because I was made to take a first aid course during my basic training. By the way, at no stage during my service was I asked to renew the certificate, which is quite fascinating.

We have moved on since then. The vast majority of firefighting appliances now have defibrillators, but so does the cashier at my local Tesco. It is fantastic that this life-saving kit is available to us. When I was in Hampshire the other day, I saw advances in skills for firefighters for which I have been screaming for years, and we could go further. The key thing is whether we can keep a person alive until the other professionals arrive. This is not about replacing the ambulance service or the police; this is about the fire service being able to save a seriously injured person when it is out on a job and an ambulance cannot get there. That happens in most other parts of the world. In Hampshire, I was chatting away with a fireman who had paramedical skills right up to just below being able to insert an IV. I think there are legal reasons behind him not being able to do an IV, but we will try to move on that as well, because, as I know from experience, getting fluids into the body is one of the most important things, alongside keeping the airways open. People have transferred from the ambulance service into the fire service and vice versa, because of their on-the-job experience.

The reason why legislation is so important is that this is not just about money. If it was, I would not be standing here. It is about whether we can get a more efficient service to protect our constituents’ lives day in, day out, 24/7, 365 days of the year. Are there things preventing us from doing that?

In some parts of the country we have gone forward in leaps and bounds, but in other parts we have not; in some parts of the country we have huge amounts of collaboration, but in others not. I freely admit—I will probably get myself in trouble with the Department of Health again—that when I was in opposition I was fundamentally opposed to regionalisation of the ambulance service. As a former firefighter, I saw problems with that. When the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse was the Fire Minister, I was fundamentally opposed to the regionalisation of the fire service control centres. Thirty-odd years ago, however, when I was a fireman, we had a tri-service control centre—only one of them—and it worked really well. Where such things are working in places around the country, issues such as contracts and job descriptions have been addressed, which is absolutely right.

On Thursday, I was at the police control centre in London when the Syria conference was going on here. That was a hugely difficult and tactical job for the Metropolitan police, with the fire service, the Army, the ambulance service and the London boroughs all in that control centre together, but it was a brilliant operation. I pay tribute to those involved in the mutual aid that took place in London last Thursday. We had armed response and other police officers from throughout the country, including from the Police Service of Northern Ireland—the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) have now had to leave the Chamber for other business.

Collaboration does take place, but what do we do when it does not? Do we simply sit back and say that that is acceptable? A locally appointed—not elected—fire authority might say, “No, we’re doing fine. There are 25 of us, and we turn up twice a month. We’re doing absolutely fine”, even though they know full well that in another part of the country collaboration is saving lives and doing the job. This is not about replacing a fireman with a policeman—that is clearly scaremongering. I know what the FBU has been saying, and I will try to work with it on the matter. This is about delivering better care and value for money.

Why are the emergency services not all coming together on procurement? I now publish the lists of what police authorities spend, and I shall do exactly the same for the fire authorities. The accountability of PCCs is in place—they are elected. There are people who are seconded or appointed to different authorities, but at the end of the day the PCCs are the ones in the community who are elected, and the vast majority of them want collaboration.

Nearly every chief fire officer has congratulated me on my new position, although that is probably natural—they do not want to get on the wrong side of me straightaway. They welcome the fact that I am the Fire Minister as well as the Police Minister, so the fire service is not the forgotten body, which to be fair they have felt in the past. I was aware of the extent of that when I took office.

We want collaboration to be as voluntary as possible, but where there is complete belligerence about not doing it, we will take powers. The Bill will be published shortly. There will be evidence sessions, because that is the modern way we do things now, and we will look carefully at a lot of the comments made in the debate today. All that, however, has to be about how to do things—the way we did things in the past is not necessarily the best one. Some of the work we are doing now I was pushing for 30 years ago, and I am pushing to go further.

I would like the ambulance service to work more closely with the others. That is much more complicated because of the regional structure, but we could do things locally. I know of at least one PCC—I will not name him, because I was told in confidence—who has been approached by the new commissioning group in his area to ask whether the PCC could provide emergency blue light cover for ambulances. That is starting to come about not from the top down but from the grassroots.

We should listen not only to the chiefs, the PCCs or the unions—more unions than the FBU alone are involved—but to the individual firefighters, who have had the confidence to talk to me in the past few weeks, since I had this new job, and to say, “Minister, we are thrilled that you are an ex-firefighter and that our voice may now be heard above all the other chatter of people protecting their jobs.” That is the sort of comment I have been hearing.

With regard to the grassroots and the people on the frontline, who the Minister mentioned—he was one of those people himself—in the event of a single employer model, will he guarantee the people in the fire and rescue service their rights to unionise, to collective bargaining and to industrial and strike action? The police have none of that, so will the Minister guarantee that firefighters may retain their rights?

That is an important point. The operational control of the individuals will always be by the operational officers. There is no evidence whatever that PCCs, since we have had them, have interfered in cases or in operational work. It is crucial that that does not happen.

What are we really saying? More than half of all fire stations—I think this figure is right—have a police station or ambulance station within 1 km of them. Although it is difficult to put a fire appliance into a police station—some ambulance stations could take them, but not police stations—the reverse is easy, and we have seen that in Winchester.

The new fire station in Winchester, which a fantastic piece of kit, is fully bayed, and the police are in there, too. The two services are completely working together, without it affecting their operational control. Someone who dials 999 and asks for a police officer will not get a fireman—that is a ludicrous idea and will not happen. However, elsewhere in the country we already have, for example, police community support officers in Durham, I think, carrying first aid kits. They might even have short extension ladders. They have had the training and are doing that because of the sheer geographical issues involved.

One size will not fit all, and that gives us an opportunity. There are complications, and I am not shying away from the fact that doing something might be difficult, but nor will I shy away from the fact that we need to protect our public better than we do now. Where collaboration works, I will not have belligerence and bloody-mindedness blocking that sort of care in other parts of the country. That is why we are bringing it through.

I thank hon. Members for taking part in the debate. In particular, I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), and the Minister for their contributions.

The Minister was kind enough to say that he would write to Members with responses to their questions, because he did not have time to answer everything specifically. The key message that he will have received today is that there is broad and widespread support for collaboration in principle, but some important questions remain about how it will be developed.

We heard about some strong examples in Hampshire from my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Steve Brine) and for Portsmouth South (Mrs Drummond), and about the experience in Northern Ireland from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). As my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) said, however, there are still mixed opinions among professionals, so the Minister will have to provide guidance. He will have to lead on this, so that others may follow and get the best of the opportunities presented by collaboration.

As the Minister himself mentioned, there are continuing questions about where the ambulance service and the responsibility for emergency healthcare response sit in the review. We heard about that from the hon. Members for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), as well as from me and the shadow Minister. That issue will not go away.

Let me just say to the Minister that, in my experience, workplace culture matters—the culture that makes men and women want to work together grows and matters, because it is an ethos and a motivation for people. Nowhere is that more so than among members of our public service whom we ask to put their own personal safety behind the safety of our public. Clearly there is such an ethos among those in the fire service whom the Minister has met. They see themselves as having a humanitarian mission.

When the Minister says that he is minded to do more, therefore, he really does need to do more. We have to find a way to bring those responsibilities into the changes he is making. If he can put that in the Bill, or if the shadow Minister tables amendments to that effect, they will find widespread support from Members of Parliament in all parts of the House.

Before I put the Question, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their self-restraint, because every Member who wished to speak did so.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered closer working between the emergency services.

Sports Clubs: HMRC Status

I beg to move,

That this House has considered multi-sports clubs and HMRC changes to community amateur sports club status.

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Bone. In many ways the context of the debate is the rather disappointing Olympic legacy, with participation reducing in sports. In the past four years, the number of people doing more than half an hour of sports a week has declined from 25 million to 23 million; and as has been widely reported, obesity has increased by something like two thirds since 1993. In the context of joined-up government, it is therefore somewhat surprising that the Government have chosen to increase taxes on a number of amateur sports clubs, which will almost certainly lead to some detrimental impact on participation.

I will use Warrington sports club as my example, but I could have used many others. In particular, I have been contacted by a large number of golf clubs that are also being hit by the tax changes that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is in the process of bringing in, which will have an impact on participation. Warrington sports club has 750 members, of whom 400 are junior members. That high ratio of junior members is one of the factors that has led it to fall foul of HMRC. Another factor is that it is a multi-sports club that does six major sports: rugby, cricket, hockey, squash, tennis and archery. The club was founded in 1852, so it has been going for a long time. It costs £220 a year for a multi-membership and £130 for a single membership, so it is not a major, lucrative money-making venture. The two issues that have taken the club the wrong side of the legislation are that it is a multi-sports club and that it has a relatively high number of junior members.

In terms of the club’s financials, membership brings in something like £50,000 a year and the bar brings in £290,000 a year of which £140,000 a year is from non-members. Non-member income is the issue that the Revenue is trying to address. One of the reasons for the large non-member income is that the club has a significant number of junior members, so parents take juniors to play rugby, cricket, hockey and whatever and have a drink while their offspring are playing. That counts as non-member income, which is the crux of the HMRC requirements. In terms of profit and loss, in the past two years on a turnover of about £300,000 a year the club has made a total profit of just under £2,000. The club is run to break even; it is not a profit-making club.

The legislation from which the club and many others have benefited was introduced in 2002 to attempt to increase participation in sport by making concessions for amateur sports clubs. The concessions were an 80% relief on rates, some corporation tax relief and gift aid status if they registered to be a community amateur sports club. Something like 6,000 sports clubs registered as CASCs. The valuable part of that concession for Warrington is that it saves about £14,000 a year in business rates, which may not be huge in terms of its turnover, but that is a reasonable chunk for a club that broadly breaks even. It comes to something like £20 a member, which is about 15% of the membership fee.

The legislation brought in by the Government in 2002 had numerous sensible criteria. The club had to be open to the whole community—it could not be a private, restricted club—it had to be amateur and its main purpose had to be the promotion and participation of an eligible sport. Clearly that was the case for Warrington and up until now that has worked fairly harmoniously.

In 2013, HMRC started a consultation. Its concern was apparently that the existing legislation was complex and confusing. There was clearly potential that organisations that are not really sports clubs whose primary purpose is not sport could register for CASC and take the benefits, which would not be fair to aspects of the hospitality industry. I can see that and the people at Warrington sports club can see that. If abuse was taking place, it is reasonable that HMRC should look at how it might wish to stop that. That seems to me an easier loophole to close than some of the other issues it grapples with on our behalf, such as double Irish, Facebook, Google and all that goes with that, but the focus in 2013 was amateur sports clubs.

HMRC sent out a consultation with a number of options and I think it would be fair to say—I am sure the Minister will agree—that it was trying to develop quantitative criteria by which it could judge whether an entity should be CASC-registered. It would not be a judgment on whether something was a sports club; HMRC could say, “It is a sports club because of these quantitative criteria, so we can tick a box. This one clearly passes and that one doesn’t.” One can only imagine that it was trying to remove uncertainty and dialogue, with people arguing, “His club should be if mine is” and vice versa.

At the time of that consultation, there was no mention whatever of state aid being one of the drivers of what HMRC was trying to do. At no point was the reason given that there was concern that some sports clubs might have an issue with state aid, but I say that because recent correspondence with HMRC has given that as the reason for not changing some limits. The consultation ran its course and at the end HMRC decided to impose two quantitative criteria. One was a £100,000 a year maximum on non-member income. As I said, the club had £140,000 non-member income, which put it outside that limit. One reason why the club is outside the limit—this is why the debate is about multi-sports clubs—is that the club runs six sports, so it is a relatively big club. If it were six separate clubs, they would be beneath the limit, but that structure would be onerous to go to and difficult to achieve. The £100,000 limit discriminates against multi-sports clubs.

The other quantitative criterion that HMRC imposed was that 50% of members had to participate actively in a sport. I guess the reason for that is that it wants to ensure that CASCs are real sports clubs and that people are not joining just to enjoy the benefits of the £14,000 a year that the club enjoys. That has caused Warrington an issue, because roughly speaking—it is only an estimate—its non-member income is about £140,000 because it is a multiple sports club. The other point is that because it has a large junior membership—400 of the 750 members are juniors, which I would submit is a good thing—parents will sometimes join the club socially or whatever. Those who have to take their children to the club will have a drink. They may or may not be members. If they are members, they may not do sport 12 times a year, so they would fall outside that criterion. In any event, the criterion appears to be a complex one, with 16 measurements for participation.

The impact on the club is £16,000 a year. I do not suppose that that will close it. It is a material issue, but it will not break it. HMRC tells the club that if it wants to it can set up a trading subsidiary. That would involve accountants and lawyers, and all the rest of it. Obviously, the bar income would go into the trading subsidiary. The estimated cost would be several thousand pounds, and the trading subsidiary would pay corporation tax. Perhaps that is what the Revenue wants, but it is quite onerous, and it is unclear what the saving would be. The other possibility would be to split the sports club into six separate sport clubs—one for each sport. There would clearly need to be a method of checking which club people who bought drinks were in, and so on, because of the de minimis limit. The consequence would probably be something like a 20% increase in membership fees—£25 a year. Presumably, because everything in economics happens at the margin, that would cause a reduction in participation, which is not really what the Government want.

The club put a request to HMRC. It said, “Okay, we kind of understand the direction of what you are trying to do. We understand the abuse that you are trying to tighten up on, and the clarity that you want. Let’s change the £100,000 de minimis thing, given that this is a multi-sports club, to £150,000.” Obviously there is self-interest there, because the Warrington club would be under that, and would save £14,000. We got the answer from HMRC that—I paraphrase—it would be happy to help, but its hands are tied by state aid rules. That is the first mention we have had of state aid rules, and no one would think that Warrington sports club was the first entity to create a state aid issue for the Government—a Government, by the way, while we are on the subject of state aid, who have difficulty in stopping the German Government reducing electricity prices for their heavy industry by a factor of two, so that their steel companies do not close while ours do. Nevertheless, Warrington sports club was informed that HMRC could not help and that £100,000 was the highest the figure could be, because of state aid rules.

I have good news for the Minister, however, because in the past few days I have read the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills state aid manual, which came out in July 2015. It is a rattling good yarn, and explains that there is a de minimis limit on state aid of €200,000 over a three-year period. In the view of BIS that would not distort competition in the European market. We thought we were home and dry, because obviously the £14,000 or €20,000 that Warrington sports club and other sports clubs enjoy is clearly a factor of three or four below that state aid amount. It would appear to me from the BIS manual that we have found a way out for HMRC. It will no longer have to be concerned about being dragged through the European Court on matters of state aid and the rest, because of the de minimis limit and its impact on Warrington sports club. I am informing HMRC of that point in this debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I have five questions for the Minister. Why does the correspondence that we have received from HMRC—most recently the Lin Homer letter of November 2015—rest its case on state aid, when state aid was not mentioned at all in the initial consultation? Given that we now have the BIS state aid manual and know that there are minimum state aid thresholds, can we incorporate what we know into HMRC policy? Presumably the handbook applies to HMRC. In the opinion of the Minister, have the changes to the entire area that have taken place in the past three years, which will raise very small amounts of tax, if any, increased or decreased complexity? Does the Minister have an estimate of the number of clubs that are deregistering, and has there been any discussion with DCMS of the decline in sports participation that will be a consequence of that? Does he agree with me that instead of engaging in a drive to find a quantitative criterion for evaluating clubs it should have been possible, given all the value judgments that HMRC inspectors must make, to tell whether x or y is a sports club? That would not be beyond HMRC; it is something that could have been left to the judgment of tax officers.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone, and to have the opportunity to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) in this important debate. I commend and congratulate him on bringing it to Westminster Hall.

Successive Governments have recognised the benefits of sporting activity in improving people’s health and wellbeing, and in strengthening community cohesion. I welcome the opportunity to express the Government’s continued support for community amateur sports clubs, which, among other things, play an important part in consolidating our Olympic legacy, as my hon. Friend mentioned. It is right that the Government should use the tax system, as well as other forms of support, to encourage the benefits offered by those clubs.

There are about 7,115 community amateur sports clubs, and they certainly deserve the Government’s backing. The new regulations for CASCs continue to ensure that support through the tax system is correctly targeted at them. The community amateur sports club tax scheme provides a number of vital charitable tax reliefs to support local amateur sports clubs. Following a detailed review by HMRC of how the scheme was operating under the old rules, which showed that they were confusing and difficult to understand, the new CASC regulations came into effect on 1 April 2015. They included, as my hon. Friend said, a new income ceiling of £100,000 for non-member income.

Extensive consultation took place before the new rules were formulated. The Government formally consulted on outline proposals for reform of the scheme in June 2013 and published their response that November. Between November 2013 and September 2014 officials were engaged in regular and intensive dialogue with representative bodies individually, as well as establishing a forum for representatives of the sports sector.

The forum has a membership drawn from several sports’ national governing bodies and representative organisations. It met regularly during development of the new policy and the drafting of the new regulations. Particular issues of interest to members were aired at the forum and more detailed working group meetings ensured that HMRC understood specific issues for different sports as it developed the rules. As a result, changes were put in place to address the genuine concerns of some members of the forum, and the draft regulations were amended to increase the generosity of the social membership rule. Throughout the consultation process HMRC worked closely with officials from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and its agency, Sport England.

The new regulations have made the scheme more generous than it was, which makes membership more attractive. However, the scheme works by providing tax advantages only to those that need them, and it is of course important that taxpayers’ money should be spent wisely. To take an extreme contrast as an example, clearly a youth football club with a tuck shop should get the tax advantages, but a pub with a darts team should not. That said, the new rules were developed to enable as many clubs as possible to remain within the scheme. Eighty-five per cent of existing CASCs are not affected by the new rules, as they operate fully within both the old and new rules.

It is worth noting that HMRC has not received evidence that the rules significantly increased the administrative costs for clubs within the scheme. However, some clubs inevitably are disappointed that the rules are not more generous. HMRC has continued to give help and guidance to clubs to help them remain within the scheme, and the dedicated HMRC charities helpline remains available to CASCs. If my hon. Friend or the club in his constituency wish to have a further conversation, they can do so by calling the helpline on 0300 123 1073. I would also be happy to arrange for either him or representatives of Warrington sports club to meet with officials to discuss the situation.

Some clubs may decide that complying with the new regulations is not financially viable and decide to leave the scheme instead. While we will not know the numbers involved accurately until after the 12-month grace period expires on 1 April 2016, we know that clubs are applying for CASC status at approximately the same rate as in 2014-15, before the rules changed.

The main purpose of a CASC must be the promotion of sport by providing facilities for the whole community. Clubs that generate a disproportionate amount of their revenue from non-sporting activities may be primarily social or commercial clubs. If a club’s main purpose is not sporting, it is obviously not eligible to be a CASC. It is important that the generous tax reliefs available only go to genuine amateur sports clubs. The Government recognise that many sports clubs raise funds from social functions and other non-sporting activities to subsidise membership fees and consider that the £100,000 income threshold provides sufficient flexibility to do that.

The consultation document was clear that the tax reliefs afforded to CASCs are not meant to support clubs that could be seen as competing with other commercial businesses such as pubs and restaurants, as my hon. Friend said. A higher limit could increase the risk of a state aid challenge because clubs could be seen to be engaging in economic activity. I must make it clear that in the event of a successful state aid challenge, HMRC would have no alternative but to seek to recover what would then be deemed underpaid tax from each club—a situation that all of us would want to avoid. The stakes when considering any potential state aid challenge case are therefore really quite high.

When considering the state aid threshold of €200,000 over three years—my hon. Friend was right to raise this important point—the relevant rules require all forms of potential state aid provided to be taken into consideration. As well as the tax reliefs provided by the CASC regime, CASCs also benefit from lower business rates and may in addition receive grants or other forms of financial assistance. The amounts in question will vary from club to club. The income limit is set at a level that seeks to ensure the de minimis limits will not be breached once business rates and any other form of financial assistance are taken into consideration.

I reiterate that the main purpose of a CASC must continue to be the provision of facilities for an eligible sport or sports, and the encouragement of participation in those sports. If a club has a lot of non-sporting income, it is unlikely to be primarily a sports club. The new CASC regulations allow clubs to earn up to £100,000 a year from non-member trading and property income. There is no limit at all on the amount of income clubs can generate from members, apart from property income from members, which also counts towards the £100,000 cap.

During consultation, representations were made for a more flexible approach and perhaps a more bespoke income limit. However, that would greatly increase the complexity of the regime and regulations. Different rules for different sports or sizes of club would increase the administration for both clubs and HMRC, and that approach was rejected on these grounds.

If clubs that are already registered as CASCs have high levels of non-member trading income and/or property income and do not want to be deregistered, they may choose, as my hon. Friend said, to consider setting up a trading subsidiary in the same way as many charities have trading subsidiaries. This is important: any income generated by a trading subsidiary will not count towards the club’s income threshold.

Trading subsidiaries should be owned and controlled by the CASC, allowing the subsidiary to trade but not be entitled to CASC reliefs. However, the trading company may gift-aid its otherwise taxable profits to the CASC and not pay corporation tax. Similarly, separate supporters’ clubs may be set up to assist clubs with high levels of junior membership—another important point that my hon. Friend raised—in meeting new rules for participation levels where it is a requirement that a non-sporting parent or guardian is also a member.

HMRC cannot register clubs that do not meet the income condition. It expects all clubs affected to take steps to reduce their level of non-member trading and property income, and in many cases that will be by setting up a trading subsidiary. The new income condition provides a sound regulatory foundation for the CASC scheme going forward that is fair and in keeping with one of the founding principles of the scheme: to support small volunteer-run community amateur sports clubs.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s point on state aid. The fact that the de minimis limit applies to all forms of aid is, of course, reasonable. I make the point again, though, that my local club—I do not believe there is any reason to think Warrington sports club is atypical—would be under the current de minimis state aid limit by a factor of four or five. It is hard to see that the figure of £100,000 is, in fact, responsive to that de minimis state aid limit.

To actual aid, in all its forms. Officials had to, appropriately, make a judgment in designing a scheme that would apply across the sector on the safe level of non-member income, as a generally applicable rule that would keep clubs safely under that limit. The figure they arrived at for the limit was £100,000. In the particular case of my hon. Friend’s local club, which he rightly and ably represents today in Westminster Hall, I would be happy to arrange for further discussions on appropriate avenues forwards.

The vast majority of clubs currently in the scheme have been unaffected by the new income condition, and detailed guidance is available to them and to those considering joining the scheme in the future. That means the tax reliefs available under the CASC scheme continue to be a vital element in supporting small clubs within the scheme to deliver the benefits of participating in sport.

The new non-member income threshold continues to encourage and support community sports clubs. The Government believe the cap is set at an already generous level and strikes the correct balance between the interests of the CASCs to raise extra funds and the interests of local businesses. The scheme should not provide tax reliefs to clubs that derive significant amounts of income from non-member social and commercial activities, as that was not what it was designed for. I close by thanking my hon. Friend once again and commending him for bringing this important debate to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Work Capability Assessments

[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered work capability assessments.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to lead this debate, because it is one that we have been having in the House for many years and it has enormous repercussions for the people we are here to represent.

The debate comes at an important time. The amount of money that the Government spend on outsourcing has never been higher, but public trust in outsourced companies has never been lower. Only 22% of people believe that they are motivated by providing the best service to the public, and is it any wonder, with stories every week of high-profile failures, corruption, mistreatment, the falsifying of information and a premium being put on profit ahead of people? There is a sense from the public that this shadow state, providing the services that the public rely on, is acting with ever increasing impunity.

In the course of the last Parliament, as outsourcing grew, the public’s control over our own public services shrank and evidence of malpractice, mistreatment and utter contempt for those coming into contact with the services provided by such companies grew, private sector providers became the ogres for their appalling behaviour. However, we should not forget that it resulted from what were first and foremost political choices, the unpalatable consequences of which were contracted out and covered in the veil of secrecy that commercial confidentiality rules permit. Although it was Atos and is now Maximus that has carried out the Government’s massive expansion of work capability assessments, the choices made in the Treasury and in Downing Street, well before responsibility was contracted out, were the basis for where we are today—failing contractors acting with impunity, and the sick and disabled paying the price for the Government’s flawed agenda.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that if people can work, they should—that is not a contentious statement—and that work is beneficial for many people suffering from illness, be it physical or mental. I have friends and family who have fallen in and out of depression and for whom work has been a lifeline. It gives people a routine and a purpose—a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I have been unemployed for stretches of time myself and have experienced how closely linked unemployment and depression can be for many. Helping people to get into work is therefore a laudable and necessary objective of any Government, but some things are not compatible with helping people with physical illness, disabilities or mental health problems to get into appropriate work. I am referring to targets, profit-driven motives and a focus above all on cutting expenditure. When one side is trying to cut costs and another is employed to maximise profit, something has to give, and unforgivably that has been the sick, the disabled and anyone who comes into contact with this failing and occasionally brutal system.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. Is there not also an issue about the significant waste of taxpayers’ money in the Government failing to address the fundamental flaws in the system, which lead to an over-reliance on appeals and reconsiderations and the Department for Work and Pensions having to prop up a private company that is failing to deal with assessments appropriately the first time?

I could not agree more, and I will come on to that issue.

This is about providing not just a good-quality service for clients, but best value for money for the taxpayer. As I said, when one side is trying to cut costs and another is employed to maximise profit, something has to give. As report after report has identified, the contractors that the Government have employed to carry out cuts have been anything but successful. They have presided over failure after failure. There has been poor performance, a disregard for vulnerable people and, in this new age of outsourcing, a total lack of accountability for Government and operator alike.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. The cost to the taxpayer is some £80 million this year, up by £24 million on last year. Does she agree that these private companies are taking the taxpayer for a ride?

Again, I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and I thank him for that intervention. The contractors continue to get paid despite repeated failures. Even worse, after being deemed unfit to perform in relation to one contract, contractors simply get to continue with another lucrative long-term deal, as Atos has done. After failing to handle the work capability assessments contract, it is still running a seven-year contract for personal independence payment assessments for the same Department. Now Maximus is failing to meet a range of key targets—targets that, importantly, put far greater emphasis on saving money than on meeting the needs of people who unjustifiably suffer. Whatever the rhetoric about service quality, this is still a system designed to cut costs for the Government and maximise profit for Maximus.

We have undoubtedly all read last month’s report by the National Audit Office, but some of the figures deserve to be rehearsed. Despite the new contract—which followed Atos’s spectacular failure—being worth some £570 million a year, there is still a backlog of 280,000 employment and support allowance claims. The average cost of each individual assessment is now almost £200, and that is for a 15-minute assessment. One in 10 disability benefit claimants’ reports are rejected as below standard by the Government, compared with one in 25 when the shamed Atos was running the show.

Individuals have to wait an average of 23 weeks for a decision to be made on their benefits; there has been a huge rise in that timescale—almost a trebling—in recent years. For each person, that can and almost always does mean hardship, but the number being referred keeps rocketing as the Government, desperate to clear the books at any cost, lay the bill for clearing the deficit squarely at the door of the sick and disabled. The Government are forcing away from ESA people who need and rely on it, and the failing contractors are being overwhelmed. Despite all that undeniable pain, unbelievably, the Department is not expected to meet the initial £5.4 billion savings target originally envisaged for the 10 years to 2019-20.

I thank my hon. Friend for generously giving way again. Does she agree that the failure at ministerial level to get a grip on the backlog, the rising costs and the incompetence in the Department for Work and Pensions has led to the Treasury’s demand to take even more money from disabled people on employment and support allowance, which is why the Government are seeking to cut £30 a week from half a million of the most disadvantaged people in the country?

Again, my hon. Friend has neatly anticipated my next point, which is that the Office for Budget Responsibility has identified ESA and PIP as a major risk to planned public spending targets, given the uncertainty of the estimates. The NAO has gone so far as to say that PIP and disability living allowance performance issues have been the main contributing factor in the Department’s inability to save any money in the spending review period up to 2015.

It is clear that both the Government and contractors are failing on their own terms, yet still the cash is handed over to failing contractors. We are locked into long contracts whereby Departments do not have the capability to improve performance. The original policy itself is flawed, but it is in the treatment of individuals unlucky enough to come into contact with the system that the whole rotten trade-off between cost cutting by the Government and profit maximisation by Maximus is most apparent. Specific cases abound, and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would be able to relay evidence of deeply concerning practice, which is why it is interesting to note that not a single Government Back Bencher is in the Chamber today. I will list a few from my case load.

One man with learning difficulties whose case was highlighted to me attended his work capability assessment, but during the assessment his support worker was shocked at the lack of care and attention given to him. When the assessment came through, there were some glaring factual errors, but none the less his ESA was docked, just in case he was in any doubt about what comes first—the person or the profit. On making his request for mandatory reconsideration, he was appalled to find out that he would be ineligible for ESA, which was his lifeline, until the reconsideration decision was made, and he was unable to meet the conditions placed on him for jobseeker’s allowance. He now faces months of waiting until his tribunal, and potentially an annual battle if assessors continue to lack understanding of his learning difficulty.

Whatever my hon. Friend’s views about the contractors, does she agree that it is the Government’s responsibility to secure contractors whose assessors have sufficient knowledge of progressive conditions such as muscular dystrophy and sufficient awareness and training in areas such as learning disabilities? The contractors are not primarily responsible for that; is it not the Government’s responsibility?

Of course, I completely agree. The Government’s policy sets the direction for the contractors, which is why the contractors have such a huge gap in their understanding, particularly of mental health issues.

In another case, one of my constituents applied for a home visit after being unable to make their assessment. She has now been waiting for more than two years and still has not received a date. Throughout that time, she has been surviving on a reduced rate and is struggling, as anyone would, to get by. She is just one of 280,000 people in an enormous backlog.

Despite the fact that the Government have made it notably harder for people to appeal their decisions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) mentioned, the latest figures show that 54% of appeals result in decisions being overturned. As in the case of the first constituent I mentioned, there seems to be an alarming trend of cases being rejected based on factual errors or even—I hesitate to say this—falsification. I have had several cases of people telling me that their assessment report bears absolutely no relation to the assessment that they experienced with Maximus or Atos. I am sure that other hon. Members have heard similar evidence. One or two cases could be dismissed as an honest mistake, but the situation appears to reveal a disconcerting pattern of behaviour that indicates that the trade-off between cost cutting and profit maximisation is being felt by very vulnerable people.

Maximus is not doing this to make a loss or out of the kindness of its heart, and it is failing on performance, which goes to the heart of the issue. Even if the Government were more concerned with the interests and wellbeing of the user, it would be extremely difficult for them to hold the contractors’ feet to the fire.

It is good of my hon. Friend to give way to colleagues. Does the situation not demonstrate that the Government’s intention—Governments do give contractors instructions, by the way—is to cut people’s benefits, and to make the system more difficult, through the contractors, so that it is harder for people to get those benefits? If anybody wants any evidence of that, it took the House of Lords to stop a £30 cut in people’s benefits a couple of weeks ago.

Absolutely. Clearly, there is an attempt by the Government to drive down benefits for people who are sick and disabled, and they are using private companies to outsource that responsibility.

Even if the Government were interested in ensuring that the contractors were doing the best for sick and vulnerable people, it would be very difficult for them to be able to do so. They need to be able to trust the data that the contractor supplies if they are to hold its feet to the fire. In a 2014 report, the NAO pulled the Government up on the poor management of contracts, the level of inexperience within Departments, their naivety and their “over-reliance” on data supplied by contractors in the management of performance.

Although some much-needed changes have been made since the calamitous Atos contract and that 2014 report, old habits die hard and inexperience in managing contracts remains a major issue for the Department. Although we know that contractors are performing poorly against a range of measures, because of the helpful insight we get from the NAO once in a while, assessment across the full range is not always forthcoming.

Across a range of vital measures, it is up to us to trust that the Department is doing the job and that Maximus is supplying the right information. They include the number of face-to-face complaints following an interview; the number of serious complaints; the percentage of face-to-face consultations without complaints, which is supposed to be at 99.5%; and the target of 100% payment of travel expenses within nine working days. Those targets are all noble and sensible, but there is no regular method for publishing whether they are met. That is why we talk about a democratic deficit in outsourced public services, the costs of which have rocketed since 2010 to almost £120 billion, covering vast swathes of services that we all rely on.

What exactly is the point in setting targets if the public cannot see whether they are being achieved? A supplier could manipulate the data, and we would have to rely on an overstretched Department to pick it up. Let us not pretend that that would be unusual or unprecedented. In 2007, Maximus was fined $30.5 million over accusations that it had cheated Medicaid in the United States by making tens of thousands of false claims on a payment by results contract. Maximus effectively stole money from US taxpayers by making claims for children who had not received care. After that was exposed, Maximus said it would not sign any more contingency-based contracts where it was paid from savings in state expenditure, but the contract we are discussing is just such a contingency-based payment by results contract.

In 2007, Maximus was sued by the state of Connecticut for the abject failure of its computer system, which was supposed to run a police database, including real-time police record checks. The state’s attorney general said:

“Maximus minimized quality—squandering millions of taxpayer dollars and shortchanging law enforcement agencies.”

He said that the database could

“make a life and death difference to police and other law enforcers”,

so the failure was unacceptable. In 2012, Maximus settled the case for $2.5 million. While the US sues companies such as Maximus, which spectacularly fail to deliver the contracts they are required to, we continue to hand over billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.

We have an original policy based on a flawed and myopic view of the sick and disabled, and handed down by the Government to catch contractors that are undeniably failing. Meanwhile, the public’s right to know what is going on is limited by commercial confidentiality. We will all be forgiven for not wanting simply to trust that all is well when our constituents tell a different story and when well documented scandals seem to play on a loop.

Will the Minister commit to publishing regular updates to Parliament on Maximus’s performance against its targets? Will she release the latest spending on WCA appeals, given that the figures in the public domain date back to 2012, and when the contract comes up for renewal in three years’ time, will she release a cost-benefit analysis of bringing the service back in-house? Finally, will she confirm what steps are being taken to bolster the experience of civil servants in her Department overseeing contracts of this magnitude, to ensure that they are delivering the best possible service to vulnerable people and the best possible value for money to the taxpayer?

The fundamental problem is that regardless of which hapless and dubious provider is dragged in, and regardless of the operating system and oversight of the WCA, the need of extremely vulnerable individuals simply cannot come in third place behind a need to cut costs and maximise profit. Is not the lesson of this whole sorry episode and the episode before it that profit has no place in assessing need?

The WCA was introduced to assess an individual’s eligibility for ESA. The assessments have three outcomes, which determine whether claimants are in the support group, or the work-related activity group, or are fit for work. Claimants who wish to dispute the decision must go through a mandatory reconsideration before they can appeal. They have one month after a decision to request that and an additional month to supply supplementary evidence. ESA is not payable during that period, but may be backdated. Unbelievably, there is currently no statutory time limit for the Department for Work and Pensions to complete the process. Since March 2011, 35% of claimants went into the WRAG, 46% went into the support group and 19% were declared fit for work. The percentage of people placed in the first two groups has increased month on month from 75% in March 2011 to 96% in March 2015.

Panic, fear, distress, dread and anxiety are just some of the words people use to describe their experience of the benefits system while dealing with health concerns. For example, people with cancer—those who are terminally ill, those receiving treatment for cancer by way of chemotherapy or radiotherapy, and those recovering from treatment—will automatically be treated as having a limited capability for work or work-related activity. In some ways that is beneficial. However, according to Macmillan Cancer Support, by 2020 one in two people will get cancer in their lifetime but almost four in 10 will not die from it. That is clearly good news, but at least one in four of those living with cancer—around 500,000 people in the UK—face poor health or disability after treatment, with a significant proportion experiencing a wide range of distressing long-term problems, both physically and mentally. Many problems can persist for up to 10 years after treatment and can be significantly worse than those experienced by people without cancer.

Many healthcare professionals underestimate the long-term consequences of cancer and its treatment, and that low profile means that some of those affected are reluctant to report those consequences, particularly if they feel grateful to be free of cancer in the first place. It is good that we are curing people of cancer, but we have to recognise that not dying is not the same as being well. The impact of cancer and its treatment affects much more than just health and wellbeing. The physical and emotional effects of cancer and its treatment are the two most common reasons for employees who are diagnosed to give up work or change jobs. Almost half of those who do so say that it was because they were not physically able to return to the same role and one in three said that they did not feel emotionally strong enough. Having come out the other end of cancer treatment, the last thing they need is the stress of jumping through hoops to see whether they are entitled to benefits. The time after treatment is crucial for future health. It is a time when space is needed to process what has happened to them and a period when they need to concentrate on themselves and take time to heal and get stronger.

The issue with the work capability assessment is that there is no flexibility. It does not take people’s individual circumstances into account. It is not possible for people in the DWP to understand each and every health condition and its impact, and those who are contracted to do so seem very quick to overturn the diagnoses of GPs and health professionals. Sadly, everyone is expected to fit into the same box. Clearly, life is not so black and white, and cancer survivors and those with other health conditions want, more than anything, to have a normal life, but the opposite will happen if the benefits system continues to cause undue stress and hardship.

Although I have spoken about only one client group, there are many others in similar positions, and we can no longer ignore the damage that the system is doing. I ask the Government to re-examine the processes and to consider a better way of supporting people with health issues back into the workplace.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) on securing this important debate.

Work capability assessments are one of the issues most commonly raised with me, and I am sure with many other Members on both sides of the House. The system is flawed and discredited, and it has caused undue stress and hardship for too many claimants. Recent academic research estimates that for every 10,000 assessments carried out between 2010 and 2013 there have been six suicides, which is truly shocking. That alone requires the Government to undertake a complete review of the current system.

Does my hon. Friend agree that cases such as that of one of my constituents, who is disabled and does not drive and who has had to attend centres four times, only to be told that the assessment would not go ahead, exemplifies the administrative and financial shambles of the current work capability assessment scheme?

My hon. Friend illustrates a valid point that is replicated across the country.

I am sure that hon. Members are as concerned as I am when they hear that, according to the DWP’s own figures, around 50% of assessments are overturned on appeal. That surely calls into question the reliability of the initial assessments and raises the question why we are putting people through such unnecessary stress, which has undoubtedly had a negative impact on the mental health of many claimants.

I am also concerned that the work capability assessments do not seem to take account of individuals who have a limiting long-term illness that means their condition often fluctuates, such as kidney dialysis patients or people with Parkinson’s. I visited the kidney dialysis patients support group in Merthyr Tydfil last weekend, and a number of people told me of their concerns about the work capability assessment and the lack of understanding of their condition. Dialysis patients often feel reasonably all right on certain days between dialysis, but on the day following treatment they can feel very low, which means that if they are receiving treatment three days a week, the number of days when they feel okay are few and far between. The Government need to address that lack of understanding.

If the original clauses 13 and 14 of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill are reinserted, financial support for new claimants in the work-related activity group will be cut by around 25% from £102 to £73, which will have a drastic impact on disabled people. The Government have said that they are committed to protecting support for disabled people, so the clauses are deeply worrying. The cut will not incentivise people, as the Government say they want.

Could the Government’s proposed cut to half a million people, including people with learning disabilities or cancer, have the perverse incentive that those people will then try to go into the support group when there is already a 280,000 backlog due to the Government’s incompetence in handling that contract?

On the Government’s justification for the measures in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill to cut the work-related activity group rate by £30 a week, the Government have said that that is to remove the financial disincentives that could otherwise discourage claimants from taking steps back to work. They have not produced any evidence for that disincentive in practice. Why does my hon. Friend think the Government are addressing a problem that is not there and ignoring the problems that are there and that hon. Members have raised over and again?

I will try to address my hon. Friend’s points later in my contribution.

I am concerned about the impact of the assessments on people with mental health problems. If the original clauses 13 and 14 are reinserted, the significant cut may mean that people with mental health problems become more unwell. They will be unable to spend money on support and activities that help them recover—things that the personal independence payment does not support—which will affect their ability to move closer to work. Rather than increasing the number of people in work, the change could hinder recovery and push people further away from work. The cut has been opposed in the other place, and I hope that the Government will listen and scrap the clauses.

The current work capability assessment is not fit for purpose. It has lost credibility, and an overhaul is desperately needed. The views and experiences of ill and disabled people must be at the heart of the process. We need a compassionate and effective system that supports people, not one that causes such misery for so many ill and disabled people in our country.

We in the Labour party feel that disabled people should be able to play a central role in monitoring the work capability assessment system and helping to ensure that it is managed with dignity and fairness. There have been concerns about the assessment over a long period, which has resulted in the DWP changing its contractor from Atos to Maximus, which I understand will be paid substantially more than Atos to carry out the contract. I fully support the calls from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley to the Minister to make public the performance of the contractor, which will improve awareness of the situation.

The Government are trying to defend the indefensible. I hope that the Minister will signal today that she is willing to consider what action she and the Government can take to review this appalling situation and bring about some common sense and, above all, compassion.

We know that today’s debate is important because, in my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran and in constituencies across the entire UK, some of our most vulnerable people—those with long-term and quite debilitating health conditions—are relying on us to be their voice. People who have undergone the work capability assessment tell us that they find the entire process at best demeaning, and at worst intimidating. It is a cause of deep distress, which is particularly alarming when one considers that some claimants live with challenging health and mental health conditions and find going through such assessments almost more than they can bear. The assessments can exacerbate or even precipitate mental health problems.

New research from the universities of Liverpool and Oxford has found that in areas where more people are assessed for employment and support allowance there is a greater increase in mental health conditions, prescriptions for antidepressants and even the number of suicides. The research estimates that that may have led to 590 additional suicides. The research is robust and suggests a correlation between mental health problems and the roll-out of work capability assessments. The result of the research is sobering for us all.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Corri Wilson) has said, why are there such strict limits for claimants when there is no time limit for the DWP to complete the mandatory reconsideration process? As has been said, we know that an individual’s condition may fluctuate, which means that symptoms can rapidly decline and abate over the course of a week, a month or even a single day. What about folk with a condition such as Parkinson’s? What if they are assessed on a good day? The assessor would be unable accurately to evaluate the condition’s impact on the person’s functional ability. Work capability assessments also focus on a person’s typical day. Their best and worst days are therefore averaged out, which can create a totally misleading impression of their condition. A snapshot of a person’s health is not a true and accurate view of the profound and often difficult challenges they face.

Work capability assessments do not take account of whether a condition is progressive. That is a significant oversight and leads systematically to incorrect assessment decisions about people with Parkinson’s.

The hon. Lady has mentioned progressive conditions and delays that sometimes happen with mandatory reconsiderations. Can she think of any logical reason for the Government’s refusal to give statistics on the outcome of mandatory reconsiderations? Is there any obvious explanation for the withholding of that information?

I am afraid the only possible reason I can think of for that is that the information does not present the work capability assessments in a flattering light. I leave others to draw their own conclusions about how bad it might be.

The worst thing about the system is that those caught up in the controversy and confusion are people with long-term health conditions, and some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. There is a lot of consensus in the Chamber about the need for an urgent review of the work capability assessment. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) pointed out, the cost is increasing, and it is expected that £595 million will be paid for 3.4 million assessments—about £190 per assessment. There has also been a problem with the recruitment of enough medical professionals to meet the demands of the assessments. At least £76 million of taxpayers’ money has been wasted through the failure to get a new IT system up and running more than two years after it was supposed to be in place. As has been mentioned, the National Audit Office report, which was released only last month, revealed that

“recent performance shows the Department has not tackled—and may even have exacerbated—some of these problems when setting up recent contracts”.

The points about rising costs and the backlog are well made. Perhaps we can help the Minister by asking her to consider removing some of the routine retests for those with progressive conditions and conditions that will not change. We have all had the excellent briefings from Parkinson’s UK and Mencap, for example. Perhaps the Minister should look again at the frequency of testing for some people, to save the taxpayer money and save some of the stress and anxiety that the hon. Lady has mentioned.

That is an excellent, well made point and I thank the hon. Gentleman.

There is also a problem with transparency. In December, the Work and Pensions Committee concluded that it was unable to scrutinise benefit delays fully because of lack of available data. Its report said that

“if the DWP has this data, they should publish them. If they do not, then they are making policy decisions in the dark. The Department should address the lack of data immediately.”

Chillingly, in answer to parliamentary questions about the connection between assessment tests and the incidence of suicide or mental health problems in disability claimants, the Department has admitted that it neither holds such information nor has any plans to collect it. I think that is significant. There has also been an admission that it does not have information on how much, on average, it costs the Department to fund an appeal against a fit for work decision. It is clear—and becoming increasingly clear to claimants—that the system is in a mess. There is clear capacity shortage; there are also wildly optimistic targets, a lack of transparency and problems with hiring and training staff—within the context of dealing with individuals with long-term and serious health problems who are simply trying to access the support they need to survive. The National Audit Office has concluded that this system has

“significant financial and human costs”.

The current situation is cruel, inhumane and demeaning; as has repeatedly been pointed out in the debate, the system is not fit for purpose. I sincerely hope that the Minister will respond to the debate in a positive way and consider the significant financial and human costs to those who need, rather than bureaucracy and judgment, our support and compassion. The debate is about much more than simple work capability assessments. Ultimately, it is about the kind of society we want to create, and the society we aspire to be.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) on securing an important debate, in which I am pleased to speak.

An essential part of any social security system that supports people with disabilities and long-term sickness is a fair and effective means of identifying who needs support, and in what way. The current system of work capability assessment cannot be said to fit that description. Indeed, it was clear from the initial roll-out under previous Governments that there were deep flaws in the system. Early on, horror stories began to emerge of the extremely difficult and distressing experiences of people with serious disabilities and mental health conditions. Atos, the company in charge of the assessment process until March 2015, became a word firmly associated with the uncaring inhumanity of the welfare reform agenda.

We can all recount stories of the effects on our constituents. One such constituent of mine has a serious long-term mental health condition, and resulting medicine-related physical disabilities. She was forced to go to Edinburgh from Glasgow, unaccompanied, for an assessment; she was in a panic. She was found fit for work, despite significant medical evidence of extended stays in mental health hospitals, and long-term conditions with an impact on her health and physical wellbeing.

We are all aware of high-profile cases such as those of Michael O’Sullivan and Stephen Carre, who were demonstrably failed by a system that provided nothing but an extremely distressing experience, rather than targeting the help that they needed. Coroners have ruled in those cases that the men’s ordeals, through the fitness to work test, centrally contributed to their suicides. Distressingly, in the case of Stephen Carre, the coroner sent an official legal warning to the Department for Work and Pensions of a potential risk of further deaths from its WCA practices. He urged that there should be an urgent review of the policy not to seek further medical evidence from a psychiatrist or GP in the case of claimants with a mental health condition. That letter was not passed on to the Harrington review, conducted in 2010. It appears that the coroner never received a response to his letter, despite the legal requirement for that to happen within 56 days. I think he is still waiting for a response.

In that case, as in others, the Government have failed demonstrably. They have failed disabled people and have abjectly failed to learn the lessons from their mistakes. The consequences of that are potentially disastrous. How many people could we tally who have lost their lives subsequent to those cases in which professionals such as coroners gave early warnings? With further revelations emerging of adverse effects on the lives of people who undergo the work capability assessment process, the system clearly remains unfit for purpose. People with long-term sickness and disability still have a hugely distressing experience, in a system they do not trust. Those with mental health conditions such as Stephen Carre have been failed particularly by a process that too often has seemed to persecute claimants instead of protecting and supporting them. The UK Government are systematically limiting, restricting and undermining provision for disabled people in the social security system as, yet again, austerity attacks those who need support the most. As the Government attempt to take another axe to employment and support allowance, they are actively making it even more difficult and distressing for disabled people to obtain the support they need.

We need to take a more holistic look at support for disabled people—at how to help those who want work and can do it to get into meaningful and accessible employment, and at how to support those who are unable to do that, and ensure that they have a decent quality of life. That means creating appropriate and sustainable new opportunities, and ensuring that financial support keeps disabled people out of poverty. Crucially, it also means having an assessment system that treats people fairly, preserves their dignity and does not make matters worse. That requires fundamentally rethinking the system, particularly how it interacts with more vulnerable people and those with mental health issues.

I understand that the Minister has come here in good faith and will argue that progress has been made, and I am sure her intentions are good, but the Government’s record of failing to learn the lessons from their mistakes has made it absolutely clear that we need an urgent and wide-reaching review of the work capability assessment process as part of a wider review of Government support for disabled people. The Government have simply got it wrong too many times for people living with long-term sickness or disabilities. It is about time that we started figuring out together how we can get it right.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I think is the first time, Mrs Moon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) on securing this debate.

The dysfunctionality of the work capability assessment has been a recurring theme in Parliament for as long as I have been here. It has been a running sore for the Government, so I am glad that in recent months they seem finally to have acknowledged that tinkering with the system will not fix it, and that a fundamentally different approach is required. I look forwarded to the much-heralded White Paper expected this spring, which I hope will tackle some of the problems.

We have heard about a wide range of problems associated with the work capability assessment. If the Government are serious about devising a better system, it is important that we all understand the present shortcomings fully, so that we are not destined simply to reinvent the wheel and create another heartless bureaucracy that fails to provide the safety net of support that people need when they are sick or disabled.

Over the last few years, successive reviews of the work capability assessment have been conducted by Professors Harrington and Litchfield, and various attempts have been made to improve the process, some of which it is fair to say have helped around the edges. However, due to recurrent problems with getting appropriate medical background information on claimants’ conditions, with how claimants are categorised and with the accuracy of the assessments, the impact has been limited. One private sector contractor has left early under something of a cloud, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley described in some detail, and another company has taken over the contract with a remit for changes, spending more money per assessment and awarding support to a larger proportion of claimants.

However, the underlying problems are still there. The work capability assessment itself remains unfit for work. Many claimants wait an inordinate time for assessment: as we have heard, it takes an average of 23 weeks for a decision, and the current backlog is 280,000 cases. I know that my constituents are still battling the challenges of travelling significant distances from remote and rural locations to assessments. In the past, constituents of mine who have made long and expensive journeys have been sent home unassessed because their appointment was double or even triple-booked. That does not apply only to my area; it echoes a point made by the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper). Such administrative issues, particularly delays in assessment, cause claimants distress and financial hardship at a time when they may be exceptionally vulnerable and facing severe financial worries due to a sudden and sharp drop in income after a breakdown in their health.

However, the greatest weaknesses of the work capability assessment relate to how it measures the impact of fluctuating and progressive conditions on a person’s fitness for work. Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Natalie McGarry), mentioned the situation of people with mental health conditions. My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran mentioned Parkinson’s UK, which cites examples of assessments conducted by staff who lack the basic clinical knowledge to understand that Parkinson’s is a progressive and incurable condition that will deteriorate over time. I am not a medic, but even I know that. It seems pretty basic to me.

That is why it is crucial that additional evidence from qualified clinicians familiar with the claimant’s health be brought into the assessment process from the start. I pressed Ministers on this issue repeatedly during the previous Parliament, but we now have an opportunity to get it right and ensure that we have the information in the system to make good decisions possible.

Does it not strike the hon. Lady that although we often hear from the Government, in relation to many other arguments, that policy and Government decisions must be based on evidence, on this fundamental matter the Government rigged the legislation, so that medical evidence could be ignored in favour of the bizarre assumptions and interpretations that the people who carry out the tests come up with?

As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point clearly. There is no reason why people’s medical history should not be included in the assessments. Often, consultants—sometimes it is a GP, but in cases of serious illness it is more likely to be a consultant—are in a position to provide insight into the longevity of a condition as well as its immediate acute effects.

Is the hon. Lady aware that the Government, during the last Parliament, also shortened the timeframe within which individuals can provide independent medical evidence? As it takes longer to see a consultant or specialist, that inevitably means that some people cannot provide that information in time, which contributes to the number of reassessments, the backlog and the cost to the taxpayer.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The shortening of the timeframe makes it extremely difficult for people to contribute, which is why that opportunity needs to be included right at the start. If people can nominate someone—an advocate, a consultant, a GP or a community nurse—to provide such information as part of the application process, we could get around a lot of those problems.

For people with complex disabilities, people who suffer from more than one condition or people whose condition fluctuates, the tick-box exercise of the work capability assessment fails to capture the impact of their health on their ability to work. Around half of those in receipt of employment and support allowance have a mental health condition, yet the work capability assessment has proved poor at accurately assessing conditions that are not visible, and people with mental health or incapacity issues are not always able to articulate well the effects of their condition.

I pressed hard during the last Parliament for improvements to how mental function champions operate within the assessment process, but there is increasing evidence that as things stand, the work capability assessment causes so much distress and anxiety for some people that it is actively harming their health, pushing them further away from being able to work and—in extreme cases such as the ones mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow East—towards harming themselves.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has expressed serious concerns for some years about the impact of the work capability assessment on the health of people with mental illness, but as evidence of harm grows, the college is becoming more outspoken. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran pointed out, robust research conducted at the universities of Liverpool and Oxford suggests a correlation between mental health problems and the roll-out of work capability assessments. That backs up the findings of voluntary sector service providers such as the Scottish Association for Mental Health, which has extensive experience of people who use its services suffering setbacks in their recovery due to the assessment process.

The bottom line is that too many people are still being wrongly assessed. We know that because of the extraordinary success rate when claimants who have been found fit for work appeal that decision. Between 2010 and 2013, it hovered around the 40% mark; since the introduction of mandatory reconsideration in 2013, it has shot up to around 54%. In other words, more than half of those who appeal are likely to get the original decision overturned. Successful appeals on that scale indicate major underlying flaws in the assessment process, and they cost the Government a lot of needless time and money. More than that, they mean that sick and disabled people are left feeling abandoned and desperate for months without the support that they need. The human cost is enormous, as is the financial cost, as the National Audit Office has pointed out.

We must also remember those who do not appeal but who are nevertheless extremely unwell or seriously disabled. Many people in our constituencies who are destitute or living in extreme poverty are people whose access to ESA has expired, or who have been found fit for work but cannot qualify for jobseeker’s allowance—because they really are not fit for work and cannot comply with the conditions attached to JSA, or because they have tried to comply but have been sanctioned, or because they have disengaged from the system altogether and have simply dropped out of view.

I have no idea how many people fall into that latter category, but I know that I am meeting such people regularly. They live off other family members or friends, some of whom are themselves not wealthy, and they depend on food parcels from church voluntary groups or food banks. Consequently, when the Government consider how they might proceed with a replacement for the WCA, they need to take on board the systemic failures of the current approach and think beyond simplistic functionality.

The first and probably the most valuable thing that the Government could do is to work with disabled people and their representatives from the outset. Throughout the past few years, health and disability organisations have been coming forward with constructive suggestions to improve the existing system, and contributing to the successive reviews. Some of their ideas have been taken on board, at least partially, but the opportunity presented by a new White Paper to get stakeholders around the table and—more significantly—really listen to what they say has never been more important.

I also urge the Government to go back to the work that was done around the evidence-based review of 2012-13 and the alternative assessment that was developed under that process. I know that Ministers were not convinced by that review at the time, but a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, a much stronger evidence base has been developed and I think there is a lot of substance in that review, not least in the way that it suggests descriptors that would account for the impact of pain and fatigue on a person with an illness or a long-term condition. That review could really usefully inform a new approach.

Lastly, I urge the Government to learn from international experiences. The UK does not have a disproportionately high number of sick and disabled people compared with the rest of the OECD. Clearly, there are regional variations, even within the UK, with higher numbers of claimants in economically deprived or heavily industrialised areas, where health outcomes and life expectancy are significantly lower than average. On the whole, however, we are grappling with the same challenges as other industrialised countries and on a broadly similar scale.

A number of countries have used what have been called “real world incapacity assessments” that take account of a person’s age, skills and work experience, as well as their health or disability, when assessing their fitness for work and considering what kind of work they might be able to do. This seems just to be common sense and means that someone is assessed as a rounded human being. The same condition with the same severity will affect two people differently in relation to their ability to work, depending on whether their work experience has been in physically demanding manual jobs, whether they sit at a desk or whatever. The Government should explore the models used in other countries to see what is working well.

We all agree with the Government that the social security system needs to support people to move towards work, but it also needs to provide a safety net and a dignified life for those who are not fit for work, and not only those who will never return to work but those with long-term conditions and those who need time to recover from serious illness or injury.

The work capability assessment has failed a lot of sick and disabled people, and it has proved extremely inefficient. What follows must be better, and I hope that the Government’s keenly anticipated White Paper will reflect the concerns that have been raised today.

May I reiterate what other people have commented—that it is lovely to see you in the Chair today, Mrs Moon? I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) not only on securing this debate but on an excellent speech; it really was very informative.

We have already heard a number of Members say that the current work capability assessment, which was introduced under the coalition Government, is failing on a number of counts and needs to be overhauled. I share the view of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) that the fact no Government Members have spoken, and the imminent White Paper, suggest that the Government are finally getting it. I really hope that is the case. However, I need to reiterate some of the points that have been made about why the Government need to think again.

The WCA needs a complete overhaul. It is not fit for purpose, and we have heard that it is failing to assess a person’s fitness for work, or work-related activity, accurately or reliably. We have heard the figures about appeals. More than half of people—54%—who appeal against a decision that they are fit to work have the decision overturned. We have also heard about how the costs of the WCA have spiralled out of control, which reflects the woeful performance. Obviously, the National Audit Office report last month was very damning indeed, although I have to say that it came several weeks after it was clear what was going to happen.

Fundamentally, the WCA fails the most important requirement of any Government policy—that it will not knowingly harm citizens. For almost a year now, the Government have obfuscated and tried to evade revealing the toll that the WCA process is having on the people being subjected to it, even after stark warnings from the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. The mounting evidence against the WCA cannot be ignored any longer; hopefully the Government are listening to it.

There have been five independent reviews of the WCA since 2010. The Work and Pensions Committee undertook two of them in the last Parliament; I was pleased to be serving on the Committee when it undertook the review in 2014. The most recent report from that Committee included evidence taken from the reviewers, who warned the Government that in spite of all the reviews that had happened before—Professor Harrington and Dr Litchfield have produced reviews—the process was still flawed. They said that people with progressive and fluctuating conditions, such as Parkinson’s, were particularly likely to fall foul of the process. I will never forget taking evidence from people in Newcastle as part of that Select Committee inquiry in 2014 and hearing their personal testimonies. The evident pain and humiliation that they had experienced as part of the process was quite shocking.

Like other hon. Members we have heard from today, I have had evidence from my own constituents. A man who came to see me had a serious heart condition. In a WCA, he was told by the nurse undertaking it that he was in the process of having a heart attack; that was how stressful the WCA was. He was told to go to hospital, but two weeks later he received a letter telling him that he had been sanctioned because he had left the WCA. There are similar examples up and down the country.

The former chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, Dame Anne Begg, spoke on the issue and said:

“When my constituent, who has lost his job because he has motor neurone disease, scores zero on his WCA and is found fully fit for work, there is something wrong with the system. When that same constituent appears in front of a tribunal and in less than five minutes is awarded 15 points”—

that is the maximum score, which means the person is completely unfit for work—

“there is something wrong”.

I hope that we are seeing a different view from the Government now, but in their response to the Work and Pensions Committee at the end of 2014 they were having none of its report; there was the usual rhetoric. I would be interested to know what the Minister would say today if Dame Anne’s former constituent was standing here in Parliament now.

The Committee said that simply rebranding the WCA by taking on a new provider would not work, and it recommended a complete overhaul of the system. We still believe that that is needed, and such an overhaul is Labour party policy; I have said that consistently since my appointment to the Front Bench. What is required is not just a process to determine eligibility for employment and support allowance but an examination of health-related barriers to work. I agree with the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan that we need to look at the international data. I know that work has already been done to compare different processes, and adopting a more personalised and holistic approach is important. I remember producing such a piece of work before I came to the House, and there are lessons to be learned from elsewhere. However, as I have said, at the time of the Select Committee inquiry, the Department for Work and Pensions was not particularly inclined to consider those lessons.

When the Minister responds to the debate today, I am sure she will talk about the new work and health unit. However, I would also like her to describe, if she can, the discussions that the Government have had with the royal colleges, because I have some concerns. For example, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has raised the issues of medical ethics, treatments and interventions, the principle of consent, and the qualifications of the staff involved in WCAs. I would be grateful if she referred to those points in her wind-up.

My next point is about poor performance. We know that last month’s National Audit Office report reiterated that the WCA is not only unfit for purpose but poor value for money, as many of my hon. Friends have already mentioned. The Government have failed in their fiduciary responsibility to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent wisely. They have failed to monitor and performance-manage work capability assessment contracts and hold the providers to account.

The NAO report stated that under contract with the Centre for Health and Disability Assessments, which is a subsidiary of Maximus, the cost of each assessment has risen to approximately £190, compared with £115 under the previous contract with Atos. If that was an investment in greater efficiency and a smoother process, one might possibly say that it was value for money, but the NAO described the performance output issues, with a backlog of 280,000 assessments and the contractor not being expected to meet its performance targets for last year.

The NAO went on to describe how the Department for Work and Pensions was struggling with target setting and had failed to test bidders’ assumptions during the tender process—for example, on staff recruitment and training. Will the Minister describes how that is being addressed? After six years, it is a real problem if we are trying to ensure that we live within our means.

The biggest indictment of the Government’s work capability assessment process is the potential harm it does to people who are put through it. As we have heard, last November the University of Liverpool and the University of Oxford published a study in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. It is a peer-reviewed journal, and papers with Mickey Mouse statistics are not published in such journals—they would not be tolerated. It is a robust[Interruption.] I hear some chuntering from the Government Benches. These are robust data; papers would not be allowed if the data were not robust[Interruption.] There is still chuntering, but I will carry on. That study showed that between 2010 and 2013 the Government’s work capability assessment regime was independently associated with an additional 590 suicides, 280,000 cases of self-reported mental health issues and 725,000 antidepressant prescriptions.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has raised the concern that, for people with mental health conditions, the work capability assessment process can cause a relapse, thus hindering rather than helping in their recovery. Just before I came to the debate I was provided with a list of coroners’ reports containing concerns that the deaths, including suicides, were associated with the work capability assessment. I am particularly concerned about the case of Stephen Carre, which has already been mentioned, in which the coroner wrote to Ministers and the Department and apparently did not receive a response, as required by law. I would be grateful for the Minister’s response to that point.

The findings reported in the paper in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health—in a paper entitled “First, do no harm”—came on top of published data relating to the deaths of incapacity benefit and ESA claimants between November 2011 and May 2014. The Government were compelled by the Information Commissioner to publish those figures. At the end of April, an appeal went to that body, which ruled in favour of the appellant and required the Government to produce the figures. But when did they produce them? Just before the end-of-August bank holiday.

The figures showed that the overall death rate for people on IB or ESA was 4.3 times higher than in the general population—an increase from 3.6 times higher in 2003. People in the support group are 6.3 times more likely to die than the general population, and people in the work-related activity group, from whom the Government want to take £30 more a week via the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which is going through the House, are 2.2 times more likely to die.

The Government’s innuendo that people with a disability or illness might be “faking it” or are “feckless” or, as the Prime Minister said shockingly last week, are “making a lifestyle choice”, is grotesque and belies the epidemiological data. IB and ESA are recognised as good population health indicators, in that they reflect areas with an industrial backgrounds and areas of poor health.

My hon. Friend describes the impact on people. One of my constituents has referred to it as the Secretary of State adopting a pterodactyl style of management, flapping around high above, making a lot of noise and—pardon the expression—dumping on the little people down below. Does my hon. Friend share that view?

I would not put it in quite those words, perhaps, but I know exactly what my hon. Friend is getting at.

The Government’s own data show that the people involved are sick and disabled. They need support; they do not need vilification. Unfortunately, that is too often what happens, as at last week’s Prime Minister’s questions.

Being disabled or being ill is not a lifestyle choice. Alarmingly, we now hear reports of people in the ESA support group—people who have been found not fit for work, including people who are terminally ill—being required to go to work-focused interviews. The Minister might be aware of that. We have evidence only from England so far, but I would be grateful if she gave us an explanation.

For me, that latest revelation says it all. It is about cuts for disabled people and the seriously ill. The Government are not content with having cut £23.8 billion from 3.7 million disabled people since 2013 under the Welfare Reform Act 2012; they are going for more cuts, and the work capability assessment and the Welfare Reform and Work Bill are another way of achieving them.

The Government have tried to regenerate the economy on the backs of the poor and disabled. Their modus operandi is division and blame, deserving and undeserving. Like the NHS, our social security system is based on principles of inclusion, support and security for all, assuring us all our dignity and the basics of life should any one of us become ill and disabled. The Government need to remember that and stop their attacks on disabled people.

Before I call the Minister, I remind her to allow two minutes at the end for the mover of the motion, Louise Haigh, to have the opportunity to respond. I call Priti Patel.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I start my remarks by commenting that the debate has been wide-ranging, and I thank everyone who has contributed. This is obviously an important subject, and we must put it in the context of the overall commitment we all feel should rightly be in place to support people who cannot work because of health conditions and disabilities. We must also reflect on the fact that we have a system that obviously seeks to support such individuals.

A range of comments have been made that pre-date me as a Department for Work and Pensions Minister. I will do my utmost to address as many of them as I can, but it would only be fair to write to hon. Members whose points I do not address directly. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) mentioned the very tragic case of Mr Carre, and it might be more appropriate if I write to her about that.

We all recognise that work is good for individuals—it enhances physical and mental well being—and we also recognise that being out of work, for whatever reason and whatever the condition, can exacerbate poor health conditions and make people’s situations even worse. A system that supports people is vital. I will talk about contracting later, but we want to move away from a system that tells people they cannot do any work to one that supports them in what they can do. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) touched on the forthcoming White Paper that will focus on the support that can be given to individuals, and I will address that shortly.

The work capability assessment was established under the previous Labour Government in 2008 and it has had quite a journey, not just in relation to the contracting process; the assessments have come under scrutiny under previous Governments and under the present Government. There have been more than 100 recommendations in response to the five independent reviews of the work capability assessment. That has made the assessment process more reliable and has improved the claimant experience

In the final independent review of the work capability assessment, Dr Litchfield commented that, having looked at the systems in comparable countries, there was

“no better replacement that can be pulled off the shelf”.

There is a concern among the disability and advice sector that the Government continue to say they have accepted the recommendations of the independent reviews. Will the Minister outline how many of the recommendations have been fully implemented?

It is fair to say—this will link to many of the forthcoming reforms in the White Paper—that we have implemented many of the recommendations. On top of that, we will continue to review them and work with the system. Any system of financial support for people who are not able to work needs to have a reliable method of assessing entitlement to that support. That is the basis of this afternoon’s debate.

I will talk about the current provider before I address the points about contracting that were raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). Since the Centre for Health and Disability Assessment, known as CHDA, took over the contract to carry out assessments in March 2015, it has made a number of improvements to the claimants’ experience of assessments. It has focused on increasing the number of healthcare professionals by 39% since March 2015, and it has opened up 100 new assessment rooms, so that it can see more people in more locations. I do not want to rehearse many of the points already made in the debate, but a lot of the focus has been on the new contracting arrangements with CHDA, which has reduced the backlog of assessments by 62%. It has also introduced claimant-focused improvements, including setting up a customer representative group with leading charities that have regular meetings with the chief executive and clinical leadership team.

There is also a focus, because we are speaking about people and the experience of individuals going through the process, on rolling out greater disability awareness training for all staff. The recent National Audit Office report acknowledges the progress that has been made in improving contracted-out health and disability assessments, and we have taken steps to help people with mental health conditions in their assessments following the reviews. We have trialled new awareness training for administrative staff that will now be rolled out nationally. We are also improving services on telephone engagement and how claimants are assisted; and that level of interaction has improved.

I want to address the points about contracting, which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley focused on. I hope she will forgive me because I cannot speak about Maximus in 2007 and what took place in America, but I must make it abundantly clear that there is a full and transparent contracting process, undertaken with a negotiated procedure to enable the Department for Work and Pensions to fully test bidders and their propositions to meet the objectives for service delivery. I am speaking about the previous contractor, Atos, and the improvements that we seek under the new contract with CHDA.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for her response so far, but is she seriously saying that previous fraud and theft from taxpayers cannot be taken into consideration when the Government are handing out a very similar contract in the UK?

I cannot speak specifically to previous contracting processes and bids that took place outside the United Kingdom—it is not for me to comment on—but let us be clear. The Department is responsible for hundreds of billions of pounds of public money—taxpayers’ money. On our processes of procurement, renegotiation and accountability, we have a clear approach to the scrutiny of providers, and rightly so. That applies to all Departments, and the same applies when it comes to failure. The contract has an open-book accounting approach and a robust validation of data. I think the hon. Lady mentioned falsification of data at one point. We have a clear process on the validation of data. She also went on to comment on how providers are incentivised, but our providers are not incentivised by benefits outcomes. We have a full range of balanced performance measures that focus on quality and volumes and customer satisfaction. That brings me back to the fact that we are speaking about people and how the interaction with people through assessments actually takes place.

Performance reviews and performance are fundamental in all Government contracts to ensure governance arrangements, and the Department takes steps to implement regular weekly and daily meetings with DWP officials and the CHDA.

I will give way, but I want to emphasise that service credits are applied when a supplier does not meet an agreed service level.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for her response so far. Will she tell us whether there is a requirement in the tendering process for disclosure of previous legal action?

I cannot answer that question, but I will find out and write to the hon. Lady. I would be astonished if the Department did not have a system for looking back and assessing companies’ previous conduct before we engage with them. All bidders have to be thoroughly scrutinised by not only my Department but others. Much of that work is done with the Cabinet Office, which sets out guidelines and guidance. I have no doubt that the right systems and efficacy procedures are in place for contracting and the types of contractor with which the Government engage.

Bidder’s assumptions are tested as part of the negotiated procedure, and they are provided with information as part of the dialogue that takes place. The WCA contract was originally with Atos. Since the CHDA has picked up the contract, there have been challenges and backlogs, which have been referred to throughout the debate. It is only right that the Department continues to address those challenges and sets stretching and ambitious targets for its providers. We will ensure that we deliver value for money for our contracts. Again, the assumptions are tested through the bid process, but we are clear that a new financial support model has been in place as part of the CHDA contract. We have also contracted for a more sustainable service, part of which includes more face-to-face assessment—that direct engagement which did not take place under the previous contract. The focus is also very much on reducing the backlog and improving waiting times.

The NAO report has been mentioned several times. The report recognised that the Department has made particular progress and acknowledged the fact that there is now a relentless focus on performance when it comes to reducing backlogs and driving down delays. It also recognised the increased performance management capacity. Although there is more to do—we can never stand still in this space—we have learned from our experiences in the contracting process and will ensure that we continue to make improvements.

A number of Members mentioned cases from their constituencies. I would, of course, be happy to look at any individual cases that Members would like to refer to me, but I should emphasise that we clearly do support people through the system. A great deal of money has been put into providing support to help people to go back to work. Over the next three years, £43 million is being invested in trialling the provision of specialist support for people with mental health conditions. The Government also recognise the importance of promoting positive attitudes among employers when it comes to them employing people with disabilities or health conditions. That will be at the heart of the White Paper that will be published—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

I acknowledge that there is more to do to support people with health and disability issues. In the recent spending review, we outlined our commitment to support people with disabilities into work. We announced a real-terms increase in funding for Access to Work, which will enable up to 25,000 additional disabled people to receive support. We will expand the Fit for Work service to support more people on long-term sickness absence with return to work plans, and we will provide at least £115 million for the new joint work and health unit, including £40 million for a work and health innovation fund. We will set out some new long-term reforms in the White Paper, which will be published in the spring.

This is about not reinventing the wheel, but learning from insights. Hon. Members spoke about evidence, support and insights from charities, stakeholders and third parties, which the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan mentioned. My Department is working with stakeholders through the joint work and health unit, and a new taskforce has been set up to gain insights into providing support for individuals in a more targeted, tailored and personalised way. If people are assessed and put on a benefit, we do not want there to be no dialogue and interaction with them during that period about the additional support that they require to get back into work. The White Paper will be published in the spring, but we are open to thoughts and comments through the consultation process.

This not just about the WCA; we must have a much more holistic approach to supporting individuals. Before the Division, I mentioned employers, and there is a lot more that can be done to promote positive attitudes to employing people with disabilities and health conditions. Employers must find the right balance and the right way to support people in the workplace. For example, they can utilise occupational health and look at our Disability Confident campaign and the work that my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for disabled people is doing.

Looking at this issue holistically, our reforms are all aimed at improving the quality of life of those who need the support the most. It is right that we recognise that there is no single method for each individual and their particular circumstances. Every person in the benefits system is an individual and their situations will be different, difficult and challenging. No system can offer a one-size-fits-all interaction, but we must ensure that the system works with individuals and recognises their particular backgrounds and circumstances. Protecting the most vulnerable in society is this Government’s priority.

Given that 90% of disabilities are acquired, I recognise and support all that the Minister has said about ensuring that people can stay in work as much as possible and that people are helped back into work, but that does not currently happen. Some half a million disabled people will be affected by the change in the employment and support allowance and the cuts. How can the cuts be justified before the support to enable people to stay in or get into work is in place?

The hon. Lady mentioned the current changes and referred to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill that is being considered in the House of Lords this afternoon. She will recall that this issue was debated extensively in Committee. I have emphasised that the Government have a clear commitment to protect the most vulnerable in society, including disabled people. No one who is currently in receipt of ESA will see a financial loss; the changes will not affect anyone whose capacity to work is significantly limited. The personal independence payment will also continue to help meet the extra costs of living that disabled people face, and exempted benefits contribute to the additional costs of disability and care resulting from the benefits freeze.

Looking at the debate holistically, we know that the WCA has caused many previous challenges. Yes, reforms are coming and, yes, changes are afoot, but I think hon. Members will agree that we cannot write off the people who, for various reasons, have not been supported into work. If they can work, we want to support and encourage them.

The Government spend a great deal of money on protecting the vulnerable not only through benefits, but through additional support to help with living costs. It is right that we provide that support and safety net. I hope that future debates and the White Paper will help to introduce new suggestions, new ways of working and new practices to ensure that we do not again see the situation that we had in 2008, 2009 or 2010 with Atos and the WCA. We should broaden the interface of support available through not only agencies or Government Departments, but specialist support organisations, stakeholders, practitioners and those in the care sector, recognising that we can always do more to support people. I am conscious of the time, Mrs Moon, so I will close my remarks there.

I thank the Minister for that, if I may say so, uncharacteristically measured and conciliatory response. It is fantastic to hear that we agree on so many matters, and that the Government recognise the issues with the work capability assessment. We disagree, however, about the reliability of assessments. The evidence, not least the huge increase in successful appeals over the past couple of years, shows that reliability has not improved.

The Minister referred to the recommendations that have been implemented, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) asked about those that have not been applied. It is important that assessments are documented so that records can be used as proof afterwards, because, as I mentioned earlier, there have been allegations of falsification.

On the Minister’s remarks about the previous performance of Maximus, as a shadow Cabinet Office Minister I can tell her that the guidelines for considering past performance are completely unsatisfactory. It is no surprise to me that a contractor with prior performance as appalling as that of Maximus, which has failed so singularly in the past, has been awarded a contract. We welcome the improved targets and oversight, but transparency on whether Maximus has met its targets, on spending and on WCA appeals is vital to hold the contractor to account.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) said, the cuts are completely unjustified before the changes that the Minister outlined come into force. I hope the Government will rethink them in the Bill that the House of Lords is considering today.

I look forward to the response to my points and those of my hon. Friends, to the publication of the White Paper and to the much-needed long-term reforms, learning from the mistakes made by successive Governments in the management of the work capability assessment.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered work capability assessments.

Communications Infrastructure and Flooding: North West

[Andrew Percy in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered communications infrastructure and flooding in the North West.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy. I think it is the first occasion on which I have done so, and I am sure it will be a delight.

As many people will have seen, before and after Christmas, many towns, villages and communities in the north-west witnessed some of the worst flooding for years, which inflicted a great deal of pain on the people of Rochdale, Littleborough and Milnrow. I want to begin by paying a few tributes and saying that I have never been more proud to represent the people of Rochdale than after I witnessed their reaction to the floods. I pay tribute to the many individuals who worked tirelessly to help those affected and to the council for its quick action in getting out on to the streets and ensuring that people had access to emergency funds of £500 and other grants. We also saw a fantastic response from various businesses, voluntary groups and community-spirited individuals. The people of Rochdale came together as a community to help one another, and it was a particularly moving moment in the wake of such destruction.

However, the people of Rochdale have been let down by some larger companies dragging their feet. The response from telecommunication companies in getting vital phone and broadband lines restored to hundreds of people and small businesses in Rochdale has not been so positive. It is hard enough for people who have been affected by the devastation of the floods, but that has simply compounded their misery. Without vital communications lines, many small businesses have lost thousands of pounds-worth of custom, which can easily make the difference between staying afloat and going under. I have received reports of businesses being unable to take card payments, receive any phone calls or access the internet. Those are vital services that so many people rely on and cannot do without in their everyday lives.

We too often refer to figures in debates—x number of people have been affected by this, or y number of people have received that—but the floods’ effects were not about figures or statistics; they hit individuals, and it was they who had to deal with the problems. We sometimes dehumanise the human and personal grievances in such cases. So I will use a personal example to explain the deeply concerning effect of the communications failure on my constituents. I also point out that I had to receive the information by text, because this person’s internet was still not up and running consistently.

Emma King runs a small business of her own called Lola Ashleigh Florist, on Oldham Road in Rochdale. On 31 December, after returning from Christmas, a few days after the floods, she was serving a customer and tried to process a £100 payment for a bouquet. When the customer tried to pay by card, there was a problem with the card machine, which was not taking payment. Luckily, the customer showed some Rochdalian spirit and kindly agreed to make the payment once the card reader was back up and running. Although that meant not receiving the payment, Emma believed it was a better option than letting her customer down and losing custom. She thought that there would be a quick solution to the problem.

Emma made contact with her phone line provider, Axis for Business, to inquire what was going on. The company informed her that a note on the system said that there were widespread problems, although Emma had received no warning of that—not an email, a letter or even a phone call. Axis told her that it could provide no further information, as the responsibility for repairs lay with Openreach, but she was assured that the problems were likely to be resolved in a couple of days. It was new year’s eve and Emma, like others, would be closed for a couple of days, so she accepted that and went on with her business as best she could.

New year passed and Emma returned to work on 3 January—still no phone lines and no card reader. She got on her mobile phone to Axis and was informed that there would be no solution until 5 January. That date passed with no resolution and no new information. Emma was left stranded, with no fix in sight and with no way of taking card payments or receiving calls from potential customers. In addition, the local banks were closed due to the flooding and, because she runs her small business on her own, she was unable to drive to the bank in the next town, Bury. Emma had money going out, cash building up and no money going into the bank. Her ability to trade and run a business was being constrained. The only information she was receiving was via Axis—Openreach believed that the problem would now be fixed by 11 January.

Emma was not alone. Many independent businesses throughout Rochdale were facing similar problems. They were given different dates for when the problem would be sorted out. They, too, were having to turn away custom because people could not pay by card. To put the problem into perspective, in November alone there were 127.5 million contactless card transactions in the UK. That shows the size of the problem. In 2016, it is vital for small businesses to have 24/7 access to card payment facilities. Periods when they cannot accept such payments can be fatal for them.

The problem persisted, however, with everyone being given little or no information. Emma tried to contact Openreach, but found it near impossible. She was told that Openreach would not even talk to individuals, who must contact their line provider. I see no reason why Openreach should be totally unaccountable to the people it serves.

Does my hon. Friend share my opinion that it is surprising that what is supposedly a communications company is so bad at communicating with the customers it should be seeking to serve? The experience in Lancaster during and after the floods is probably similar to that of his constituents in Rochdale. Cunningham Jewellers in Lancaster was flooded, but continued to trade throughout. However, because the card reader was not working and the staff had no idea when it would be working, they were forced to have cash-only payments. As the House can appreciate, for a jewellers that is a significant amount of cash in the run-up to Christmas.

My hon. Friend’s intervention illustrates that the problem exists not only in Rochdale, but throughout the north-west.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the time being taken to fix the damage to communications infrastructure throughout the community? In my constituency, for example, Westhead Lathom St James Primary School and the village of Westhead have been left without telephones since Boxing day, when the exchange box was damaged by flooding. In recent days the school wrote to me to say that it was unable to communicate with parents and that people are being placed in danger. Neither Openreach nor any of the communications companies can simply walk away.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point—as she points out, it is not only businesses that are being affected but schools and individuals, such as people who need to use the phone to communicate with Careline. There is real danger attached to the inadequacies of BT Openreach and its failure to improve the situation.

I have outlined how little communication Axis was providing, but I find the next bit particularly ridiculous: the only written communication Emma ever received was the phone bill—I kid you not. She had no information on the floods, when service would resume or what compensation she might receive; she was asked only to cough up for a service that she was not receiving at all.

Dissatisfied with the situation, Emma decided that since the telecom providers were not fulfilling their duty, at a cost to herself, she would have to redirect the phone line to her mobile and connect her chip and PIN machine to the internet via her mobile. She was repeatedly told by Axis that that was not possible, but it was—another communications blunder. That solution provided some relief, but connections were intermittent at best.

Ironically, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) pointed out, there seems to have been a severe communications deficit on the part of the providers. The only communication Emma got was when she made expensive phone calls to her providers. At an already extremely difficult time, why should the burden be on the small business to find out information? The negligence of the companies has put many small shops at risk. One might conclude that the telecommunications companies need a lesson in communications, and fast.

Emma and her florist business were not the only ones suffering. A renowned hairdressers in Rochdale faced similar problems: phone lines down and an inability to take card payments or to elicit any information from the providers. Only this past Friday I had another constituent, Christina Hammersley, at my surgery. She also runs a florist, on Whitworth Road, and receives a lot of work via the internet, but she says that the problems persist. She is extremely concerned that she will not be able to process orders for Valentine’s day, one of her busiest days of the year. She, too, has faced extra costs to get temporary solutions.

Such businesses are heavily reliant on receiving phone calls for business and on taking card payments. Businesses such as florists and hairdressers, due to the nature of the service that they provide, take large payments, which are more often than not paid for by card. The problems have had a clear and tangible effect on their business and yet, to my understanding, no compensation has been given. Even worse, BT has said that all faults have been repaired, and the regional director told me only last week that all problems would be fixed the following day, but that has not been the case. I am repeatedly hearing reports of continuing issues and problems with telecommunications access.

Even Rochdale Council has faced problems contacting those responsible for the phone and broadband lines and getting them fixed. Council officers raised issues with Openreach, but got the same limited information that was being provided to individuals and small businesses. Only when the council went to the regional director of BT did progress begin to happen. Regular updates were then provided. If local government struggles to get hold of adequate information and problems resolved, what hope do individuals and small businesses have?

Running a business alone is tough, and people effectively have to take on multiple roles on their own. Never mind the risks to their economic wellbeing, the last thing they need is to have to lobby their phone and broadband providers to get the basic services for which they are already paying. That is scandalous, and something needs to happen.

I arranged for the debate because the response from the telecommunications companies has not been good enough. We must shine a light on this shocking issue to ensure that it does not happen again. After the flood, Manchester city centre was back up and running in a matter of days. It might have seen less of the floods, but the fact that vital services for businesses in Rochdale are still not back to 100% more than a month after the flood is simply not good enough. There is clearly an accountability deficit.

The deeply concerning and personal story that I have referred to shows that we must do better to protect small businesses. We need to realise the importance to people of phone and broadband lines, which are essential services, and the reaction to problems with them must take into account that importance. We must also improve the communications between provider and recipient. Openreach should communicate directly with those affected. It should not be possible for providers to absolve themselves of their duties by making lines of communication so complex and long.

It is also unacceptable that it takes so long for action to occur. I was interested to see that Ofcom says in section 13 of its “Strategic Review of Digital Communications” that when networks fail to put things right in an adequate amount of time, that raises questions that the service providers need to answer to ensure that that does not happen again. I must ask the Minister: what will the Government and Ofcom do to ensure that the problems are addressed?

Thank you for that warm welcome, Mr Percy. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I know that your constituency has been affected by flooding, so no doubt you will be taking a personal interest.

I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) for securing the debate. He is a doughty champion on behalf of his constituents on numerous issues and I hope he will not think it too frivolous of me to note on Shrove Tuesday that Rochdale is also the home of the world’s largest pancake, which was made in 1994. This year, therefore, is the 22nd anniversary of that, but Rochdale also has a fantastic Member of Parliament who quite rightly brings this issue to the House’s attention. I also thank the hon. Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) and for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) for their contributions.

As Members know well, December was a record-breaking month for rainfall in many parts of the UK and exceptional amounts of rain fell on to already saturated ground. It was an horrific time for a great many people and those of us who were lucky enough not to be affected nevertheless saw what was happening on our televisions. Many Ministers went to see for themselves what was happening.

Rivers broke records when, on Boxing day, the River Calder in Yorkshire and the River Aire in Leeds reached their highest levels ever recorded. It goes without saying that the Government will stay squarely behind the residents and businesses affected by the floods. The hon. Member for Rochdale rightly focused his remarks on the effect of damage on his small businesses. Our task is to do everything we can to help the towns and communities to recover from the devastating floods.

Before I turn to the specific points raised by the hon. Gentleman, it is worth saying that we are investing nearly £200 million to help communities to recover from both Storm Desmond and Storm Eva. The first payments were made to councils in flooded areas within six days of the first floods and £48 million has already been paid out to 37 authorities in the affected areas. We have also made it clear that anyone displaced from their home or business premises will not have to pay council tax or business rates for as long as they are out of their properties. The fund includes £50 million for affected residents and businesses, £4 million in match funding for charities, and £40 million to repair roads, bridges and other key areas. We are also building 1,500 new flood defence schemes, which will better protect 300,000 more homes, with an extra £2.3 billion of capital investment to help our most at-risk communities.

In December, my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary announced that there will be a national flood resilience review, the purpose of which will be to assess how the country can be better protected from future flooding and increasingly extreme weather events and, importantly for this debate, the effects of such flooding. We are due to publish the review this summer with a view to work beginning in autumn to implement short-term measures and to review longer-term strategy. I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s remarks will be taken into account in the review.

The Minister will be well aware that not only the north-west but York suffered badly from flooding and we lost telecommunications for a number of days across the city. What can he do to bring the telecommunications industry to account to deliver a flood resilience scheme that can match the country’s need?

My hon. Friend is quite right to bring me to account and ensure that I return to the subject matter in hand, but I wanted to mention the review because it will take telecoms resilience into account. I will go on to talk about that in more detail in a minute, but it is important to note that that work is in addition to that of the ministerial recovery group, which was established to ensure that local areas continue to receive co-ordinated support as they rebuild after the winter’s flooding.

Let me turn to what happened with telecoms infrastructure as a result of the floods. It is the case that it was affected badly in places, so my hon. Friend’s point was well made. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Rochdale pointed out, telecoms is essential to all our small businesses as well as to us all in our lives, so any disruption has a major impact on our ability to go about our lives and run our businesses. It is interesting to note that the main disruption was caused not by the telecoms network being taken out, but by power failures in the region. However, flooding did affect two key infrastructure sites: one was at the BT exchange in York and the other was at a Vodafone site—actually it was at a Cable & Wireless site, which is owned by Vodafone—in Leeds. The flooding in York on 27 December affected about 50,000 fixed-line and 46,000 broadband customers and there were knock-on impacts on mobile operators whose networks went through the exchange. BT brought the system back online within 24 hours and it worked with the fire service to protect the exchange, because Storm Frank was on its way.

The flooding at the Vodafone site, which also happened on 27 December, disrupted 999 services for a matter of hours as well as some emergency services communications. I stress that I was in touch with both companies throughout the incidents and the national alert for telecoms was invoked several times. That process brings together representatives from the UK’s major communications providers with Government bodies to ensure that everyone across the industry and Government has the latest information on what is happening.

In relation to Rochdale, there were four separate incidents that involved damaged cables. Two were quite complex, technical cable repairs that involved several thousand connections. The other two were located under carriageways, one of which was not damage caused by flooding per se but damage to a BT cable caused by other contractors. Obviously, it takes time to locate the exact point of the cable break and such repairs require permission from the local council to dig up the carriageways and various permits from councils in connection with access to manhole covers, putting traffic-light controls in place and so on.

For the record, Rochdale Council was excellent in meeting those requirements and it acted as soon as it was contacted by BT Openreach. However, BT Openreach was lax in calling for the authority to take action.

I remind the Minister that the debate is about communications in the north-west, and although it is important that we discuss what happened in Leeds and York, they are not in the north-west but in Yorkshire. To draw him back to the north-west, will he say something about the issues the fire brigade faced with communications? When mobile telephone networks went down, people found it difficult to contact the fire brigade. Cumbria fire and rescue also had a problem with its internal Airwave communications system, so will he comment on that?

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing me back geographically to the subject of the debate. First, I am pleased to hear what the hon. Member for Rochdale said about Rochdale Council. I am glad that it acted promptly when contacted by Openreach and I hope that Openreach has noted that it is incumbent on it to contact the council as soon as possible. Some councils perhaps do not respond as quickly as they should, but it is good to hear that Rochdale acted immediately, particularly given the urgency of the situation.

The Airwave network is robust and resilient, but sometimes if a major cable is taken out, that can affect the backhaul, the mobile communications and mobile masts, so we need to look at that in the flood resilience review. I am sorry that I strayed towards the north-east, but those were the two most prominent examples of a major exchange being taken out by flooding and I wanted to reassure hon. Members that Ministers and the operators were alive to repairing the situation. We were also obviously aware of the concern when the emergency services network was affected, but I am pleased to say from my own experience of sitting on that committee over the Christmas recess that the co-ordination between the telecoms operators, the emergency services and local authorities seemed to be very robust.

Let me return to the specific subject of what has happened to the constituents of the hon. Member for Rochdale. I take this opportunity to extend my sympathy to them. We know that events such as flooding fundamentally affect the way a small business running on tight margins operates, and the people running those businesses are quite entitled to expect a speedy service to get them back on track.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the excellent work of Rochdale Council. I am pleased that Openreach stayed in touch with the council on these matters. The council may have operated speedily, but it will also have been aware of the need to repair the cable and to keep the highways and carriageways running. Even when we have the excellent co-operation that happened between Rochdale Council and Openreach, such repairs can be technically and logistically complex.

I am not minimising at all what the hon. Gentleman says. We can learn lessons from what has happened, and particularly from the terrible disruption to the two small businesses that he highlighted in his remarks. As with any disruption on that scale, we will work with the industry to understand what happened and what measures we can put in place to ensure that the response to such events continues to improve.

It was mentioned that Openreach would not talk to individuals. Openreach is a wholesale provider of telecoms services to retail providers, including BT and other well-known retailers. I am certainly not here to defend either Openreach or, indeed, telecoms retailers’ customer services. What I am robust in defending, however, are broadband roll-out programmes.

I know, as a constituency MP and the go-to person for my colleagues’ frustrations, how woeful the customer service can be; it is sometimes utterly Kafkaesque. Why operators often cannot sort out their customer service in the most simple and straightforward fashion possible is baffling. I hope that Openreach and retail providers will take note of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, because he brought to the House real case studies of people who frankly found themselves banging their heads against a brick wall when they wanted quick, robust service to get their business up and running.

Be that as it may, I turn to some better news: as of Thursday last week, 135 businesses in Rochdale had applied for financial support under the business support scheme, of which 107, as I understand it, have received payments totalling more than £53,000. The Government are committed to supporting those affected by the floods and to ensuring that the country is better protected from future flooding. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing these matters to the House’s attention, and I am always available to any hon. Member who experiences frustrations with either Openreach or a retail telecoms provider.

I hope that customer service will improve. The outgoing chief executive of Openreach was effective and brought some much-needed changes to the organisation, but we now have a new chief executive. I hope he and his team will read this debate, take some lessons from it and perhaps even engage directly with the hon. Gentleman, so that they can hear at first hand how the systems and real people interact.

Question put and agreed to.

Social Mobility Index

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the social mobility index.

May I ask, Mr Percy, whether we have an hour for this debate from this moment?

Yes. There is an hour for the debate from this moment, with the Opposition Front Benches being allocated five minutes each and the Minister being allocated 10 minutes.

Thank you; that is very helpful.

I am not in the business today of doing my constituency and my city down. Indeed, only last week Norwich was named the happiest place to work in the United Kingdom. In 2014, it was voted the happiest place for children, thanks to a combination of open spaces, public amenities, safe roads and other factors. It is a great city. We from Norwich proudly call it “the fine city”, and you cannot beat Norfolk pride itself. Admiral Lord Nelson told us:

“I am a Norfolk man and I glory in being so.”

In fact, Nelson himself is arguably a fine example of social mobility. Born in rural Norfolk, the son of a vicar, to a family of modest means, he lost his mother when he was young and was only average at school. He took an apprenticeship, had the benefit of leadership mentoring and rose to lead the Royal Navy and be seen as one of the greatest Britons of all time.

Then there is Thomas Paine, radical and revolutionary, who wrote the best-selling work of the 18th century and helped to found America—not bad if anyone expects low aspiration from the son of a Norfolk manufacturer of ladies’ underwear. There is the fact that we invented the office of Prime Minister in Robert Walpole, and then there is the first woman writer in English, Julian of Norwich. From my reading of her stuff, she may well have been mad, but none the less she went and did it. Indeed, the first Act of Parliament held in the parliamentary archives—from 1497, no less—is about Norfolk apprentices.

However much I love my city and my county and want to talk it up, it is wrong to ignore important and serious research when it is presented. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission recently produced its social mobility index, which shows that children growing up in the Norwich City Council area have some of the worst life chances in England. If Nelson said that

“England expects that every man will do his duty”,

Norwich children should now expect us to do our duty and put that right.

The commission’s analysis uses data about educational attainment from the early years through to further education and higher education and potential for people to be not in education, employment or training. It also includes adult prospects such as jobs, housing and pay. In simple terms, the report compares the chances for children across the country from poorer backgrounds in doing well at school, finding a good job and having a decent standard of living.

We also know, separate to the report, that Norwich has more children defined as being in poverty than the national average—in my constituency, around one in five. The commission that produced the report is sponsored by the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Cabinet Office. I am grateful to the Minister for being here today, and I am sure he agrees that there is plenty of work to do in the Government across Departments on this issue. There is also work for us in Parliament on any Bench to do to improve children’s life chances. Responsibility also, quite rightly, lies locally. The report is about the boundaries of Norwich City Council, and I hope that the council takes it as seriously as I do. We need to work together to improve Norwich children’s prospects.

The report also goes deep into educational data, and sadly—for that reason at least—it comes as little surprise, in the sense that the county council’s children’s services department has been improving from inadequacy for some time. A 2015 peer review of the council’s performance towards those not in education, employment or training found the overall impression that there were passionate and committed staff within the authority but no overall coherent political and strategic leadership commitment to the young people of Norfolk.

Let us look at what is in the report. The first half looks at the educational attainment of those from poorer backgrounds in each local area. I think we can all agree that background is one of the most important drivers of a child’s life chances. Under that heading, we start with early years provision. There is clear evidence that children from poorer backgrounds perform worse than their more affluent peers during the early years. For many children, that translates into worse outcomes as they go through their schooling. A Government-commissioned study of 2010 found that by school age, children who arrive in the bottom range of ability tend to stay there. The indicators in the report for that life stage are the proportion of nursery provision in the local area that is rated good or outstanding, and the proportion of five-year-olds eligible for free school meals who achieve a good level of development at the end of the stage.

I have been arguing for some time that we need more childcare provision in north Norwich in particular, where there is a shortage already. That is before parents become rightly keen to take up the 30 hours of provision that we will fund from 2017 and parents of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds make use of their entitlement. Let us ensure that that provision is of the highest quality.

I turn to the school years. There are a number of indicators in the report that determine how children who have free school meals do at primary and secondary school and then at key stages of achievement. The Norwich City Council area, I am sad to say, comes in as the 14th worst in the country in this section. It will be no secret to those who follow the issue that Norfolk has consistently performed below the national average when it comes to all students—not just the poorest—achieving the gold standard of five GCSEs. Indeed, in 2014 Norwich was the worst city in England for GCSE results.

I want every school in Norwich to be rated good or outstanding, and I would like to hear more from the Minister today about the Government’s part in that. I know that the local education authority and local academies are applying themselves to that question, too, for the thousands of students in Norwich who are being let down. I also want local leaders in schools to continue to use pupil premium money in the most imaginative and ambitious ways possible, to help the poorest students break out.

The report goes on to assess the years following school—in other words, a youth measure. As the report says, those years are crucial to social mobility, for two reasons. First, that is likely to be the first time that a young person will make a key choice about their own life and, secondly, what a young person has achieved at that point in their life has a significant impact on their chances as an adult, so it is important to be on the right track during that period.

The Norwich City Council area chips in as the 17th worst in the country in that section. The point about young people being able to go into work and make their own choices is precisely why I have worked so hard with many others locally to help young people into work through the Norwich for Jobs project, which I founded and which has helped to halve our city’s youth unemployment, but there is clearly much more to do. I would like to hear from the Minister how the Earn or Learn taskforce is addressing the problem and what else officials in Jobcentre Plus and other Departments are doing to help young people to make good and ambitious choices that suit them.

The hon. Lady is making a compelling speech. Does she agree that this is about not just getting young people into jobs, but affording young people with potential the ability to start their own business and providing support in that regard?

The hon. Lady has anticipated one of the next things that I was going to say. She is absolutely right, and for the record I will add that this section of the report—I am sure that hon. Members have read it themselves—is also about further and higher education, so we should talk about a range of options and opportunities at this point.

The second half of the report looks at the outcomes achieved by adults in the area, and this is where employment, and the types of job and pay come in.

The hon. Lady is explaining very cogently all the different indicators, but does she not agree that there is a glaring omission in turning away from income as a measure of child poverty? I wonder what she makes of the comment by Alan Milburn, the chair of the commission, that

“without acknowledging the most obvious symptom of poverty, lack of money”,

the Government’s

“agenda…will lack both ambition and credibility.”

Funnily enough, I had anticipated that line of argument. I think that most of it accrues to the Minister to answer, but I will say this. We need to understand child poverty across a number of indicators. That is the argument that I am putting in my contribution. I will go on to make a few more points about what adult prospects consist of. Of course the hon Lady is right to say that money matters, but it is not the only thing that matters, and that is what we should be aware of as we plough our way through this kind of analysis.

Let me recap what is in the second part of the report. It is about people’s prospects of converting good educational attainment into good adulthood outcomes, so it looks at the weekly pay of employees, housing affordability, the proportion of managerial and professional jobs, the proportion of jobs that pay an hourly rate less than the living wage and the proportion of families with children who own their own home.

In my constituency, unemployment and youth unemployment are now lower than the national average, which I welcome, but so are earnings. The gross median wage in Norwich North for full-time work in 2015 was £440—a whole £90 below the UK average of £530. In addition—this is why I welcomed the intervention from the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron)—Norwich North has started up new businesses at about half the rate of the UK. I share her passion to see that number rise.

In the report, the Norwich City Council area is in the bottom 20 for adult social mobility. Locally, we might generally understand that some of the brightest young people leave the area to study because other parts of the country seem to be more exciting and have more opportunities, but there are now so many exciting industries and avenues in Norwich that I could talk all day about why bright people do not need to leave. However, that is not the point. This debate is about the people whose prospects are not so obvious, who began life with less.

Let me pick out one other thing that is noted in the report as an ingredient for a social mobility hotspot, which is about practicalities, not abstract concepts. Norwich does not yet have good enough transport links. The report rightly notes that public transport links and links to the motorway network provide advantages for those from disadvantaged backgrounds in less isolated areas, through access to job opportunities and the attractiveness to education professionals of working in schools in the local area.

Before the debate, I asked a few constituents about their experience. One young man said that he was not surprised by the report because “that is the nature of living in such an area—fewer people, fewer opportunities, fewer jobs. It’s not something that can be changed easily.” It is obvious, then, that transport and the access to more people that it brings can help to create more opportunities. Norwich has only just been connected to the rest of the country by a fully dualled road, thanks to many campaigners’ efforts and this Government getting it done. I lead the campaign for better rail links for our city, which we estimate will bring thousands of jobs.

I want to add a personal view at this point. I went into politics because I was that 16-year-old growing up in Norfolk, frustrated by the lack of opportunities and keen to do my bit to make it better. I had loving and supportive parents and encouraging teachers, but little access to people or places. It could be said that I did not even know what I did not know. As a teenager, I laughed a lot at Harry Enfield—perhaps you did too, Mr Percy. Do you remember that sketch in which women were told to know their limits? Of course, it was funny because it had once been true; it was cutting because it had once been true, but I do not want it ever to be true that a child in Norwich today should see limits.

Well, obviously the catchphrase of one of his key characters was “Loadsamoney!” I think that was the expression. I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) raise the issue of income, and I heard the hon. Lady’s answer, which was that many factors go towards child attainment and social mobility. We all understand that, but one of the key ones for many Labour Members is child poverty. The hon. Lady and I both know that in our city of Norwich—

Thank you, Mr Percy. I look forward to continuing that discussion some other time. May I say that I am delighted that the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) has turned up and been able to take part in the debate? It is important that we work together on these issues, and I have every confidence that we will do so.

I had the luck, at that time in my own life, to meet an excellent role model—my then MP, who is now the noble Baroness Shephard and who is in fact the deputy chair of the commission that authored the piece of work we are discussing. As Norfolk women, we share the burning belief that it is not where people come from that counts, but where they are going. That is my credo and, indeed, it is the Conservative credo. That call can be answered only by opportunity, by ensuring that every person has the chance to make of themselves what they want. Work must pay and responsibility must pay off. Conservatives believe fundamentally in people and their freedom, because people are enterprising and can make their own choices best, but they need the opportunity and the means to do so.

I am proud that it is a Conservative Prime Minister who is now setting out action that spans families, the early years, education, treatment and support, an end to discrimination, and increased opportunity. He is right to look out of Downing Street at the hopes and the quiet wishes of mums and dads, rich and poor alike, for their children every minute of the day, and he is right to seek to give every child the chance and the tools that they need. It is particularly important, as he said in a recent speech, to hail work experience and mentorship, as they can often open up a new world of contacts. It is even better when relatable role models provide those chances. Young businesspeople—for instance, those who are under 30—can be massively motivational.

Another constituent told me about the value of work experience, which gave him “exciting things”. People gave him responsibility, looked out for him, checked on his wellbeing and gave him purpose so that he felt valued, and he needed that to make the jump into paid work. Of course, there is also value to businesses in providing such experiences, as there are a lot of talented people in Norwich who just have not had their chance yet.

I completely agree about work experience, but what message are we sending to our young people who are going into work when the new minimum wage premium will not apply to them as under-25s?

There has been an accepted principle that there are age gradations in the minimum wage. That is not new. Leeway is given for the time needed to train someone up to be able to do their job well. For me, that is the principle that drives age gradation.

We need to make more efforts to ensure that all Norwich children—and, indeed, children everywhere in the country—have the knowledge, skills, confidence and network to be able to meet the chances they require and take the chances they want. I am calling on Norwich businesspeople to step up even further and work with every school to provide a network and an opportunity for inspiration that is focused on the poorest children, who need it most.

Many good schemes exist or are coming in shortly, such as enterprise advisers. I urge the Minister to consider how to support those schemes stably over the long term. I want more great teachers to consider coming to Norfolk, because it is a great place to teach, and not to feel that they have to apply elsewhere because of the challenges that exist. I want every administrator who has the privilege to push a pen in the service of Norwich children to ask themselves, “How have I shown my ambition for Norwich children today?” I want the Government to understand that a lack of opportunity is hiding in perhaps surprising parts of our country, not just in traditional inner cities.

Most of all, I would like us to approach this debate without petty party politics. I have already mentioned the hon. Member for Norwich South, and it would be a pleasure to work with him on the issue. In fact, the Labour leader of Norwich City Council was a history teacher when I was at school. That is indeed history, and now we need to work together.

Tackling the issue is not about more welfare and more Government intervention alone, as that can address symptoms rather than causes and make dependency more entrenched. Nor is it only about the free market, although it is my view, with global evidence, that the free market has been by far the best thing ever invented for generating prosperity and improving living standards. There are obvious ways in which businesspeople can do more for the young people in their communities.

Breaking the social cage is not only about welfare or funding formulas. It is about ambition and leadership. It is our duty in Parliament and in local authorities to show ambition and to lead the hard work that is needed to break the cage. It is our duty to acknowledge the challenges of a city such as Norwich, as represented in the report, alongside the things that make the city great, so that it can be great for the poorest who grow up there as well. This is our opportunity to marshal an even more ambitious contribution from the business community, and from many others who can be role models and inspiring mentors to the poorest children in Norwich and help them access knowledge, skills, confidence and a network.

I used a series of Norfolk examples in my opening remarks to show that there are people who got on and did it from modest beginnings, but this is not only about what they did for themselves. It is about what they did for others. The issue is deeply rooted and will not be solved by one person or one solution. We need to understand what the report is telling us, raise our ambitions, show leadership and marshal more opportunities for the poorest children, who need them most.

I am now imposing a five-minute time limit so that we can get everybody in. I ask hon. Members to keep interventions brief.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on initiating this debate on the important social mobility index that was published recently by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

I begin by celebrating the fact that the borough I represent in outer north-east London—the London Borough of Redbridge—was identified as being third in England for social mobility across a range of factors. That is testament to the hard work of the young people, their teachers, the broader educational establishment of local authorities, academies and multi-academy trusts, and families. I represent an increasingly diverse community, and it says something about the character of that community that we have produced such results. However, I am afraid the report that was published a week or so ago painted a picture of England as an increasingly divided nation where life chances are determined by postcode rather than potential. I wholeheartedly agree with the words of Alan Milburn, the chair of the commission, who said:

“It is not ability that is unevenly distributed in our society. It is opportunity.”

It is clear from some of the results in the report that many people are let down from the moment they are born because of the opportunities that are available or not available on their doorstep.

Beneath that grim reading, I want to focus on the remarkable Labour success story that is our great city of London. When I was growing up, London was a byword for failure, and schools were notorious for failing young people and letting down whole communities. I stand here as a product of the remarkable progress that was made—first through the London challenge and, secondly, through the excellence in cities scheme. By 2005, London schools were performing above the national average, and by the time Labour left office in 2010, London had a higher proportion of good and outstanding schools than anywhere else in England.

We have to return to the mantra, “What matters is what works”, which underpinned Labour’s successful approach to the debate about educational opportunities. Looking back on the London challenge, a number of things made the programme particularly successful, including the fact that it brought a sharp focus on the quality of leadership, and on teaching and learning. It really was about standards rather than structures. The programme enabled collaboration between different schools and used data sets to compare schools serving similar populations. Frankly, there was no place to hide for people who would do down the aspirations and abilities of pupils because they happened to serve a particularly deprived community. There was an expectation that any child born in this city should be able to achieve their full potential, and that is why we saw those remarkable results. I am afraid that we seem to have moved further away from that with our increasing focus on structures rather than standards.

The Government should consider a number of things off the back of the report. First, they should consider introducing a coastal challenge and a rural challenge, taking the successful ingredients that underpinned the London challenge and applying them to the social mobility blackspots highlighted by Alan Milburn’s commission.

Secondly, the Government ought to reinvigorate the important but increasingly discredited northern powerhouse agenda by developing an industrial strategy for the north of England that includes a real focus on education and skills. In particular, there should be a focus on ensuring that people have opportunities not only for education and training, but for employment on their doorstep that matches a whole range of talents and abilities. That is difficult in the current climate given the industrial challenges faced, particularly in steel communities.

The third thing we need to do is to look seriously at the amount of money spent on widening participation in higher education. So many of our academically elite universities continue to be far too socially elite, and so many universities that claim to be success stories in widening participation in fact have poor graduate destination data and track records of retention. We need to start asking, amid all the hand-wringing and the emphasis that is placed on schools, whether the £718 million that is likely to be spent towards the end of the decade might be better spent on schools and early years. If we do that, we may be in a far better place when it comes to future reports. Every child—whatever their background and wherever they were born—should have the same opportunity to succeed as far as their abilities and talents will take them.

It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) for securing this important debate and for highlighting some of the issues arising in the report. Like her, I am proud of my constituency and of all the people who work so hard to do well by our young people.

I particularly wanted to take part in the debate because Telford has significant areas of disadvantage and underperformance of young people. In fact, my constituency ranks in the bottom decile of the Sutton Trust’s social mobility index, with a ranking of 494 out of 533 constituencies in England. Telford has pockets of significant deprivation, and there is no doubt that that affects the life chances of our young people. Only last week I secured a Westminster Hall debate to consider four of Telford’s secondary schools that were put in special measures following inadequate Ofsted ratings. Those schools have very high numbers of children in receipt of the pupil premium and serve disadvantaged catchment areas.

In that debate, I considered why the schools had failed, so that lessons could be learned for the future. The key reason for failure was the widening achievement gap for the most disadvantaged young people and a culture of low expectations in attendance, behaviour and achievement. There was also a failure in the multi-academy trust’s leadership and governance. The GCSE results in all the schools within the academy chain were below the national floor target, and two thirds of children at some of the schools in the chain were leaving without five good GCSEs including maths and English. Most worrying of all were the stats showing that of the children receiving the pupil premium—the most disadvantaged—only 20% were leaving school with five good GCSEs, including maths and English. I wanted to speak for the 80% who did not have those basic qualifications, about their life chances and the impact on their futures.

Even when disadvantaged young people in my constituency obtain qualifications, they tend not to go to university, and if they do, they tend not to end up in professional occupations. Telford ranks among the lowest areas for non-privileged graduates going on to professional occupations. Like my hon. Friend’s constituency, it is not about a lack of jobs in Telford. The figures for young people not in education, employment or training have completely dropped—they have halved in the past three years—and the number on jobseeker’s allowance has similarly fallen. The difficulty is that the most disadvantaged young people are going into low-income jobs, yet Telford has high-tech, new-economy professional jobs, and our employers say that there is a skills gap. They say that young people leaving school do not have the skills to do the jobs that are on offer. Soft skills are critical in a modern workplace, such as sociability, confidence, negotiation and influencing skills, relationships, communication skills, emotional intelligence and empathy. A good education helps a young person to develop those skills.

Despite Telford’s ranking, there are some welcome signs of improvement, particularly in the early years. We would all agree that that is where inequality starts. Equality of opportunity at the earliest stages is essential to prevent gaps in attainment from opening up. We also have some fantastic primary schools in Telford, such as Old Park Primary School in Malinslee—I thank Jayden, Keeley and Jamie, who came to work in my office before Christmas—and the very special Newdale Primary School, which is about to visit Parliament in a few weeks’ time.

We have thriving academies in disadvantaged areas, and I take up the point made by Opposition Members that poverty affects achievement, which is not always the case. We have good academies with good results for children from the most deprived areas. It is about leadership, good governance, high expectations and instilling a sense of personal responsibility, self-worth and valuing education.

The hon. Lady is making a thoughtful speech. She is talking in particular about areas with the greatest levels of deprivation, yet the Government have removed the key indicator for levels of deprivation, which is income. Does that not render meaningless the analysis that she is trying to present?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to Abraham Darby Academy in my constituency—the school is in a very deprived estate with the highest levels of pupil premium. His point is not correct.

In Telford, we also have organisations such as Juniper Training, which teaches employability skills, and increasing numbers of apprenticeships. I passionately believe that all young people, no matter where they come from and no matter what their background, deserve the life chances that a good education provides. A good education is an open door to future opportunity, and I urge the Minister to do everything possible to narrow educational disadvantage, so that all children in Telford can have the same opportunities and life chances.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing this debate on a vital issue. I also congratulate the commission on its work, and particularly its chair, and hopefully my friend, the Government’s social mobility tsar and former new Labour warrior Health Secretary, Alan Milburn. I have long been a great supporter of the Sutton Trust and its terrific work, of which the social mobility index is just one of many examples. I also endorse the conclusions of its report, “Missing Talent.”

My constituency of Mitcham and Morden is relatively average in the UK-wide social mobility index, but in London it sits in the 10 worst-ranked constituencies for social mobility and is part of a pocket of underperforming south London constituencies. The challenges on social mobility remain stark, especially for white working-class students. A significant attainment gap between children receiving free school meals and those who are not eligible exists even at pre-school level. By GCSE age, only 32% of white working-class British students achieve the GCSE benchmark, compared with 44% of mixed-race students, 59% of Bangladeshi students, 42% of black Caribbean students and 47% of Pakistani students—those figures are all for students receiving free school meals. On top of that, prospects have been improving much more slowly for white working-class students over the past 10 years than for almost any other ethnic group. Most importantly, there is a tremendous difference between the performance of white working-class students in inadequate schools and those in outstanding schools, which demonstrates the huge influence that a good school can have.

We know what works in schools. I will compare the Harris Federation academy chain in south London with national averages. Only about 56% of white British students nationwide secure five A* to C-grade GCSEs, but at Harris Academy Greenwich 60% of white British students secured such grades in 2015. Just five years ago the school was in special measures, but now, under the excellent leadership of its strong principal, George McMillan, the school has undertaken an unimaginable transformation. A staggering 73% of white British students at Harris Academy Falconwood secure five A* to C-grade GCSEs. Yet again, the rate of the school’s success is incredible. In 2008, only 17% of its students achieved such grades, but under the leadership of Terrie Askew the school is now judged outstanding by Ofsted. Those schools have demonstrated consistent relentlessness in both discipline and high achievement. They promote zero tolerance of bullying; they pick up children directly from their home if they have a habit of truanting; and they provide breakfast clubs and after-school network clubs, which serve nutritious food.

Members also have a responsibility to do all they can, which is why I set up my own work experience scheme in Mitcham and Morden to link young, unemployed constituents with local businesses and organisations to get the experience they need to access a full-time job. I am proud that since 2011, more than 350 participants in our scheme have found full-time employment, and I am planning my own mentoring scheme in the constituency to match children and young people with successful adults. Experts, including Robert Putnam, have argued that such social capital, defined as a young person having an older role model to look up to who is not their parent, is key to ensuring their future prosperity.

As “Missing Talent” argues, we urgently need to incentivise better use of the pupil premium to ensure that disadvantaged pupils receive the focused support they need. As well as greater support for highly able pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, I hope to see more support for average students, because that is precisely what most of us are. I want students who get average GCSE grades to do better and have access to better-paid apprenticeships and better alternatives to university if they feel that university is not for them. Social mobility is not only about the children at the top doing well; it is about all children being able to aspire, and to surpass their own and everybody else’s expectations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing this debate. I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on social mobility.

Improving social mobility is arguably one of the biggest and most complicated challenges of our times. This country is too unequal, too closed and too divided. It is a country where, far too often, where a person is born and who they are born to, define what their life chances will be. The income gap between the richest and poorest in society continues to widen, and the UK stands alongside the United States in having the lowest social mobility among advanced nations.

As they progress through life, young people from the most disadvantaged areas are nearly 10 times less likely than those from the most advantaged to take up a place at a top university. Our professions are disproportionately populated with people who studied at Oxbridge or in private education; the all-party group will shortly launch an inquiry into access to the professions. Tackling such issues is not just a moral imperative but an economic one.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) said, the commission’s social mobility index is not a new concept, as it was pioneered by the Sutton Trust last year through its mobility map. However, it is instructive to look at both studies, as their findings were similar: that the issue is far more complex than the conventional wisdom of looking simply at rich areas versus poor areas, or urban versus rural.

Although the affluence of an area and the life chances of the young people who live there are undoubtedly linked, we now know that social mobility issues affect not only the poorest areas in our country but some of the wealthiest. In many cases, affluent areas are not doing as well by their disadvantaged children as places that are much more deprived. We also know that children living in similar areas, sometimes just a few miles apart, can have markedly different life chances.

Although the commission’s report considers local authorities, the Sutton Trust mobility map allows us to drill down into individual constituencies, where we can find significant differences within a local authority area. For example, in my council area of Cheshire West, City of Chester is shown to have a significantly higher level of social mobility than my constituency of Ellesmere Port and Neston, although they are both in the same local authority area and only a few miles apart. Such differences are simply not apparent in the commission’s index. In a local authority area with a population of more than 330,000, I suggest that pockets where social mobility is at its worst can be easily overlooked. Indeed, although a constituency basis is a much more useful indicator than a local authority one, I would go further: it ought to be done at a ward or super output area level.

Maybe we will get to that point in future, but we do not need that level of detail to conclude what is clear from both indexes: London and its commuter belt are pulling away from the rest of the country. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in those areas are far more likely than others in the rest of the country to achieve good outcomes in school. What is so valuable about the social mobility index and the mobility map is that at least we can now begin to map and question why such variations exist. Such is the variety of potential factors influencing outcomes that establishing the most effective way to improve social mobility can at times be a little like trying to nail blancmange to a wall, but there are some fundamentals with which we can start.

For example, we know that the effects of good teaching are especially significant for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. In one year with very effective teachers, a child can gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning, so we need to consider better policies to incentivise teachers to work in disadvantaged areas. We also need to give local authorities across the country the resources and powers to replicate what was done with the London challenge, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) discussed eloquently earlier. There is a huge amount of good practice out there. In London, we have seen that, through concerted effort by a range of partners, the gap between the most advantaged and the most disadvantaged pupils can be reduced.

I hope that this debate signals a genuine intention across all political parties to improve social mobility. I sense that it is there, but all good intentions need to be matched with a little self-awareness that some Government policies do not help social mobility but in fact hinder it. I have grave concerns about some of the recent changes to student finance and the proposals that will shortly be consulted on for changes to the nurse bursary system, which the shadow Minister will undoubtedly address in his comments.

My hon. Friend is giving an excellent speech. I also have concerns about housing. When I was growing up, I always had the security of the council flat where I lived, whereas many families in similar situations whom I represent live on the other side of London and commute in.

I say to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) that I wanted to call the Front-Bench speakers at this point. Can he please respond to the intervention and then conclude?

I am happy to do so, Mr Percy. We could certainly spend a lot of time discussing the more divisive aspects of Government policy, but I will conclude. Giving everyone opportunity in life is a core part of why I am involved in politics. To me, it is about fairness, and it should be a basic ingredient in any progressive society. Let us ensure that every new policy and initiative is met with the same question from all parties: “Will this help improve social mobility?”

I remind the SNP spokesman and the shadow Minister that they have five minutes each to respond, and that they should try to stick to that.

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Percy. I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing it, and on her positive contribution in admirably defending and promoting her constituency in light of the report. She said in her speech that she expects us all to do our duty to those children suffering poorer life chances. Absolutely; I hope that she will communicate that directly to this Minister, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

It is interesting that the hon. Member for Norwich North mentioned childcare provision. I absolutely agree. It should be a key area for improving children’s life chances, and we must do more on that front. I also support her comments on improving business links with schools in areas of deprivation to improve skills and access to the employment market. I congratulate her on her speech, and I pay tribute to the contributions made by the hon. Members for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), for Telford (Lucy Allan) and for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), and by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), the chair of the all-party parliamentary group. They certainly made for a good debate.

The social mobility index, released in January, shows the massive differences between different parts of England and the chances that poorer children who live there have of doing well in life. Although the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission covers Scotland, the index is for England only. Key findings include the fact that London and its surrounding areas are pulling away from the rest of the country. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who live in those areas are far more likely to achieve better outcomes in school and have more opportunities to do well as adults than those in the rest of England. In addition, coastal areas and industrial towns are becoming social mobility cold spots. Many such areas perform badly on both educational measures and adulthood outcomes, giving young people from less advantaged backgrounds limited opportunities to get on.

As the study related purely to England, we cannot compare figures for Scotland. The best comparison that can be made with Scotland involves educational attainment, and what is going on in Scotland may provide examples to be followed elsewhere. The Scottish National party and the SNP Scottish Government recognise that education is the best avenue for social mobility. The SNP is absolutely committed to closing the gap in educational achievement between children from wealthy and low-income backgrounds. The Attainment Scotland fund supports more than 300 primary schools that collectively serve more than 54,000 primary-aged children living in the most deprived 20% of areas in Scotland. That represents 64% of the total number of primary-aged children living in Scottish index of multiple deprivation areas 1 and 2.

The first seven councils to benefit from the £100 million attainment fund include Glasgow, Dundee, Inverclyde, West Dunbartonshire, North Ayrshire, Clackmannanshire and North Lanarkshire, which covers my constituency. They have been allocated £11.7 million in 2015-16 to raise attainment in schools in areas of greatest deprivation. An additional 57 schools based in areas of concentrated local need across a further 14 local authorities will also benefit from £2.5 million from the attainment fund.

There is more to do, but the attainment gap is narrowing in Scotland. There have been annual increases in the proportion of school leavers reaching at least SCQF level 5—from 73.2% in 2007-08 to 84.4% in 2013-14—and the gap between the most deprived 20% and the least deprived 20% of pupils achieving that level has decreased from 36 percentage points in 2007-08 to 22 points in 2013-14.

As time is limited, I will try to come to a conclusion. A key figure for me is that UCAS figures for this year show that since 2006 there has been a 50% increase in university applications from 18-year-olds in the most disadvantaged areas of Scotland. That is clear evidence that access to free higher and further education is working in Scotland, and that getting on has to be about the ability to learn and not the ability to pay.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Percy, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) on securing this debate. I thought she spoke extremely well, particularly about the importance of the early years.

There were some great contributions to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) spoke very well about the situation in London. The quote that he used about life chances being decided by postcode rather than potential is an important one.

The hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) spoke very well about her constituency. I am pleased to hear a Conservative Back-Bench contribution today, because the previous two times that I have been a shadow Minister responding to child poverty debates there has not been a Tory Back Bencher to make a contribution. I am pleased that she felt able to come along and do that today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) spoke very well about the influence and importance of good schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) spoke with great authority in his role as the chair of the all-party group on social mobility.

Prior to coming to this House, I was involved for many years—well over 10—in Oxford admissions and examining work that could be done to address the problem of how we could attract applicants from a wider range of backgrounds. I was very proud to play a part in the Oxbridge ambassador for Wales project, which was run by my predecessor as the MP for Torfaen, Paul Murphy, who is now Lord Murphy of Torfaen in the other place. The project aimed to increase the diversity of Oxbridge applicants.

I was very sorry to see the Prime Minister’s attack in recent weeks on diversity at Oxford and Cambridge. Although I absolutely agree that there has to be greater diversity, the first thing that concerned me about the Prime Minister’s comments was the lack of acknowledgment of work that has already been done. Let me just give an example. In the period from 2005 to 2010, the number of applications to Russell Group universities rose far more quickly from students on free school meals than from students who were not. That is evidence of social mobility during those years.

The second thing that worried me was that the Prime Minister sought to avoid blame for the consequences of his own policies and to push it away somewhere else. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston spoke, for example, about the abolition of nursing bursaries. However, there is a deeper point here. Let us remember that for all the talk of worklessness, 1.5 million children who are in poverty are in working households. That is what the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission says.

If we accept income as a measure of child poverty, which all Labour Members do, some issues must be extremely worrying, such as low pay, zero-hours contracts and the cuts to the universal credit work allowance that will be happening from this spring onwards, all of which affect people in work.

That brings me on to the central issue of how we measure child poverty, because measuring it is absolutely key. Let me just quote the Minister for Employment herself on 26 January 2016, and I look forward hearing her words endorsed by the Minister who is here today:

“Income is a significant part of this issue, but there are many other causes as well.”—[Official Report, 26 January 2016; Vol. 605, c. 72WH.]

If income is a significant part of this issue, why are the Government refusing to measure it? What possible rational explanation is there for them not doing so?

One of the issues that the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) did not mention is that a quarter of all the children in Norwich are from low-income families. She neglected to mention that.

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely powerful point and I say to the Minister who is here today, “Be careful about this issue of defining child poverty.” The Centre for Social Justice—with which, of course, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is uniquely associated because he founded it—says:

“Growing up in a single-parent household could count as a form of ‘poverty’”.

That is an absolutely unbelievable comment and I really hope that the Minister will take the chance today to distance himself entirely from it, and to criticise it as stigmatising lone parents.

I just wondered whether my hon. Friend was aware of Fiona Weir from Gingerbread, who says:

“Further stigmatising single parent families will do nothing to tackle child poverty. Family breakdown doesn’t cause child poverty. It is unaffordable childcare, low levels of maternal employment and poor wages—”

I entirely agree with that point and I will conclude my remarks, Mr Percy. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission said just before Christmas that

“the existing child poverty targets…will be missed by a country mile.”

I sincerely hope that the Government are not simply trying to redefine child poverty to hide their own failure.

Mr Percy. I am very proud to serve under your chairmanship, particularly because of your genuine interest in this topic, both as a former teacher at Kingswood High School in Bransholme and even now when, as a busy constituency MP, you find time to be a chair of governors at a local school, making a real difference in your community.

This debate is a real tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who is continuing her tireless work in her constituency, including working at the local jobcentre, and vice-chairing the all-party group on youth unemployment. Time and again, I have been impressed by her hands-on approach, which is making a real difference in her community. That is a real sign of local leadership and my hon. Friend is a real credit to Norwich North.

Social mobility is a topic that I am particularly interested in. I know that it covers many different Departments, particularly the Department for Education. I went to a school that was bottom of the league tables; my father died at an early age; and all too often people seemed to think that someone in that position would have no opportunity or aspiration. That was my calling to enter Parliament, because I believe that everybody deserves a chance in life, regardless of background.

The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) both showed a real understanding of the opportunities and challenges. They both justified their growing reputations in this House and showed that they really understand the importance of creating opportunities, both within their constituencies and much more widely.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) spoke and it was great to hear the namechecks for George McMillan and Terrie Askew for what they have done in terms of transformation. Again, it shows that under any circumstances real changes can be made—and good luck with the work experience scheme.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) provided a really good analysis of the sorts of challenges that exist, and I wish him good luck with his ongoing work with the all-party group.

I turn to the debate now. There are four fundamental components to the Government action on social mobility, so I will try to say something on each in the time I have. Turning to education first, we are determined to deliver educational excellence everywhere, so that every child—regardless of their background—reaches their potential.

In early years education, we are supporting parents of young children and investing in childcare at record levels. By 2019-20, we will be spending more than £6 billion on early years and childcare. I have seen in my own constituency what a difference this approach can make. In one of the schools, Seven Fields, on average the children would arrive one and a half years behind the national average, but through the leadership of the teachers and the headteacher, and working with the parents, the extra funding—

I will be tough on time, but I may give way at the end of my speech.

In that school, the teachers were able to get those children back up to the national average. That is a real transformation, which had to start in early years education as well as in the traditional school years.

We have a clear focus on quality and our early years education system is underpinned by the early years foundation stage statutory framework. The EYFS profile data results for 2014-15 already show a 14.6 percentage point increase in the proportion of children reaching a “good level of development” by age five in the past two years.

In schools, 1.4 million more pupils are now in good or outstanding schools than in 2010, which is much welcomed by parents. We are introducing new measures to transform failing and coasting schools, including creating a national teaching service and sending some of our best teachers to the areas that need them most. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North will encourage them to head to Norwich with their great skills. We have also introduced the pupil premium, which is worth £2.5 billion in 2015-16; in the case of Norwich North, that is £3.7 million of additional spending.

Also, £137 million has been invested in the Education Endowment Foundation to research and share best practice with disadvantaged pupils. There have been examples of really good best practice, and we should rightly do all we can to share that information as far as we can.

On wider education, we have opened 39 university technical colleges and a further 20 are in development. There is an UTC in Swindon, so I have seen what a real transformation UTCs can achieve with young people, transforming them into young adults with real skills.

The Prime Minister has committed to ambitious goals, whereby we will double the proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education by 2020. We recently announced that universities will be required to publish admissions and retention data by gender, ethnic background and socio-economic class, and in 2016-17 universities expect to spend £745 million on measures to support the success of disadvantaged students. I fully support the Prime Minister’s determination to extend the national citizens scheme to all young people. There will be a complete transformation in young people of all backgrounds who take advantage of that scheme.

On the economy, it is key to a strong labour market that we have a strong economy, and the Government’s long-term economic plan is delivering that. Since 2010, there have been more than 2.3 million more jobs in every region and country of the UK, wages have been rising—for 15 months in a row now—and inflation of about 3% compared with 0% is making a big difference. That growth has been dominated by full-time and permanent jobs. Someone mentioned zero-hours contracts. They make up only about 2%, which is exactly what the percentage was in the heyday of the last new Labour Government.

Nearly two-thirds of the growth in private employment has been outside of London and the south-east, with the east of England, Scotland, the north-west, the east midlands, the south-west and the south-east all having higher employment rates than London. We have the introduction of the national living wage coming forward, and we continue to increase the personal tax allowance. We all recognise that the current system of welfare is too complex. There is broad support for the introduction of universal credit, which will be a much simpler system and will improve work incentives and provide named coaches to support people. We are also committing to the creation of 3 million more apprenticeships.

On housing, we have increased the provision of affordable housing and are doubling our investment, from 2018-19, to £8 billion to deliver more than 400,000 new affordable housing starts. We are creating 200,000 starter homes to be sold to young first-time buyers at a 20% discount compared to market value, and delivering 135,000 Help to Buy shared-ownership homes. A quarter of a million people have already signed up for the Help to Buy ISAs. We are building 10,000 homes that will allow tenants to save for a deposit while they rent, and at least 8,000 specialist homes for older people and people with disabilities. We will extend the right to buy to housing association tenants, and extend Help to Buy by introducing an equity loan scheme by 2021.

On improving children’s life chances, as a Government we have set out an agenda of action. We are determined to do more to improve the life chances of all children. We are bringing forward proposals in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill that will drive action that will make the biggest difference to children’s lives, both now and in the future. We are introducing new reporting duties on worklessness and educational attainment in England, publishing a life chances strategy in the spring to set out a comprehensive plan to fight disadvantage and extend opportunity, covering areas such as family breakdown and problem debt, and reforming the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission to strengthen and expand its social mobility remit. The reformed commission will ensure independent scrutiny of progress to improve social mobility in the UK.

Will the Minister explain how cuts to the work allowance of universal credit from this spring incentivise work and assist with child poverty?

We have had a number of debates on that point and even the Institute for Fiscal Studies acknowledges that such an analysis is a static one. What will need to be considered over time is the continued jobs growth and wage rises, the introduction of the national living wage and all the different opportunities that will come in. The criticism of the tax credit proposals was that the changes would not have had time to filter through. With universal credit, there will be a big difference.

As I said, for the first time ever, people who have been out of work and are going into work again will no longer just be waved off and wished all the best; they will have a named coach to support them, giving them advice and support with additional training, and with pushing for extra hours and getting promotion. Many of us had families who pushed us—“Go and seize the opportunities that are given”—but that is not the case for everyone, and that is the thrust of the debate. For the first time ever, we will extend the provision to people entering work and ensure that they can take advantage of it.

In conclusion, the Government are absolutely committed to improving social mobility and life chances. That is central to our Government’s agenda, and we will continue to extend opportunity for all. It is a credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North that she has once again highlighted an important area for the Government’s focus. There have been many examples of good and best practice, and the Government are keen to share and push them, so that everyone has an opportunity to succeed in life.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the social mobility index.

Sitting adjourned.